Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival

I am thrilled to be kicking off the TLC Book Tour for Christopher Benfey's Red Brick, White Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival.  This book launches on Thursday, and I was fortunate to get a copy from the publisher for an early look into it.  I chose to read this one despite not being sure what it was about.  I knew only that it was about art, Appalachia, and family history - all of which interest me.

Here's the blurb:
Christopher Benfey traces his family back through the generations and unearths an ancestry - and an aesthetic - that is quintessentially American.  His mother descends from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen.  Benfey's father - along with his aunt and uncle, the famed Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers - escaped from Nazi Europe by fleeing to the American South.  Struggling to find themselves in this new world, Benfey's family found strength and salvation in the rich craft tradition grounded in America's natural landscape.  A vivid, intricate web of family, art, and history, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay tells the story of America's artistic birth.
Since I prefer paperbacks and often buy my books used, the physical aspects of this book first drew me in.  It is a tall and narrow hardback, an unusual size, and the pages have a good weight and feeling (and smell!).  Ah, new books - intoxicating.

As indicated by the title, the book is divided into three parts.  The heaviest focus on Benfey's grandfather's brick work is in part 1, the focus of part 2 is mostly the Black Mountain College where Josef and Anni Albers established themselves, and part 3 spends most of its energy on the early fascination with the white clay of Appalachia.  However, the delineations are not so tidy, and there are parts of each history intermingled in all the other sections.  There is a lot of ground covered here, and if you are interested in these topics, you could gain significant information on the history of ceramics and pottery as well as other areas of history.

Unfortunately, the book lacks narrative cohesion.  Undoubtedly, these disparate threads can be woven together in Benfey's mind to make a beautiful finished product; however, to the reader, the result is less than satisfying.  I still don't fully understand what the trip to his father's native Germany had to do with any of the other components.  I don't know why we had to get a long section on the linguistics of family names and their connections to Greek mythology.  I don't understand why every important character discussed was a Quaker (like Benfey) but the book was not focused on their Quaker-ness at all.  It was just mentioned and ignored.  These and other narrative threads are introduced and then left hanging, often with little or no attempt to weave them in.

This lack of cohesion is seen in the book's arrangement.  Each large section is divided into three main chapters, each of which is further subdivided into tiny chapters, most only a page long.  The progression from one "chapter" to the next is often disjointed, requiring only a fleeting connection.  And because the sections are not fully focused on their themes, the sections are somehow disconnected and blurred at the same time.  I do so hate to have had a negative experience with this one, but I ultimately had to conclude that this book was the work of an academic who had done significant personal and scholarly research, who had secured all the right information to start connecting the dots, but never managed to do so.  Instead of an organized, developed, and controlled narrative, we have what feels like a large sheaf of the researcher's notes.  With something as ambitious as this project undoubtedly was, the author needed to guide the reader through the various elements with a steady hand, always aware of the destination, always explaining the connections along the way.  Instead, Benfey embraces the symbol of the "meander" or labyrinth, found often in art, and it becomes a reasonable representation of the work Benfey has done.

He writes in the epilogue:
I can see, now, that some such divination has been my purpose in this book all along.  My pen has been my metal detector, and I have been digging, as patiently as I can, for evidence of my family's passages, in art and in love, as they pursued their own lives across many generations, living and surviving.  A snuffbox, a stamp album, a rust-colored pitcher, a handful of white clay -- these things carry their stories with them. (269)
If such meandering appeals to you, or if you have an interest in pottery, you might be interested in this book.  As the tour continues, I will be interested to find what others have to say about it, especially those bloggers that are also potters.  And if you review this book, let me know.  I'll be glad to post a link to your thoughts here.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry this book didn't turn out to be a favorite for you, but thanks for sharing your thoughts on it for the tour.