Winter reading, pt. 2 – non-fiction by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America by Hugh Eakins is a brilliant accounting of America’s slowness to embrace modern art, from the post-impressionists on. Even while Europe was enthralled by Matisse and intrigued by Picasso, those and other innovative artists were scorned by American collectors and museums.  Germany and Russia were the frontiers for new creative expression, and America was a backwater, even after the much vaunted Exposition of 1913 in New York, alleged to have launched modern art in this country. Eakins shows, in minute detail, how just a handful of courageous and committed people invested their money and their passion in bringing modern art here.  He focuses on New York attorney John Quinn, who, painting by painting, developed the nation’s foremost collection of Picasso, Matisse, Rousseau, and more.

Quinn dreamed of having his collection become the basis for a museum, but, when he died at 54, his collection was broken up and dispersed.  That dream was carried forward by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). He battled conservative board members, artists, dealers, and collectors. He labored for years, across the Depression (not good for raising money for paintings), across the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War to amass what would become MOMA’s permanent collection. Eakins goes deeply into Jewish artists and art dealers protecting their treasures and fleeing Europe to avoid Nazi persecution and execution. The egos, the intrigues, the wheeling and dealing, high society,  the fascist attempts abroad to label modernism degenerate, all make this a colorful and book.

The Professor and the Madman : A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. by Simon Winchester is a word nerd’s rollicking delight, written in 1998.  Did you know that it took 70 years to compile the first edition of the OED. It was published in installments by a team led by philologist James Murray and his team at Oxford University. They drew on the labor and dedication of many volunteers who scoured centuries of literature to retell the history of each word and provide a cluster of quotations demonstrating their usage in different contexts.  One of Murray’s most prodigious and effective donors was Dr. William Minor, who worked rigorously on the research for nearly two decades.

They had never met, and, when they finally did, Murray discovered Dr. Minor, an American-born surgeon and Union Officer in the Civil war, was living in a hospital for the criminally insane. The back story is fascinating and poignant, and the arduous literary process for compiling the OED – in an era not only without word processors but, in the early years, without even typewriters – was remarkable.  Each chapter begins with a comprehensive analysis of a word, and the reader is left to wonder what contributor around the globe found the apt literary quotations.  But Eakins’s unpeeling how Dr. Minor got locked up and how he managed his prodigious research drives the narrative. A captivating read!

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer is, as the author explains it, a way of not letting the 1890 massacre of 300 Lakotas at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota define how we look at Indians. It was not the last word on how the United States government treated Indians; over the decades, there have been other battles, over education, land rights, preservation of religion and culture, tribal identity and self-governance. But Treuer wants us to see the narrative as one of hard-won accomplishments in all those areas.  There are some 300 tribes, each with its own culture, history, governing structure and identity. Together, they are about more than America’s dark past (though, when it came to Indians, it was dark indeed.) They have adapted to changes affecting everyone.

Trueur goes back into pre-history region by region and then hauls us up to the present, especially to the dynamism since WWII. Of the five million Indians today, 70 percent live in cities. But there has been a revival of Indian religious practices (at one time banned by the U.S. government) and different tribal languages, giant strides in education, job skills, professional accomplishments, political sophistication, and positive self-identification.  Treuer applies his discipline as an anthropologist, his Indian (Ojibwe) pride and passion, and his skills at writing narrative to this important book. Does he spin the story too positively? It may be. But my real criticism would be with his editor, who seems not to have applied a fine scalpel to redundancies that sometimes weigh down the reading.