An Artist in America – Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton has a rich history and added much to the collection of Regionalism in American art. Born in a well-to-do family in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, Benton’s father pushed his son to follow in his own steps to become a lawyer.  His own uncle, from whom his name was given, Thomas Hart Benton, was a state senator (Theodore Roosevelt even wrote a book about the man), and added to the feeling of lofty expectations for the young Benton.  The more his father pushed to pursue law, Thomas reeled the other way.  As a teen, he left Neosho and worked as a surveyor in nearby Joplin.  No so much to be a surveyor, but it was his opportunity to escape from the small town that he felt harnessed him to the prominent family he was born to.  One night in Joplin, he was at a bar, admiring the artwork on the wall of a bare maiden.  The older gentlemen ridiculed him and he explained he was an artist, admiring the artistic qualities of the piece.  They all laughed at him, but one of the men suggested he apply at the paper to be the artist and use his talents.  Though they did not know, his drawings were more of a hobby and he was terrified of the idea of becoming a professional artist at that time.  He got the job and did pretty well at drawing pictures of the locals for articles in the paper.  Soon, he realized his political father had friends everywhere, and Joplin was not a big enough to escape the feeling of being judged, so the search for himself continued. He wound up in Chicago at art school, but felt the assignments of drawing classical sculptures limited his abilities, and he took the leap to move to Paris to explore their art scene.  He felt the friends he met were often too critical and always he felt out of place, so after a few years in pre-WWI Europe, he moved to New York, where he dabbled in a film career, but mostly made his means through little jobs here and there.  He got in with some well-to-dos and began painting these men and it became a more steady income.  During the war, he was employed doing technical drawings of buildings and work places and he found it really showcased his talent.  After the war, he continued this practice in art, and traveled the country drawing the people and their workplaces, and found the Regionalism art movement in America to be his niche.  From this, he became a famous muralist.

The book he wrote, An Artist in America, tells of his travels across our country, drawing everyday scenes.  From the hill countries in the Ozarks and Appalachia, the Mississippi River, North, South, East and West, Benton went everywhere.  His stories are often comical, and give the reader a chance to meet the people he encountered along the way.  Benton was quite a philosophical man, and many times between stories, he goes into verbose asides about the underlying situations in the areas he traveled.

For me, the stories are worth the read. His deep thoughts are interesting and relevant, but the seem to slow down the book.  I am glad they are included because I can really see his stream of conscious as it examines the belief of the times and his explanations of the places and people he meets.

For example, while speaking of crooked businessmen he met in New York, he countered the thought of their crooked racket and explored their other side of gentlemanly manner by saying, “On the edge of the underworld, chivalry makes its last stand.  In the dread impermanence of its life there comes to this land a rush of strange and extravagant sentiments, loyalties, devotions, and hates.  Among other things, the perfume of the lilies of love comes there, an extraordinarily pungent narcotic to disguise with the grace of tender illusion the sinister wills and compulsions of the rackets.”

Benton so loved the railroads and showed his feelings when he said, “To this day I cannot face an oncoming steam train without having itchy thrills run up and down my backbone.”  Drawing gave him a worthy excuse to travel and move.  A stationary artist was limited in his eyes.  The people and their lives were what made America beautiful.  He also appreciated the natural beauty of the land, and made a wonderful observation come to life in his description of the cypress swamps of the south, “Nothing on the face of the earth has a more forbidding beauty than a cypress swamp.  The trees with their fat curling bases rise out of the dark water like enormous fungi.  As a rule they have little foliage, and that is transparent, fragile, and lacy.  From their branches long whiskers of moss hang in gray veils.  Sometimes a dead tree stands up stark, like a piece of white sculpture.”  Truly beautiful descriptions of people and places in this book.

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Part 2 – East of Eden – Steinbeck

For some, including me, a 600 page book can be a little intimidating.  I had a feeling I would put the book down halfway through and start on something else, but I could hardly put it down. Steinbeck’s characters, descriptions, and plot wrapped me up quickly and it was a great read. While it switched around a little from family to family, it could be difficult to keep up with.  Interestingly, Steinbeck wrote himself into the book, as his mother, Olive, was one of Samuel Hamilton’s daughters.  I liked that he was able to do that and it made it seem a little more real.  It makes me wonder where the line of fiction ends and truth begins.  Which characters were real?  Were the real characters really like they were in the novel?  Did the Trasks exist?

From where I left on my initial post, the Trask boys (Adam and his sons, Cal and Aron) moved into Salinas to take advantage of a better school system.  That also brought them closer to the mother who left them, Cathy/Kate.  Adam came back to life and decided he wanted to go into the ice/refrigeration business.  He tried an experiment to ship lettuce from California to New York on a train, but there were obstructions which ruined the shipment and Adam lost most of his fortune.  He still had the ice company which made a profit, so the family was not in financial trouble, just not as comfortable as before.  The citizens in Salinas ridiculed the Trask family and young Cal took it especially hard.  He decided to make a personal financial foray in beans.  The US was at the cusp of WWI and Cal partnered with Samuel Hamilton’s son, Will, to speculate on bean futures.  They convinced area farmers to plant beans and contracted to buy them at 5 cents/bushel while the going rate was around 3 cents.  As the war came at harvest season, they sold the beans to the British contractors and made 10 cents/bushel.  Cal had earned $15,000 on the deal after he payed back the initial loan he borrowed from Lee.  Cal decided to give the money to father to make up for the lettuce failure, but his father refused to accept it.  Cal was heartbroken and decided to burn the money.

Meanwhile, Aaron had dreams of becoming a priest and his vow of celibacy worried his girl, Abra.  He decided to take his high school exams a year early and that pleased his father.  Cal had a great struggle between his father’s rejection of the money and his brother’s praise.  Cal decided to ‘pay his brother back’ by taking him to a secret he learned.  He took Aron to meet their mother, Kate in her whorehouse.  As Aron had aspirations of priesthood, he took it pretty hard that he had come from a woman of that reputation.  He ended up running away to join the army efforts in WWI.  Adam was heartbroken and suffered a mild stroke.  Cal felt pretty guilty at how his plan had turned out.

SPOILER-As I suspected, a sad ending.  Cal’s plan ended up with his brother dying in the war, and their father, Adam having a massive stroke.  The book ends as Lee takes Cal to his father to beg for forgiveness.  It was a sad ending, but a moral arising from the novel is that each one of us is in control of our own destiny.  We have choices to help or hurt.  We have choices of good and evil. 

Steinbeck’s tale of human destinies was melted together with the American spirit.  Lee made a point in the book that everybody in the US was descended from a man who was running away from something, looking for something, something better than he had before, whether Chinese, Irish, or British.  American’s are born with a spirit of adventure and risk, and it can be an attribute that identifies us from other countrymen.  The combination of this American theme with the theme of the stories in Genesis of the Bible were an interesting mix.  Adam and Cathy: Adam and Eve, Cal and Aron: Cain and Abel.  Adam wanted the ranch to be a tribute, an Eden, to represent his love for Cathy, while their sons struggled with rejection and revenge.

It was a great read, Steinbeck did not disappoint.

Rating ********** 10/10