Thursday, November 03, 2011

`A Great Scythe Laid Down There and Forgotten'

The last book Sherwood Anderson published during his lifetime was Home Town (1940), a collection of photographs from the archive assembled during the Great Depression by the Farm Security Administration. Pictures by Dorthea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn, among others, accompany Anderson’s impressionistic essay, along with seven by Walker Evans. The other photos seldom rise above the level of competent photojournalism, while the classical austerity and absence of sentimental pleading in Evans’ work distinguish it from the rest of the book, prose and photos. Evans turns documentary into art or, rather, he makes art that happens to have documentary value.

For more than forty years I’ve casually associated Anderson and Evans, and it’s pleasing to learn their indelibly American art overlapped. Since then, Edward Hopper and Donald Justice have joined this informal, non-critical gathering of kindred American artists. All reflect on nostalgia for a passing or gone America, with varying degrees of fondness and disaffectedness. Anderson’s work, the most severely marred by sentimentality, mingles nostalgia and alienation. In a magazine piece from 1929, “In a Strange Town,” he writes:

“I may stay here in this town another day or I may go on to another town. No one knows where I am. I am taking this bath in life, as you see, and when I have had enough of it I shall go home feeling refreshed.”

Corny and unconvincing, I know. But read the entire piece, which amounts to little more than a string of folksy anecdotes written by a one-time acquaintance of Gertrude Stein, and you can hears whispers of the loneliness sometimes captured by Evans. Justice, a Florida native, admired both Anderson and Evans. To “Mule Team and Poster” (The Sunset Maker, 1987), he adds “on a photograph by Walker Evans (Alabama, 1936).” Some critics have read Evans’ photograph as a critique of racial segregation and the tawdriness of life in the South, but that’s misguided. Justice sees something more interesting and sublime. Here are the closing lines of his poem:

“And a long shadow- / the last shade perhaps in all of Alabama- / Stretches beneath the wagons, crookedly, / like a great scythe laid down there and forgotten.”

Evans was born on this date in 1903 in St. Louis, Mo., birthplace a generation earlier of T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore.

No comments: