Tuesday, April 30, 2013

`He Takes His Place Among American Writers'

“It is simply part of my mental makeup, that I am satisfied to express my own surroundings as nearly as possible in my own way.” 

Three cheers for the provincial. Art striving to be cosmopolitan turns thin and flavorless like gruel. Writers from Thoreau to Joyce to Philip Roth have concentrated on their own backyards. The local is the only passable gate to the universal. The passage quoted above was written by Charles Burchfield. In 1928, the Ohio-born painter published “On the Middle Border,” an autobiographical essay, in Creative Arts magazine. With three others essays it has been collected in Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter (D.C. Moore Gallery, 2010). Like Fairfield Porter, Burchfield is a rare painter who can also write. For fifty-six years, until his death in 1967, Burchfield kept a journal of some 10,000 pages bound in seventy-two volumes. In 1993, the State University of New York published a selection edited by J. Benjamin Townsend and titled Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place -- “with which,” Guy Davenport writes in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994), “he takes his place among American writers.” Later in “On the Middle Border, Burchfield links himself to another Ohio-born writer: 

“[In 1919, Sherwood] Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio was introduced to me by Richard Laukhuff, and made a great impression on me. Indeed, I believe it to be one of America’s most original literary creations. It made me realize that I was forsaking my birthright...” 

In another essay, “Fifty Years as a Painter” (1965), Burchfield again recounts his introduction to Winesburg, Ohio: “I was both fascinated and repelled by the book. Anderson’s absorption with human sex frustrations and deviations did not interest me, but his ability to describe a place or situation did. In this respect and many others, I have always considered Winesburg far superior to [Sinclair] Lewis’s Main Street. In fact, Anderson’s book was the shock I needed to send me back to the human scene…” 

Look at Burchfield’s watercolor from 1919, “Crickets in November, New Albany, Ohio,” then read a passage from “Queer” in Winesburg, Ohio: 

“In the main street of Winesburg, on the cold November evening, but few citizens appeared and these hurried along bent on getting to the stove at the back of some store. The windows of the stores were frosted and the wind rattled the tin sign that hung over the entrance to the stairway leading to Doctor Welling's office.” 

Burchfield defies pigeon-holing as a “regionalist.” Like a much better writer than Anderson, Willa Cather, whom Burchfield also admired, he transcended “local color.” Guy Davenport puts it like this in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons: 

“His work is so rich that its periods can supply museums with large collections in which he might seem to be only a painter of Ohio small towns, or of mid-American industry, or of woods and forests in all weathers, or of domestic tranquility, or of Creation as the essence of all earthly beauty.”

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