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John Burroughs at Slabsides

John Burroughs at Slabsides

I doubt if you’ve ever heard of John Burroughs.

He died as an old, old whitebeard in 1921. Not many people now alive recognize his name.

But between the Civil War and his death, Burroughs was the most popular and respected writer in America on natural subjects.

His 23 volumes of essays sold millions of copies for his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. They sold in such profusion, in such a variety of formats, that they can still be found fairly easily in used-book stores. Many also remain in print.

I mention Burroughs because we share a connection, although I didn’t know it until a few years ago. Actually, what we share is a place: West Park, N.Y.

It is a tiny community on the western shore of the Hudson River, midway between Poughkeepsie and Kingston. It was there that Burroughs spent his adult life in a slate farmhouse he built called Riverby, on the Hudson, and a rustic cabin called Slabsides a mile back in the woods.

 

Slabsides

Slabsides

And it is in West Park that my grandparents had an even more rustic vacation bungalow with no name at all a hundred yards up a stony driveway in the woods.

Our bungalow was built in 1916. My grandfather worked in the Hoboken shipyards and had constructed it himself from wood salvaged from a burned ship.

The bungalow was primitive by any standards. There was no plumbing, no insulation and no room.

When they spent summers there before World War II, grandmother and six children slept, ate and lived in three tiny rooms and a screened-in porch. At the end of the school year, the seven rode the train from Fort Lee, N.J., to West Park and walked, carrying all their baggage, the two miles to the bungalow. Grandfather took the train up on weekends.

They bought their milk fresh from the cow at Vandewater’s farm over the hill and got their mail at the post office by the train station. When I was a boy, the postmaster was Mrs. Ackert. She was a very round woman and I remember the rhyme: ”Sweet Mrs. Ackert / is as wide as a Packard.”

The main road in West Park was named for her son, Floyd, who was killed in World War II.

After the war, with the six children grown, they would all continue to spend time in West Park, now with their own children.

My parents, aunts and uncles were less ecstatic about cramming up to 20 people in less than 200 square feet, less enthusiastic about using the ”two-seater” down the path in the back yard, less than happy about having to walk up the road to the pump for water.

And then there were the mosquitoes, as large as hailstones and just as stinging.

But even the adults loved the chance to do some fishing or go swimming in Charlie’s Lake on Black Creek, with its cascading waterfall down the slabs of rock by Valli Road.

 

Swimming hole

Swimming hole

Growing up as I did in suburban New Jersey, West Park was my introduction to nature: The lake was not a concrete-bottom swimming pool, and the little fish nips that you would get while swimming were reminders that nature is wild and unruly.

The loam underfoot was springy, the rocks covered with lichens and the underbrush thick as bird nests. The wood thrush sang in the trees and perch jumped in the lake.

These same birds and fish, the same spongy soil were written about nearly a century earlier by Burroughs.

”Life has a different flavor here,” he wrote in Wild Life About My Cabin. ”It is reduced to simpler terms; its complex equations all disappear.”

Instead, around his Slabsides grew the saxifrage, wood aster and witch hazel. He heard the whistle of the pewee and dry scratch of the cicada.

Slabsides was named for the slabs it was shingled with.

”A slab is the first cut from the log,” he wrote, ”and the bark goes with it. It is like the first cut from the loaf, which we call the crust, and which the children reject, but which we older ones often prefer. I wanted to take a fresh cut of life — something that had the bark on.”

Burroughs’ prose is leisurely; it breathes. It was certainly more popular with its Victorian reader than it would be now for a generation of short attention spans. But give him his space and his writing is still worth reading. It is detailed and humane; it gives a flavor and a sense of the place.

 

Burroughs fishing

Burroughs fishing

He was also surprisingly modern. In fact, I don’t know how he managed to be so popular in pious Victorian America. He had little use for the pat moral or anthropomorphic Disneyfication of nature. He was no Aesop.

Indeed the biggest controversy of his career was over an article he wrote excoriating the cute but popular ”nature fakers” who made up mawkish animal stories.

And unlike Henry Thoreau, for whom all nature was a metaphor, Burroughs wrote, ”The universe is no more a temple than it is a brothel or a library.”

John Burroughs

John Burroughs

He had a scientist’s sensibility, brooked no sentimentality and was as close as you could be to an atheist in 19th-century America. Several of his essays take organized religion to task. This doesn’t seem like the route to popularity in the time of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and James Whitcomb Riley.

He did not see any need for a providence that took interest in his life. Rather, he took great comfort in the impersonality of the beauty around him. ”I love nature, even if it does not love me,” he said.

Slabsides and the land around it is now a nature sanctuary and open to the public. His farmhouse, Riverby, is slowly falling into disrepair, and Burroughs’ vineyard is grown-over.

Our own bungalow is now long gone from the family. But I still visit West Park every time I drive to the East. Now I make the trip to visit Slabsides and slap the mosquitoes there.

”The American West was not only a land of new beginnings, it was also one of bad endings.”

— Albert Castel, historian

"Badlands"

“Badlands”

People talk about the ”Myth of the West,” yet there are really two myths.

The old Western myth was that of the cowboys and Indians. It was the myth of Manifest Destiny, of expansion, growth and nation building.

The old myth was optimistic. It gave us wide-open spaces in which anything was possible and in which a civilization could be created. It was a myth in which a single determined man could make a difference.

It is the myth represented in Randolph Scott Westerns, Frederic Remington paintings — and all its sad modern-day imitators — and even the common rhetoric of patriotic politicians.

Frederic Remington, "Dash for the Timbers"

Frederic Remington, “Dash for the Timbers”

But there has grown a second myth, a yin to the former yang: the modern myth of the Great Plains as an existential hell where the flatness of the wide-open spaces closes in on you, offering no options. It is dry, dusty, vacant and soulless. In it, no one has a future and there is no escape.

Neither of these myths is necessarily true, but each has developed an aesthetic tradition around it. The new myth became dominant after the Second World War: In mass culture it gave us spaghetti Westerns, TV’s adult Westerns and Sam Peckinpah.

On a higher aesthetic plane it is the raw emptiness of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is the theme of the Bruce Springsteen album, Nebraska, and the place where Larry Clark took the photos in his legendary book Tulsa, with its drug addicts and domestic violence.

springsteen nebraska

In this pessimistic West, we want redemption, and there is none to be had.

”Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings.

It is a landscape populated by incipient Charles Starkweathers and Richard Hickockses, people who work in dead-end mill jobs and meet each night after work in filthy dives for beer and fistfights.

They are a generation with no purpose in life, no reason for living past the next cigarette and Budweiser, drunk from a quart bottle with the screw-top thrown on the floor.

It is a world of incredible sensory deprivation. The houses they occupy — for they cannot be said to be living in them — have no pictures on the walls. The furniture is from Goodwill and the blank eye of the television is the center of the room.

Their eyes are as dead as ball bearings.

They have no inner lives, and the only way they can express themselves is with a knife or a penis.

Larry Clark, "Tulsa"

Larry Clark, “Tulsa”

The Old West was a landscape in which all things were possible; the new, affectless West is where all things are permitted.

You can see the new mythology building in the Eisenhower years. All the optimism of the new suburbs was subverted in the photographs of Robert Frank, whose book The Americans was published in 1958.

In that book, a disturbing underside of American chamber-of-commerce idealism was pictured. Frank’s photographs are populated with poverty, desperation, brutishness and lonesome highways leading nowhere.

In the book, the only divinity is the glare from the jukebox.

frank jukebox with baby

Frank’s off-the-cuff style was a revelation in the stylized, artificial ’50s of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Avedon himself later used this second Western myth in his powerful book The American West. It was roundly criticized when it came out for its alleged ”West bashing,” but the photographs were as honest and direct as they could be. You can see any of the people in them walking the streets of Phoenix or Albuquerque on any given day.

avedon

The old myth shines from the images of Ansel Adams; the new, bleaker myth informs the photos of Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach.

Robert Adams, "Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968"

Robert Adams, “Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968”

Those who have a romantic notion of America’s Beat generation have not really paid attention to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for it is a book about this second Western myth. Instead of a panegyric to youth and poetry, it is really an elegy to spiritual emptiness and hunger.

The book is the prose equivalent of Frank’s pictures. Indeed, Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans when it was published.

Clark’s Tulsa fills out the image with dirty heroin needles and pregnant girlfriends with black eyes.

Malick made the landscape beautiful in his film Badlands, but he filled the film with senseless, ugly violence.

It is a Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and short.

It’s there in director Kimberly Peirce’s desolate film, Boys Don’t Cry.

"Boys Don't Cry"

“Boys Don’t Cry”

Yet, the film does imply an answer. And it is found in the landscape itself.

Peirce periodically interrupts the action with stop-motion footage of the Nebraska sky both day and night. In the day, the clouds speed across the face of the blankness; at night, the cars speeding down the highways make smears of light along the bottom of the picture while the stars spiral across the blue-blackness.

The lives portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry are squalid at best, but your heart breaks to see such smallness lived out in a landscape so sublimely vast.

So many scenes in the film are shot at night, where the tiny area of land illuminated by a car’s headlights is a metaphor for the limited vision of the landscape’s inhabitants.

Ultimately, the new Western myth is one of disappointment, that, as the gnostic gospel of Thomas says: ”The kingdom of God is spread out before us, and yet men do not see it.”

burned at the stake

“What’s wrong with belief?” she asked. ”I have been a Christian for many years, and my faith has given me great comfort.” 

That’s fine, I told her. I have no problem with that. I, myself, am a lapsed atheist: same non-belief, but no interest in the rituals of atheism. I don’t care to proselytize. 

She took exception, she said, to something I had written about political art. I had said that bad political art came as much from the Christian right as from the Marxist left. 

She got me to admit that I had been using hasty polemicist’s shorthand when indicting the Christian right. And she’s correct. For one thing, I’m hard pressed to name any art at all currently made by the religious right. They don’t make art, they criticize it. It is the conservative’s impotence that he can only react, never create. 

For another thing, the Christian right seems to me less a religious than a political faction. The items on its agenda are not notably Christian — at least not from the Christ who advocated poverty and humility — but rather free-market and male-dominated conservatism wearing the imprimatur of authority — a kind of soup made up of half-baked doctrine floating in a broth of testosterone. 

So, it wasn’t Christianity at all that I was indicting, and I should have left the term out of the story. I have no quarrel with Christians. 

Yet, there is something about a certain persuasion of Christian that worries me. And that thing that worries me is the same thing that worries many of us about the Muslim fundamentalism that bombs airplanes or the Hindu fundamentalism that killed Mohandas Gandhi. 

Because it isn’t really Christians who scare me, it is believers. 

I have always made a distinction between faith and belief. Faith is a comfort, and it is a willingness to let pass from one’s heart the angst, rancor and jealousy and recognize that there is something greater in the universe. And further, you are willing to give up control to something greater. 

In some ways, this is only common sense. 

The power you think you have is only illusory in the first place. You cannot control whether you will die, for instance, or whether you will go bald. That is the kind of power you must be willing to give over to the universe that gave you birth. It doesn’t much matter if you name that power Jehovah, Allah or the Void. On this point, the atheist and the Christian can come together. 

Belief, on the other hand, requires an agenda, a dogma, a list of specific things you must accept as ultimately true. Faith is generalized, belief is specific. 

And it is those specifics that have caused all the trouble. 

For human beings are willing to believe the most astonishing things. And what is worse, they are willing to act on them and impose them on their neighbor. It matters not whether you are Savonarola or Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 

Belief is the very devil. It is not a willingness to recognize one’s ultimate powerlessness in a universe that is an overwhelming mystery; it is rather the arrogant assertion that there is only one right way and what is more, you know that right way and everyone else had better start wearing your uniform and marching in step. 

What I should have written, if I had had the time and space, is that the root of evil is certainty. If there is a Satan, he is certainty. 

Certainty gave us Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.

The wheel of the inquisition

It gave us Hitler, gave us Pol Pot. Certainty justified slavery and permitted white Americans to believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. 

Certainty destroyed the temples of Tibet and the churches of Moscow. 

We live in a world beset with certainty. It killed Serbs and Croats, Turks and Greeks, Tamil and Hindu. It kills abortion clinic doctors and it kills Oklahoma City government workers and Boston marathoners. 

When people die because someone believes an income tax is unconstitutional, you know something is desperately wrong somewhere. 

The bottom line is: There is a world of difference between being willing to die for your beliefs and being willing to kill for them. 

I am reminded of a chapter in a book by the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote in his Ascent of Man about the difference between knowledge and certainty. 

jacob bronowski-bbc

After a clear-minded explanation of the uncertainty principle of physicist Werner Heisenberg, Bronowski brings the reader to Auschwitz and shows us a lake bottom — muddy with the ashes of those killed there. 

Heisenberg formulated a theory that explained why if you can measure how fast an electron is traveling, you cannot measure where it is, and if you measure its location, you can no longer measure its speed. It is an expression of the ultimate ambiguity of knowledge. In science, all conclusions are provisional. 

Bronowski extrapolates that it is not just electrons for which that is true, but for all knowledge. Uncertainty breeds humility. Certainty breeds arrogance. 

We shouldn’t need Heisenberg to tell us that all knowledge is uncertain. 

uncertainty formula

”Look for yourself,” he writes. ”This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

shepherd palm out

I’ll award the brass figligee with bronze oak-leaf palm to the reader who can tell me who Jean Shepherd was. I mean, who he really was.

Most people remember Shepherd — who died in 1999 at 78 — as the author and narrator of the 1983 film A Christmas Story. That movie may not quite rival It’s a Wonderful Life as the most popular Christmas movie of all time, but it comes in a clear second.

It was made into a Broadway musical last year, which picked up three Tony Awards, although I imagine Shepherd would have pooh-poohed the whole thing (while secretly busting with pride over having made it in the mainstream entertainment world he so overtly despised.)

Yet, for any of us who knew Shepherd via his radio show in New York during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the movie — and musical — is a sad travesty of what made Shepherd memorable, even important.

For in his several films, and in his books and later magazine articles, Shepherd turned his Indiana childhood into something dangerously close to a Norman Rockwell picture. While his families squabbled and his kids were missing teeth, they were nevertheless basically sweet and lovable.

The real Shepherd, the radio Shepherd, would never have stood for that.

The real Shepherd was a notorious sorehead and cynic. And that’s by his own account. On radio, the same characters that smiled and cooed in the movies spit and cursed and picked their ears. On radio, the lovable losers of the movies turned into losers and misfits.

On the air, on WOR radio in the 1950s and ’60s, Shepherd told stories, made acidic comments on society and culture, and played around endlessly, singing old songs and quarreling with his sound engineers, radio station management and sponsors.

Shepherd was always coy about whether his radio stories were literally true. At times, he said they were; at times, he made fun of the rubes who would believe such stories.

I’m not sure I would have wanted to know Shep personally. But I’m very glad I knew him on radio.

Every night at 10:15, WOR-AM, a 50,000-watt station in New York, would rev up Edouard Strauss’ Bahn Frei Polka and Shep would begin his antics. He sang After You’ve Gone three or four times in a row, doing an early version of karaoke along with a recording of bad saloon piano. Then he played Stars and Stripes Forever on the kazoo and Chinatown My Chinatown on Jew’s harp.

He was a virtuoso on the Jew’s harp and had once played it professionally. Then, a little Ragtime Cowboy Joe.

He pounded his fists on his desk; he ranted about slob culture and carried on a continuous feud with whoever was his engineer for the evening.

On notable evenings, he would recite Casey at the Bat or the poetry of Robert Service, all underlined with atonal recordings by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Once, before his show started, the station’s normally impassive announcer warned, with some caustic irony in his voice, “stay tuned for WOR’s resident genius.” He was apparently not always liked by his colleagues.

But no matter how chaotic the show began, he usually managed to bring things to a head with a story, either about his childhood or about his years in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. Both experiences turned him into an anarchist and a deeply convinced cynic. He discovered just how air-headed authority could be, and it taught him to never take such people seriously.

It landed him in trouble with his employer several times. He did everything he could to undermine the commercials he played. He talked over them, pointing out their absurdities. He sometimes boosted products that were not actually paying advertisers. After one such event, he was actually fired while on the air.

But what made him last, and what won him a rabid if small following, were his stories.

Shepherd was a virtuoso storyteller. There are few who could match him. He always went off on a half-dozen tangents in the middle of the story. One thing would remind him of another: He might go from his days in Fort Monmouth, N.J., to a diatribe about department store mannequins, off to a snide comment on the 1964 World’s Fair, into a somersault on the difference between American and British slang, and somehow bring it all back together by the end, fitting together as tightly as a new jigsaw puzzle.

In reality, Shepherd was a performance artist, before there was such a name for what he did.

He turned his autobiography into homilies of cynicism, the good kind of cynicism, not the cheap kind worn as an ornament by college sophomores. Shepherd’s cynicism was deeply won. It seemed like truth.

At his best, he didn’t find nostalgia in his childhood, he found irony. In fact, sometimes, when pressed to define what he was, he said he wasn’t a comic — he didn’t tell jokes — and he wasn’t really a humorist. He was, he said, an ironist, like Jonathan Swift.

In turning his life into New York myth, he was the spiritual father of Garrison Keillor and Spaulding Gray. It is hard to imagine either of them existing without Shepherd having paved the way.

Yet, speaking of the way, Shepherd seemed to lose his in the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was something in him that wanted to be ”cool,” to transcend his Indiana upbringing and become a hipster. He was ill suited for the transition. He could never really be cool, because, in Marshall McLuhan terms, he was a ”hot” personality.

He was out of his element, doing Playboy interviews with the Beatles, or writing his books, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.

He grew an unconvincing bebop goatee, sometimes wore disco beads, and seemed to be the kind of person who actually read the ”Playboy Advisor.”

It was painful to watch him mix genuine Shepherdisms with his ”cool” act during his brief forays into television. He did a series for PBS in 1971 called Jean Shepherd’s America. He had a face for radio, and a personality to match.

He had done research on Indiana journalist and humorist George Ade, and seemed to want the kind of immortality that print could give. So, he softened, gave up his nasty, funny, insightful edge and began churning out warm, fuzzy stories.

It was sad to see.

In his last years, he lived in Florida as something of a recluse. He appeared one last time on radio in 1998 and dismissed his entire radio life as meaningless.

I recently came upon a source for cassette tapes of some of Shep’s old radio programs. I’ve been listening to them for the past month or so, remembering some of them from when I first heard them, now almost 50 years ago. Some of the material is dated, other material grows tiresome. You can only hear Sheik of Araby on kazoo so many times before it loses its appeal.

But I was surprised at how well most of it stands up. Shep had many real insights. Some of his predictions have come true 30 years down the line. He predicted, for instance, a culture of celebrity, the very culture we live in now.

And his stories still manage to hypnotize and keep me riveted to the radio, waiting to see if he can bring it all together at the end yet one more time. He does. He always does.

So, Shep, I say to you, wherever you may be in the ether of whateverness, ”Keep your knees loose, keep your glove oiled, and watch out for those high hoppers. They’re hard to judge.”

Waterlily pond at Giverny

Waterlily pond at Giverny

When Claude Oscar Monet arrived at his new home in the spring of 1883, he had to borrow money to pay the rent.

The sturdy burger with the black Babylonian beard, smoker of strong cigarettes and painter of soft paintings was broke. He was one of many Frenchmen still suffering from the economic depression that had hit 10 years earlier and reduced the demand for paintings — among other things. Unable to sell his work, Monet had trouble feeding the mouths that depended on him.

For when he moved into the great barn of a house in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris, he didn’t come alone. He came equipped with his two sons, his companion, Alice Hoschede, and her six children. The youngest was only 5. They soon added a half-dozen servants.

The painter lived in his pink and green house in Giverny, along with his alternately growing and shrinking family, for the next 43 years, producing the body of work for which he is best known, a body of work that cannot be separated from the home he lived in.

That home served not only to shelter him, but to inspire him. The house and its surrounding gardens became, as he got older, the only thing he painted.

 

House at Giverny

House at Giverny

COMFORTABLY MIDDLE CLASS

Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and moved to Le Havre when he was 5 years old, and grew up there in comfortable middle-class surroundings. When he was a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an artist, began his studies and finally set up as a painter along with a ”brat pack” of his buddies, all of whom challenged the status quo in the French art world of the 1860s.

They later were called Impressionists and among their number was Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley and Berthe Morisot.

They were beginning to achieve success when a double-headed ax fell on their careers. First, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and then the bank crash in 1873.

By 1880, things had improved, but Monet had to start from scratch building his career. He was lucky in that he had Paul Durand-Ruel as his dealer. Durand-Ruel was a saint among dealers and regularly advanced Monet money on paintings he hadn’t painted yet.

That is how he managed to pay the annual rent on the 2 acres of land with the house and outbuildings.

The bank crash had brought him Alice, too. Originally the wife of one of his benefactors, Ernest Hoschede, who had commissioned paintings and decorations from Monet, she gravitated to the painter when her husband fell bankrupt and abandoned his family.

At first, Alice and her six children lived with Monet and his wife, Camille, and their two boys in the town of Vetheuil. But Camille died in 1879 and Monet and Alice set up house together quickly after that.

It was one of the great partnerships in art, a perfect match between people, one intemperate and moody, the other steady and gracious, with all the tact the painter himself lacked.

 

Punt at waterlily pond

Punt at waterlily pond

ON THE BANKS OF THE SEINE 

Giverny was not more than a village, with fewer than 300 residents, when they moved there. It sat on the north bank of the Seine River in the angle where the Epte joins it, on a slightly rising bank above the river and below the wooded hills that rose behind.

Monet’s new home sat near the edge of town between the two main roads. The house itself was a monster of an old farmhouse, looking something more like a warehouse than a home. On one end was a barn that Monet turned into his studio. The building was covered in a pinkish stucco that Monet made pinker, with gray shutters that Monet painted green.

The yard that came with the house had an old orchard in it and room for the gardens that Monet planned. Within a few years, the grounds were overgrown with the many flowers and trees Monet planted.

And life began slowly to improve for the Monet-Hoschede family. At a time when a common laborer made about 10,000 francs a year, Monet was selling his canvases for 12,000 francs each. By 1888, Monet was making 100,000 francs a year.

He spent it lavishly, building studios and greenhouses, adding to the house, improving the garden.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he wrote.

And when his lease ran out in 1890, he had no trouble buying the house and grounds for 22,000 francs, payable over four years.

In 1893, he bought an adjacent lot, on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered his property, and began making a pond to grow waterlilies.

 

Japanese bridge at Giverny

Japanese bridge at Giverny

AN EARLY RISER 

Monet’s life in Giverny turned into an ordered process of days, not only as the seasons progressed through the year, but even as the day progressed.

He got up early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, took a cold bath and ate a big breakfast, often an ”English” breakfast of bacon and eggs. From then until midday dinner, held promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day, he painted. He carried his canvases with him, often working on more than one, passing from canvas to canvas as the light changed with the hour.

He would sit out in the sun in his tweed suit and pleated shirt wearing a broad-brimmed old hat and smoking his stinky Caporal Rose cigarettes.

Monet had begun working in series, attempting to catch the evanescent effects of light as they flew by. A series of haystacks was followed by a series of poplar trees, each showing what their subject looked like at dawn, early morning, late morning, midday, afternoon and evening. As the sun changed, he changed canvases.

Monet poplars series

His critics complained that he was just trying to sell the same painting many times over. But Monet showed a dogged determination to make these series.

When the land with the poplars was sold, Monet paid the new owner not to cut down the trees until he was finished painting them.

Lunch was the major social event of the day. When Monet had visitors — which was often, more often than he sometimes wanted — they did their visiting at midday.

The afternoon was given over to painting once again, followed by a small supper at 7, and for Monet, bed by 9:30. He was notoriously bearish if this schedule wasn’t kept precisely.

So that, when his son-in-law, who was a slow eater, visited, Monet gave orders to the servants that no seconds should be offered.

And the painter could get out in the field with his canvases and brushes on time.

 

Dining room at Giverny

Dining room at Giverny

THE GOLDEN YEARS 

The 20 years after he moved to Giverny were the best of his life. His prices kept rising, he painted happily and productively through the year, taking time most years for an extended trip. One year, he went to Venice, another to Norway.

In 1892, after Ernest Hoschede’s death, Monet and Alice got married. The following year, he built his first water garden. In 1897, his son, Jean, married Alice’s daughter Blanche. Monet’s solo exhibitions regularly sold out.

The only troubles he had were in getting the municipal cooperation on improving his pond. Local residents were concerned that Monet’s plan to divert water from the Ru River, actually little more than a brook, would affect their crops and cattle grazing, but some help from the mayor swayed them and the permits were issued.

Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler and another daughter, Germaine, married a businessman from Monaco. The marriages soon brought four grandchildren to the family.

Meanwhile, Monet added more acreage to his holdings, including the ”Maison bleu” — the ”Blue House” — in the middle of town, where he installed a gardener named Florimond to cultivate his kitchen garden, which supplied the family with vegetables for their elaborate menus.

At one point, he employed six gardeners alone, along with a cook named Marguerite, a butler and valet named Paul, who was Marguerite’s husband, a maid named Delphine and a combination chauffeur and wine steward named Sylvain.

He needed the chauffeur because, although he owned automobile after fancy automobile — fast cars were a passion, along with watching auto racing — he never learned to drive.

The family also owned four boats, which they moored on the Seine, including the one boat Monet had fitted out as a floating studio. Monet often was accompanied on his painting forays by his step-daughter Blanche, also a painter, and they shared space on the boat.

Once a month, Monet retreated to Paris to have dinner with his circle of artist friends. He and Alice would take in the latest theater, see the gallery shows, and attend concerts.

Or watch wrestling — a particular favorite of the otherwise demure Alice.

 

Clos Normand

Clos Normand

A DISTRESSING UNDERTOW

Yet underneath the comfortable bourgeois existence of the increasingly wealthy painter was a distressing undertow. If Monet made paintings that soothed — he once called them a ”refuge for a peaceful meditation” — perhaps it was because he had a better than passing acquaintance with death and loss.

His mother had died when he was 18. Friends had died in the war. His wife, Camille, had died in 1879 after three years of lingering illness. The very month he moved into Giverny, his mentor, Edouard Manet, had died and Monet had served as pallbearer.

The early years at Giverny had proved a reprieve, but as Monet’s once black beard turned into a vast white haystack on his chest, time caught up with him.

Monet in the garden

In 1894, Suzanne developed a paralysis and five years later, she died. Alice went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

”Our beloved Suzanne died last night,” Monet wrote Durand-Ruel, ”while her poor mother was in bed with a bad case of bronchitis which she caught the other day at Moret. One sorrow after another.”

Around him, his colleagues began dying, too. Caillebotte — a particular friend — had died in 1894. Alfred Sisley died only a week before Suzanne.

Pissarro died in 1903; Cezanne in 1906. By 1917, Rodin and Degas were dead, along with Monet’s friend, the playwright Mirbeau. And in 1919, Renoir died.

Part of this was the natural result of living a very long life. But there were special sorrows for Monet.

A flood destroyed his lily pond and large portions of his gardens in 1910. It took several years to rebuild.

In 1911, Alice died after a long illness. Monet entered a deep depression that prevented his painting for some time.

In 1914, his son, Jean, died. Jean’s widow, Blanche, returned to Giverny and served Monet as hostess and housekeeper.

And the outbreak of World War I weighed heavily on the painter.

”I’m back at work,” he wrote. ”It is still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I’m rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.”

 

Pond edge, Giverny

Pond edge, Giverny

 

FAILING EYESIGHT

There was another sorrow for Monet, one that threatened his very identity as a painter.

Beginning at the turn of the century, Monet’s eyes, which had bothered him since his youth, began to develop thick cataracts that interfered with his vision.

He painted through them, but friends and critics noticed a change in the paintings, which sometimes seemed oddly colored.

”I’m working very hard and I would like to paint everything before I cannot see anymore,” he wrote Durand-Ruel.

The condition worsened and relented over the years, but by 1922, his eye doctor reported that Monet’s vision was reduced to ”one-tenth in the left eye and to perception of light with good projection in the right eye.”

Monet continued painting, sometimes knowing what color he used only by reading the label on the tube of paint.

”I could paint almost blind,” he told a visiting journalist, ”as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”

The operation his doctor recommended on his right eye helped things in 1923, but resulted in a peculiar condition called ”xanthopsia,” which caused him to see everything too yellow. When this condition abated, it resulted in its opposite, in which Monet saw everything as too blue.

”It’s disgusting, I see everything in blue,” Monet complained to a visiting professor.

”How do you know it’s blue?” the visitor asked.

”By the tubes of paint I choose.”

His ophthalmologist finally found a pair of tinted glasses that brought his vision back to something approaching normal, and Monet painted like a demon.

In 1925, he wrote, ”My vision has improved tremendously. I am working harder than ever, I am pleased with what I do, and if the new glasses are better still, I would like to live to be a hundred.”

 

Orangerie, Paris

Orangerie, Paris

A FINAL GIFT

He didn’t make it to a hundred, but the final years were spent on a vast project of painting the waterlilies in his water garden.

Conceived as a gift to France, he worked in increasingly larger formats, finally building a new studio to house the 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-long segments of the murals he was painting.

”These ‘water and reflection’ landscapes have become an obsession,” he wrote the journalist Gustave Geffroy in 1908. ”They’re too much for an old man’s strength, yet I should like to be able to reproduce what I feel.”

He destroyed paintings he didn’t think up to his standards. At one point, he wrote Durand-Ruel, ”I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least 30.”

The large waterlilies marked a significant change in Monet’s approach. In the past, he had been rigorous in painting outdoors, directly from life. But for these ”decorations,” as he called them, he worked inside, in his studio, from his imagination.

Monet at canvas

That underlined not just a change in technique, but in the basic purpose of his painting. What had been an attempt to reproduce an accurate record of what his eye saw became an involvement in what paint can do and mean.

Pablo Picasso had painted his first Cubist painting in 1906 and the winds of Modernism were blowing the old smoke out of the room. Monet caught the fresh air and enthusiastically took part in the change. The late waterlilies are no longer Impressionism; they are modern art.

”I am looking for something I have not done before, a shiver my painting has not yet given,” he wrote.

In 1926, a lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Monet. By late summer, he was bedridden with pulmonary sclerosis. His eyesight had deteriorated; he no longer could paint. He died on Dec. 5 with his family around him.

The following year, his waterlily decorations were installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As for his beloved home, it stayed in the family, eventually abandoned in World War II. But in 1957, Monet’s surviving son, Michel, donated the deteriorating property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the paintings left behind by the painter at his death.

The Giverny site, now renovated with gardens replanted in the 1970s, draws about a half-million visitors a year.

On Michel’s death in 1966, the paintings reverted to the Musee Marmottan in Paris.

It is hard to calculate how much this one small piece of provincial property has given to art. Monet painted what he loved, and what he loved for the final four decades of his life was his home in Giverny.

”My heart is to Giverny for ever and ever,” Monet wrote.

 

leo gorcey

Americans have always had a cultural inferiority complex. In other areas, we may walk with a swagger of a bully, but from our earliest years, when the colonists imported all their music and tea, to the 20th century, when we looked to France for our avant garde, Americans have not had the self-confidence to be who they are.

And so, we often try our hardest to climb the social ladder by imitating others.

Certainly this impulse is behind the current epidemic of saying ”you and I” when we mean ”you and me.” As in, ”He left a message for Harry and I.” The hair twitches on the back of my neck every time I hear it.

I know where this ugly solecism comes from: We have been told not to say, ”Me and Harry are going down to the shop to work on the carburetor,” but rather, ”Harry and I are going.”

”It’s a question of breeding,” our matronly third-grade teachers told us, lorgnette over nose.

Henry Thoreau noticed that when a cat jumps on a hot stove and is burned, it will never jump on a hot stove again. But then, it will never jump on a cold one, either.

And we transfer this delicacy to the wrong place, saying ”you and I” whether as subject or object.

It’s like holding up our pinkie when we pick up our teacup.

In the process, we often make ourselves look foolish, as we attempt to be more French than the French or more English than the queen. Only this attempt to borrow class can explain the success of such monumental bores as Masterpiece Theatre.

But America ain’t Cole Porter; America is Leo Gorcey.

This has been brought back to me hearing local TV news anchors attempt to stuff self-consciously correct Spanish pronunciations into the middle of middle-brow English sentences.

”In the latest news from ‘Nee-hah-RAH-wah’ . . .,” the anchor will say, and I am embarrassed for him. Not because he’s trying to be politically correct, but because he doesn’t seem to know that ”Nicaragua” is an English word. Sure, it is spelled just like the Spanish word, but like so many formerly foreign words, it has become naturalized.

The American pronunciation falls off the tongue better, certainly, than the British pronunciation: Nick-uh-RAG-yoo-wa.

”But we need to show respect for Hispanic culture,” he says.

And I agree. Americans are miserable when it comes to learning second languages. I am all for a bilingual America; we should not be so provincial as we are. But my simple answer is a question:

What is the capital of France?

Are we showing disrespect for the French when we blithely mispronounce ”Paris”? Why should it not be ”Par-ee?”

Well, because it sounds pretentious, that’s why. Pronunciation is guided by usage. We say ”Paris” in English and ”Par-ee” when we speak French.

Which is why the same news anchor isn’t consistent and doesn’t bring us news from ”Meh-hee-ko,” our neighbor to the south. It would sound silly. Long usage in English makes us pronounce the ”X” in Mexico as a ”ks” sound, its habitual sound in English.

Are we dissing Russia when we say ”Moscow” instead of ”Moosk-vah?” And after all, what do the Chinese call their country? Certainly it isn’t ”China.”

Are you suggesting we should say ”Nihon” instead of ”Japan”?

This isn’t really about respect but about communication: Usage allows our hearer to understand our words.

And conversely, is the Puerto Rican immigrant showing disrespect for American when he calls our largest city ”Noo Jork?” Of course not, but certainly respect has to be a two-way street. Those who demand we show respect for other cultures often share the familiar lack of ”cultural self-esteem” for their American roots.

If it is a moral question to give up our American pronunciation of familiar foreign words, why is it not also a moral question for others to give up their accents when they speak English?

Put that way, the silliness of it all becomes clear.

English is a wonderfully rich and adaptable language, and it has borrowed from almost every other language on the planet over the years. But it changes the words it borrows and makes them fit comfortably on the English-speaking tongue.

Certain words and names through long usage have developed idiomatic English pronunciations. We listen to the mazurkas of ”Show-pan” and look at the canvases of ”Van-go.”  It puts people off — and certainly puts me off — when people attempt to be more correct than necessary. In essence, they are merely showing off.

It is that unattractive element of social climbing.

When there is not a habitual English idiomatic usage, I’m all for pronouncing words as accurately as possible in their original language. But some things have become English.

I remember an object lesson listening to classical music radio in North Carolina many years ago.

The station was traditionally run by engineering students who were more interested in radio than in music. They couldn’t pronounce anything right. They mangled composers’ names. Bach was ”Baytch,” Chopin was a phonetical ”Chop-in,” as in ”there’s a pork chop in the freezer.”

We suffered for years, until they went the exact opposite way. One day they got an announcer who was more French than De Gaulle, or thought he was.

All of a sudden, Chopin’s name was ”Fray-der-EEK France-WAH Show-(something swallowed in the back of the throat and simultaneously sneezed out the nose after wrapping around the adenoids).”

It was a pretentious-sounding rectitude.

That same announcer later gave away the game, demonstrating what level of sophistication he’d actually achieved, when he played a Mahler symphony and he called out the name ”Goose-TAHV Mah-LAY.”

a house

You walk through New England and you sense that it is a place that has finished itself. It was once the seed from which America grew, but it is now the seed husk, and the growth is elsewhere.

The Southwest, for instance, where people move around like billiard balls on a break. Or the Northwest, where eyes watch the Pacific Rim for the coming millennium.

But New England has settled like an old house. It has become itself and leaves becoming to others.

I don’t mean to imply that New England is dead. Boston is a busy city, and Hartford or New Haven might as well be a suburb of Manhattan. Nor do I mean that change has left New England behind. They have their satellite dishes and their shopping malls, just like the rest of the country.

Yet, there is a sense, as you walk through the countryside, that New England has become comfortable with what it is, and no longer feels the need to change into something else.

Blueberry heath

New England wasn’t the first part of the New World settled. Not even the first part of the United States. Virginia, Florida and the Southwest can claim that distinction. But the settlers of Massachusetts gave us the first American myth: The hard-driving Yankee industriousness that weathered all kinds of inconvenience to create a government and an independent nation. We remember Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims, Cotton Mather, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams — the myth of Yankee ingenuity, hardiness and perseverance.

It was a useful myth for our nation’s first 150 years or so. But the United States has left the Novae-Anglo myth behind in a spurt of expansion and immigration. Culturally, New England, outside the big cities, now looks kind of monochrome.

You travel through New England and you see the idea that America used to have of itself. There are paths through woods around lakes, roads through farms built on stony ground, old warping wooden houses with weathered clapboards along the Maine coast.

Fox lake

This is the New England that gave us our first cultural identity, through the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Emily Dickinson.

It was a cultural identity that taught hard work and little play. It taught guilt and redemption, tight lips and stoicism.

That once-ideal American, hard working and suspicious of pleasure, seems to have disappeared, replaced by a softer, fun-addicted American. But the habitat of that earlier American is still there to be seen.

Visit the less-populated portions of Cape Cod, for instance, south of Truro, and feel the salt wind whip over the sandy dunes. It’s a wind that can turn your face into leather.

Or climb Mount Greylock, with its granite and white pines. You get the long view from its summit.

Or watch the white water in the Swift River along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. You can see the power that New Englanders sought to run their mills.

Or walk along the Boston Common on a warm Sunday morning and see the office buildings that border it, the business that the Common grass provides relief from.

Perhaps you can saunter along the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., on an oak-orange fall afternoon. You know that the Massachusetts winter is coming soon. You feel, like cold humidity in your joints, that life is short.

You can see the aftermath of that first American in the emptied brick factories of Fall River and Lowell and the white steeples of the churches in every hamlet of Vermont.

Victorian house

Sometimes, New England seems surprisingly unpopulated. It was once the most crowded part of the country, but now, outside its main population centers, you can find a lot of empty space to walk through.

Your boots slog through piles of fallen leaves and stub on the outcropped stones that float in the New England soil.

And finally, you stop on the granite of the Maine coast and watch the surf peck away at the continent, slowly and with great noise.