The scale, scope, and significance of this magnificent biography by National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan are only slightly eclipsed by the immense scale, scope, and significance of the work of photographer Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952). Curtis, at age twenty-eight, took his first photograph of a Native American when he did a portrait of “Princess Angeline,” an aged woman who was the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, for whom the American city was named. By 1896, when Curtis took this photo, it was illegal for Princess Angeline and other Indians to live within the city named for her father, and Curtis was all too aware of that sad reality. Though he was married with several young children, Edward Curtis spent the next thirty-three years investigating the remaining cultures of Native Americans throughout the West, determined to record every aspect of their cultures before they vanished completely from history. Ultimately, he traveled on a mission that took him to virtually every remaining tribal area and state west of the Mississippi River. Totally devoted to his self-imposed task, he gave up virtually everything of personal value, working for no money at all, and living most of his life hopelessly in debt in order to fulfill his personal mission. As Egan presents his insights into Curtis’s personality, quirks, and even blind spots, this biography becomes a rarity – a biography closer to a classical Greek tragedy than to the more familiar saga of a man’s life.
Category Archive for 'Biography'
One of tcover coelho spyhe legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was finally declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered, though this author has some suggestions.
Ron Hansen, author of several novels set in the Wild West and Mexico, creates familiar pictures of frontier life, with all its extremes – in weather, behavior, and beliefs – and pits individuals against each other and the times as they try to carve out lives. His settings feel real, and the problems faced by his characters as they try to survive in only semi-civilized communities are understandable and sometimes poignant in their limitations. Billy the Kid, subject of this novel is a special case. He is the son of an Irish mother who lived in the New York slums and whose husband, Michael McCarty, joined the New York State Volunteers during the Civil war, transferred to an artillery group from Indiana, and died in battle. She later married William Henry Harrison Antrim, whom she left when she and her two children went to the frontier in Wichita, Kansas. Her husband followed her, but upon her death in 1874, he had no interest in the two boys and disappeared from their lives. Billy was fourteen, at that time, and his brother Joseph, “Josie,” was nineteen. Josie, too, eventually falls out of his brother’s life, and Billy ends up traveling through Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, following the “work” and the gangs with whom he comes into contact. He is known at various times as William McCarty, Henry Antrim (to avoid confusion with his stepfather William Antrim), and William Henry Bonney, Bonney being his mother’s maiden name. Most famous for his sharp-shooting and cattle- and horse-thieving, Billy becomes known throughout the West as Billy the Kid.
Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was already recognized as one of the most important impressionist painters in the world by the time this study of his work begins in 1914. At seventy-four, he still worked outdoors, painting in his garden at Giverny, his rural home forty miles northwest of Paris. He was impatient to keep working, with many more paintings to go, many more milestones to reach. The word “impressionistic,” a pejorative term when it was first applied to the work of Monet and others at their group exhibition in Paris in 1874, refers to their seemingly spontaneous and unstructured style, a marked contrast to the smooth, elegantly formal paintings of the Salon of Paris, the official style of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. The impressionists’ light-filled paintings and their ability to achieve a new depth and immediacy in their work by superimposing colors upon colors in short brush strokes, gradually won over patrons, and over the next twenty-five years, artists like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt became both famous and successful. Concentrating on the last years of Monet’s life, as he begins his massive “Grande Decoration,” a series of fifty water lily paintings, each one measuring fourteen feet by six-and-a-half feet, the reader shares Monet’s frustration and even anger as he must also deal with serious vision problems.
Marian Evans, the author known as George Eliot, is sixty years old as this biographical novel opens in June, 1880, and she is on the train to Venice for her honeymoon with new husband, John Walter Cross, a handsome young forty-year-old. Hiding her face behind a white lace mantilla so that she will not be pestered by fans of her books begging for autographs, she believes that the mantilla, “though not completely hiding her face…distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely.” She had lived happily with philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death in 1878, and though she called herself Mrs. Lewes, they had never married. Lewes, already married, had an “open marriage” in which his wife ultimately had four children by another man, all of whom Lewes supported, and he was legally unable to get a divorce. As the train bearing the newlyweds heads toward Venice and a new life, Evans has reason to be alarmed by her new husband’s behavior – “It was as if he were drifting away from her, going farther and farther into his own world, and she didn’t know why.” He’d been frantically making plans for the wedding and their house in London; he hadn’t been sleeping; and he’d hardly been eating. Though he’d been as attentive to her needs as always, he was now hyperactive, operating at a level of speed and intensity she had never seen before, constantly moving and unable to relax. Author Smith’s research makes much of this novel come alive, providing both realism and excitement to this biography as she recreates the life of this intelligent scholar/author and how she became a success as a novelist.