Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay by Christopher Benfey

This is not a book I would have selected to read, but then I have named this blog “All Books Considered.” And I was kind of assigned this book for the Artful Reading book club at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum. (Actually, I didn’t realize it was a book club; I thought the authors or some other experts were going to come and lecture – there are two more books in this series.) Anyway, that’s what reading is for – to open your mind to new experiences, not just entertain or inform.

The director of this long-standing book club asked us what we would say to persuade someone else to read this book. I’m still thinking about that.

Christopher Benfey is literary critic and Emily Dickinson scholar. He is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. Benfey holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Benfey is a specialist in 19th and 20th century American literature. He is also an established essayist and critic who has been published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement.

 He also seems to be related or acquainted with everyone who mattered in the second half of the 20th century. More about that later… He seems to have been everywhere and what he doesn’t know, doesn’t matter.

The title comes from the three parts of the book, although the book’s organization is very free flowing. One of Annie Albers’, his aunt, painting is titled “Red Meander,” and that is exactly what this book does – meander throughout the world, the arts, history, people, and Benfey’s thoughts. The subtitle for the book is Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival.

As I said, there are three parts to the book. The first part concentrates on the origin of his mother’s family. Rachel Elizabeth Thomas descended from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen. Her family settled in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, famous for its red clay, and was a brick layer. Seagrove is in the area, which I learned, is notable for its many folk potteries reaching back more than two hundred years, and is sometimes referred to as the “pottery capital of North Carolina”, or pottery capital of the world. Jugtown, one of the premier potteries, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  I had never heard of this place; I seemed to be one of the few in the book club who hadn’t. Benfey explores the geology, history, economy, art, and family background concentrated on this area of the country.

However, he also traces his father’s family’s history in this first part. His father, Otto Theodor Benfey, had left Germany before the war. His aunt and uncle, Josef and Anni Albers, left Germany when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in 1933. The Bauhaus had a major impact on art and architecture trends in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Israel in the decades following its demise, as many of the artists involved fled, or were exiled, by the Nazi regime. The Benfeys have a distinguished, prominent family history, including Christopher’s father, a chemist, who conceived the spiral design of the period table of the elements, and Theodor Benfey, a German philologist who taught Sanskrit and made a major scholarly contribution to the study of fairy tales at the same time the Brothers Grimm were collected their tales.

If any of this seems linear, I am misleading you. This information is scattered throughout the book. Thank heavens for the index!

In the second part of the book, Denfey relates the Alberses’ careers in this country. After Josef and Anni Albers reached the United States, the architect Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged for Albers to be offered a job as head of a new art school, Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  In November 1933, he joined the faculty of the college where he ran the painting program until 1949. Black Mountain College was a new kind of college in the United States in which the study of art was seen to be central to a liberal arts education. Many of the school’s students and faculty were influential in the arts or other fields, or went on to become influential. This connection is responsible for Christopher Benfey’s acquaintance with so many well-known later 20th century artists and writers. Although notable even during its short life, the school closed in 1957 after only 24 years. In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain to head the Department of Design at Yale University.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a lover of Albers’ work. Her office walls boast works on loan from the Smithsonian, including two original Rothkos, a painting by Max Weber, and one by Josef Albers. (Another Albers painting, which usually hangs in her chambers, is currently part of a traveling exhibit. Ginsburg vows that she won’t retire until it returns.)

After digressions to Mexico, Japan, Italy, Germany, Chile, Cuba, Greece, China, France, and nearly every state in America (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), we come to part three in which we travel to England to trace the development of Wedgwood china. Josiah Wedgwood became fixated on the white Cherokee clay in North Carolina. Several attempts were made to possess this unique material; in the end, John and William Bartram, father and son, Quakers, manage to take back five tons of the white Cherokee clay to Wedgwood, resulting in the superb china that resulted in Wedgwood being named Potter to Her Majesty.

So we come back to pottery, North Carolina, clay, and Quakers. Everything in this book is connected. I can only imagine a graphic depiction of names, places, and materials.

Back to the director’s question: What could I say to persuade someone to read this book? Many in the club were most interested in pottery. If you collect or create pottery, you must read this book. Otherwise, if you are interested in American history, from colonial times to the 20th century, this will provide you with much you may not be aware of (as I was). However, you must not expect a linear narrative; you must be ready for that meandering, I mentioned. I became very frustrated during less than interesting sections, was confused trying to make the connection between all the elements, and wished that Benfey would just get on with it. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made it through the entire book. One lesson may be that everything is connected in this world, in one way or the other. Another lesson may be that one should not close one’s mind to a book – one never knows what one may learn.

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Filed under Biographies and Memoirs, History

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