Purposeful Imperfections

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Month: July, 2013

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

A concise exploration of unwavering dedication and the toll of outsized ambition, Timothy Egan’s biography offers us a chance to (re)evaluate the life and work of Edward Curtis from a range of viewpoints. Not simply an artist, Curtis’s motivations for undertaking The North American Indian—one of the grandest individual cultural history projects—were complex and mutable. What began as an attempt to document and preserve rapidly disappearing lives eventually turned into a kind of activism, as Curtis revised false histories and advocated for the rights of Native Americans to live freely and practice traditional ways of life. But The North American Indian wasn’t an exclusively artistic/scientific venture. Throughout his thirty year project, Curtis also cultivated his public persona in hopes that his stature as a great artist/anthropologist/historian/adventurer would be preserved. This wasn’t to be the case, however—at least not in Curtis’s lifetime.

As to the work itself? Egan does decent job of deconstructing the inevitable implications inherent in such a vast and multi-layered project, though he could have looked more critically at some of Curtis’s heavy handed assumptions and approaches. That said, while staged and at times manipulated and rife with nostalgia, Curtis’s work, particularly his photography, provides a unique and compendious archive—one that continues to connect us to the rich cultures, histories, art, and languages of the First Peoples. Curtis’s work is unique, being a special kind of hybrid of art and anthropology, and his photography is magnificent. His exacting techniques and distinct style make for images that are instantly recognizable, and his use of light is not only powerful but still largely unrivaled. Not bad for a guy with 6th grade education from the then remote Pacific Northwest, as Egan often reminds us.

Hyperbole plagues Egan’s prose in places—things tend to be the biggest, the tallest, the very first, etc.—but I think this is probably due to the infectiousness of Curtis’s convictions and enthusiasm for life and work, so it’s hard to fault him for falling prey to this. In fact, it’s Egan’s ardor for his subject that makes Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher a captivating read.

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Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life by Carol Sklenicka

All art mirrors life to a certain extent, but to what degree is examining an author’s life and experiences crucial to gaining insight into their work? In the case of Raymond Carver, who drew directly from his life for writing material, having the details of this life/literature correlative thoroughly hashed out—thanks to Carol Sklenicka’s exhaustive research—makes for engaging reading. However, far more insightful is being able to bear witness to the sacrifices Carver and his family (particularly his first wife, Maryann) made in pursuing his writing career. Alcoholism, violence, neglect, poverty—all were a part of Carver negotiating his life as a writer. Carver made many destructive choices out of desperation, choices that not only undermined much of what he’d worked for but, at times, nearly destroyed his life and those closest to him. He privileged his writing over the needs of his family, and, yet, when it was a question of first getting published, Carver willingly compromised his voice and vision. (The detailed, complex saga of his relationship with the editor Gordon Lish is one of the more fascinating aspects of this book.) Living such a life of contradiction ultimately propelled him straight to the bottom of a bottle.

But this is also a story of redemption, at least somewhat. Carver manages to finally quit drinking, and it’s hard not see the immense success that follows—both in terms of fame and the quality of his writing—as a reward for this struggle. In the last decade of his life, Carver often counted his blessings, acknowledging that he’d been incredibly lucky. It’s tempting, then, to view his life’s story as a triumph, and, in many ways, it is. But Sklenicka reminds us that many of those that sacrificed tremendously for Carver were, in significant ways, left behind. In the end, it’s Maryann’s life that mirrors those of Carver’s characters far more closely than his own.

Returning to the initial question: how does all of this affect the reading of Carver’s work? Often, when discussing art, the reasons for/against a work depend far too much on the character of the artist. In Carver’s case, where art and life are particularly intertwined, it is easy to let his personal successes and failures color our views of his writing. I’d argue for a more nuanced reading, appreciating, first and foremost, the quality of his craft. One can do this without condoning Carver’s actions, and his work really is deserving of our continued attention. But it’s also important to admit that art does not exist in a vacuum and that some of the greatest works arise from personal conflict and hard won experience. Realizing this can add meaningful context to the work and offer a much deserved understanding and respect for the labor and sacrifice of everyone who played a role in Carver’s journey as a writer. Sklenicka’s biography offers just such an opportunity to more fully examine Carver’s life and work.