By ROBERT WHITCOMB
While driving through the Vermont hills a few weeks ago, I thought about two artists much associated with New England’s rural parts — Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost — and the relationship between their lucrative rural public personas and private lives. No surprise that there was quite a gap! For one thing, they were born outside New England — Frost in San Francisco and Rockwell in New York City — and grew up in cities. More importantly, their public images were, and are, at considerable variance from their personal lives.
Norman Rockwell has been much in the news again lately because of the new book “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” by Deborah Solomon. In it, she not only discusses Rockwell’s genius as an illustrator, but also a private life that was often quite tormented. (Like, I would guess, most lives.)
Ms. Solomon discusses Rockwell’s depression and anxiety. And she speculates (to the dismay of the artist’s family) that his life may have been complicated by homoerotic longings that may (or may not?) have expressed themselves in his many pictures of winsome, Tom Sawyer-like boys and handsome square-jawed men. He also had three troubled marriages and was a hypochondriac — and to the pleasure of his millions of fans, a workaholic.
Stockbridge, Mass., the Berkshires town whose scenes provided many of the ideas behind Rockwell’s famous illustrations, is also the site of the Austen Riggs Center, the mental hospital whose staff has treated many celebrities. Ms. Solomon says that Rockwell and his second wife, Mary Barstow, an alcoholic, moved there from Arlington, Vt., so that Mrs. Rockwell could be treated for depression. Rockwell himself used Austen Riggs’s services.
And yet the pictures that Norman Rockwell painted of the town are mostly upbeat — evoking a small-town communitarian paradise. “I paint life the way I want it to be,” he famously said.
Then there was the mating of modernist and 19th century poetry that is the great work of Robert Frost. Frost, like Rockwell, was a city boy whom the public came to primarily associate with rural New England themes, but innocent and Arcadian his poems are not. Many evoke a chilly or even malevolent universe. (My favorite is “Design.”) Far more Ethan Frome than Currier & Ives.
But as his fame spread in the English-speaking world (he first became well-known in England, where he lived in 1912-15), that he looked like Hollywood’s idea of a Yankee farmer, and his folksy genial manner (for public consumption, anyway) tended to overcome in the public mind the darkness of his poems. He could have been a character in a Rockwell painting. This was in part intentional: Being seen as a charming cracker-barrel philosopher/poet brought in the lecture and poet-in-residence fees. He became the most famous poet in America.
Thus we have the curious transformation of the deeply intellectual Frost (whose characters were mostly ordinary country people, whose speech patterns and emotions he was deeply familiar with) into an icon of popular culture.
Consider the revision in Norman Rockwell’s reputation from “merely” a “fine popular illustrator” to being seen as a kind of great artist, with aesthetic links to other masters going back to the Renaissance. It takes a long time for society to figure out what it really thinks of its artists and politicians.
Memoirs have been one of the comparatively strong parts of the book business in recent years. With aging Baby Boomers, expect a lot more. A few recent ones:
‘’Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House,” by Denis O’Neill, is a mildly fictionalized account of the 1969-1970 academic year at Dartmouth College. O’Neill is a journalist, screenwriter and musician. On Dec. 1, 1969, the Selective Service System held the first lottery since World War II for the draft, bringing great anxiety to some and relief to others, and “The Sixties,” as we know them, reached their crazy crescendo. (You could say that “The Sixties” as a cultural phenomenon didn’t really end until, say, 1972.)
Then there’s Rhode Island investment mogul Tom DePetrillo’s book about the downs (including personal bankrupty) but bigger ups of his career. He was one of 11 children and a school dropout before he made a fortune as an investor. The book provides chatty and colorful advice and observations on business, public policy, politics and life in general.
Finally there’s Ralph Barlow’s “Beneficent Church in Providence: A Church Engaged with an Emerging New World,” the Rev. Mr. Barlow’s memoir of running the church from 1964 to 1997, during which this downtown Congregational institution’s experience included many of the recent social upheavals of American society.
Robert Whitcomb (firstname.lastname@example.org), a biweekly contributor, is a Providence-based writer and editor. He blogs at newenglanddiary.com.