Christopher Benfey. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival. New York: Penguin Press, 2012. 288 pp.; 33 b/w illus., index. $25.95.
“It is a delicious Book; & like all delicious Things, you must take but a little of it at a time.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge on William Bartram’s Travels (quoted on pp. 249–50)
Christopher Benfey’s book is difficult to pin down. In some ways it could be called a memoir, but the author includes lots of history from sources other than his own life. In some ways it could be considered a story of survival spanning three centuries, but despite its title reference to clays, you wouldn’t read it as a text on ceramics history. Nor would you read this for the history of the now-famous Black Mountain College. Other sources give a more complete picture of these historical phenomena, and the author makes them easy to find through the chapter-specific resources he provides. Each of these aspects adds to the book’s appeal for Ceramics in America’s audience, however; Red Brick’s also a really good “read.”
According to Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, self-examination at middle age (he was fifty-four when he wrote the book) “is as much a task of recovery as of acquisition. The uncertain prospects ahead are weighed against the magnetic pull, stronger every day, of retrospect. To own one’s past and the past of one’s family takes on a peculiar urgency. The archeological impulse is a trust in the importance of origins, of beginnings” (pp. 11–12). Using key clay objects and scant knowledge of his family’s past augmented with considerable additional research, Benfey set out on a journey that took him again and again to North Carolina as his mother lay dying in a nursing home in Greensboro. Turning the story around the state’s clay history, going both forward and backward, he explores the family tales and myths learned in his childhood and the power of the Quaker life to craft self-awareness through contemplation and community participation.
I used to think it was pretty cool that I had managed to take possession of my grandmother’s Quick Meal stove of the late 1920s when my father downsized his home in the 1990s. No one had used it in years. It was just waiting quietly in his basement for me to stumble across it, and now it has a place of honor in a remodeled room of my home, far removed from its original location. I don’t plan to cook with it; rather, it’s a piece of industrial sculpture dedicated to the memory of my hard-working grandmother, a single mom who supported my father and uncle by being a fancy top stitcher in a St. Louis shoe factory.
Now that I’ve read Benfey’s book on the art and survival of his family, however, I see that my own family history is relatively ordinary. Benfey’s ancestors descended from Apollo, survived encounters with Indians, and escaped Nazi tyranny. Still, his work challenges us readers to recognize the key patterns of American history in the stuff and stories of our own families.
Equally compelling is Benfey’s poetic storytelling and his use of artifacts, especially those made of North Carolina clay, as central agents in his stories as well as bearers of history from one generation to the next. There is the simple red pitcher made at the Jugtown Pottery near Seagrove, from which he learned to recognize the persistence of tradition in art; the Sanford bricks made and laid by his grandfather, from which he learned to appreciate skill in even humble objects, and its transmission through generations; and the contours of mountain roads in western North Carolina, where he experienced the “hidden messages” on the “deepest lessons . . . in the contrast of textures” (p. 13) that émigré artists Josef and Anni Albers (his father’s uncle and aunt) taught their Black Mountain College students. All of the people we meet in this book, from the Alberses to William Bartram, who tracked down and recovered white clay on Cherokee lands in western North Carolina for use in Wedgwood’s jasper ware, are part of Benfey’s kinship, both literally and metaphorically.
Bartram’s work may well have offered a major impetus for Benfey’s memoir. Benfey discusses at great length Bartram’s Travels and Other Writings (1791) and its effect on the English Romantic poets, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bartram’s book is ostensibly a tale of his botanical journeys through the American southeast wilderness just after the Revolution, but Coleridge thought Bartram presented “a series of poems, chiefly descriptive, occasioned by the Objects, which the Traveler observed” (quoted on pp. 249–50). Benfey notes that Coleridge viewed Bartram’s descriptions of plants and soil as poetic metaphors for the people Coleridge knew, especially his friend William Wordsworth. Ultimately, Benfey relates Bartram’s metaphors to the exotic plants and clays of the New World that were taken to England to thrive and inspire: “Just as there was a global trade in plants and materials, there was a parallel trade in verbal structures and ideas. And every once in a while, a restless genius came along—a Bartram, a Wedgwood, a Coleridge—who wandered from the familiar trail, risking falls and failure, and fused these new possibilities in unexpected ways, leaving lasting art for posterity” (p. 253).
In a promotional video produced by Mount Holyoke College when the book was released, Benfey summarized his feelings about the writing process and the eventual book:
Part of the story of this book is the kind of story that all of us have as human beings. Why do we exist? What set of circumstances, coincidences, chance meetings ended up with us in the world? . . . I imagined that as I dug into this memoir more and more of it would be about me. In fact, the very opposite happened, that more and more of the book is about everything that is not about me [rather it is about my family and surroundings]. . . . Another deep truth in the book for me is about how much in our lives happens by chance . . . We do what we can, but chance has its way with us.
Benfey wants his readers to find the parallels between objects and words in their own lives, mining the past to understand the present, and deriving a sense of satisfaction from a family’s successful struggle for survival across time. Indeed, genes carry more than physical traits, and with enough knowledge and sensitivity to their potential we can understand the essence of our heritage as well as its facts. Perhaps Benfey will inspire more of his readers to mine their families’ pasts and find poetry in the prosaic.
Ellen Paul Denker
A video of Benfey reading a selection from his book in a public forum at Penland School of Crafts in the summer of 2012, when he was the Andrew Glasgow Writer-in-Residence at the school, can be viewed online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4zkOqfrayE. See also www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=_BFPFM5KZHI, in which he discusses what he learned while writing his memoir.