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Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival Hardcover – March 15, 2012


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Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival + A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition first Printing edition (March 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203261
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203268
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #458,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

This digressive mix of memoir, art criticism, and historical essay comprises Benfey’s autobiographical recollections, a coming to terms with his aging parents, and an account of his extended family that includes, on his father's side, the artists Josef and Anni Albers. If the book's far-flung speculations don't cohere, one suspects that Benfey doesn't want them to. —James Gibbons

Review

A New York Times Notable Book of 2012

"To paraphrase Emily Dickinson only slightly, there is no vessel like a book. Especially when it's as well wrought and far-sailing as Christopher Benfey's Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, a book about earthen vases, epic voyages and ancestral blood. Part memoir, part family saga, part travelogue, part cultural history, it takes readers on a peripatetic ramble across America and beyond."
--Adam Goodheart, New York Times Book Review

"A book like no other... Red Clay, Black Mountain, White Clay provides a new and useful way to examine American culture, where it’s been, and where it might go. Call it what you will, but you can’t ask more of a book than that."
--Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“[Benfey] spins a grand web out of his own fascinating lineage… In this revelatory mosaic of lives, Benfey reclaims radiant swathes of history, traces hidden links between remarkable innovators, and celebrates serendipity, resilience, and the refulgence of art.”
--Booklist (starred)

"Most memoirs are mush. Given the tender emotions, fragile reminiscences and flights of fancy that tend to flit and twirl within your average autobiography, the genre is known for its shifting, dreamlike core, not its steely spine. Christopher Benfey is out to change all that with Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, a new family memoir that's as tough as nails. It is grounded in solid things as well as wispy memories. In hard edges as much as subjective musings… dramatic and poignant."
--Chicago Tribune

“[A] lyrical but unsentimental family memoir, taking in art, memory and time… Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now largely forgotten.”
--Kirkus

"Beautiful, haunted, evocative and so open to where memory takes you. I kept thinking that this is the book that I have waited for: where place, objects, and poetry intertwine. Just wonderful and completely sui generis."
--Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes

“Christopher Benfey takes us on a journey of discovery that meanders into the most curious corners of family and world history, from colonial America to Nazi Germany to Mexico, Japan, and beyond. And what a splendid cast of characters: brickmakers, Quakers, erudite scholars, famous artists and obscure craftsmen, explorers, poets, and Mr. Benfey’s own parents, whom he portrays with an amused and deeply touching affection. His prose is often delicious. This is a fascinating and charming book.”
--Stephen Mitchell

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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The author is on a voyage of discovery and the reader is invited along.
J. Borree
This book is a fascinating interweaving of North Carolina family history, and the development of North Carolina pottery.
Mel
Christopher Benfey explores his Quaker/Jewish heritage with a light hand and a sense of humor and wonder.
J. Sunderland

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jaime H. on March 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Discovering what makes us the person we are is a lifelong journey for most. For Christopher Benfey it was a trip across the country, an ocean, and time. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay takes us on a trek in search of what it means to be a part of something, no matter how insignificant it may seem. It is the dirt that connected him to his family's past, and in that dirt, Benfey found home.

Benfey has an incredible family, filled with historical figures and artists who have inspired many. With an aunt and uncle who were a major part of the Bauhaus Movement, a father who survived Nazi Germany, ancestors who were some of the first explorers in America, a mother bred in the Quaker lifestyle, and others who made their footprint in some way, it is no wonder Benfey would want to connect them all the where he is today.

As he travels to the clay pits, to the tobacco farms, to Germany, and back again, he not only discovers himself, but he finds that there are more connections between the landscape and his family's history than could be imagined. As he learns about the history of pottery making in America, it also becomes apparent that the hands that have made the pots could just as easily have been his own, and in many ways are.

When researching a family history, or anthropology of any people, it is easy to get drawn in and begin to romanticize their realities, simply because they are different or unknown in some way. There are times Benfey seems to be drawn into this trap of an anthropologist, as he sometimes gets lost in the details. He seems to stretch for a connection that isn't necessary to the story from time to time, when he has a history that is already steeped in richness on which to focus.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Julie Merilatt VINE VOICE on March 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover
In this generational memoir, Benfey explores how art has shaped his family. He takes several seemingly unconnected threads and weaves them together into a narrative that demonstrates the impact of aesthetics on his life and those of his kin. The book reads like anecdotes stitched together, telling the history of Benfey's Quaker roots, his Jewish father's exile from Nazi Germany, his aunt and uncle's Bauhaus career and subsequent work at Black Mountain College, and the search for elusive white clay of the Piedmont.

This book connected with me in two very personal ways, the first being that my mother and sister have migrated to Greensboro, North Carolina in the heart of the Piedmont. Thus I could appreciate the landscape and atmosphere of that region of the South as Benfey portrays it. I have been to the potter's village of Seagrove and own some pieces made by the local artisans. The second reason I had such an appreciation for the book was because I studied ceramics for four years. I know the feel of clay, the turn of the wheel, and the satisfaction of creation in this medium.

What I loved especially was the Part III, which outlined the history of ceramics in the western world, specifically the legendary Cherokee clay found in a remote area in North Carolina. I was most intrigued by famed English potter Wedgwood's pursuit of this fine porcelain as he sent an agent to navigate uncharted wilderness and negotiate with hostile natives. This clay takes on mythic proportions as various fortune hunters search the untamed woods for it, which leads me to another vein Benfey takes in his familial history: mythology. He establishes a correlation between art and legend, evoking the Greek Minotaur and Grimm's Hansel and Gretel.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By J. Borree on May 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay (RBBMWC) shares some similarities with Edmund Dewaal's the Hare with Amber Eyes. Both books are historical autobiographies of the authors' ancestors; historical mysteries in which the authors, their voice and personal history, play an active roles in the books.

Christopher Benfey, in RBBMWC, delves into his immediate family's background and their current life centered around Quakerism, art and teaching. Benfey next discovers a connection to Josef Albers and explores his Jewish ancestors and their connection to art, Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. The final strand explored is the connection to pottery and the search for the white clay of porcelain. These three strands braid in surprising ways, revealing chance influences and connections. I found it very exciting reading.

Art plays a big role in this book. It connects people and countries and cultures, across time and in the present. Nazi Germany connects to Indiana, Britain to North Carolina, China to Cherokee, Quaker to Jew. The artists in the book are freed, are driven and are connected by their art. Very interesting!

In comparing this book to the Hare with Amber Eyes, I would say that RBBMWC is more thought-provoking and engaging with its deep portrayal of the effects of art, love, slavery, war, greed and family on these families and individuals. The author is on a voyage of discovery and the reader is invited along. At times, this book was a page turner for me. It ended a bit ambiguously, but....
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