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Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival Hardcover – March 15, 2012
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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
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.”
"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."
“[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.”
"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.”
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Among Benfey’s books this one has a particular aspect: that of being based on his own memoires. It is also the history of let’s say “clay” in the American cultural tradition. Benfey’s family has a double ascendency, on one side of North Carolina bricklayers, on the other side from European immigrants to America who with their artistic qualities influenced deeply the American art tradition tied to the Bauhaus movement. Distant relatives at the end were somehow interested also in the “white clay” tradition which is the basis for porcelain production.
These three “paths” serve as an inspiration for the three section book, which however doesn’t stick all the time to the traced itinerary but “serendipitously” meanders among references, people, artists, many artists and traditions….. and religion! Because religion is, or was at least in those times, a founding aspect of relations and behaviors. Here we are talking about Quakers, with their simplicity and straightforwardness of which the CB is very proud of.
Red Brick is the story of the iron rich clay used to build bricks at the feet of the Appalachian mountains and of people connected to this tradition together with CB grandfather: Levi Coffin the slave-saver, Randall Jarrell the poet, the Jugtown pottery with the Busbees, the Owens, the Japanese influence on American pottery, Mark Hewitt. But it is also the story of the parents and relatives of Benfey’s father from Germany among whom the renowned publishers Ullsteins, Theodor Benfey the linguistic and inspirer of the word “serendipity”, through his transcription of the tale of “The Three Princes of Serendip”.
Black Mountain is the story of the 24- year Black Mountain College community illuminated by the experience of the Albers (also Benfey’s relatives) Anni and Joseph and their many friends and acquaintances: Diego Rivera, Oskar Kokoschka, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller and many others. The inspiration of the German Bauhaus passed directly into the American Culture (fusion of form and function and honest use of materials) gaining in its passage relatedness and contrast. Just mentioning famous students (Ruth Asawa, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, Rauschenberg, Charles Olson, etc etc), Benfey drags us through modern American art, leaving tidbits of knowledge and curiosity to further explore.
White Clay is a branched essay on American kaolin, the clay used for porcelain, not the more humble earthenware and bricks spoken about till now. It stems from the exploration by Thomas Griffith, Wedgewood’s agent in search of white clay for his master’s factories, to America and the Cherokee Indians who in the late 18th century were the keepers of the secret ingredient. Even in this historical passage Benfey has a relative, William Bartram that together with Andrew Duché (probably the first to make porcelain in US with however no success) made it into history books. William Bartram independently of his own fame seems to have been the inspirer of some of Coleridge’s poems.
The book ends with a hasty description of Whistler’s mother’s portrait and the painter’s fascination with pottery and many cross references to Benfey’s interest in this topic.
The book makes a quick read, but if you decide to deepen the knowledge on the mentioned characters the question changes a lot. Compared to the Author’s other books, I think it is less polished and meditated, however the compulsion of writing a family memoire must have been great and a tingling of emotion runs through this work. The comparison with Edmund De Vaal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” is a must and probably RB, BM and WC follows De Vaal’s stereotype even if De Vaal himself has been inspired by Benfey’s books and essays as he openly recognizes. One fact that disturbed me a bit is the tendency of the Author to transpose into history all he narrates. We have the impression episodes he describes took place many years ago, while the history he is talking about is really very recent. I write from a European perspective where history is so long, so even that close to us seems recent, but the American outlook is probably different.
One of WB phrases has captured my imagination as descriptive of CB book: “some of these steep soft rocky banks or precipices seem to be continually crumbling to earth, and in these moldering cliffs I discovered veins or strata of most pure and clear white earth”. Some episodes as pieces of shining mica glitter in front of our eyes on a background of much marginal information.
It's a strange and sinuous journey which starts in Central Indiana and weaves and winds its way through the Eastern U.S., Mexico, Europe and England, Asia, and back, adding insight and information at every twist or turn.
Benfey makes it personal by tying some of the 20th centuries most influential visual arts movements to his relatives, letting artistic and personal curiousity drive the narrative rather than some atavistic need for personal aggrandizement.
The characters and moments he unearths in his intellectual quest are memorable: the Bartrams, explorers, naturalists, the Black Mountain arts movement, and much more.
My only regret is that I bought this as a Kindle book and therefore cannot share it with others.