F E B R U A R Y 1 9 9 7
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
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The Peale Family:
Creation of a
edited by Lillian B. Miller.
Charles Peale, the son of a well-connected
clergyman, was transported
to the colonies circa 1736 on a charge of embezzlement. He became a
schoolteacher, earning more respect than money, and the father of an unexpected
dynasty. His son Charles Willson, having studied with Benjamin West, taught
first his brother James to paint and then as many of their children and
connections, male or female, as could be persuaded to hold a brush. He gave his
own sons encouraging names: Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian were all
sound painters. There were Polk cousins and Peale cousins, variously
accomplished. The family genealogy covers two pages of this large, lavish
history, and although one cannot complain of a plethora of Peales, they can
become a bewilderment. They were not innovators in the medium. They were
impressively capable in portraiture, landscapes, miniatures, and still lifes,
but no Peale seriously deviated from the principles Willson had learned from
West. They were innovative in other areas, for Willson was interested in almost
anything available -- art, antiquities, mechanics, exploration, public affairs
(he served in the Revolution), natural history (he excavated a mammoth
skeleton) -- and determined to spread enthusiasm for and knowledge of all these
subjects. To that end he founded a public museum in Philadelphia and the family
learned taxidermy, label writing, methods of curatorship, and the painting of
naturalistic habitats in which to display specimens. Such backgrounds were
previously unknown, as was a collection of paintings and general material open
to the public for a small fee. Willson's sons established similarly inclusive
museums in Baltimore and New York. They all eventually went broke, but they are
the ancestors of the Smithsonian and of every art museum in the country. Ten
authors have written about the Peales to create a comprehensive, beautifully
illustrated study of this "family of artistic overachievers." They do not
always agree. Ms. Miller commends Willson's advice to "keep an even temper of
mind" and "never to return an injury." Brandon Brame Fortune believes that
Willson bullied Raphaelle for drinking too much, getting the gout, and painting
charming still lifes, which his father considered the lowest form of subject
matter. According to an eighteenth-century critic, "They cannot Improve the
Mind, they excite no Noble Sentiments." Such disagreements only serve to
enliven a well-written and very handsome book.
The Conversations at
by David Malouf.
Pantheon, 240 pages, $23.00.
Mr. Malouf's novel is set in Australia in 1827, in a
where an escaped convict has been caught and is to be hanged in the morning.
The officer sent out to supervise the execution is Irish, and so is the
prisoner. As the two talk at intervals through the night, their disparate
characters and backgrounds produce some oddly similar questions and also the
dissimilar answers arising from dissimilar origins. Something resembling
metaphysical sociology underlies Mr. Malouf's tale; invention and elegant prose
make it an interesting work.
by Peter Cameron.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
Mr. Cameron's protagonist, on the run from unspecified
in his imaginary Andorra, from which Spain can be reached by crossing the
Pyrenees, and Turkey by sailing west. There is a small expatriate society,
principally female, leading the man into romantic imbroglios that he does not
much enjoy. Neither, in the end, will the reader, for Mr. Cameron has committed
the dishonesty of creating a first-person narrator who never refers to what
must, until the final pages, be constantly on his mind. It is a trick that
wastes a reader's attention.
Thinking in Pictures
by Temple Grandin.
Vintage, 222 pages, $12.00 paper.
Dr. Grandin teaches a course in livestock handling at
University. She has held a number of other posts, has published a number of
professional papers, and is a well-known authority on the management of
animals. She is autistic. This account of "My Life With Autism" is not limited
to her own experiences. She describes the several variations of the condition
as well, but it is her personal vision that is most likely to fascinate the
reader. She can see, in her mind, a projected construction in all its detail.
She can see why cattle follow one route without protest but object to another
that appears equally inoffensive to the average eye. She seems to see people
across the equivalent of a very wide ice field, and would prefer that they
remain there. She is no misanthropist but rather an intelligent and courageous
alien who has learned to function successfully in an unsuitable world. She is
amazing and informative. Her original title for this book was A Cow's Eye
View, which would have been unduly flattering to cows, but not altogether
by Julia Alvarez.
Algonquin, 350 pages, $18.95.
Yolanda -- Yo -- García, who lost her accent in
earlier novel, is the pivotal though not always the central figure in a series
of interlocking short stories. Some are told from a character's point of view,
some in a character's speaking voice. In both cases these people have a sharp,
colloquial vitality regardless of their conduct or locality -- and the
stretch from New Hampshire to the Dominican Republic, while the conduct leaps
from sex to politics. Yo becomes the artist as wandering trickster, fomenting
trouble or falling into it wherever she turns up. Her adventures make excellent
The Man in the Box
by Thomas Moran.
Riverhead, 272 pages, $21.95.
The hero of Mr. Moran's novel describes his youth in a
during the Second World War. The place is so small and remote that, barring
certain shortages, the war might as well be on some other continent --
the man in the box. The boy's father, a respected citizen (he does do a bit of
smuggling across the Italian border) with a vaporous adherence to the Nazis,
has concealed a refugee Jewish doctor in his haymow. The boy and his dear
friend Sigi, a blind girl, are assigned to deliver the fugitive's food. The
children talk to the refugee, and much of the book's interest lies in the
contrast between the rambling but sophisticated reminiscences of the doctor and
the coarse, limited life in the village, where the presence of a pretty
schoolmarm can arouse a storm of lubricious male curiosity and a tempest of
female spite. While the children try to reconcile what they hear with what they
see, the narrator presents suspense, horror, and slapstick absurdity with the
same cool detachment, as things that happened a long time ago. If the book's
basic theme of survival is a common one, its construction is distinctly
by Bruce Laughton.
Yale, 200 pages, $55.00.
Professor Laughton's study of Daumier (1808-1879)
concentrates on the
artist's later work, in which his experience as a savagely witty political
satirist expanded into a broader, officially more serious field. Much of the
author's attention is devoted to Daumier's technique of superimposed watercolor
washes, and his description of these and the resulting effects raise strong
suspicions about the quality of the book's reproductions. The paucity of early
cartoons gives a reader little with which to compare Daumier's sometimes
startling late oils. All in all, this has to be considered a work of limited
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 279, No. 2;