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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The Late Mr. Shakespeare
by Robert Nye.
416 pages, $25.95.

The narrator of Mr. Nye's brilliant, mischievous novel is Pickleherring, who at age thirteen was recruited into the theater by Mr. Shakespeare himself. The playwright was in need of a lad to play the little prince in King John. Pickleherring stayed with the company all the way to The Tempest. Now ancient, he is holed up in the attic of a London brothel and writing the life of his adored patron. He is a merrily promiscuous biographer. He includes speculations, lubricious fantasies, anecdotes, rumors, and old jokes. Variant spellings of the name Shakespeare occupy half a page. A short chapter is devoted to medical remedies only a slight cut above eye of newt and toe of frog. Pickleherring naturally knows the plays in detail (he was a great Rosalind and doubled Cordelia and the Fool). He also has a miraculous foreknowledge of poets up to Dylan Thomas and Robert Nye. There is sound scholarship behind the glitter, but Pickleherring stages an imaginative act. For God's sake, reader, take it not for fact.
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Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself
by Jerome Loving.
582 pages, $35.00.

Mr. Loving's life of Whitman, while valuable in many respects, is not a suitable introduction to the poet's work. The author assumes that his reader is thoroughly familiar with the poetry and even has one or more editions at hand, along with some contemporary works. On one occasion, "Walt enclosed a newspaper clipping containing the final lines of a poem by Longfellow, ... 22" Note 22 informs one that the lines were from "the fourth sonnet in a group entitled 'Three Friends of Mine,'" and recommends "a recent assessment of Longfellow's reputation."The lines themselves remain a mystery. This is not the way to run even an academic railroad. Complaints aside, Mr. Loving has tracked down early journalism by Whitman, material that establishes the very young man's increasing interest in social patterns and also his understandable willingness to concoct hack fiction. He badly needed money. He needed money for most of his life. His work in Washington hospitals during the Civil War is well covered, with Whitman's own letters and articles touchingly quoted. There is detailed attention to the campaign by Whitman's admirers for recognition of his unprecedented poetry, which many readers of the time considered dirty stuff -- a campaign abetted by the poet, who was not above pseudonymously reviewing his own work. Favorably, of course. For Whitman enthusiasts, Mr. Loving has provided a fine, thoroughly interesting, worthwhile biography with much new material. The book does call for some preparatory reading by the uninitiated.

Water: Worlds Between Heaven & Earth
photographs by Art Wolfe, text by
Michelle A. Gilders and Claus Biegert.
Stewart, Tabori, & Chang,
192 pages, $50.00.

The text tells all anyone needs (possibly wants) to know about water. Mr. Wolfe's expert photographs show water beautifully in action, and deservedly occupy most of the book.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy
by Brian O'Doherty.
Turtle Point/Helen Marx,
404 pages, $25.00.

The demise of a tiny Irish farming village around 1940 is the subject of Mr. O'Doherty's novel. Many small Irish villages, and small islands, have been abandoned in recent times, but this one died in strange circumstances. A hard winter killed the women, and a second hard winter left the men accused of bestiality and murder. Father McGreevy's account of the tragedy suggests only partial understanding of what went on, for the good priest is unfamiliar with old superstitions and thinks well of almost everybody except his witchlike housekeeper. Mr. O'Doherty's eloquent prose conjures up snow and cold and isolation as clearly as it does small-town spite and gossip. His sketches of clerical protocol and politics are slyly irreverent. His description of a ward in a mental hospital is bone-chilling, and he gives the villagers' hats "the shape of old potatoes." Christianity and paganism are interwoven to form a tapestry of regret for both the good and the bad of a lost history. It is a morbid tale, but holds one's interest.

The Sound of Sleat
by Jon Schueler,
edited by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau.
359 pages, $30.00.

The painter Jon Schueler (1916-1992) spent roughly twenty years composing this extraordinary medley of reminiscence, confession, aesthetic theorizing, and journal keeping. It begins -- assuming Schueler's dating is trustworthy -- in January of 1957, in New York, with a personal assessment:"I am a bad father, a bad stepfather, a bad husband, an indifferent friend, a confused and disloyal lover. Only one thing:Iam a good painter."Before the year was out, Schueler was installed in a village on the west coast of Scotland, overlooking the Sound of Sleat, and enthralled by the light, the color, and the constantly active skies of the north. He was not a formally realistic painter of landscape (or anything else). His object was to create psychological or spiritual meaning out of light and color, while retaining a shadowy base in the real world. He was not at the time financially successful. The sale of four paintings in 1958 -- four out of a half year's energetic work -- brought him less than $2,000. Schueler's letters to dealers and agents give a poignant picture of what an artist endures and how hard he works for the little he gets. Schueler was esteemed by a few admirers, but had nothing like the status of, for instance, Mark Rothko. He had come to painting by a roundabout route, which he gradually explained in the long writing of his idiosyncratic book. The text has no orderly chronology. It is well along before Schueler gets to his war service as a B-17 navigator. He reported the tension, the action, the constant fear, and his eventual survivor's guilt extremely well -- he had, after all, intended in his college days to become a writer. He wrote when he was not painting. The text leaps back and forth in time; it hops from dull details about studio furnishings to aesthetic and philosophical observations; it jumps confusingly from former wives to current mistresses and back again. It is an amazing, totally peculiar piece of work. It may be the best thing ever written about the workings of a painter's mind and eye.

The Genius of Gilbert Stuart
by Dorinda Evans.
196 pages, $39.50.

Ms. Evans follows Stuart's career, commenting simply and sensibly on possible influences and the development of his increasingly subtle technique. He had no interest in doing anything but portraits, and the number of those he did is formidable. Perhaps the most notable point about Stuart is his ambition, in which he succeeded, to convey the sitter's blood and breath and spiritual animation through the motionless surface of paint and canvas. He once claimed to "copy the works of God."He certainly painted living people. The majority of the illustrations are in black and white. The color plates exasperatingly reveal how inadequately black and white represents Stuart's work.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Brief Reviews; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 128-130.

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