Friday, July 9, 2010

An Intertextual Moment between The Octopus and U.S.A.

Right now I'm reading Frank Norris's novel The Octopus alongside John Dos Passos's U.S.A., and the conjunction just turned up what may be a neat little moment of intertextuality between the two novels.

In The Octopus (1901), some of the main characters are in a gentlemen's club (a genuine one, not a euphemistically-named one) where a raffle is being held of a competent but, I think we're supposed to believe, rather dry and imitative landscape painting by a minor character, Hartrath. Here's the scene:
But the focus of the assembly was the little space before Hartrath's painting. It was called "A Study of the Contra Costa Foothills," and was set in a frame of natural redwood, the bark still adhering. It was conspicuously displayed on an easel at the right of the entrance to the main room of the club, and was very large. In the foreground, and to the left, under the shade of a live-oak, stood a couple of reddish cows, knee-deep in a patch of yellow poppies, while in the right-hand corner, to balance the composition, was placed a girl in a pink dress and white sunbonnet, in which the shadows were indicated by broad dashes of pale blue paint. The ladies and young girls examined the production with little murmurs of admiration, hazarding remembered phrases, searching for the exact balance between generous praise and critical discrimination, expressing their opinions in the mild technicalities of the Art Books and painting classes. They spoke of atmospheric effects, of middle distance, of "chiaro-oscuro," of fore-shortening, of the decomposition of light, of the subordination of individuality to fidelity of interpretation.
One tall girl, with hair almost white in its blondness, having observed that the handling of the masses reminded her strongly of Corot, her companion, who carried a gold lorgnette by a chain around her neck, answered:
"Ah! Millet, perhaps, but not Corot."
This verdict had an immediate success. It was passed from group to group. It seemed to imply a delicate distinction that carried conviction at once. It was decided formally that the reddish brown cows in the picture were reminiscent of Daubigny, and that the handling of the masses was altogether Millet, but that the general effect was not quite Corot.
Now, when Eleanor Stoddard and Eveline Hutchins meet in the Art Institute of Chicago, here is what they say:
"What other pictures do you like?" [Eveline said.] Eleanor looked carefully at the Whistler; then she said slowly, "I like Whistler and Corot." "I do too, but I like Millet best. He's so round and warm… Have you ever been to Barbizon?" "No, but I'd love to." There was a pause. "But I think Millet's a little coarse, don't you?" Eleanor ventured. "You mean that chromo of the Angelus? Yes, I simply loathe and despise religious feeling in a picture, don't you?" Eleanor didn't quite know what to say to that, so she shook her head and said, "I love Whistler so; when I've been looking at them I can look out of the window and everything looks, you know, pastelly like that."
Now, Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot would often have been grouped together as the leading figures in the Barbizon school of painting (Daubigny, also mentioned by Norris was another in the school), so perhaps this isn't so intertextual after all, simply the result of two writers wanting to introduce an explicit discussion  of realism into their novels, rather like Ibsen and Strindberg turning up together in conversation in two separate novels.

Yet there is something similar, and perhaps similarly mean, about both scenes of young women grasping at cultural straws to impress other young women; "Corot" and "Millet" de-code in both passages as a sort of feminized, shallow, rather frivolous appropriation of the vitality of realism, the realism of the male writer composing this scene. I don't know a very great deal about the Barbizon school, but the most famous product of it, Millet's "The Gleaners," which inspired Agnès Varda's magnificent documentary The Gleaners and I, would seem visually to corroborate this hunch:
Obviously, they're women, but it's not just that; it is the painting's implied comparison of the unheroic, in a sense unproductive, women who come out to gather the remaining grain from (the men's) harvest to the more noble (and artistically valid) masculine tradition of the pastoral scene or of an agrarian landscape. These women are doing something that is definitively (and definitionally, I think) not man's work. I'm having trouble finding a Corot painting which contains the "handling of the masses" of which Norris speaks, but at any rate, his paintings also seem somehow feminized, especially in relation to an earlier French landscape artist like Poussin or Lorrain. (That is not necessarily to say that Norris or Dos Passos would prefer Poussin or Lorrain to Millet, Corot, and Whistler, though.)

Now, like I said, I don't know very much about 19th century painting, so my characterization of Corot and Millet may be incorrect and I would greatly appreciate any art historians or generally more knowledgeable people to help me out here, but it is my sense that Norris and Dos Passos are each making a slight dig at a more feminized version of realism which is the kind of thing one appreciates with a lorgnette and titters over with a word like "pastelly." In a sense, these women stand in relation to the masculine realism of the authors in exactly the same relationship as the subject's of Millet's painting do to the farmers who cut the grain in the first place: Eleanor and Eveline are aesthetic gleaners, taking the scattered leavings of the trailblazers and geniuses, who of course just happen to be both male and masculine.


Dan Cooper said...

Interesting. I'm nearly done with 1919 and I've decided that I don't find Eleanor or Eveline to be particularly interesting or even that likable. Their relationship feels the most soapy and blandly melodramatic in the book, and I wonder if Dos Passos harbors some disdain for them as "tortured" souls of the bourgeoisie. They don't seem to truly believe in anything, unlike many of the other characters, and are torn between being enamored with Moorehouse (i.e. the establishment) and some vaguely bohemian (as I think you put it one of your other posts) idealism for art and culture. In other words, they're on the fence and it's annoying. (Even a character like Mac, who's a complete bastard for abandoning his family, is likable because he believes in something - also he's a badass.)
It seems relevant to me that as "aesthetic gleaners," Eleanor and Eveline are interior decorators, essentially cannabalizing and retooling old artistic styles and forms for a small niche of paying customers. In so doing, it's like they're rendering art into a debased form of private domestic consumption, diluting it of any of its "higher" aesthetic purposes.

Kerry said...

I really enjoyed this post. I do remember that scene, but being wholly unfamiliar with the artists at issue (shame on me), I could not come close to this sort of analysis.

Plus, I also enjoyed Dan's added comments. Eleanor and Eveline are given different treatment than the men. Of course, whether this is realism given the time, a masculine bias on Dos Passos's part, or something else entirely, I cannot say. Janey Williams comes across, if I remember and am not unique in thinking so, better than her brother Joe.

I probably need to re-read the trilogy with the question of masculinity and women in mind.