- Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America
By Eugene R. Gaddis, '69
- Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s
By Nick Bromell '72
- The Lake
By H. R. Coursen '54
- American Edge
By Steve Schapiro '55
What They Are Reading
Catherine A. Sanderson, assistant professor of psychology at Amherst, teaches courses in Health Psychology and Close Relationships. She offers suggestions for those who are interested in reading about these topics on their own.
Amherst College Books
Quick takes on books by Amherst faculty and alumni
If Chick Austin applied for membership in the Association of American Art Museum Directors today, it is doubtful that they would let him in. He never could have lived up to contemporary standards of business practice or ethics required of today's museum managers. But in the years between the two world wars, A. Everett Austin, Jr. (1900-1957), who was called Chick by all his friends in the art world, served as director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. There he introduced new ideas in American museum design and programming and made daring and distinctive acquisitions of artwork that are still much admired and envied by today's museum visitors. He single-handedly transformed the fusty Atheneum from a regional museum with a focus on American colonial art to a nationally important institution with a broad range of collections from Baroque to Modern. A Harvard-educated elitist, Austin was also a populist when it came to opening the eyes of the public. He devised and performed in magic shows to raise funds for the museum's education programs; he cultivated the local press in a constant battle to win converts to the field of modern art; and he was undeterred when faced with opposition from the museum's rather conservative board of directors. A terrible manager of budgets (his wife put him on a monthly allowance of $100), Austin frequently ran afoul of the trustees who demanded more fiscal responsibility. He was known to have burned paintings that he didn't like in the museum's furnace and to keep those belonging to dealers for years on end without paying for them.
Eugene R. Gaddis's fascinating biography of the flamboyant and dashingly handsome Austin is filled with details of his unusual personal life, his education as an art historian, and his contacts with the other leading lights of the international modernist movement, including the writer Gertrude Stein, composer Virgil Thomson, choreographer George Balanchine, sculptors Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi, the architect Philip Johnson, collector James Thrall Soby, art and dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, and the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr. As the archivist and curator of the Austin House, Gad-dis has had ample access to Austin's prolific papers, as well as to family members and friends who were willing to discuss candidly the ups and downs of Austin's manic lifestyle. With a slew of period photographs and colorful anecdotes, the book paints a vivid picture of the indefatigable, chain-smoking Chick, gallivanting across Europe looking for art with the unerring eye of a connoisseur, orchestrating exhibitions of Old Master paintings with elaborate gala openings, and inveigling the museum's old-fashioned architects into providing the latest in modern design for his addition to the Atheneum.
A performer at heart, Austin was certainly an unforgettable character. He once leapt through a window of a classroom at Trinity College to lecture to his eight a.m. art history class, wearing a tuxedo because he didn't have time to change after carousing in New York the previous night. As "The Great Osram—Masked Master of Multiple Mysteries," Austin did magic tricks at the Atheneum and in the summers went on the road throughout New Eng-land with a troupe of young assistants. At his family's New Hampshire home, he converted an old barn into a theater for summer stock productions; and later at the Atheneum he built a theater and designed sets for productions of avant-garde dance and theatricals in which he also acted. After a mid-life crisis forced his resignation from the museum, Austin briefly tried to extend his acting career in Hollywood, but he ultimately returned to the museum world. Most fittingly, his final job was as the director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a museum of Baroque art, founded by a circus mogul and housed in a faux-Venetian palace on the beach in Sarasota, Fla.
To explain the underlying theatricality of Chick Austin's persona, Gad-dis describes his relationship with his doting but overbearing mother, Laura. She called him "Boy Dear" his entire life and, until he reached the age of 11, the two shared her bed. Estranged from her wealthy physician husband, Laura spent most of her life traveling in Europe in search of traces of her family genealogy, most of it evidently invented by her. By the time he was an adolescent, Chick had been to Europe three times; as an adult, he eventually spoke four languages. He was educated at Phillips Academy and then at Harvard, where he had a rather checkered academic career. Although he never considered himself an intellectual, Austin highly valued the social and academic ties that he made at Harvard, especially with the students and faculty at the Fogg Art Museum. One of most valuable contributions of Gaddis's book is information he supplies about the art history training and personal support given to the young Chick Austin by the likes of Paul Sachs, Arthur Pope, and George Reisner. The latter, the leading American Egyptologist of his day, invited Austin to participate in a dig sponsored by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts at MeroÎ in southern Egypt. Accompanied by his mother, the young Mr. Austin finally took his studies seriously. But it was in Paris, on his way home, that he was first exposed to the kind of modern art that would shape his professional career. His mentor there was Edward Waldo Forbes, the director of the Fogg Art Museum, who introduced Austin to Bernard Berenson, the most important art connoisseur of the period. Adopting Berenson's method of formal stylistic analysis and firm belief in his own ability to identify innate "quality" in a work of art, Austin was supplied with the tools of his trade.
It was the Harvard "old boy net--work" that facilitated Austin's appointment as director of the Wadsworth Atheneum at the tender age of 26 in the fall of 1927. With a substantial endowment for acquisitions and a new addition to their building, the board of trustees was eager to find a young director with innovative ideas, and Austin fit the bill. Gaddis's book charts the course of his perspicacious purchases of Old Master paintings, as well as avant-garde modernist art, and it provides a detailed discussion of Austin's battles with the trustees to accept the latter. But Austin's marriage to Helen Good-win, the niece of the chairman of the Atheneum board, helped to smooth over some of the bumps during his often rocky 20-year tenure at Hartford. Significantly, the marriage also served to keep Austin's bisexual relationships out of the public eye. Loaded with psychological contradictions, Austin was both a devoted family man and a social butterfly who flitted from New York to Paris, Hollywood to Sarasota in search of social and artistic relationships.
However conflicted he was in his personal life, there is no doubt that Chick Austin achieved great success in modernizing the Atheneum with exhibitions devoted to Picasso, the French Surrealists, and Bauhaus modern design and with astute acquisitions of works by major old and modern masters like Caravaggio, Piero di Cosimo, Bernadardo Strozzi, Peter Paul Rubens, Louis Le Nain, Edgar Degas, Joseph Cornell, Joan Miro, and Piet Mondrian. Austin also significantly expanded the role of the Atheneum as a model cultural institution. Not only did he refurbish old galleries and build new ones for the exhibition of contemporary art, but he added a theater, introduced music and film programs, and organized an education department to make modern art more accessible to the general public. A populist at heart, he was also a genius at fundraising for programs and exhibitions that he knew might not be well received by the general public. His private Hartford support group, the "Friends and Enemies of Modern Music," helped sponsor the American premier of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera "Four Saints in Three Acts" with its all-black cast, a production that placed the Atheneum in the forefront of the avant-garde movement. Gaddis's biography succeeds in making Chick Austin's crusade for American modernism an exciting, energetic, and tension-filled experience.
Former Curator of American Art, Mead Art Museum
The library's shelves are packed with books about the political movements of the '60s... Yet while many of the histories of these movements are informative, even indispensable, they tend to leave out the particular past I want to get at: in exalted terms, the existential and visionary side of the 1960s; more mundanely, the inside of the experience of listening to rock, hearing it as a spontaneous epic poem produced miraculously by your peers for immediate use. Something that could help you make sense of the senselessness of it all by helping you come to your senses, heightening them. Most historians of the political '60s know full well that this living to music [my emphasis] was present as a crucial energy that flowed into and powerfully invigorated political ideas and movements. But how to write about them?
Nick Bromell poses himself this provocative challenge at the start of his book about a turbulent and seminal time of our recent history: he will try to evoke and to discuss the internal life—in part, what Ben DeMott has called "the inner speech"—of a large cohort of young people who came of age during the 1960s. Bromell asks a great deal of himself and his readers: the innards of history are notoriously difficult to imagine and to write about, even during the calmest or least revolutionary of epochs. But how to recapture the unsettled and contradictory spirit of "the age of Aquarius"—when visions of a new kind of enlightened peace struggled against images from a new kind of horrific war? How to discuss the contours of a cultural upheaval—an explosion of creativity in music and the arts, coupled with a revolution in social morés—when so much of the energy driving the changes seems partly traceable to the angst of adolescence, the ideals and the pains associated with young people "growing up"? That is to say, how can an historian and literary critic write with seriousness and empathy about a youth culture that celebrated "drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll!" as much as it did political activism?
Bromell understands the difficulties of his subject and in this slender, concise, and elegantly written book he narrows the focus of his analysis down to one element of '60s culture: how kids of a certain economic and social cohort listened to their music and used it to enhance and to express the lives they led. Bromell argues that just as the music from 30 or 40 years ago linked certain individuals together into wider communities of feeling and thought (one meaning of the phrase, "living to music"), so those same recordings can help listeners today recall and revisit some important interiors from the '60s. Bromell makes a clear distinction between reveling in nostalgia—recollecting uncritically—and what he's attempting: to use his adult imagination and intelligence to conjure up a vital part of his generation's history that has been under-represented in most accounts of the period.
Using the framework of an historical sequence of songs—by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and many others—Bromell traces the evolution of particular feelings of loneliness, disaffection, idealism, and spirituality that were expressed in the music and felt by the young people who listened to the records. It's a testimony to Bromell's powers as a writer that through close description and analysis of various songs he begins to suggest some of those interior experiences that are, by their nature, evanescent and inchoate.
For example, he describes and analyzes the kind of "romantic" aloneness that Elvis Presley's voice expresses in "Heartbreak Hotel" ("I am so lonely/I am so lonely/I could die") and then shows how, much later, in "Tomorrow Never Knows," the Beatles reconfigure that loneliness into a form of transcendental solitude ("Turn off your mind/float downstream/It is not dying/It is not dying"). Elsewhere, he identifies the anger at a hypocritical world that teenagers heard in Presley's deceptively simple song, "Hound-Dog" ("They said you were high-class/but that was just a lie!") and then discusses the denser and more fully-developed rage against lies and deceits that surfaces a decade later in Bob Dylan's album, Highway 61 Revisited.
Bromell's approach combines astonishingly detailed attention to music with surprising and delightful leaps of imaginative insight. His close-hearing of "Hound-Dog" suggests that the force of Presley's delivery—his nascent anger—is contained and expressed in the pause he allows between "high class" and "but that was just a lie." Concerning Bob Dylan's Highway album, Bromell argues that:
From beginning to end, the album presents a consistent vision in which grief and rage merge to bear witness to evil. Many of the individual lines and stanzas do not make conventional sense. Their function is not to describe or explain evil (or anything else) but to open up a field in which the listener's attention is seized and dropped and held and released by possibilities of meaning. . . . The album gave us a sound that was commensurate with our feelings because the evil it depicts is not diagnosed or analyzed. It is just presented . . . .
Though Bromell lavishes most of his attention on the music, he doesn't ignore the political and social context within which his generation was growing up. He discusses the ways in which the range of emotions expressed in the new rock songs reflected the unexpected alienation that many children of affluence and privilege felt in face of the tensions and contradictions that were coming to the surface in '60s America. Yet Bromell engages far more with the spiritual than the political side of the rock experience. He argues, characteristically, that:
. . . when remembering the '60s, we must bear in mind that if we approach the rock culture only through the question of its political value, we will fail to gain real access to it. That culture understood itself as going beyond the terms of political debate and discourse. . . . It was concerned above all to enlarge the possibilities of existence, to create a social order more tolerant of alternative visions of reality [my emphasis].
In addition to his keen analysis of music ("rock 'n' roll!"), the most notable aspect of Bromell's book is his unflinching look at the psychedelic experience that he and so many other young people engaged in ("drugs!"). At the start of the book, he announces his intention to grapple with "something fundamental and unresolved in American culture":
[T]he fusion of rock and psychedelics either inaugurated a way of being in the world, or simply coincided with it, and in either case helped articulate and objectify it. Let us grant right away that when young people listened to rock and smoked pot and dropped acid they were being foolish and hedonistic, and that their attempts to explain why they found these drugs valuable were crude and naive. But let us admit also that they produced something that mattered very deeply to them—something we are still living with. . . . It's at the very crux of our domestic wars: the "culture wars" and the war on drugs.
Though he discusses some of the religious, philosophical, and psychological underpinnings behind the use of hallucinogens like LSD, Bromell's primary focus remains always "living to music." He's at his most engaging —and challenging—when he discusses the transcendental, ego-destroying sensations that the rock idiom absorbed and reinterpreted. As an example: Bromell recalls Ben DeMott's (then) famous critique of rock 'n' roll as a "ëquasi-religious force' that caused kids to embrace ëa thunderous, enveloping, self-shattering moment wherein the capacity for evaluating an otherness is itself rocked and shaken.'" Bromell comments:
I, like many of the young persons DeMott taught in the '60s, would have loved to possess his sure sense of self and his sophisticated appreciation of the ways self-hood had been constructed, complicated, and threatened throughout history. But that confidence eluded me: "the self itself" had already flown the coop. I experienced firsthand, as the very condition of existence, an emptiness of self DeMott seemed to have known about but could set aside whenever he wished to. For me and my friends, rock did not cause a loss of self. Rock was an expression of such loss; rock was a way of working through that loss.
Bromell goes on to explain that rock music—which reached deep inside you, with a physical intimacy and immediacy not obtainable in any other form of communication—presented listeners with "an intensification of loneliness, or emptiness, for aesthetic contemplation" [my emphasis]. This loneliness "was not just a condition to be avoided; it was a survival strategy. It made sense to feel lonely in the new dwelling of the postmodern world. . . ."
When he suggests that the psychedelic "all-feeling" (to use the phrase of the American Transcendentalists) presented some young people in the '60s with tools to understand and reflect upon radically new elements of modern America, Bromell appears to be putting himself out on the kind of rhetorical limb that's familiar to those of us who lived through the period. (The first shots of the "culture wars.") But Bromell does not romanticize the drug culture, recalling that, even at the time, "No one was ready for the loss of pre-psychedelic innocence, for the fall into what Jimi Hendrix called ëbeing experienced.' . . . Psychedelics, even mirthful marijuana, are dangerous drugs, taking you to strange places where railway men might drink up your blood like wine." Bromell refuses to serve up simple platitudes about pot and LSD. As always, he approaches psychedelics from the point of view of music and in his discussions of individual songs—and particularly, his virtuoso treatment of the seminal Beatles' album Revolver—he evokes eloquently the state of mind the rock could both mirror and induce.
Bromell's book is not without weaknesses. The most obvious—and most intractable—grows out of the period that he's writing about: the vast gulf that separated most of American society from the experiences (and the sounds) that Bromell and others "lived." If you did not feel at least some sympathy with the counter-culture then, you may find little in Tomorrow Never Knows that will grab your interest now. Also, I'm not sure if you could read Bromell's book happily without some direct knowledge of the specific songs he's writing about.
But if you do have a lingering interest in this period—either as a participant or an observer—you should enjoy Bromell's essay and his uniquely honest and open-minded sensibility. And other writers about the '60s should find Tomorrow Never Knows an inspiring example of how our critical imaginations can plumb the surface of individual memory and historical record in order to recapture and give voice to the inner life of past generations.
—Thomas Looker '69
Visiting lecturer in American Studies and author of The Sound and the Story: NPR and the Art of Radio
Abundant and diverse are words that come to mind when considering the fiction of H. R. (Herb) Coursen '54. As of spring 2001 he has produced 10 novels, and they range from baseball to mystery to World War I to futuristic fantasy. The Lake, his tenth, concerns teenage romance among the upper middle class, but it is a far cry from a Barbara Cartland romance. If you haven't sampled Coursen's talents, The Lake is a fine place to start. If you are familiar with his work, you'll want this one as well.
The titular lake is a fairly substantial body of water in the Northeastern U.S., complete with a little island. It is the focal point of an idyllic woodsy setting for a summer colony of luxury "cottages." The seasonal inhabitants define themselves through such markers as the "right" address: Darien, Short Hills, Rye, and the like; proper prepping: Andover, Deerfield, etc.; higher education: some but not all of the Ivies; haberdashers: J. Press, Rogers Peet, etc.; and, of course, the resort (such as The Lake) where one summers. Most Amherst graduates are familiar with the species if, in fact, they are not actually members.
The time is 1950—between wars, so to speak. The narrator, Ted, Jr., is 18, just graduated from prep school and headed for one of the classier universities. He has joined his family at their cottage: Ted, Sr. and Isabella, Senior's second wife and Ted, Jr.'s stepmother. Ted, Jr. is not especially fond of Isabella and grows less and less fond of her as the summer progresses. Senior and Isabella begat Diana, Ted, Jr.'s 16-year-old half-sister and mixed doubles partner who arrives as the story begins. The young folks haven't seen each other in a year, and Diana no sooner shows up than lust is in the air. She has matured mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, into young womanhood. Ted, Jr. is eager to move the relationship beyond "pals," which they have been since childhood.
That takes less than two days.
Canoeing through a storm on the lake they haul out on a secluded island beach. Diana seems to be on the same wavelength and she suggests skinny dipping to Beans (sometimes Beanie), her pet name for her semi-sibling. In no time virginity is a pale memory for both of them. "I wanted it to be you, darling Beans," she exclaims. "And it was!"
They thrive on sex—love it!—as frequently as possible. Indeed, they seem extremely savvy about sexual technique for a couple of inexperienced teens in 1950. (Perhaps some of us just had a more sheltered upbringing.) Yet it isn't adolescent horniness that drives them; they are genuinely, adoringly in love.
The challenge is finding times and places to make love undiscovered by anyone—especially prim, proper, judgmental Isabella. It is as if a shadowy spectator always hovers nearby.
Though passion is paramount, Coursen laces the tale with considerable humor. "Beans" and Diana plot numerous ways to throw Isabella off the trail. For instance, Diana attends yacht club dances and other functions escorted by her summer boyfriend Jamie Ledger, a lecherous college sophomore-to-be and tough tennis opponent. She permits his groping up to a point. Similarly, "Beans" romances a pretend girlfriend, Betty Weatherly. Diana even encourages him to have sex with Betty. One recurring incident that will resonate with many male readers is Ted, Jr.'s struggle with a recalcitrant condom dispenser in the men's room of the general store. It won't give up the merchandise.
Diana and Bean's love affair grows more intense yet tested by friction generated by "the wicked stepmother" ever tailing them, always on their case, jabbing with pointed comments. She informs Ted, Sr. that she is convinced their kids are lovers, but he scoffs at such nonsense. Readers will find themselves drawn in, eager to learn if "love conquers all." While The Lake is genuinely romantic, tender, and sweet, there isn't a trace of saccharine or syrup on its pages. It is tart, witty, biting, tough, startling, at times angry. Herb Coursen has the gifts of a first-class storyteller.
—Eugene J. Walter, Jr. '54
Freelance writer and Secretary for the Class of '54
On the cover of Steve Schapiro's engrossing book of photographs, American Edge, is a poetic image that feels curiously contemporary. In "Three Men, New York, 1961," figures move in obscuring fog, isolated from each other in a grainy, blurry and transitory dance. This existential image, with its unsettled moodiness, is a telling illustration of the "beat" or "cool" influence in Schapiro's work. It, and photographs like the brooding and smoky "East Harlem, Diner, 1960," radiate the edginess that is expressed in the book's title.
The more obvious implication of the title is the socio-political precipice on which the United States balanced during the turbulent 1960s. Schapiro's subjects are influential players in American society during this period. These are not the classic portraits of President and Jackie Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, George Wallace, Martin Luther King, Andy Warhol, Rene Ma-gritte, Mohammed Ali, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsberg, but they do add more context to our cultural consciousness. Noteworthy images include a moving portrait of James Baldwin with an abandoned boy in Durham, North Carolina in 1963, and a truly zany vision of Chuck Berry at a taping of the Hullabaloo TV show in 1965.
American Edge is about people, but it is not all portraits. The many lesser-known personalities who present themselves for Schapiro's lens at civil rights marches, Vietnam War demonstrations, feminist rallies, Nixon protests and the Columbia University riots communicate the thrill of the jittery America of the 1960s.
Schapiro's camera was often put in the service of the great magazines of the period: Life, Time, Look and Newsweek. He worked as a photojournalist, but his vision is that of the artist and social critic. The first pages of American Edge immediately bring to mind Robert Frank's seminal book from 1959, The Americans. In fact, a photograph of the American flag is Schapiro's prominent first image, just as it is in Frank's book.
The subject matter in American Edge shows a relationship to other influential photographers of the mid-20th century. For example, Schapiro's deeply felt reportage from the South recalls the Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s, but with the added grit and tension of the1960s civil rights movement. Schapiro photographed contemporaneously with Bruce Davidson at Coney Island, and Schapiro's work in East Harlem predated Davidson's celebrated series on East 100th Street. Schapiro's images may not be as familiar in the lexicon of American photography as Davidson's, but the photos are haunting and beautiful.
As a publication, American Edge is a great example of quality design and printing. All text and captions are isolated from the photographs. The text by Dave Hickey is personal and powerful, and the captions are brief but descriptive. The black-and-white photographs are printed one to a page on only one side of the matte paper. The effect is that of looking through an artist's limited edition portfolio. Every image gets, and deserves, equal appreciation.