Jonas Lie. ‘Main Seascape’. Oil on canvas, 1920’s. Private Collection.
Truman Capote’s path briefly crossed mine in 1974, when I was a very young man and living in Palm Springs, California, where my parents had a house. Truman had a house there too, and was in town at the moment, which I knew because I had just seen him interviewed on a local television station. The next day, he walked into the Palm Springs Public Library where I happened to be perusing volumes on a tier of shelves beside the front counter. I had my back to the counter when he entered, but there was no mistaking the truly bizarre voice of the diminutive man who suddenly stood there chatting with the astonished librarian, who addressed him most respectfully by name. As he offered to autograph any of his books they might have on the library shelves, I found myself fascinated by his pinkish-green complexion and truly unhealthy appearance. From a distance of perhaps eight feet, he turned to look at me for a few moments, and I felt totally unnerved. The whole package was by far the oddest assortment of personal features and traits I had ever encountered. He must have eventually tired of seeing how I stared, because he suddenly smiled sweetly, then turned back to the librarian, whose assistant had brought a few Capote volumes to be signed. It was a memorable experience indeed.
Over the following years I read all the Capote I could find, thinking only ‘In Cold Blood’ truly spectacular, but almost all the rest quite decently written and oddly old-fashioned, even mannered and genteel. Perhaps that was the southerner in him. But, aside from biographies and the often utterly hilarious collections of interviews compiled by others over the years, it was always his literary recommendations–positive and negative–which interested me most. His comments on Vidal (‘Gore never wrote anything that was worth much, except perhaps “Myra Breckinridge”, which you can sort of leaf through…’) impelled me to read quite a bit of Vidal and to form my own judgments of his work. Then there was Capote’s response to an interviewer who had said that Ernest Hemingway had written some of the finest sentences ever written in the English language: ‘Something must be going wrong in your brain someplace!’ It was because of Capote who, several years before the Streep/Redford film that made such a splash, said that he thought Dinesen’s ‘Out of Africa’ one of the best books of the century, that I came to read and admire that volume very much myself. And it was because of his enthusiastic praise of Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’ that I came to explore that truly charming and even haunting book, one to which I periodically return when I want the assurance of a splendid reading experience which will never disappoint.
It was first published in 1896 and is not so much a novel as a somewhat loosely related collection of short stories depicting life in the fictionalized village of Dunnet Landing and nearby locations along the rugged coast of Maine. Henry James famously called it Jewett’s ‘beautiful little quantum of achievement’, which sounds arch, but I think was most sincerely and admiringly meant. The narrator stays in a room in the quaint home of ‘Almiry’ Todd, who is an expert when it comes to the medicinal properties of herbs and other plants, and who introduces her lodger to the stories and personages which form the backdrop of life in the village. There are retired sea captains and porcelain-obsessed widows, a reclusive elderly bachelor and his sister who spend their summers on a remote island to which they must row in a tiny boat, a one-room schoolhouse which serves as the writing studio of the author of the book. Jewett has sometimes been credited with popularizing the regionalism genre of literature in the United States, so unique and well-received was her small but finely written tome. It reminds me of Wharton’s ‘Ethan Frome’ to some extent, in its depiction of the simplicity and harshness of rural New England life. But Jewett’s book is far brighter and happier. It really is an under-appreciated gem. And, for those who like ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’, a fine companion volume would be Celia Thaxter’s ‘An Island Garden’, first published in 1894, a woman’s loving account of her old-fashioned garden, planted and maintained with painstaking care below the long front verandah of The Appledore House Hotel, on Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast. But that is really another story altogether.
The illustration which accompanies this post is a reproduction of a painting by Jonas Lie (1880-1940), a Norwegian-born American artist, younger relative of the Norwegian writer Jonas Lie (1833-1908), whose namesake he was. Lie the younger was born in Norway, where his parents’ home was frequented by such artistic figures as Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Grieg and Georg Brandes. He was brought to America at age 12, after his father’s death, and is most well known for his depictions of New England coastal life and for his New York City scenes.