Monday, November 25, 2013

EDWARD HOPPER AND 'ROOM IN BROOKLYN'





By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com
NYACK, N.Y. -- In the birthplace village of Edward Hopper, the famed American realist artist (1882-1967), it is a simple thing to note the early morning Hudson River light that he bottled and used in all the paintings of his long career. That was his gift, and it is has been shared with generations, especially in his present renaissance in America, Europe, elsewhere. Yet we humans, and Hopper was that, too, also have the most ordinary of moments, no matter the ability. Some even suffer in the ordinary for the ability.
When the artist was studying in France and also living in Nyack and in the lower New York City neighborhood where he would spend most of his life, he received short letters -- almost conversational tidbits -- from a friend, Alta Hilsdale, whom he seems to have loved. But the emotion was unrequited, and reading the Hilsdale letters, 1904-1914,  is a sad experience. It is a classic relationship in which expectations are not shared and are in fact so different that you wonder how it could have lasted a decade.
But it is also a known tale, and that is why moving romance novels have been written in hoped-for explanation. Hopper did not write, not often anyway (unfortunately, we don’t have his letters to Alta). Nor did he speak much. He painted. That was his language, his expression.
Writer Beth Thompson Colleary offers Hopper fans, and actually anyone who explores human interaction, a chance to look into Hopper’s art and mind in her recently published Hilsdale letters collection, “My Dear Mr. Hopper” (Yale University Press). The book is scholarly in that it offers primary source material, and it allows the reader to enter the Hopper-Hilsdale relationship. Perhaps the last two letters are the most compelling and revealing. The first, Sept. 18, 1914, just two paragraphs long, tells the artist: “I suppose I shall have to begin to tell some of my friends that I am to be married soon to Mr. Bleecker ... We are to live in Brooklyn, at 42 Sidney Place ... and if you should care to come over, I would be glad to see you. Always your friend, Alta Hilsdale.”
Imagine, after 10 years, such a short and explosive letter. Hopper may have assumed a developing romance where he should not have done so, but, still, the letter is cold. The second letter, written from Brooklyn on Oct. 14, is a bit longer though still short. More a note than a letter.  It begins, “I cannot tell you how sorry I am to have made you unhappy.” And it ends with, “I thank you with all my heart for all you have done for me and offered me, and beg you to forgive me for causing you unhappiness. Most sincerely, Alta Hilsdale Bleecker.”  That last letter is probably her most emotional one in all the 10 years. (The assumption is Hopper wrote back between Sept. 18 and when she penned the letter on Oct. 14.)
Who knows how the artist handled this loss. He married painter Josephine Nivision 10 years later, and that seemingly less-than-romantic union probably informed his art, since he became most productive and, finally, sellable, with Jo at his side. And, surely, Alta is in the artistic effort, even if a painful memory.
This brings me to the point of my essay. Hopper appears to have painted just one work set in Brooklyn, where Alta moved in early marriage. Most of his works are about Manhattan or  Cape Cod, Maine and Vermont, with some western U.S. scenes. “Room in Brooklyn” (1932) is quite an emotional piece, as Hopper’s paintings are, but this one is different. Almost all Hopper women are voluptuous or at least sensual, many nude or nearly so. The woman in Brooklyn is fully clothed in a modest dress, sitting in a rocking chair and looking out the window while also apparently reading. We do not see her face, but the brown hair is set in the exact style Alta wore in an early 1900’s portrait of her, perhaps by Hopper. The Brooklyn room is sparse, with an unset table behind the woman. The view is toward what some Hopper scholars see as Hopper himself, that long row of Brick tenements, such as in “Early Sunday Morning.”  (It is repeated in many paintings.) On the floor near the woman is a shaft of light, the traditional Hopper pointer, as if he were a teacher revealing knowledge.
Is “Room in Brooklyn” a look at Alta 18 years after her last letter? Is she alone for a reason? Is she looking at Edward or the memory of him? Is she re-reading his  letter? Is she clothed as the virgin he remembers, or as a woman not fulfilled? Who knows? Hopper is a mystery that even he spent a lifetime exploring.
   The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, November 18, 2013

FIRST PERSON: THE LOSS OF JFK


November 18, 2013

FIRST PERSON: THE LOSS OF JFK

By Arthur H. Gunther III

     Nearing the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so much reflection has already been written, some by younger writers who were not alive to absorb the year 1963, the 1950s and God, what happened in the killing’s aftermath, that turbulent continuation of a decade still changing America.
     Kudos to scribes who analyze and who get it right, especially if they did not feel the earth, smell the air, taste the water of the time. Yet, first-person reflection is as valuable as primary research, for setting the record, for authenticity. It’s a check on analysis after the fact. So, here goes, from someone who was there, before, during, after. 
     Fifty years ago, Nov. 22 was a Friday, as it is in 2013. About 12:30 p.m. I was flipping TV channels when I paused at WCBS-TV, New York. A soap opera was in progress, of no interest to a young fellow age 21, but the long thread of its story line, including every emotion there is, caught my interest and I lingered. But not for long. Quickly, on the simple black and white set, with just seven channels available through a rooftop antenna, came a bold screen with large letters shouting “CBS-TV NEWS BULLETIN.” Then the signal switched to a live newsroom, Walter Cronkite at a small desk, professional but with almost incredulous tones, reading wire service copy: “There has been an attempt on the life of President Kennedy . …” The venerable reporter and commentator did not leave his post for a day, and this America remained glued to the TV for even longer, over an increasingly somber weekend and through JFK’s burial.  
     So much changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when 90 minutes later, after numerous news flashes of increasingly negative tone,  Cronkite read another bulletin: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash is apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. today, Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.” 
     As a young man, idealistic as so many of us were in that folk-singing era when youth had infused stodgy government, when hope seemed a sure bet despite a lingering recession, the Cuban missile crisis and still-distant war drums in Vietnam, the president’s death shortened our sunny days, coinciding with the coming winter solstice. In JFK’s place was an older man, the less articulate, old-style politician Lyndon Johnson. He reassured the country as an uncle might after you lose your cool dad, and perhaps that made you get into bed, feel a bit tucked in and have some sleep. But the next morning you knew things would never, ever be the same.
     And they have not been the same. Presidencies since JFK have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by necessary security to protect our national leader from nuts but in the process putting the person into a cocoon apart from the people. Elect a president and you never see him (her?) again except through the filters his advisers employ. They have his ear, these special interests of whatever bent, not the citizens who cry when their presidents are taken from them.
     Ever more complex is our government today, and the super economic power concentrated in the secretive military/industrial complex that Eisenhower the old warrior warned us about is much stronger and deeply entrenched. Moneyed lobbies increasingly rule the nation.
     Today no president has simple choices, for the world is so very complex. Idealism seems reserved for the political stump, not for the Oval Office.
     John Fitzgerald Kennedy, may he rest in peace, kept the stump with him for much of his short tenure, continuing his well-phrased speeches, strumming the rhythm of the song of hope. What success or failure or a mixture of both he might have brought to the nation – in the economy, in dealing with the Cold War, in Vietnam – can only be conjectured. Was his the last approachable presidency? That, too, is speculative.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. Reach him at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, November 11, 2013

WARS CONTINUE -- SO DO OUR VETERANS


   By Arthur H. Gunther III

     On the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour in 1918, World War I mostly ended with the hope that such a dramatic finish would cement the promise: “The war to end all wars.” No such luck, and World War II, Korea, Vietnam and all the conflicts to the present in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere continue the folly of some -- too many -- leaders, the failure of diplomacy, the effects of special interest that profit from conflict but surely, too, the bravery of the grunt soldier, airman, Marine and seaman, all the military men and women of wartime/peacetime. 
     I say leaders’ “folly” because even in good intent, the mistakes -- repeatedly -- are many and often disastrous. Consider the Hurtgen Forest campaign of September-December, 1944, during World War II, which saw 33,000 U.S. killed or wounded -- including my Uncle Winfield, who lost three fingers -- and 28,000 for the Germans. Historians contend that the American  battle plan never made strategic or tactical sense, though the sacrifice and bravery of the fallen can never be challenged. Had the generals thought it through and established an objective rather than fight as if replacements were unlimited, the battle might have been won. Actually, it did not need to happen in the first place. 
      And so it is in any war. Name any, and you will see mistakes, lack of good sense, why it might have been avoided, and in some rare cases, why it had to happen. What is most common, though, is that everyone who serves in  a war theater and those who do so in rare, blessed  peacetime, deserve all the applause, if you can applaud a war or the preparation for it.
     Today is Veterans Day, which is the old Armistice Day in the United States, the day that commemorated the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the last war ever. Now, after the wars that have followed, it is Veterans Day, honoring the living and the dead. The focus is on the ordinary man or woman who shows up to do his or her duty, not so much the generals and almost never the politicians.
     What happens in war can only be understood by those who have been there, absolutely no one else. Stephen Crane, the Civil War author, came close when he described the thin line between bravery and cowardice in “The Red Badge of Courage,” but the rest of us who have never been baptized cannot. Those who have gone to war return far different, changed forever. Perhaps more thankful. Perhaps more forgiving. Perhaps hateful. Perhaps possessed by unseen but constant demons.
     My uncle lost fingers in the Hurtgenwald but went on to live a productive life as a husband, father, worker, son, citizen. Surely he had his emotional difficulties, but he was able to handle them. Other vets were -- are -- not so fortunate.
     When we die, the hope is we pass over to the other side. The believers call it Heaven. If we could return having gone there, we would be changed forever. Well, our veterans, so many of them, have gone to hell, and they came back changed in certain ways. Know that, appreciate that, and until they use their free pass to Heaven, nod in respect, this and every day.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, November 4, 2013

COULD NOT GET THEM DOWN



By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

     New York City -- With the April Boston Marathon bombings still pulling at the heartstrings of runners everywhere, some 45,000 of them rallied Sunday in indomitable spirit in the resumed New York City event, canceled last year in the lingering dark clouds of Superstorm Sandy.
     My son, Arthur 4th, was among the participants, and we are proud to say that he finished 134, 114 in his gender, 17 in his age group (40-44), with a 2:43:14 time in 26.2 miles. Awfully good, considering a headwind for the first several miles and those hills in Brooklyn and Manhattan. And the fact that he ran past his mother’s early childhood home in Bensonhurst, my mother’s birthplace in DUMBO and my great-great-grandparent’s home in  Yorkville’s “Little Germany,” well that covers a lot of family history.
     But my son would leave the applause to others, as humble as he is, and which makes him a great man, father, husband, teacher. From the time he began running with Coach Bob Hudson in the Tappan Zee schools, he has always been there for teammates, and they for him.
     This race certainly was about team spirit, though runners, of course, are individual sorts. But this year, following the tragedy in Boston, knowing that so many remain displaced by Superstorm Sandy, and in a nation where, frankly, government cannot seem to get to the finish line, it is most reassuring to see that some people at least will not let themselves become dispirited by the nation, by the world, too. 
     Perhaps it should be a requirement for public office that one complete a marathon, even on foot, so as to know what team spirit, what individual drive means and can achieve.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com Any or all of this essay may be reproduced.