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Book review: “American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis

“American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery, Accompanied by Literary Portraits” by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis is the sort of photo-art book that you don’t read from cover to cover.

Except, it turns out, you do.

At least, I did.

This 1999 book is irresistibly readable because of — although some might argue in spite of — its being composed of four levels of stories that are told simultaneously.

The first and most apparent and important level is made up of the photos, paintings, woodcuts, drawings, sculptures and other images of 160 famous Americans from a wide range of fields and with a wide range of accomplishments. Each is accorded one image, presented on a full page (except for the boxing painting of Jack Dempsey, displayed across the top of two pages).

On the facing page for each character is one or more sprightly and often idiosyncratic quotes about the person. These quotes form the second level of story-telling.

Complementing these images and quotes are two other, lesser levels — a meaty thumbnail bio offered under the quotes and, in the back of the book, a commentary with further information about the highlighted person and/or about the creators of the image and quotations.

Starting at the front and working my way to the back, I looked closely at every single picture and read every quirky quote.

The bios I read the least since most of these people are well-known although, when I did dip into the few paragraphs of a life story, I always found interesting stuff. I spent more time going to the back of the book for those commentaries with their mishmash of information.

Arresting images

So what did I find?

Well, I found many arresting images, such as:
• A youthful, eagle-visaged Daniel Webster in a portrait by Francis Alexander.
• An Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne in which the writer has the same high forehead, thick moustache and thick eyebrows as Barack Obama advisor David Axelrod.
• Edgar Allan Poe in a subtly evocative sketch by Edouard Manet.
• A full-length police photograph of 26-year-old Al Capone, looking, at once, dapper and vulnerable.
• An unusual and beautiful color photo by Harry Warnecke of Jackie Robinson.
• Edith Wharton at the age of eight or so, in a painting by Edward Harrison May.
• A refined portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly of T. S. Eliot in a three-piece suit, seated in a library, playing solitaire. And not doing very well.
• Loveably homely Eleanor Roosevelt with wind-tossed hair, in a photo by Trude Fleischmann.

“Sometimes absolutely out of his senses”

I know. It doesn’t do you much good for me to mention these images without also showing them. However, my website has its limitations. Still, you can see a few details from the images — including the Hawthorne portrait — on the cover above.

I’m not so limited when it comes to the literary portraits — the pithy comments — that are included about each of the American Characters.

Here are some that will give you a sense of the flavor and piquancy of what friends, lovers, other observers and even the subjects themselves had to say about these people:
Thomas Jefferson about George Washington: “His temper was naturally irritable and high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath.”
Benjamin Franklin about John Adams: “I am persuaded he means well for this Country, is always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in somethings, absolutely out of his senses.”
• Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne: “He had the look all the time, to one who didn’t know him, of a rogue who suddenly finds himself in a company of detectives.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe describing herself: “I am a little bit of a woman — somewhat more than 40 — about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff never very much to look at in my best days — & looking like a used-up article now.”
John Dos Passos on J.P. Morgan: “He was fond of canary birds and pekinese dogs and liked to take pretty actresses yachting. Each Corsair was a finer vessel than the last.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on John Dewey and Dewey’s book “Experience and Nature”: “So methought might God have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a reformer, describing herself: “As to looks, if I had been sex-conscious and dressed the part I think I should have been called beautiful. But one does not call a philosophic steam-engine beautiful. My dress was not designed to allure.”
Georgia O’Keefe on her longtime lover Alfred Stieglitz (accompanying a photo of the two late in their lives): “For me he was much more wonderful in his work than as a human being. I believe it was the work that kept me with him — though I loved him as a human being, I put up with what seemed to me a good deal of contradictory nonsense because of what seemed clear and bright and wonderful.”
Louis Simpson on Ezra Pound walking down a London street: “He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a hand-painted tie by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring.”
William Faulkner regarding his literary goal: “My ambition is to put everything into one sentence — not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second.”
John Updike on Ernest Hemingway: “As celebrity and alcohol got to him he became easy to mock, as his style was easy to parody, but up to and including his ending his own life with a shotgun he kept an epic dignity, the stark Greek dignity of those who challenge the gods.”
Alistair Cooke on Humphrey Bogart: “He measured all his fellow-workers by the test of professionalism, and a professional is a man who can do his best when he doesn’t feel like it.”

Ah, what refreshing stuff!

What it doesn’t provide

One last grace note of delight that this book provides has to do with what it doesn’t provide.

The National Portrait Gallery only displays images of people who have been dead at least a decade. For this book, the Lewises drew the line at 15 years. So the last people who were eligible to be selected for the book were those whose portraits were owned by the gallery and who had died prior to 1984.

It’s more than a decade since the book was published, and the question arises in the mind of the attentive reader: Who would be added if the 15-year delay made the cut-off today be 1997?

Would it be Dr. Seuss or Miles Davis or Richard Nixon?

Or Jim Henson or Count Basie or James Baldwin?

Or Cesar Chavez or…….?

Patrick T. Reardon

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