Book of the Week #33

Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens by Burke Wilkinson, photographs by David Finn (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985)

The late Washington, DC novelist and biographer Burke Wilkinson conducted numerous interviews and spent five years researching "from California to Ireland to the foothills of the Pyrenees, and into many archives" (p. xvi) to craft this life of the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. Saint Gaudens (according to a note in this volume, a letter written by Saint Gaudens and held by the NY Public Library explains that the sculptor preferred his name un-hyphenated) was the first of the famous artists who "colonized" Cornish, New Hampshire when he and his wife purchased the land and house they called Aspet in the early 1880s.

In his preface Wilkinson explains a bit about the process of biography and how his work relates to Saint Gauden's autobiography.

"Piecing together the life story of a man like Augustus Saint Gaudens, famous sculptor in his own time, half-forgotten today --is like gathering flotsam from the drowned hull of a ship. The hull--the life itself--lies some fathoms down. Ever now and then a fragment comes twisting to the surface--a deed, a memory, an insight. It has been my task as biographer to collect the fragments, coordinate them with what is known, and come up with some kind of coherent reconstruction.
In the case of Saint Gaudens, one might have thought that his autobiography, written a year before his death, would serve as a kind of ship's log, salvaged before the ship was lost. it would be reasonable to expect that the main events of his life, both public and private, would have been set down there in some sequential way. But self-told lives can conceal as well as clarify. The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint Gaudens belongs in the category of those that conceal. Despite the many entertaining details in its pages, the celebrated American sculptor does not emerge very clearly. The reason is simple. During the spring and summer of 1906, when he was composing the memoirs, his wife, Augusta; his son Homer; and his niece-in-law, Rose Nichols, were all on hand and deeply involved. They made it their task to see that the final product was completely sanitized and quite bloodless.
The captive author, ill from the cancer that would kill him the following year, managed to sound a note of warning and apology which breaks through the protective family cordon: 'I could a tale unfold that would make what appears like candlelight in sunshine; but various considerations, conventional and otherwise, bar the way vexatiously.'" (p. xi)
This book-of the-week post is part of a series related to the Cornish Art Colony.

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