Two leading American cultural historians have recently shifted their sights from the close textual readings of scholarly essays and the rigorous cultural mappings of books to a wider, gentler critical plain: that of biography. It’s not the holidays yet, and these biographies are certainly no Christmas bargain-bin books, but both seem to cater to the chair-warming holiday season—if not because of their sizes, because of their interesting subject matters. Cultural studies heavy-hitters Linda Gordon and Robin Kelley write career-defining works in their literary biopics of Dorothea Lange and Thelonious Monk, respectively. In large, careful brush strokes, both give shape to the lives of these cultural icons, whose trajectories we often forget extend beyond Depression-era Dust Bowl photography and mid-century improvisational bebop.
Starting with Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Linda Gordon has created what The New Times Book Review considers “an absorbing, exhaustively researched” tome, documenting “a transformative figure in the rise of modern photojournalism.” Like her contextually wide-ranging photographs, Lange’s biography traces the shifting cultural formations of American history—from the Bohemian art world of San Francisco to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during and after World War II.
With bare-boned elegance, Lange’s photographs capture both the center and sharp edges of American life. Her depictions of racial and ethnic injustice (of the lives of black sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South and Japanese-Americans in California internment camps, for example) complicate many of the so-called democratizing myths of U.S. citizenship. Lange once commented in a photography course she was teaching in San Francisco that images (especially her images) “are not just what they were when we began”; they take on new historical and cultural significance upon study.
Gordon allows us to engage in a rich study of Lange by looking at her boundary-breaking work through the context of her life. Twisting gracefully into the historical groundwork of the text, Gordon’s extensive biographical information about Lange nicely coheres biography, history, and illustration. In skillfully balancing all three elements, incorporating entertaining and well-executed writing as well as over one hundred astonishing images, Gordon creates the definitive mapping of Lange’s life, a life often eclipsed by the transcendent power of her photographs. Lange’s biography, as Gordon demonstrates, is full to the brim with its own powerful imagery: the long days spent on the road looking for people to photograph, the shame incited by a polio-twisted leg and an absentee father, the political maneuverings of an artist working for a morally-conflicted government, and the challenges faced by a woman, mother, and wife working in a male-dominated field. This is an amazing piece of cultural-historical-biographical work that comes highly recommended.
In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley—one of the most original historians writing today—presents an incredibly comprehensive and detail-driven tableaux of Monk’s life. It’s a joy to read. The book is stunningly researched and insistently inclusive of the purest of primary sources, including interviews with Monk’s close friends and family members as well as transcriptions of tapes containing various unmediated conversations and private performances. Kelley’s ability to not only relate Monk’s personal history and cultural relevance but to “know” the man and musician (“know” is “Monk” spelled backwards with the “M” inverted, as Monk often pointed out) is nothing short of astounding.
A great instance of Kelley’s incisive commitment to “knowing” Monk is captured in an inter-textual, biographical moment of the author’s own. Kelley details how three decades ago he became “completely obsessed with Monk’s sound, his clang-clang sound of surprise, rich with deafening silences, dissonances, and harmonic ambiguities.” While he worked on replicating Monk’s tone on the piano, playing everything from his bluesy ballads to his intricate, enigmatically disjointed solos, Kelley met his match: “His sound seemed beyond my grasp, beyond my comprehension.”
Perhaps with this past frustration in mind, Kelley seems consciously aware of the pitfalls involved in an over-eager analysis of the man and his music. In writing about Monk’s life and musical genius, as well as the influences that shaped both, Kelley starkly diverges from those past reductive readings of Monk which portrayed him (and his music for that matter) as childlike, inarticulate, and eccentrically unstable. Many supposed that Monk lived in a world apart, detached from reality and musical training, holed up with his music as his only source of inspiration.
Kelley argues that these myths about Monk are naïve. Not only was Monk formidably well-versed in the “standard” languages of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin—and an apt deconstructionist of such music—but he remained fascinated and engaged with the movements, developments, and dramas of the New York mid-century scene around him. Even when mental and physical illness began to limit his ability to interact with the world, Monk remained a crucial member of the bebop jazz community, creating “standards” of his own all the way up until the early seventies. (I hear the signature rambling line of “Straight, No Chaser” while walking by the practice rooms of UVa’s music department every semester.) While Monk’s music will always live on, Robin Kelley ensures that a comprehensive understanding of Monk and his musical legacy will be preserved as well.