Ge­or­gia: A Novel of Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe by Dawn Tripp; Our Gang: A Racial His­tory of the Lit­tle Ras­cals by Ju­lia Lee

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jen­nifer Levin

Ge­or­gia: A Novel of Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe by Dawn Tripp Ran­dom House, 318 pages

Gaz­ing at the mesa, clad in her sig­na­ture long black skirt with her hair pulled back at the nape of her neck — no non­sense, no fuss — Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe cuts a ro­man­tic fig­ure from whom many have drawn strength. Some devo­tees ad­mire her courage in leav­ing her New York life and re­lo­cat­ing to the Land of En­chant­ment. Oth­ers fo­cus on what they be­lieve her close-up flower paint­ings rep­re­sent and use that as a source of fem­i­nine or fem­i­nist in­spi­ra­tion. (Those paint­ings made her a self-sup­port­ing artist in her thir­ties, no small feat in any era let alone the late 1920s, head­ing into the Great De­pres­sion.) Be­cause she spent much of her life here, O’Ke­effe is, ar­guably, North­ern New Mex­ico’s pa­tron saint of artists. She is inar­guably a tremen­dous tourist draw. You can find a stan­dard “Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe pack­age” at most of the bet­ter ho­tels in Santa Fe, which comes with such ameni­ties as a bot­tle of wine in the room and tick­ets to the Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum.

Pos­si­bly to her ever­last­ing cha­grin, O’Ke­effe’s tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with the pho­tog­ra­pher and art pro­moter Al­fred Stieglitz, the man cred­ited with giv­ing her a ca­reer, has been the sub­ject of much scru­tiny and myth­mak­ing over the years — so much so that their lengthy, fre­quent let­ters to each other were greeted as a schol­arly con­tri­bu­tion to the study of her work when they were pub­lished by Yale Univer­sity Press, in 2011, as My Far­away One: Se­lected Let­ters of Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe and Al­fred Stieglitz: Vol­ume One, 1915-1933, edited by Sarah Gree­nough. It stands to rea­son that a fic­tional treat­ment of their re­la­tion­ship would have a ready-made au­di­ence, were some­one am­bi­tious enough to take on the in­ner life of such an enig­matic woman. En­ter Dawn Tripp, Har­vard grad­u­ate and win­ner of the Mas­sachusetts Book Award for her 2005 novel, The Sea­son of Open Wa­ter. In her in­tro­duc­tory note to Ge­or­gia: A Novel of Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, Tripp stip­u­lates that she was on the third draft of her man­u­script when My Far­away One came out. Though she used the con­tents of the book to clar­ify “the tim­ing of events and [re­veal] cer­tain key dy­nam­ics of their artis­tic and mar­i­tal part­ner­ship,” the let­ters and di­a­logue in the novel spring from her own imag­i­na­tion. As, we must as­sume, do the novel’s co­pi­ous sex scenes, which be­gin when Ge­or­gia is still a vir­gin and first at­tracts the mar­ried Stieglitz’s amorous at­ten­tion.

It’s fair to say that the book’s premise would be dif­fi­cult to work with for even the most dar­ing and sea­soned of writ­ers. Sim­ply put, Tripp doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. Ge­or­gia is mildly arous­ing and deeply in­tel­lec­tu­ally em­bar­rass­ing. It’s con­ven­tional com­mer­cial fic­tion that doesn’t ful­fill its own aims, which would seem to be to get at what re­ally made O’Ke­effe tick. What formed her? What and who re­ally mat­tered to her? We learn only that she loved to paint and, prim though she ap­peared, she was wild in bed. Tripp gives us ro­mance novel and self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion clichés dressed in a choppy, po­etic prose style that at­tempts to re­veal O’Ke­effe as both re­served and pas­sion­ately er­ratic — aspects of her char­ac­ter with which the pub­lic is al­ready ac­quainted. The co­pi­ous de­scrip­tions of art and na­ture, and dis­cus­sions of art the­ory, are si­mul­ta­ne­ously sopho­moric and pompous, but the novel’s ul­ti­mate fail­ing is its lack of lit­er­ary vi­sion and il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­sights. The first-per­son, present-tense nar­ra­tion is freighted with a se­ri­ous­ness its con­tent doesn’t earn.

In a pas­sage about look­ing at nude pho­to­graphs that Stieglitz made of her, Ge­or­gia says, “I stand up and walk over to his prints on the ta­ble. Her glis­ten­ing form. They feel very alive to me, the liv­ing­ness about them — their stun­ning erotic beauty, their ir­rev­er­ence. I pull one from the ta­ble and look at it more closely. White and black, sil­ver-toned, com­plete. ... She seems ab­so­lute. ... She be­longs strictly to her­self, alone.” A mo­ment later, Stieglitz tells her she’s “like no other woman,” and “his eyes so strangely earnest search [her] face.” Those nudes be­come a source of strife for Ge­or­gia when she be­lieves crit­ics con­flate their feel­ings for Stieglitz’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of her body with the mean­ing of her own work. She wants to be known and re­mem­bered purely for what she’s try­ing to achieve on can­vas: line, color, light, feel­ing. Tripp never di­rectly con­nects the f lower paint­ings to O’Ke­effe’s sex­ual pas­sions, yet like the art crit­ics of the time, Tripp is so fo­cused on O’Ke­effe’s sex life she for­gets her other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment gets short shrift. We don’t learn ba­sic de­tails such as what char­ac­ters look like, as if be­cause they are his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, they do not need to be evoked phys­i­cally on the page. We don’t get to know Ge­or­gia’s sib­lings or how she feels about them, though many of them live in New York at the same time she does. Stieglitz is a ma­nip­u­la­tive wom­an­izer, but it’s hard to know whether we’re sup­posed to con­sider him a mon­ster, a prod­uct of his time, or a dash­ing man of un­stop­pable pas­sion. Like Ge­or­gia, he re­mains merely the idea of a per­son and a cut- out of a bad hus­band.

The mes­sage of Ge­or­gia, dis­tilled, is that though the sex was good, Stieglitz was im­pos­si­ble to live with — and though he tried to ex­ert his power, the last thing Ge­or­gia wanted was to be de­fined by him. If Tripp’s ver­sion of O’Ke­effe is to be be­lieved, the artist her­self would op­pose this par­tic­u­lar me­mo­rial to her life.

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