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