Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley

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9780262082518: Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) is best known as an American modernist and pioneering artist of the early twentieth century. But he was also a prolific writer who published dozens of essays and reviews and several volumes of poetry and prose. The autobiographical account of his life in the manuscript collection of Yale¹s Beinecke Library has often been consulted by scholars and curators writing about Hartley. It is the most revealing document he left about his personal life and relationships—both for its disclosures and omissions—but has never been published before.

Transcribed from Hartley¹s own handwritten manuscripts, this edition is accompanied by photographs (some never before published), notes, and an introduction discussing Hartley¹s fascination with autobiography in the context of his struggle with notions of self-representation in art. Susan Ryan also describes the circumstances surrounding the composition of Somehow a Past, and explains the distinctions between this original version and two later ones also in the Beinecke Library.

Somehow a Past is compelling both as historical document and as personal narrative. Although solitary, self-involved, and saturnine, Hartley nevertheless knew nearly every figure of the international avant-garde in his day and unfolds his life largely through a chain of personal encounters. His traffic with such major literary and artistic figures as Alfred Stieglitz, Vasili Kandinski, Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge, Eugene O¹Neill, Robert McAlmon, and Charles Demuth is recorded as are his travels both domestic and foreign.

Somehow a Past is gossipy, discursive, and self-distanced. Hartley drafted it several times, truncating the description of his traumatic childhood, and leaving out any overt reference to his homosexuality. Yet there are moments of crystal clear self-characterization and leitmotifs that commemorate his troubled youth.

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Review:

This tender book, carefully edited by Susan Elizabeth Ryan, was chosen from among six handwritten manuscripts of the same title by the prolific American modernist painter and writer Marsden Hartley. Hartley "presents the scholar with an untidy field of inquiry," Ryan writes gently. Partly inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein's "autobiography" of Alice B. Toklas, it tells the story of a life at the center of the early modernist art movement in America, chiefly among the Alfred Stieglitz crowd. For this book, Ryan, in an extensive introduction, fills in many blanks, such as Hartley's homosexuality and the extreme sadness of his childhood after his mother's death when he was 8. The main text is a model of intellectual inquiry, self-doubt, and frequently mordant observations: "The summer in Paris was gay and amusing--there is always one summer in Paris when it is that." Or, "O, the wild rough gaiety of the Marseillaises when they are not murdering and thieving." --Margaret Moorman

About the Author:

Susan Elizabeth Ryan is Assistant Professor of Art History, Louisiana State University.

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