Friday, April 27, 2007

"The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner"

Patricia Vigderman, author of The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, applied the "page 69 test" to her book and reported the following:
The book begins “I know a few things about Isabella Stewart Gardner, but it’s hard to feel really close to her.” It’s about a famous place -- the Boston museum she built (practically with her own hands), filled with personally selected artworks, and decreed could never be altered. It’s about my quest to feel at ease with imperious Isabella -- to let her live in imagination. It became a kind of anti-biography, tracking down Mrs. Gardner in Gilded Age Boston and in her museum.

Page 69 finds me entangled with a less conspicuous figure in her social world: William Sturgis Bigelow (Boston Brahmins generally seem to have had three names). What struck me was his long relationship with Japan, with Japanese art and spiritual life. In the decades after the Civil War, despite the remarkable discomforts of travel, wealthy Bostonians packed their flea powder, endured horrible seasickness, and went off to be dazzled and enlightened and entertained by the foreign world of the Far East. And they brought stuff back: in Bigelow’s case, thousands of objects for the newly established Museum of Fine Arts.

In fact Bigelow and Isabella Gardner had a terrible falling out over how people are supposed to look at art, so since he turns up on page 69 I’ll say that the question of what exactly we are doing when we look at art is perplexing and compelling to me. Art comes to us out of the foreign world of the vanished past as if time and change were meaningless. In the book I keep wandering through the museum, rediscovering it over and over. I look at how some contemporary artists have responded to its unchanging vision, and finally (despite Isabella’s decree) I arrange it for myself, in language.

...the contrast between Fenollosa's escape from Mrs. Gardner's Boston and his friend Bigelow's choice not to suggests how the chill of tradition discouraged alternatives... He was Clover Adams's favorite cousin, although (once again) there are no letters between them left for our curious eyes. The letters of his that do remain show him as playful and self-assured; his favorite expression when declining an invitation was "my heart is a handful of dust." He studied medicine at Harvard and in Paris, but did not follow the medical profession, as his father (himself a prominent physician, and, in fact, the Gardners's family doctor) desired. With his considerable fortune he supported a well-known Wagnerian opera star, but never married her. (“…please report me of sound & disposing mind to my father, if you see him,” he wrote to Phillips Brooks in 1889. “He does not take any stock in Buddhism, & thinks that I am hovering on the verge of lunacy, because I do not come home & get up some grandchildren for him, like a well-regulated Bostonian.”)

In Japan he was not only an adherent of Esoteric Buddhism; he provided financial assistance to impoverished artists, gave $10,000 toward the establishment of the Fine Arts Academy in Japan, and made donations for the repair and conservation of temples. His own collection ran to 4,000 paintings and 50,000 prints and drawings. I think he was an idealist and an aesthete, and also a pure product of his city and class. Henry Adams described him to a friend as mistakenly seeking Paradise rather than the Fireside, although as things fell out, when his father died in 1890 he inherited a couple of firesides -- two fine houses, plus an island off Nantucket -- as well as trusteeships of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Massachusetts General Hospital.

The point I go on to make is that Bigelow’s adventurousness and gaiety hardened in the end -- he became the old guard -- while Isabella’s did not. Into old age she remained lively and slightly scandalous.
Patricia Vigderman's recent writing has appeared in The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Northwest Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, and Southwest Review. She divides her year between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches in the English department at Kenyon College.

Learn more about The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, and read an excerpt, at the publisher's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue