Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why We Should and How We Can Preserve Our Local Literatures (part 1)

I first learned about the literary works of Delaware artist Howard Pyle when I was in junior high school or maybe the higher grades of elementary school. Pyle’s literary works were designed for child readers, many of them retelling older stories about Robin Hood and King Arthur, but some were original stories. For a long time I was led to believe that Pyle was the only literary artist Delaware ever produced. Sometime during my high school or college years I heard about the Milford Bard just before I learned that his name was John Lofland. I was led to believe that his work had been mired in a kind of 19th century parochial literary obsolescence and for a long time I didn’t even bother to find out anything about him. The only thing I learned about Lofland was his reputation, which was promoted as unsavory, and that was outside of any exposure to him in school.

Now, 45 or 50 years later, I’m still on my journey of discovery of Delaware’s literary past—closer to the end of it, I hope, than its beginning. Along the way I’ve discerned why Pyle was promoted over Delaware’s many other literary artists. Pyle was safe. No one would question the world around them as might occur after reading the serious works of Lofland and nearly all the marginalized local literary artists who followed him.

My journey of discovery has been a delightful one for me, discovering that those who populate Delaware’s literary past did not work in isolation. The names of known American literary artists like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Paul Laurence Dunbar, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane—just for starters—kept popping up in direct connection with those from Delaware who I began to conclude had been unjustly obscured. My delight was peppered with dismay regarding not only the relative unavailability of their works, but the general ignorance of their works by those who should actually have known better, namely those charged with the course of studies for our various educational systems. We can’t depend on local newspapers and magazines to maintain awareness of this segment of our cultural heritage. Unlike visual art and musical and theatrical events, literature does not have the same kinds of social connections. The consumption of literature, with the possible exception of poetry readings, is usually limited by the boundaries of a single press run and consumed within the privacy of personal space.

The more we remove ourselves from formally learning about our literary history and the substance of the literary works that accompany that history, the more superficial and the more vulnerable our cultural identity becomes. We’ve already lost so much. An example can be provided by an adjacent cultural project of mine, that of recovering Wilmington’s rich jazz legacy. It’s generally acknowledged that Wilmington produced one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever to pick up a trumpet, namely Clifford Brown, who is actually a product of many who contributed to the legacy that made his success possible. There had been so much material that could have demonstrated this legacy that contributed to Wilmington’s place in the American history of jazz, but so much of this material was never considered important and, as a result, was relegated to the local landfill by those who saw no importance in saving things like recordings made for broadcast in local radio stations, publicity photographs, copies of articles and handbills and other ephemera that would have told a richer and more lasting story than the sketchy and uncorroborated one handed down to us.

Regarding literary history, here’s another example: I once had a casual conversation with an octogenarian poet in Wilmington, the former Delaware Poet Laureate David Hudson, about Wilmington poet James Whaler, his poetry and his connection to Hart Crane. Whaler’s work has been completely forgotten. Of his two books of really stunning poetry, only a single copy of Hale’s Pond, which was praised publicly by Louis Untermeyer, can be found in the annex of the University of Delaware’s Special Collections. Whaler’s Green River, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Hart Crane, is not to be found in either the Wilmington or University of Delaware libraries. Had I not had that conversation with Hudson, who died seven years ago, I would have known absolutely nothing about Whaler and would not have had the opportunity to rediscover his work in order to share what I had discovered.

The longer we proceed with not preserving aspects of our cultural legacy, the greater the chance of loosing them forever and the more disconnected we get from ourselves as a community.


  1. interesting piece, that no doubt rallies the charge for the preservation and celebration of
    local art. But the notion of safe and unsafe art, although raised, is not really deliniated, rather suggested.
    We all know some artists fail to get popular notice; though the Brandywine tradiditon is nore than protectionism. It is a style of mainly visual art and art illustration that is grounded in realism, an appreciation for the mythic, and cultural material of our consciousness, imbedded in the back drop of one of the countries loveliest natural settings. The Brandywine River museum generally features artists in this tradition, clearly omitting much notice of the abstract artists. This is OK. Schools of style are OK to concentrate on what they like, without the need to justify their affiliation and taste asssociated with their artistic flavor.
    Local artists rarely make it in school academic text books. This is actually the issue, in my perspective. They tend to be from large publishing houses with nationally targeted readers. The artists selected for
    inclusion in these texts, will in this end, be one of more popular acclaim, thus more relevant to a national targeted readership.

    So, also the notion of what is "safe" in a particualar school of art is usually grounded in a concern for preserving the artisitc integrety of a the style, an observance of its tradition and place in the overall artisitc community.

    So, although I appreciate the rally to support local art, I do not appreciate the need to caste an unsavory light on our local Brandywine Valley artistic tradition that includes not only howard Pyle, but the Wyeths, some of the family, still busy painting and living in the Brandywine valley, and others.

    Also the reference to the "Chateau Country" association, is a bit unfair in my mind. It is the prosperous who buy art, support it with big money, and in the case of our local legacy in the Brandywine Valley, the du Pont family has singularly erected some of the best homes in the valley, donated the most to support our museums, and preserved the vast track of natural land that is the heart and soul of the present brandywine valley legacy. Sooo,
    easy on the good-bad art influence assesment, or safe-unsafe political issue. People buy what they like, too. And celebrate their own chosen heroes of a particular style or regional interpretation. People with money buy the most and give the most to museums. A nice thing.
    So in this article, I find it neat that an artis forgoten, was resurected in the above piece. But unfortunate that the a rather unfounded contempt is expressed for the Brandywine Tradition.

    Juz my opinion....
    Tom Lillard

  2. Thank you for your comment. I will allow the eminent Delaware author Henry Seidel Canby, who founded the Saturday Review of Literature and who served as a judge for many years for the Book of the Month Club among other accomplishments, to speak for me in this regard. The quote is from Canby's book "The Age of Confidence," which was about Wilmington at the turn of the 20th century:

    "We had one real artist, Howard Pyle, and he, by some irony of circumstance, happened to be the first illustrator of his time in the English-speaking world, and the author of one of the few books of authentic romance published in America in his day; yet it was not for these reasons that he ranked with local bankers, but because he belonged to a respectable Quaker family, held ultra-conservative Republican opinions, and was known to earn an income which was considered fantastic in our town, considering what he did for a living."

    By the way, and in spite of what I might otherwise think of them, I really do like the art of Howard Pyle, Andrew Wyeth, and Frank Schoonover, but I also like the art of a number of other past artists from Delaware like Gayle Hoskins, Edward Grant, William D. White and Jefferson David Chalfant. Among living Delaware artists, I find the works of E. Jean Lanyon and Edward Loper profoundly moving. I would buy their art if I could afford it.

  3. Steven,
    Thanks for the friendly and thought provoking

    Well, sure thing about the idea that artists are part of the social rubric that can show differential interest and support for artists,
    and at times, out of apparent political or otherwise special interest agenda.
    But I only ask for a fair assessment of the overall impact of the "chateau country" gentry on the overall art community in our Delaware area. Examine the list of founders, supporters, and servants of our many museums and thus. Perhaps, with regard to literature, a point can be surely be made of the sad fact, that without aquiring some Big House break, or aggressively championing one's own work through self-publication, all writers, embark on an advocation, that for the masses is barely noticed beyond the eyes of the folk art community.

    Ofcourse, thankfully, E.Jean, and some others you mentioned have made their work available so graciously at our local poetry reads and gatherings, and despite any obstacles, have found a way to warm, we the many local enthusiasts, with their fine work.

    Being a resident of the Brandywine Valley, living on a preserve founded by the DuPont family, in a home made available to the public for rent by
    those of modest or average means, I can't help but see another side to things. I live with two other artists, one my daughter, a gifted painter, who recently rode up the street to the Brandywine River Museum,and was pleaseantly surprised to recieve a publicly opened tour that day by the daughter of Jamie Wyeth. I see many, many proud and shining examples of gracious support and stewardship by the duPont family, and those who have invested their resources in our Brandywine Valley and its rich artistic environment.

    So, my point is, we need not, by insensitivity or near-sightedness, disregard the facts of the matter, to lend persuasion to the case that avenues need to be further opened for our artists to get their wares to "market". Otherwise, we will rightly appear reactionary to those who may otherwise lend a sympathetic ear, or purse to our efforts.

    We are on the same team, though, Steven. Having not met you as yet, I can say that your open candor to free discussion, and your connection to that clever minstrel of ours who came up through the hard knocks academy of auto assembly, likely suggests you to be a good fellow to catch on the circuit!

    Best wishes in 2010 (sure am glad we are done with the double ot decade)!
    Tom Lillard
    BTW,Steven check us out at The Lodge, a playgroup for artists and seekers