Thomas Hart Benton: A Lifeby Justin Wolff
Born in Missouri at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hart Benton would become the most notorious and celebrated painter America had ever seen. The first artist to make the cover of Time, he was a true original: an heir to both the rollicking populism of his father's political family and the quiet life of his Appalachian grandfather. In his twenties,/i>… See more details below
Born in Missouri at the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hart Benton would become the most notorious and celebrated painter America had ever seen. The first artist to make the cover of Time, he was a true original: an heir to both the rollicking populism of his father's political family and the quiet life of his Appalachian grandfather. In his twenties, he would find his calling in New York, where he was drawn to memories of his small-town youth—and to visions of the American scene.
By the mid-1930s, Benton's heroic murals were featured in galleries, statehouses, universities, and museums, and magazines commissioned him to report on the stories of the day. Yet even as the nation learned his name, he was often scorned by critics and political commentators, many of whom found him too nationalistic and his art too regressive. Even Jackson Pollock, his once devoted former student, would turn away from him in dramatic fashion. A boxer in his youth, Benton was quick to fight back, but the widespread backlash had an impact—and foreshadowed many of the artistic debates that would dominate the coming decades.
In this definitive biography, Justin Wolff places Benton in the context of his tumultuous historical moment—as well as in the landscapes and cultural circles that inspired him. Thomas Hart Benton—with compelling insights into Benton's art, his philosophy, and his family history—rescues a great American artist from myth and hearsay, and provides an indelibly moving portrait of an influential, controversial, and often misunderstood man.
“Wolff . . . makes the artist interesting, largely by taking a balanced view of him. He neither praises nor critically buries Benton but rather, and with what feels like an undercurrent of empathy, works hard to give him his day in court . . . Some biographies edit out ambiguity; they want us to love or loathe their subjects. Wolff takes the opposite tack. He lays out all of Benton's contrarieties [and] argues them through . . . The Benton who emerges is not appealing, but neither is he simple, even though he spent much of his energy trying to be.” Holland Cotter, The New York Times Book Review
“Thomas Hart Benton may be the artist for our times. He'd fit right into the tea party and Occupy Wall Street, anywhere left, right or center where folks gather to protest big business and big government . . . [Justin Wolff] plants the artist in the politics of his time and deftly traces the artistic influences that eventually brought Benton to his mature style, one based upon what he saw with his own eyes but bursting with muscular energy. Wolff also paints a sensitive portrait of a man often full of self-doubt yet as stubborn as a Missouri mule . . . [He writes] with remarkable evenhandedness and clarity.” Bill Marvel, The Dallas Morning News
“A valuable and welcome book . . . Carefully researched and exceptionally readable . . . Thanks to Thomas Hart Benton: A Life . . . we have the chance to renew our understanding and appreciation of this seminal figure and his legacy. Wolff convincingly demonstrates that Benton was a gifted artist who played a central role as American art moved into the modern era.” Terry Hartle, The Christian Science Monitor
“[An] energetic and revelatory biography . . . By making judicious and entertaining use of Benton's letters and autobiographies, along with an array of eyewitness testimonies, Wolff portrays Benton as insecure and arrogant, gruff and sensitive, pugnacious and charming . . . Wolff's biography succeeds in recalibrating our appreciation for a quintessential American artist and his perpetually provoking art.” Donna Seaman, The Kansas City Star
“Fascinating . . . While many people are familiar with Benton's oeuvre, the artist himself has largely eluded examination. Wolff rectifies the oversight rather well, giving us a portrait of this complicated, fascinating, often contradictory man that is crisp, well informed and satisfyingly complete.” Michael J. Bonafield, Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)
“Impressive . . . Thoughtful . . . Wolff's biography moves deftly from Benton's family history, to Benton's own description of his aesthetic principles, to deft readings of Benton's signature works . . . The achievement of Wolff's biography is to step behind Benton and peer over his shoulder as he tried to paint the America he thought he desired.” Joseph Campana, Los Angeles Review of Books
“A balanced and insightful reassessment of [a] major, controversial and at times neglected American painter and muralist . . . Justin Wolff has created a scholarly mural of Benton, revealing to us the many facets of the man and the artist within the context of the American and world culture of his time.” Lawrence Wayne Markert, The Roanoke Times
“Justin Wolff . . . presents a study of Benton's life and work that is both learned and lively.” Jules Wagman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Wolff writes with the muscular energy of Benton's earthy paintings while performing the more tempered precision of informed and fair analysis as he deciphers the contentiousness and ambiguities of this pugnacious individualist and ornery populist . . . Wolff's is the most illuminating portrait yet of this contrary artist in search of authenticity.” Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“[A] comprehensive and critically astute biography . . . A lucid and engaging study of the artist's life in its historical context.” Publishers Weekly
“Wolff fully and fairly explores Benton's early training and work at home and in Europe, his successes in the 1930s, and his fall from critical--if not public--favor in the 1940s and the postwar period . . . Based on firm research, this book is also accessibly written and is recommended for general readers as well as specialists.” Jack Perry Brown, Library Journal
“Justin Wolff's new life of Benton is immensely readable, effortlessly erudite, and, best of all, very perceptive about the ways mature artists become (and stay) artists. He gives us Thomas Hart Benton--paradoxical, combative, underappreciated, and ultimately brilliant--in illuminating detail.” Richard Ford
“This is the kind of book one slows down to savor. Justin Wolff calls it A Life, and that's what he delivers--not just the facts of Benton's life, fascinating as they are, but the sense of life, the lively feel of time, history, and place. In Thomas Hart Benton, Wolff has found an ideal vehicle to document and dramatize the rapid changes that in a mere lifetime shaped the perception of an American art. This is an engaging, exemplary biography.” Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago
“Justin Wolff's elegant life of the famously belligerent Thomas Hart Benton should be the last word on the subject. This is a fine portrait of the artist in his time--witty, scrupulous, and shrewd.” Ward Just, author of An Unfinished Season
“A marvelously thoughtful and graceful portrait of an artist who was thoughtless and graceless--albeit brilliant. Justin Wolff sees past the bluster of Benton's public image and into the heart of a complex and compelling figure whose vision helped define the can-do spirit of America in the first half of the twentieth century.” Deborah Solomon, author of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell
“Despite his cantankerous personality and, later, his unfashionable, often repellent views, Thomas Hart Benton was a central figure in American art in the late 1920s and 1930s. Justin Wolff's captivating biography offers a vivid account of his Midwestern roots; his long apprenticeship in Paris and New York; his influences, ideas, controversies, and friendships; and the circumstances that contributed to his great early murals. This is an engrossing story of a difficult man and an embattled artist who emerged as our most energetic, idiosyncratic figurative painter.” Morris Dickstein, author of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
“Justin Wolff's splendid new biography of Thomas Hart Benton is a brilliant act of artistic restoration. Wolff strips away years of caricature, legend, and neglect to reveal the sweep of his artistic life, from his youth as the misfit scion of a famed political family to his years as a Depression-era artist in New York City playing folk music with Jackson Pollock. Wolff's Benton is vibrant, contradictory, and, in our own era of partisan strife, startlingly contemporary. Thomas Hart Benton is a monumental achievement and a joy to read.” Whitney Terrell, author of The King of Kings County
“Justin Wolff has rendered a thoughtful, meticulously composed portrait of a notoriously difficult subject--a man whose life and relationships were every bit as dynamic as the murals that earned Benton fame. Untangling the contradictory elements of Benton's politics and persona, Wolff manages also to capture the complexity of the places and periods that shaped his work. Thomas Hart Benton is an impressive, and welcome, contribution to American cultural history.” R. Tripp Evans, author of Grant Wood: A Life
“The outspoken and contradictory Thomas Hart Benton gets his due in this new biography. With admirable clarity, Justin Wolff illuminates the populism of Benton's art and the painter's pugnacious stance toward other artists, museums, and the aesthetics of abstraction.” Wanda M. Corn, author of The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935
Despite his cantankerous personality and, later, his unfashionable, often repellent views, Thomas Hart Benton was a central figure in American art in the late 1920s and 1930s. Justin Wolff's captivating biography offers a vivid account of his Midwestern roots; his long apprenticeship in Paris and New York; his influences, ideas, controversies, and friendships; and the circumstances that contributed to his great early murals. This is an engrossing story of a difficult man and an embattled artist who emerged as our most energetic, idiosyncratic figurative painter.
A marvelously thoughtful and graceful portrait of an artist who was thoughtless and graceless--albeit brilliant. Justin Wolff sees past the bluster of Benton's public image and into the heart of a complex and compelling figure whose vision helped define the can-do spirit of America in the first half of the twentieth century.
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Read an Excerpt
In a 1972 interview, Thomas Hart Benton was asked if being named after his great-uncle, the boisterous nineteenth-century senator, had built into him “a kind of compulsion for greatness.” “No, I would not believe that at all,” he responded. And though Benton continually rebuffed the pleas of his father, a U.S. congressman, that he practice either law or politics, the truth is that he never lacked self-confidence or a sense of purpose. At the age of seventeen, he boasted to his mother, “I am bound to be successful. I have the fullest confidence in myself.” That his renown would be marked by controversy was virtually preordained. In an unpublished memoir written late in life, Benton explained that his was a “family fated, it would seem, for turmoil. I was raised in a family environment which conditioned me very early in my life to accept strife and argument as basic factors of existence.”
Senator Thomas Hart Benton is an American icon, the sort of man who typifies the tales of audacity often told in high school history books. In his biography of the senator, Theodore Roosevelt described him as “a man of high principle and determined courage.” “Old Bullion”—a nickname the senator earned for his devotion to hard-money currency—“was deeply imbued with the masterful, overbearing spirit of the West,—a spirit whose manifestations are not always agreeable, but the possession of which is certainly a most healthy sign of the virile strength of a young community.” As much as any figure of the day, Senator Benton has come to stand for the vigorous republicanism of early America; though aristocratic by nature, he rallied his considerable might behind small farmers, tradespeople, landowner rights, and a just economic system. Though “not necessarily one of ‘the people,’” one historian explains, he was their “defender.”
The senator was born in Orange County, North Carolina, on March 14, 1782. His mother, a forceful, educated Virginian and a widow, moved her family to a plot bequeathed by her husband on the western slope of the Appalachian Mountains in southeastern Tennessee. On this frontier land, in the midst of Cherokee settlements, the family built roads, mills, and a plantation, which eventually became part of the small town of Benton. The nearest city, Nashville, 180 miles to the northwest, was, according to Roosevelt, a savage place where horse racing, cockfighting, gambling, whiskey, and “the various coarse vices which masquerade as pleasures in frontier towns, all throve in rank luxuriance.” The young would-be senator took to these vices with gusto and witnessed many street fights, stabbings, and murders.
These skills served him well during two infamous duels. The second took place in September 1817, after he’d moved to St. Louis to practice law and founded a newspaper, the Missouri Inquirer, which advocated statehood for the Missouri Territory. Benton challenged Charles Lucas, a St. Louis lawyer, to a fight to the death in 1816, after Lucas insulted him during a case before the circuit court. Lucas refused the challenge but further antagonized Benton during the August election of 1817, when he accused him of not paying his taxes. Old Bullion countered that he would not answer charges made by “any puppy who may happen to run across my path.” The duel occurred on a small patch of land in the Mississippi River, soon to be dubbed Bloody Island. At a distance of thirty feet, Benton wounded Lucas in the throat and was himself grazed by a bullet. Lucas claimed satisfaction, but Benton was bloodthirsty. On September 26, 1817, after Lucas had recovered enough to return to work, he received a note from the senator demanding another duel. The next day the two met again, at a distance of ten feet. Lucas missed and Benton killed him with a bullet to the chest.
But even before the Lucas incident, Benton was notorious for his combativeness. Before he moved to Missouri, at the outset of the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson appointed him his aide-de-camp, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and dispatched him to languish in the safety of Washington—his orders were to assuage anxieties about the firebrand general. Already frustrated by his posting far from the field of battle, Benton was sensitive to any perceived slight, so when he learned about an insult to his brother Jesse, perpetrated by William Carroll, a soldier under Jackson’s command, he flew into a rage. Jackson—himself no stranger to physical violence (he had already killed a man in a duel and was inclined to cane his foes)—publicly threatened to horsewhip his impudent colonel and scolded him in a letter: “It is the character of a man of honor … not to quarrel and brawl like fish women.” Justice-minded, Benton and Jesse arrived at the Nashville Inn on September 4, 1813, to settle the score. Jackson was skinny and Benton thick and broad, but “in capacity for blind fury, utter recklessness and iron-willed determination, neither man had a superior.”
Brandishing a whip, Jackson charged Benton, yelling, “Now defend yourself, you damned rascal!” According to Roosevelt, “The details were so intricate that probably not even the participants themselves knew exactly what had taken place … At any rate, Jackson was shot and Benton was pitched headlong downstairs, and all the other combatants were more or less damaged; but it ended in Jackson being carried off by his friends” and Benton ceremoniously breaking his commanding officer’s sword over his knee, “leaving the Bentons masters of the field, where they strutted up and down and indulged in a good deal of loud bravado.” Content with their victory, the Benton brothers retreated to Missouri.
After killing Lucas, Benton cooled down and committed himself to the political battleground. Missouri’s second Democratic senator, Benton served six consecutive terms, from 1821 to 1851, winning support by bringing a mixture of grandiosity and pragmatism to bear on an era of expansion; in his long, passionate stump speeches, delivered in a “jabbing, repetitive” style and “roaring voice,” Benton linked frontier life to Union principles. Like his grandnephew later, the senator was wary of centralized power and devoted to America’s democratic experiment, which he saw as nothing less than a revolution in the service of humanity.
What Roosevelt admired most about Senator Benton was that he refused to endorse the spread of slavery, even when his constituents wanted him to, and so “bravely [accepted] defeat as the alternative … going down without flinching a hair’s breadth from the ground on which he always stood.” Roosevelt probably gives him too much credit, for the senator never anticipated that slavery would tear his party apart. But as James Polk came to power, “Union Democracy” receded into the realm of impractical idealism, and party members split into factions—separatists on one side and Free-Soilers on the other. Senator Benton, in Roosevelt’s words, had now entered “the heroic part of his career.” The senator, though, was guided not by a philosophy of racial harmony but by a love for the Union—“the world’s last hope for free government on the earth”—and pragmatism. He reasoned that economic concerns would settle the matter: one day, he hoped, it would be cheaper to hire a man than to own him. But when it became clear that the debate about whether to annex Texas was in fact a debate about whether to grant the South’s agenda federal license, and thus permit the spread of slavery to new territories, Old Bullion dug in. “I shall not fall upon my sword,” he threatened, “but I shall save it, and save myself for another day, and for another use—for the day when the battle of the disunion of these States is to be fought—not with words, but with iron.”
Though Senator Benton served as the chief military adviser to President Polk during the Mexican War, by backing Oregon’s wish to bar slavery from its territory, he prompted an all-out effort within the Democratic Party to scuttle his bid for reelection in 1850. The senator stumped across Missouri, addressing crowds with high rhetoric and claiming that he “would sooner sit in council with the six thousand dead who had died of cholera in St. Louis [in 1849], than go into convention with such a gang of scamps [the Democrats] … Even the election of Whigs will be a triumph over them—a victory in behalf of the Union—and that is the over-ruling consideration.” His constituents, however, saw such bombastic oratory as a graver threat to the Union than the spread of slavery, and he was defeated.
The senator’s actions during the slavery debate illustrate a paradox of character that manifested itself in the careers of his descendants, most notably Maecenas Benton, a U.S. representative from Missouri during the late nineteenth century, and Maecenas’s son Thomas Hart Benton. Though generally understood as men motivated first by regional concerns—as advocates for farmers, small-business owners, and settlers—all three Bentons desired national attention. A common misconception about regionalism is that it was an isolationist doctrine, but as practiced by these three men, it was rarely escapist; each of them viewed the local as a reflection of a broader republican state. The purpose of any given region, like Missouri, was to exemplify how a nation guided by democratic principles might function. The senator, according to his grandnephew, “helped, with pompous phrase but determined will, to lay the hand of the West on eastern political policy.” All Bentons, he added, relied on “power” rather than “God” to enact and justify their superiority. The Benton men craved national authority and, contrary to popular opinion, often belittled and condescended to small-town attitudes. Benton, the painter, believed, for instance, that his father alienated his constituents in rural Missouri, thus costing himself reelection, by donning the fashions and habits of a “tidewater aristocrat,” his term for privileged and socially poised Chesapeake easterners. The same was true, and more so, of our Benton: he was torn apart by the competing allures of rural Missouri and cosmopolitan New York.
* * *
Maecenas Eason Benton, “the Colonel,” left southwest Missouri for Tennessee after the Civil War, “knocking the snakes … out of his horse’s path with a long stick.” Though M.E., as he was also called, served with the Confederate army and fought at Shiloh under General Nathan Bedford Forrest, he was not in fact a colonel; the title was simply a common sobriquet for southern gentlemen. The Tennessee Bentons were “an individualistic and cocksure people” who “nursed their idiosyncrasies and took no advice”; M.E., “a slice of the block,” was born in northwestern Tennessee in 1848 and attended school in Missouri. Even as a boy he exhibited a “splendid American fighting spirit.” After the war, the Colonel earned a law degree at Cumberland University, in Lebanon, Tennessee; moved to Neosho in 1869; and established a fashionable law practice, enticing clients with rollicking stories and a “full measure of political ability.” Possessed of a wonderful memory, and an expert eater, drinker, and stump speaker, the Colonel prospered in both the Missouri bar and the state Democratic Party. He made his debut in politics when he was elected prosecuting attorney of Newton County, and his party loyalty earned him an appointment as a U.S. district attorney during Grover Cleveland’s first term, from 1885 to 1889. The Colonel further distinguished himself in 1887, when he took on a murderous gang of vigilantes, known as the Bald Knobbers, who, under the leadership of the ruthless Nat Kinney, terrorized the outsiders who settled in Missouri after the war. Benton recalled that for many years after prosecuting the gang, the Colonel would close all the cedar shutters in their glamorous house each evening, paranoid that vengeful gang members intended to kill his family.
In general, though, Neosho was a gentle place—a town, Benton explains, “addicted” to celebrations. Today it calls itself the Flower Box City. The seat of Newton County in the Hickory Creek valley, Neosho had been a fertile habitat for Native tribes on account of its abundant springs and during Benton’s childhood was rich with Indian lore. It was just miles from the Nations, since the early nineteenth century the prescribed homeland of displaced tribes, including Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. (The land, as these stories go, was later seized upon the formation of the state of Oklahoma, in 1907.) Before the Civil War, pioneers from Kentucky and Tennessee settled among the oaks, walnuts, and hickories that grew along the region’s creeks; during the war, Neosho saw its share of skirmishes and was situated close enough to the Battle of Pea Ridge (1862)—in which over five thousand soldiers died and Missouri was secured for the Union—that it switched hands between the Confederate army and “the federals” several times.
Neosho reconstructed well, however, and by the time the Colonel hung his shingle outside a downtown office, the town was almost two thousand strong, and commerce was slowly displacing the horrific war as the business of the day. In typically terse but imagistic prose, Benton recollects the Neosho of his childhood:
In the middle eighteen-nineties, when I first began to take notice of things, it was far off from the lines of continental travel and had an old-fashioned flavor. Its people took their time. Old soldiers of the Civil War sat around in the shade of store awnings or lounged about the livery stables, which were, in the horse-and-buggy civilization of the time, important centers of reminiscence and debate … Confederate and Union gatherings occurred every year and the square would be full of veterans, with imprecise triangles of old men’s tobacco spit staining their white or grizzled beards. They lived over again their bloody youth. They used to congregate in the law office of my father … These old war birds of the Great Struggle were a constant part of my early environment and when, years later, I painted a picture depicting the departure of the doughboys of the sixties for the front, I painted them as grizzled and toothless old men. I knew … them as such.
But Neosho was a modern town as well: it was home to a bountiful strawberry industry and the country’s first federal fish hatchery, established in 1888. These two institutions represented more than a growing economy in Neosho; they were manifestations of a profound change in small midwestern towns during the Gilded Age—a shift from agrarianism to “civic scientific management” and “corporate capitalism.” Both Benton and his father bemoaned these changes.
Though the Colonel drank and smoked with “clients” in his downtown office, he wasn’t content to live among the people. When he was thirty-nine and still a bachelor, he built a massive house atop a hill outside of town. Oak Hill, as the house was called, was situated amid a grove of majestic oaks and had all the amenities: a coal furnace in the basement for central heat, a cistern with a charcoal and gypsum filtration system for drinking water, a large kitchen with a bread oven, a parlor, a library, and a tin-lined bathtub. Each side of the house had a porch, the one in front affording a view down a long valley to town, the one in back leading out to a stretch of land with a glass conservatory for exotic plants, flower and vegetable gardens, a smokehouse, a chicken coop, a half-acre pig lot, and a barn with a hayloft, where young Tom and friends staged circuses and theatrical productions. In 1887 a proud Colonel moved into Oak Hill with his brother Sam and sisters Fanny and Dolly, both spinsters.
Soon after, a twenty-two-year-old Texan named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wise—a “tall willowy black-haired … and brown-eyed beauty”—arrived in Neosho to visit a sister, Emma, who had married a local horse trader named Jim McElhany. Uncle Jim, “the top town sport,” donned a brown derby hat, rather than a more fashionable broad-brimmed felt hat, and played poker and shot dice. The Colonel had little use for Uncle Jim, a Republican, but he admired Lizzie, who sang and tinkled at the piano, and put politics aside long enough to court her. They were married in Waxahachie, Texas, on June 24, 1888. Back at Oak Hill, there was an enormous soiree—“an epoch in Neosho receptions.” Based on Benton’s paintings, one might imagine a pig roast or hoedown, but a gleeful account of the party in The Newton County Saga paints a picture of an aristocratic celebration that evening. “The night was dark, the clouds and fog thick,” the reporter begins, a bit ominously, but “the turrets, corridors, and halls of Oak Hill were ablaze with light and generous welcome”:
Col. Benton like one of the old barons, was blithe and gay, keeping the festal holiday. Carriage after carriage rolled up, and for two hours emptied precious freight of admiring friends, and friendly guests, enfolded and wrapped; they were bundled into the reception room, where the light, warmth and gentle hands unfolded their wings, as delicate butterflies of fashion … So much was to be said and done, that it is a late hour, too, before the guests had arisen from the banquet, spread profusely and richly with the most tempting viands and luxuries.
Attendees included Missouri’s Democratic senator George Vest; Congressman James Burnes; the U.S. marshal Elijah Gates and his seventeen deputies; and “the Fifteen Bachelors of Neosho.” Lizzie Benton wore an elegant reception dress “of pale blue ottoman silk, with [a] train of pale and … blue striped moiré.”
The Colonel naively imagined that his new bride would share Oak Hill with his sisters, but as Benton explained, once his mother “got her papers, she spit the bit of the marriage vow out of her mouth and asserted herself.” Though both families were of hardy frontier stock, the Wises and the Bentons were philosophically and spiritually incompatible: the Wises labored outdoors, “were able to choose their lives and maintain them, keep them going as they wanted,” and, unlike the Bentons, refused to appeal to any force other than God. Pappy Wise, Lizzie’s father, was an odd man who “made his own deals with the masters of the Universe,” dressed in black from head to toe, and wore a long white beard. Born in Kentucky, Pappy Wise had been an itinerant laborer; he’d rafted lumber in New Orleans and farmed hogs in Missouri. After the Civil War, during which he’d been a saddlemaker for the Confederate army, Pappy Wise constructed and sold wagons, plows, and other farm equipment in Waxahachie. Later he moved outside town to a cotton farm where he made violins; in the evenings he and his daughters picked up their instruments and played hymns, jigs, and reels. Young Tom occasionally visited the Wise farm with his mother, and his impressions of the property’s teetering structures fed his artistic imagination, serving as models for the buildings in so many of his paintings and lithographs. “The farm house was painted white,” he once recollected, “but all the other structures … were of raw wood greyed and warped by the Texas sun. Most of them had cracks and fissures through which the eternal Texas wind moaned and whistled and cried.”
By all accounts Lizzie was spoiled and stubborn. Benton always described his mother as demanding: she was, he explained, “proud, intensely self-concerned, given to religious imaginings, high strung, with an innate sense of personal superiority.” Mildred Benton Small, Tom’s youngest sister, claimed that her mother once said to her, “I’ve never met anyone I thought was superior to me.” Much to the Colonel’s chagrin, his wife began feuding with his sisters the moment she moved into Oak Hill. Long after her husband’s death, Lizzie continued to speak spitefully about those first days in the house. “Oh, they hated me,” she told her son. “But I taught them a lesson. I got the horrid things before your father and I told him, it’s them or it’s me, mister. Throw them out of the house or I’ll go back to Texas.” So not long after moving into Oak Hill, she watched as Fanny, Dolly, and Uncle Sam hauled their bags down the valley into town, where they occupied an apartment next door to the Colonel’s office. Uncle Sam, who kept his hunting dogs in a woodlot adjacent to Oak Hill, returned occasionally to take young Tom on tours of the town in a small wagon, but the sisters stayed away for good, and the house was officially turned over to the Wise women. When Uncle Jim was off on horse business, Aunt Em visited the Bentons and helped with sewing and other chores around the house, though her implicit ambition was to school the family in the Bible. Taking their cue from Pappy Wise, Lizzie and Aunt Em practiced an improvised kind of Baptist faith; as Benton remembered it, “The women … found themselves appointed brides of Christ … and saved from the hell fires to which most other human beings, especially women not of the Wise family, were destined.” After supper each evening the sisters gathered the family in the parlor and passed the Bible in a circle, sharing reading duties until bedtime; the women enjoyed such spirituality, but the Colonel and his children didn’t pay it much mind. Years later Mildred speculated that her mother knew this and only made them read in order to teach them proper English. Maybe so, but religion was a topic on which Lizzie and her children never reached an agreement.
Lizzie and M.E. had a miserable marriage: they fought about money and were sexually incompatible. She could charm his clients and constituents at parties and political meetings, but her haughtiness eventually turned them off, contributing to the Colonel’s political defeat. Though the Colonel also had a touch of superiority, he could play the part of a commoner, whereas Lizzie dreamed of a life in the city. The Colonel was also ugly—portly, sometimes sloppy, and always smelling of booze and tobacco—and apparently repulsed his wife. “My father,” Benton explained, “was not, in any sense, a romantic figure, short, thick necked, with a reddish skin, a red beard and a protruding belly. A heavy eater, he was … an equally heavy drinker … It is hard to imagine him paying any kind of delicate courtship.” Mildred put it more harshly, confessing, “I never had any feeling for my father except being scared to death of that raging voice … [He] was the original chauvinist pig.” Lizzie, meanwhile, didn’t abide “physical intimacies” of any kind. “As a little toddler,” Benton recalled, “I was more than once frightened by my mother’s protesting screams when my father entered her room at night.” None of their children remembers a tender moment between them, and Benton, in fact, undertook his final memoir in part to explain his parents’ unhappiness. In the prologue to “The Intimate Story,” his unpublished autobiography, he explained that his parents often “annoyed” and “embarrassed” him, but “in spite of that I have a profound sympathy for them and for the unhappy ways in which they ended their lives, one choking to death with throat cancer, deserted by the female members of his family, the other dying in an insane asylum, also deserted. I think I have more sympathy for my father who knew he was deserted than for my mother who did not.”
* * *
Tom, the sad couple’s first child, was born at Oak Hill on April 15, 1889. “The boy,” the Colonel boasted to Dr. Wills, “is worth his weight in gold.” Though they had three more children—Mary Elizabeth, or “Mamie,” Nathaniel, and Mildred—the proud parents had the highest hopes for Tom; he would embody, they believed, the best of the superior qualities circulating in the Benton and Wise blood. But Tom, though whip smart, inherited some less desirable traits as well: like his great-uncle and his mother, he possessed an occasionally absurd stubbornness and an almost deranged sense of destiny. The great emotional crisis of Benton’s youth was his relationship with his father, the problem being that they never agreed on where this destiny led. In his memoirs, Benton builds the struggle between himself and his father into an epic Oedipal drama. “From the moment of my birth,” he writes, “my future was laid out in my father’s mind. A Benton male could be nothing but a lawyer—first because the law was the only field worthy of the attention of responsible and intelligent men, and second because it led naturally to political power.” But the Colonel began to have doubts about his son early—Tom was argumentative, skeptical, and wary of his father’s cronies—and made his suspicions known.
Aunt Mariah Watkins, a popular black midwife in Neosho, cared for the boy. Born into slavery in St. Louis in 1824, Aunt Mariah had her two children taken from her when she was a young woman. After escaping from her master, she settled in Neosho and made a living delivering and mothering babies of the town’s well-to-do citizens. Her most famous charge was the frail George Washington Carver, who traced his moral and spiritual character back to her matronly guardianship of him. Dubbed the “midwife to greatness,” her trademark was an “immaculate white apron, bordered with crocheted lace, which billowed out from her ample waist.” When Aunt Mariah walked down the street in Neosho with her black medicine kit, all the kids in town formed a line behind her, believing “she had a baby in the bag and was going … to find a home for it.”
Aunt Mariah bathed, clothed, and “whacked” Tom until he was five. As he remembered it, she was big, “up and down, forwards and backwards,” and strong—she “could run down a chicken before it knew it was being chased.” The only woman, according to Benton, who showed the Colonel any respect, Aunt Mariah also ran errands for the family. She drove into town from Oak Hill in a buggy, “the seat barely holding her,” pulled by a yellow pony.
Home for the summers from Washington, D.C., where his father served as a U.S. representative from 1897 to 1905, Tom swam with his pals—as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn did—at Ten Foot and Round Bend, perfect holes in Neosho’s Hickory Creek. One boyhood friend, Walter Stroop, recalled that they also swam in Shoal Creek and would ride logs downstream. “We had no business doing that,” Stroop explains. “Shoal Creek was bank-full and swift. But there wasn’t anything we wouldn’t try.” Often the boys simply idled on the grassy riverbanks, where, mimicking the grown men they observed loafing on the town square, they shot the breeze and jawed plugs of tobacco. In the afternoons they explored caves, hunted cottonmouths and copperheads, and sprinted alongside trains making their way into town. According to Stroop, the boys always remained a step ahead of B. J. Pearlman, the town’s frustrated marshal.
Benton’s memoirs tell all the typical stories: he steps on a black snake in the backyard, gets his foot stomped by a horse, observes his father shouting commands at some “negroes” who were slicing a hog suspended from a tree, rides around town with his mother in a buggy pulled by a big white horse named Rex, and is wrapped in icy sheets after catching scarlet fever. In the autumn, Benton reminisces, there were hunts “where you ran in the dark of night with kerosene lanterns,” guided by the barks and howls of Uncle Sam’s dogs, in search of treed possum. The Colonel, however, who gave Tom a .22 rifle when Tom was six, was said to be embarrassed that his boy was “game-shy,” the consequence, apparently, of a sad episode with a blue jay that had been pecking at Oak Hill’s eaves. By most accounts, though, Tom was a tough boy: the Neosho papers documented his resilience and quick recovery from numerous injuries, like when he cracked his head open on a rock in Hickory Creek or scraped his knees dodging a speeding train.
Another favorite pastime was staging plays and circuses in Oak Hill’s barn. Curious about life on the Nations, the boys had a passion for Indian themes. Though the tribes came into Neosho on the Fourth of July and entertained the young ones with elaborate powwows, these rituals weren’t fierce enough for the boys, who had something more primal in mind. And so with their parents in attendance, Tom and his friends put on wild performances. They’d strip to their underwear, adorn their bodies with burned cork and pokeberry tattoos, and “jump and howl” around the barn.
Unlike Twain’s restless boys, Tom didn’t mind work. Neosho was located in the heart of the Ozark berry belt, and beginning in late May, Tom, Johnny Robison, and Bill Duff joined other children picking strawberries. Tom prided himself on being the swiftest “strawberry gaumer” in the field, a skill for which he was rewarded with six cents and a sticky glaze of berry juice on his limbs and clothes. In addition, his mother and father devised numerous chores to instill in him some “Missouri values.” In the summer, for instance, he cleaned the stables at Oak Hill and tended to the Colonel’s horses and cows.
Though Benton would emerge as a diligent and inspirational teacher, he always hated school. His philosophy of art was based on an abiding faith in practical instruction, yet from early childhood he distrusted doctrines. His memoirs, which describe the influence of Aunt Mariah and the books his father gave him to read, imply that he was homeschooled, when in fact he attended an intermediate school affiliated with Neosho’s Scarritt Collegiate Institute, a training ground for young preachers run by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Tom was dissatisfied with his instructors and classmates, whom he felt were beneath him, and one day he came home bearing the news that he’d been promoted to a higher grade. His proud parents bought him the necessary books only to learn a few days later that they’d been duped. Tom saw the world—what he knew of it, anyway—as his classroom. He learned about politics and the social relations of men at Neosho’s town square and on the campaign trail with the Colonel. Between the ages of seven and fifteen, Tom traveled with his father all over Missouri by horse and buggy, lodging in backwoods hotels and farms and hobnobbing, as Benton’s friend and principal defender, Thomas Craven, put it, with “men in wide black hats, blue-eyed women in sunbonnets, hillbillies, babies, and seedy pettifoggers.”
The Colonel was elected president of the Democratic State Convention in 1890 and first campaigned for U.S. Congress in 1896. He was an important figure in state politics, and though he remained a loyal Democrat throughout his career and was a protégé of George Vest’s—an anti-imperialist and the author of a famous speech in favor of a fifty-dollar damage award for the owner of Old Drum (an opportunistic dog that was murdered for eating too many of a neighbor’s sheep)—he also endorsed populist causes, most notably monetary reform. As a supporter of William Jennings Bryan, the Populist and Democratic candidate for president in 1896, the Colonel primarily targeted eastern plutocrats, bankers, and railroad magnates. Champ Clark, a Democratic lawyer and newspaper editor who served in Congress alongside the Colonel and was speaker from 1911 to 1919, was another close friend. These men shared a talent for speechifying and often congregated to brainstorm the urgent questions of the day. “Our dinner table,” Benton remembers, “was always surrounded with arguing, expository men who drank heavily, ate heartily, and talked long over fat cigars.”
Surely playing fast and loose with the true complexity of the Colonel’s attitudes, Benton consistently claimed that his father’s political philosophy began and ended with Thomas Jefferson. He began describing his father this way in the 1930s, at a moment in his career when it seemed advantageous to portray himself as the heir to an agrarian ideology. Mildred, however, described the Colonel’s politics a bit more precisely. “My father was a Populist in a true sense,” she said. “He was trying to fight off modernization and keep the agricultural focus in the center of this nation.” According to the literary historian Russel B. Nye, “The problem, as the Midwest conceived it, was to reaffirm eighteenth-century democratic faith and to preserve it against the rising tide of skepticism, cynicism, and, as they called it, ‘plutocracy.’ But how could an agrarian democracy exist in an industrialized America? How could the political philosophy of Jefferson and Jackson be grafted onto the system of Spencer, Darwin, and Rockefeller?”
Bryan, the Boy Orator of the Platte, was an avid free-silver reformer and advocate for farmers and industrial workers who often quoted one of Andrew Jackson’s more famous mottoes: “Equal rights to all and special privileges to none.” Bryan also cited Senator Benton’s praise of Jackson in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, delivered at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1896. With Tom at his side, the Colonel took Bryan’s message via bumpy dirt roads to his constituents at camp meetings, noisy, boisterous affairs staged on grounds decorated with flags, posters, and red, white, and blue bunting. The meetings were early incarnations of the Chautauqua conventions (fervent summer lyceums for adult education first conducted at Lake Chautauqua in New York) that had become a staple of midwestern life by 1900. The traveling “tent-show” Chautauquas of the Midwest were less high-minded—according to Nye, they “could be incredibly cheap and tedious, with Kaffir choirs, Swiss bell-ringers, chalk-talk artists, and performing dogs … in the dripping Midwest heat”—but equally didactic. Both Bryan and Champ Clark became frequent speakers at Chautauqua events, and it was from these men that “millions of Americans got their first ideas of tariffs and tax policy … of Wall Street and the trusts.”
The Colonel was also a gifted speaker and stood out as one of a few men able to awaken Missouri crowds during the 1890s, which was apparently an “uphill struggle” for most politicians of the time, who had to resort to “scramble[d] allusions” and “flight[s] of metaphor” to rouse their constituents. As one historian explains, while populist candidates failed to effectively communicate a radical message of class struggle to Missouri farmers, they did succeed in compelling Democratic candidates, like the Colonel, to develop a more radical rhetoric. In the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, Democrats developed a pragmatic solution—called the Missouri Idea—that urged farmers and small-business owners to “make law into the major weapon for popular restraint of wealthy and powerful commercial and political leaders.” As a lawyer, the Colonel was a logical choice for a leadership role on this progressive Democratic platform. Arriving at the rallies, he would disembark from his buggy and, with “blaring horns and smashing drums … [and] a great public ‘hurrah’” chasing him, “shake everybody’s hand and get slobbered over by … sticky babies.” Time and again, Benton recalled, his father mounted improvised stages to campaign at the top of his voice. Meanwhile, with a few coins in his pocket, Tom roamed among barbecue pits, lemonade stands, fortune-tellers, shooting stands, and medicine shows. He was particularly fond of “spinnin’ jennies,” mule-powered merry-go-rounds, and on one occasion he accosted his father onstage just as he was preparing to deliver one of his rousing speeches.
“Hold on Dad. Hold on,” Tom pleaded. “Gimme a quarter to ride the Spinnin’ Jenny!”
The Colonel’s face flushed, and he let out a belly laugh. “I guess you all know that’s my boy Tom,” he told the crowd, which erupted in applause.
It’s not hard to imagine how stimulated a boy might feel standing next to his father, together working an ardent crowd. Not all fathers are publicly adored—or if they are, not all sons are there to witness it. Benton recalled that he saw his father’s companionship during these days as a “promise of adventure and excitement in unfamiliar places.” Years later, in A Social History of the State of Missouri (1936), his controversial mural for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Benton represented what he remembered from those exhilarating childhood experiences. One panel, Politics, Farming, and Law in Missouri, illustrates, among other things, a political rally like the ones he attended in his youth. A speaker stands at a rostrum in front of a poster of Champ Clark and, one arm raised for dramatic effect, addresses the crowd. Tellingly, the audience is not yet moved by the speech, and Benton offers a few clues to explain the crowd’s reticence. All around, dutiful Missourians engage in the labor and chores of daily life—sawing logs, hunting, dishing out food, even changing diapers. But their elders, sitting on benches and focusing on the speech, appear skeptical, unable to reconcile the politician’s words with the work being performed by the responsible, productive citizens behind them. The speaker’s challenge is to persuade the audience that his allegiance is not just to Clark and his cronies, who sit on the stage behind him, but also to the working class. Since the speaker is in fact the Colonel, it would have been easy for Benton to depict a more receptive crowd, one at the very least moving in rhythm with the oratory. But they sit perfectly still. What makes the scene poignant is that Benton is more interested in the hard sell of politics—and surely his father lost a crowd now and again—than in quaint family legends. One doubts that young Tom comprehended such nuances, but as a mature artist at the height of his career he managed to describe the push and shove of campaigning. The laboring figures may be muscular and heroic, but the solemn audience is the detail that best commemorates the Colonel’s kind of work.
The Colonel craved campaigning and political ballyhoo. “The activity,” Benton recalls, “was the breath of his life. It was not the holding of office but the getting of office that brought out from within him the grand drive, the expansiveness, the go that electrifies existence.” Young Tom also enjoyed the spectacle but still could not shake the feeling that he was a disappointment to his father. “There was much about my unfolding character that did not fit in with [my father’s] conception of a budding lawyer,” he explains. “I was argumentative enough but I could not be induced to study and I had a low taste for creek-bank company. I preferred the town bums and the colored boys to the governors, senators, and judges who used to sit at our table.”
The Colonel was a positivist who believed wholeheartedly that politics was the finest instrument for advancing social improvement. But his son wasn’t so sure. This attitude was a natural consequence of Benton’s instinctive skepticism, which was abetted later by witnessing his father’s political defeat in the 1904 elections and his firsthand experience of the ruthless economic and class divisions in America’s big cities. By many standards the Colonel was an admirable figure, at least in terms of his professional accomplishments: he had friends and influence. But Tom wasn’t seduced, in part because of a distaste for politics. Such an explanation might surprise observers of Benton’s life and art, both of which were deeply attuned to party politics. Indeed, during the 1920s and 1930s, Benton was more than a casual participant in political debates; he was an engaged artist who wrote articulately and passionately about Marxism and American liberalism and was a key player in the ideological skirmishes in New York over the practicality of radicalism. But Benton had learned to be political only after moving to New York in 1912, and in two thoughtful essays written later in life, he explains his reasons for turning away from active political debate. As Benton saw it, he was betrayed by the radicals and politicians he had once supported, and so he came to distrust politics, which he saw as corrupt. “Looking back,” he writes, “it is amazing to think how much violence and hate … [was] generated by mere political attitudes.”
Tom was a lonely boy, and pop psychologists might be tempted to ascribe his youthful contrarianism to his awkward appearance and being, as he puts it, “a variant of our stock.” He was short, about five and a half feet, and much was made of his not resembling a Benton. One Neosho native recalls that he hated being called “Tommy” and got in fistfights over it; another explains that he always came home from Washington looking “different” from the other boys. The Colonel, meanwhile, did little to allay his son’s insecurities. Tom was walking downtown one day, wearing a kilt and tam-o’-shanter, likely owing to his mother’s Scottish heritage, when the Colonel, strolling with a friend, saw him strutting down the street and exclaimed, “Look what I’ve produced!” Another time, when a lady cousin visited Oak Hill, the Colonel lined up his children for inspection. Nathaniel, Mamie, and Mildred were strawberry blonds, but Tom, who had dark eyes and olive skin, resembled his mother. “Well, Cousin Maecenas,” the cousin said, singling out the stout Tom, “they’re all Bentons but that one. He seems to be a stray.”
Mildred, however, was impressed by Tom’s appearance and once claimed that he was “a very beautiful young child” with a powerful torso and arms—not “a little man at all.” She agreed, however, that he was “very pugnacious, yes, very pugnacious, even as a young person,” and concluded, coldly, “I didn’t like him or dislike him.” In truth, Tom didn’t feel liked. In a devastating recollection he describes growing painfully self-conscious of his perceived idiosyncrasies and developing a “defensive defiance, especially in the presence of my elders”:
My father said that I rarely looked a man in the eye on being presented to him, and that if I did, it seemed as if I were getting ready to hit him with a rock. Actually, violence was frequently on my mind because I didn’t like the way so many of Dad’s friends looked me over. Smart, shrewd men could tell at a glance that I would never make a lawyer. Dad’s cronies loved him, and I always felt that they were sorry he had such a queer duck for a son.
In Washington, the Colonel tried in vain to mold his son in his own image by assigning him a variety of books to read. He had a substantial library of biographies and historical texts, some of which, according to Benton, contained “over-romantic reports of our history … that the young could get hold of.” But Benton claims to have labored through several of the books—including Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, a life of Jefferson, and Senator Benton’s Thirty Years’ View and Abridgment of the Debates of Congress—and preferred “the dime novels hid out in the barn.” The Colonel believed his plan to edify Tom was working when the boy started to browse the library on his own and would retreat to his hideouts with a few books under his arm. He was furious to learn later that Tom used the books for another purpose—to find inspiration for his real passion: drawing.
Polly Burroughs, one of Benton’s biographers, recounts that he once told her that he had a “psychological failing” as a boy; he suffered, she explains, “dream-like spells where he sat, entranced, staring at the design, color, and texture of things for hours on end.” Lizzie was convinced that her son was a genius and, against the Colonel’s wishes, encouraged his talent for art. She told Gilberta Goodwin, a New York artist and Martha’s Vineyard neighbor of Benton’s, that when Tom was just eighteen months old, she held him up to a window to look at the rising moon. Lizzie explained that upon viewing the glowing orb in the dark sky, Tom uttered his first sentence: “What is it?” This curiosity about the “what” of things manifested itself from a young age in sketches and drawings. Tom drew the typical subjects—Indians, trains, and legendary feats, such as Custer’s Last Stand, a favorite topic. What the Colonel didn’t know at first was that his son found these subjects in his library; Tom copied many of his pictures from illustrations in books like John Clark Ridpath’s History of the World.
Tom’s very first drawings were of the locomotives he observed entering the Neosho depot. “Engines,” he recalls, “were the most impressive things that came into my childhood … [T]o … see them come in, belching black smoke, with their big headlights shining and their bells ringing and their pistons clanking, gave me a feeling of stupendous drama … I scrawled crude representations of them over everything.” Even as a boy Benton thought big: he composed his first mural when he was just six or seven. Oak Hill had a large stairway that led from the lower hall to the second floor, and soon after the wall of the stairway had been dressed in a cream-colored wallpaper, he defaced it with a long freight train drawn in charcoal. The mural began at the foot of the stairs with a caboose and ended at the top with an engine “puffing long strings of black smoke.” The reception of this drawing, Benton explains, “was the first intimation I received of the divergency of view on the subject of mural decoration.” Lizzie and the Colonel weren’t impressed, and Tom was obliged to erase the mural with bread crumbs.
At first the Colonel saw no harm in Tom’s scribblings, but when the boy’s drawings began attracting the attention of Lizzie and family friends, he was outraged and started to lecture his son about the “futile ends of lazy habits.” Benton outlines his father’s objections in An Artist in America:
Dad was profoundly prejudiced against artists, and with some reason. The only ones he had ever come across were the mincing, bootlicking portrait painters of Washington who hung around the skirts of women at receptions and lisped a silly jargon about grace and beauty. Dad was utterly contemptuous of them and labeled them promptly as pimps. He couldn’t think of a son of his having anything to do with their profession. But I had drawn pictures all my life. It was a habit and Dad’s disapproval didn’t affect me in the least. I didn’t think of being an artist. I just drew because I liked to do so.
As was his habit in his memoirs, Benton misrepresents the matter here. Not only did he work tirelessly in his letters home to convince his parents that being a painter was a noble and relevant vocation, but his later attitudes about artists, especially effeminate modern ones, were similar to the Colonel’s. One ugly habit of Benton’s was to occasionally mimic the rhetoric and arguments of the very men—including his father—he claimed were devoid of reason. During the 1930s, the mature Benton sounded a lot like the Colonel, and a lot like a hypocrite, especially when he repeatedly baited art critics and museum “pretty boy[s]” with “delicate wrists.” But when Benton was young, art was just another subject that he and the Colonel disagreed about, and their disputes only grew in frequency and fervor once the family moved to Washington.
Copyright © 2012 by Justin Wolff
Meet the Author
Justin Wolff is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Maine. He is the author of Richard Caton Woodville: American Painter, Artful Dodger.
Justin Wolff is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Maine. He is the author of Richard Caton Woodville: American Painter, Artful Dodger.
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