Carole Owens: Failing Rockwell, readers



Garrison Keillor did a nice job. He is a dab hand at communicating and has a nice sensibility: good Minnesota traits. Not surprisingly, then, his New York Times review of "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" is fair. It gives credit where due and throws in an "Oh come on" when appropriate.

I might have used "Ah come off it" rather than "Oh come on" but a good editor would have saved me from myself. Here is my issue: I think a writer has a contract with the reader. If you spend good money on a biography, you have the right to expect that the author is telling the truth about the subject to the very best of her ability to uncover and communicate it.

When did biographers start sallying forth into the psyche of dead people they never met and telling us what they were thinking?

I first encountered the trick in a biography where the subject was 15-years-old. By gosh, that author knew his thoughts -- verbatim no less. I defy you to know verbatim the thoughts of a 15-year-old male who is related to you by birth, standing beside you, and whom you have just asked: "What are you thinking?" Never mind a dead stranger.

Poetic license is outside the contract when writing nonfiction. Why Deborah Solomon thought we wanted to know what she thought when looking at the "The Runaway" I don’t know. When she insinuated her thought into the mind of the artist, she demonstrated a lack of, at the very least, self-awareness. Where was her editor to save her from herself?


Even the title lacks a keen understanding and accurate summation of Rockwell and his work. Rockwell was no mirror. He did not recreate what America was but what he and all of us wished it were. His depiction was always familiar and always better than reality. He did not paint memory but desire. Neither he nor his work was a mirror of American life; it was the ideal. That is what we love, now and forever, the illustration of all we wanted to be, our highest goal, our dream of us, illustrated.

I agree with Keillor when he says the important part of Norman is his work. I fear, however, by defaming the man, Solomon ultimately may have harmed the perception of the work. If so, shame on her. Looking at a Rockwell brings joy, and perhaps clarity. We may never fully realize our dreams, but the dream itself has value. It points the way; articulates the goal. Solomon sullying the dream with broad unsupported interpretation and innuendo blurs the picture and causes us, as a people, to lose our direction, to flounder.

What I cannot understand is the Rockwell Museum endorsing this book. I thought at first that it did so without reading the book. That would be foolish and irresponsible but not as bad as, by extension, endorsing an unsupported and deleterious characterization of the artist. At least it should have the sense to refute Solomon’s assumptions and thereby defend its own

It did not. It continued to support the book; defend its initial stance. Defensiveness is sometimes knee-jerk, but the museum gave a reason. The reason was spurious: To wit, freedom of speech. Now that is just silly. Libel is an exception to the right of free speech. If you know it to be untrue, you do not write it. If you cannot prove it, you do not write it. If you find it titillating, but cannot substantiate it, you do not write it.

Solomon wrote it. You cannot libel the dead. Solomon is safe from Norman and from those who loved him. Hopefully, Norman is safe from her.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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