Thursday, December 11, 2008

On the Hunt for Information

Nonfiction authors, like cats and children, are insatiably curious. How else to explain the fact that long after a book is written, we're still willing to pounce on information about a subject, even if it means traipsing through a cemetery on a frigid December day?

A few days ago, with the wind chill at about 10 degrees, I attended a lecture by Dr. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, senior scholar at the Denver Art Museum http://www.denverartmuseum.org/. Dr. Troccoli was speaking at Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery, 478 stunningly beautiful acres in the heart of a gritty urban neighborhood, and the final resting place of hundreds of famous--and infamous--Americans, including Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Lola Montez, "Boss" Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Leonard Bernstein, and Frank Morgan (aka the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz") http://www.green-wood.com/.

The subject of the talk was George Catlin's painting of DeWitt Clinton. Clinton, governor of New York from 1817-1828, is best known for his role in building the Erie Canal. Catlin, the subject of my book, Painting the Wild Frontier, is renowned as a painter of American Indians. Both men are buried at Green-Wood.

Dr. Troccoli's talk traced intriguing connections between Clinton and Catlin. But what struck me was the way it showed that studying history is like holding a prism that refracts light in all directions. By looking closely at any one incident in a person's life, you can find myriad connections to other people, places, and events. This is why scholars constantly re-examine familiar texts and mine old information for new insights, and why nonfiction authors tromp through cemeteries, always on the hunt for a good story.

After the lecture I took a trolley tour of artist's graves led by Green-Wood's resident historian. The trolley was packed, encouraging evidence of New Yorkers' enthusiasm for history, and a reminder that cemeteries are not just the repository of skeletons, but a unique and unusual opportunity to explore the past.

Afterward I walked back to Catlin's grave, high atop a windswept hill overlooking a picturesque lake.George Catlin is buried in his wife's family plot. She had predeceased him by many years, and when he finally passed away in 1872, his in-laws buried him in an unmarked grave. It wasn't until 1961 that a group of Catlin enthusiasts and family members finally raised funds for a monument.

After four years of working on my Catlin book, I was very excited to finally be visiting the grave. In fact, I was shivering in anticipation (or was it the cold?). What I found was a plain granite marker--just Catlin's name and dates. But there on the ground in front of it, someone had left an old paintbrush, stiff with paint. A scrap of artist's rag was wrapped around the brush, flapping in the wind. I hurried back to my warm car, marveling at this perfect tribute to a man who devoted his life to his art.

2 comments:

Jeannine said...

Susanna, Please tell me you had your camera with you at the gravesite!

Susanna Reich said...

Halfway to Brooklyn, I realized I had forgotten my camera! Otherwise I would have posted a picture. I guess I'll have to return to Green-Wood Cemetery someday. But I think I'll wait until it's warmer!