Book World: ‘My Faraway One’

June 23, 2011

MY FARAWAY ONE

Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Vol. I, 1915-1933

Edited by Sarah Greenough

Yale. 814 pp. $39.95When I showed “My Faraway One” to an air-conditioning guy at work in my house, he said, “You’re going to read that? It’s as fat as a dictionary.” True enough, but talk about a book bargain! At a time when an ordinary novel might cost $25 or more, you can acquire for just under $40 the intimate correspondence between two of the most important and influential American artists of all time: the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and the arguably even greater painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).

When the two met, Stieglitz was in his early 50s, married and a long-established eminence. He produced the celebrated photographic journal Camera Work, ran a small gallery and championed the contemporary art of both Europe and America. O’Keeffe, by contrast, was in her late 20s, essentially unknown and working mainly as an art teacher at the West Texas State Normal College. They first spoke at Stieglitz’s gallery 291 in the fall of 1915, O’Keeffe wrote and thanked the photographer for his interest in her work, and before long the two were corresponding regularly, almost daily, with increasing flirtatiousness and intimacy. After a few months, an overwhelmed O’Keeffe confessed:

“I think letters with so much humanness in them have never come to me before — I have wondered with everyone of them — what it is in them — how you put it in — or is it my imagination — seeing and feeling — finding what I want — ”

A few months later, she had grown a bit more coquettish: “You mention me in purple — I’d be about as apt to be naked — don’t worry — !”

Finally, O’Keeffe openly admits:

“— I’m getting to like you so tremendously that it some times scares me —

“Tired tonight — all sorts of things knotted in me in such a tangle — having told you so much of me — more than anyone else I know — could anything else follow but that I should want you — want you in a curious way — it’s a mixture of the way I’ve wanted my mother at times — but not just that — it’s the man too — ”

Stieglitz immediately writes back:

“You are a very, very great Woman. — You have given me — I can’t tell you what it is — but it is something tremendous — something so overpowering that I feel as if I had shot up suddenly into the skies & touched the stars — ”

It hardly takes a Sherlock Holmes to deduce where all this is leading. Before long, as well as talking about theories of art and alluding to friends like the revolutionary Emma Goldman, the photographer Edward Steichen and the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, old Alfred has begun to complain about how his wife doesn’t understand or appreciate him. “She is a really pathetic person — she can’t connect two thoughts — an untrained brain — a great self-will — obstinate — & not much deep feeling — or rather fine feeling — Full of theories & conventional ideas.”

O’Keeffe, meanwhile, is still in Texas, busily going on sunset drives with all the local men and sending Stieglitz provocative observations: “I too only like certain kinds of kisses — certain kinds of touches.” Stieglitz’s letters soon grow to 40 pages and more, as he speaks openly of dreams in which “I had you in my arms.” To that O’Keeffe answers that she wanted to kiss his letter — “it seemed made for lips.”

In 1918, the belle of West Texas State Normal College finally traveled back to New York, at which point her romance with Stieglitz became more than epistolary. In one astonishing letter of May 16, 1922, O’Keeffe describes, in pornographic detail, what she feels like when “fluffing,” the term sometimes used by the couple to describe love-making. The besotted artists married in 1924.

During his youth, Stieglitz had made his name by photographing New York in winter, the dirty canals of Venice and, once, the teeming masses on a crowded ship (his greatest single work: “The Steerage”), but now he took hundreds of pictures of his beloved “Little Girl,” many of them nude studies. Because of these often daring images, O’Keeffe’s own work was soon regularly interpreted from a sexual viewpoint, and her sensuous paintings of flowers were described, at first coyly and almost always to the artist’s annoyance, as essentially vaginal.

For its first half, the letters of “My Faraway One” obviously chronicle a love story. But in 1929, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico, where she found herself drawn to the landscape, the people and the sense of freedom she discovered there. However, Stieglitz, now in his 60s and suffering from angina, stayed at a country house on New York’s Lake George. During the summer, the photographer’s daily letters reflect an increasing desperation and misery, as he grows convinced that he is not only losing the woman he loves but that he has also become a “dead useless thing.” He burns a lot of his early work and starts planning for the disposition of his estate.

Meanwhile, O’Keeffe, happy in the sun, ignores her husband’s accusatory and pathetic outpourings. Instead of “Dearest Duck,” she opens her letters without a salutation and maintains that it is he who is to blame for the literal and metaphorical distance between them: “I have put out my hand to you so many times of late and more often than not felt you turn away from me.” She reaffirms her own need for independence: “I have not wanted to be anything but kind to you — but there is nothing to be kind to you if I cannot be me.”

And, then, the past seemingly repeats itself. A young volunteer at Stieglitz’s current gallery makes clear that her adoration for his work extends to the man. Soon the revivified photographer is writing long love letters to Dorothy Norman, taking nude photos and complaining that his wife has never really understood him. Naturally, old Alfred tells O’Keeffe that she should stay as long as she wants in New Mexico, her work comes first after all, don’t worry about me.

All this human drama — and much else — appears in their letters, but is usefully clarified in the excellent footnotes and interspersed biographical material by editor Sarah Greenough, an authority on the work of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe. Without her additions, the book would often read as the somewhat repetitive exchanges between a rather abstract and sententious Stieglitz and a gushy, landscape-maddened O’Keeffe (“Gosh” is her favorite word). While both artists are compulsive letter-writers, neither is a compelling writer per se. It’s what they are outside this correspondence that matters.

When “My Faraway One” pauses in 1933, these two giants of American culture are still going strong. A second volume will eventually carry their correspondence forward until 1946 and the death of Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia O’Keeffe would live on, a “very very great Woman,” for another 40 years.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

MY FARAWAY ONE: Selected Letters of Georgia O’KeeFFE AND ALFRED STIEGLITZ,

Vol. I, 1915-1933

Edited by Sarah Greenough

Yale. 814 pp.

$39.95

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