Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival.
 (December 2018)


Is It Like Japan Yet?

Vincent van Gogh: Flowering Plum Orchard (After Hiroshige), 1887

Van Gogh and Japan

by Louis van Tilborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera, and Chris Uhlenbeck, with a contribution by Claire Guitton

Japan’s Love for Impressionism: From Monet to Renoir

edited by the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany
When Vincent van Gogh made his momentous decision to leave Paris behind and move to Arles in February 1888, he was determined, at age thirty-four, to remake his art, his personal relationships, and himself, body and soul. Central to this midlife dream of self-transformation was the artist’s surprising conviction that …

Coffins and Jukeboxes

Robert Frank: Sick of Goodby’s, 1978; from The Lines of My Hand

American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank

by R.J. Smith

Robert Frank: Film Works

edited by Laura Israel
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” James Agee remarked at the start of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his landmark collaborative study, with the photographer Walker Evans, of three tenant families in Depression-era Alabama. “It would be photographs,” Agee insisted; “the rest …

The Loved One

Terence Stamp in Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Billy Budd, 1962

Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings

by Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Robert A. Sandberg, and G. Thomas Tanselle, with a historical note by Hershel Parker
When Herman Melville died at seventy-two, in September 1891, he had been out of public view for so long that The New York Times identified him as Henry Melville. An obituary writer expressed surprise that the author best known for Typee—his first novel, set in the South Seas, notorious for …

The Quiet Little Warrior

John Singer Sargent: John Hay, 1903

All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt

by John Taliaferro

Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image

by Joshua Zeitz
During the winter of 1903, John Singer Sargent was invited to the White House to paint Theodore Roosevelt’s official portrait. Feeling like “a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor,” Sargent had the impatient president grasp the large round knob of a staircase, as though to keep him in …


A Cure for Metaphor-Blindness

From the series

One way of seeing, in Wittgenstein’s formulation, is what we might call accurate seeing. This is how the blind man sees after Jesus touches his eyes for a second time, and he sees “every man clearly.” The other way of seeing is more like seeing men as trees walking. Wittgenstein calls this metaphorical way of seeing “seeing as.” He tells us, for example, that he “may well try to see” the letter F “as a gallows.” “Could there be human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something?” Wittgenstein wonders. He suggests that this condition might be called  “aspect-blindness” and compares it to “the lack of a ‘musical ear.’”

The Don of Trumpery

President Trump at a rally at Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi, October 2, 2018

Naming can be an art. We have a president who takes names very seriously, using them for specific purposes and according them strange powers. Having apprenticed himself to mobsters and wrestlers (great adopters of mythic nicknames), he has transformed politics into mass entertainment. He relishes the sound of names, especially his own. For Trump, naming is branding. Extending the Trump brand appears to have been the central driver of his initially only half-serious presidential bid, and it continues to drive Trump’s presidency, as he dreams, no doubt, of a Trump Tower on Mars.

Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Stanley Cavell, 2017

He didn’t prepare a syllabus. He didn’t order books for his courses. He was casual with student papers. According to the awful assessment measures of our awful times, he was probably a lousy teacher, and yet he was the most exciting classroom presence I’ve ever experienced. He brought an extraordinary range of passions—for jazz and Shakespeare, for American film comedies, for “ordinary language” philosophy, for the unexpected philosophical richness of Thoreau and Emerson—to everything he had to say. And we hung on every word.

Renoir’s Onions

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Onions, 1881

Emerson, our cultural founding father, thought that the major contribution of the art of his own time was a new understanding of ordinary life. I am reminded of Emerson’s admonition whenever I make a pilgrimage to see one of my favorite paintings in all of New England: Renoir’s group portrait of six onions and two bulbs of garlic, painted in Naples in 1881. In them, one can see in a flash what Meyer Schapiro meant when he called still-life painting part of “a democratizing trend in art that gives a positive significance to the everyday world.”