Books by Christopher Benfey

IF by Christopher Benfey
NONFICTION
Released: July 9, 2019

"An accessible and enlightening biography."
An examination of Rudyard Kipling's life and work through the lens of the years he spent living in the United States. Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: March 19, 2012

"Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now largely forgotten."
From Benfey (English/Mount Holyoke Coll.; A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, 2008, etc.), a lyrical but unsentimental family memoir, taking in art, memory and time. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: April 21, 2008

"A handsomely illustrated volume that reflects Benfey's depth of reading and passionate interests, though the connections he makes are occasionally strained."
Ambitious, eccentric synthesis of late 19th-century artistic currents shows a static America progressing after the Civil War into a period of movement and romance. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: May 13, 2003

"A sweeping cacophony of about a half-dozen condensed books."
The author of Degas in New Orleans (1997) attempts to define the nexus that arose between the US and Japan in the late 19th century by examining its effect on key cultural and social arbiters of the day. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Nov. 12, 1997

This lifeless account of Edgar Degas's 1872 visit to New Orleans unsuccessfully tries to link his artistic breakthrough with the city's Reconstruction-era social turmoil. Benfey (American Literature/Mt. Holyoke Coll.; The Double Life of Stephen Crane, 1992) claims the French painter's five-month sojourn with his mother's family ``is something of a legend in New Orleans.'' There's nothing legendary in Benfey's workaday account. A private man bent on being ``famous but unknown,'' Degas stayed indoors because his eyesight (which he fancied was failing) couldn't stand the intense southern light; he pined for black models but painted family members instead. Admitting the challenge posed by his ``notoriously secret'' subject, Benfey expands his critical field of vision to encompass New Orleans writers George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin—even though there's no evidence they crossed paths with Degas. Their work, obsessed with the enormous changes transforming New Orleans society in the Civil War's aftermath, is supposed to help us ``decipher the underlying meanings in Degas paintings and letters.'' Chopin gets top billing, but the largely forgotten Cable gets more ink, including a provocative but unsubstantiated suggestion that this creator of the archetypal ``tragic mulatto'' is the granddaddy of southern literature. Benfey, the first biographer to focus on Degas's American roots, adds valuable insight to the artist's work with his analysis of the effects American technology, architecture, and commerce had on his paintings. But Benfey's glosses of Chopin and Cable don't bring Degas into sharper focus; they push the enigmatic Frenchman further to the edges of an already sprawling, speculative biography. Conjecture about the psychological root of Degas's racial ambivalence—namely the possibility of black blood in the American side of the family—is overstated and underdocumented. Ambitious, perhaps, but Benfey's wide net nevertheless allows his primary subject to slip away, lost in a fog of lit-crit theory and psychobabble. (illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 1, 1992

Crane's ``double life,'' says Benfey (Emily Dickinson, 1986), was comprised of the one he projected in his fiction and the actual life that was influenced by it. According to Benfey, Crane ``lived his life backwards.'' Taciturn, mercurial, rootless, Crane—who died from tuberculosis at age 28—left little but his amazing work as a record of his life: novels, poetry, short stories, and journalism, which is how he earned a living. The two major examples of his ``backwards'' life are Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, written before Crane had had any experience of women and before he met Cora Taylor, the Florida madam who was to become his common-law wife, and The Red Badge of Courage, written before Crane had had any experience of war. Benfey offers other interesting theses: That Crane—since he learned to read when his father died and to write when his mother died—associated language and mourning. That the visual quality of Crane's writing was influenced by the bohemian art students and illustrators he lived among in New York. That the appearance of his poetry is a reflection of the Arts and Crafts movement. And that the meaning of the ``baby sketches'' (``An Ominous Baby,'' ``A Great Mistake,'' and ``A Dark Brown Dog'')- -bizarre takes on infant adventure—may be explained by D.W. Winnicott's theories of ``transitional objects'' and reflect the emotional deprivation of Crane's youth as the last of 14 children in an austere and pious household. Unpretentious and lucid but—like Crane's fiction and, as Benfey claims, his life—episodic, a series of aperáus focusing on different aspects of the life and work. A more coherent story may not be possible. (Twenty-six illustrations—not seen.) Read full book review >