Books by James R. Mellow

WALKER EVANS by James R. Mellow
Released: June 1, 1999

A superb biography of a photographer who, dead for a quarter of a century, still exerts a powerful influence. The late literary biographer Mellow (Hemingway: A Life without Consequences, 1992, etc.), who died in 1997, views Walker Evans (1903—1975) primarily as a politically committed storyteller and documentarian; in this regard he echoes the critic Carl Van Vechten, who wrote of a 1938 collection of Evans's images of the Depression era, "if everything in American civilization were destroyed except Walker Evans's photographs, they could tell us a good deal about American life." Unlike some critics, however, Mellow does not take this to mean that Evans was primarily a left-wing propagandist, even if his most famous work, the photographs accompanying James Agee's text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were summary indictments of American capitalism. (Evans's friends, Mellow writes, were puzzled when in 1945 Evans accepted a position at the high-capitalist Fortune magazine, whose publisher Henry Luce had become convinced that "it is easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers" and who gave Evans a free hand during the photographer's 21 years on the magazine's staff.) The portrait that Mellow offers is one of Evans as an extraordinarily talented and hard-working artist but also as something of a wastrel, one who greeted his biographer at their first meeting in 1974 with the offer of an early-morning glass of brandy and who logged time getting soused with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and Edmund Wilson in Manhattan. Despite his penchant for the bottle, though, as Mellow ably documents, Evans inspired and taught many young photographers, perhaps the most notable of them the Swiss ÇmigrÇ Robert Frank; he also crafted a rich body of work that is well represented in the 150 images placed throughout Mellow's text. Well written, lively, and thoroughly documented, Mellow's biography is a fine contribution to American art and cultural history. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 2, 1992

By now, any Hemingway biography is built as much upon the scaffolding of its predecessors as upon the writer's life itself. Hemingway's own story, in fact, must be more familiar generally than the stories of his works. A differentiating idea or two is necessary—and Mellow (Invented Lives, 1984, etc.) has them. Portraying Hemingway neither as the man of action nor as the complete boor that other biographies have (and that sometimes have seen themselves pitted in competition with Papa), Mellow's Hemingway is a man superbly equipped for literature by having the greatest understanding of style; and a man haunted by what human ambiguities aesthetic style suggests—Mellow finds Hemingway's relationships with men, his homophobia, his failed marriages, as hardly accidental. Along this double fork, Mellow proves himself one of the more respectfully keen analysts of why Hemingway was so good a writer in his earliest works: There is fine lit-crit here in addition to all the dates and facts (``At his best, Hemingway is a poet of convergences, providing moments of sudden reality, of some deflected vision—an epiphany, perhaps—not altogether recognized or understood, that is nevertheless transfixed in narrative''). Mellow understands writing enough to know that its demands can make any person both more and less than he is; his book lacks a moralistic rancor that others, faced with Hemingway's bad character, have not been able to forfeit. But this is perhaps also because he finds so convincing the suspicion that Hemingway's manliness was the most desperate of his fictions: There is, in the way Mellow places his biography's structural emphases, a certain lenient pity for a man who might have done and been better had he come out of the closet. It's a tactful, unpushy thesis but unmistakable, and makes Mellow's book different from its fellows. (Two eight-page photo inserts—not seen.) Read full book review >