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A Novel of American Dreaming

by Alan Cheuse

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4022-1404-2
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

A pensive, sometimes ponderous imagining of the life of renowned photographer Edward Curtis, who ran away from the urban circus to join the Indians.

Curtis’s sepia-tint photographs are well known. His life is not. NPR book critic Cheuse (The Fires, 2007, etc.) attempts to situate Curtis in a historical time and within the context of the man’s long and interesting, if somewhat chaotic, life. This might have worked better as a biography than a novel, had not Laurie Lawlor’s Shadow Catcher: The Life and Work of Edward S. Curtis (1994) been first to market. As it is, Cheuse is forced to provide so much exposition in the story that, if it were a movie, the narrative would be more voiceover than image; this has the effect of slowing the narrative down and, from time to time, forcing it into cul-de-sacs. That said, Cheuse’s approach to Curtis, who wanted nothing more than to escape the stifling city and the close confines of his marriage to roam the plains and deserts with the last unimpounded Indians, is sympathetic and affecting; says the book’s narrator to the photographer, “You’re an unusual man but you’re not more than human,” and indeed Curtis emerges as lifelike but never larger than life. By Cheuse’s account, Curtis’s chief blemish is a kind of proprietary jealousy: He would sooner smash his glass-plate negatives, irreplaceable though they may be, rather than see them fall into the hands of his estranged wife, and so he does. Borrowing a page from Doctorow and perhaps Brian Hall—whose imaginings of the lives of famous men are much more vivid blends of fact and fiction—Cheuse studs the narrative with historical figures from Theodore Roosevelt to Cecil B. DeMille, who move the story along even as they helped Curtis in real life.

A worthy effort, if a touch too elaborate, illuminating unknown corners of a great photographer’s life.