Somehow a Past
The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley
256 pp., 5 x 7 in,
- Published: March 2, 1998
- Publisher: The MIT Press
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) is best known as an American modernist and pioneering artist of the early twentieth century. But he was also a prolific writer who published dozens of essays and reviews and several volumes of poetry and prose. The autobiographical account of his life in the manuscript collection of Yale's Beinecke Library has often been consulted by scholars and curators writing about Hartley. It is the most revealing document he left about his personal life and relationships—both for its disclosures and omissions—but has never been published before. Transcribed from Hartley's own handwritten manuscripts, this edition is accompanied by photographs (some never before published), notes, and an introduction discussing Hartley's fascination with autobiography in the context of his struggle with notions of self-representation in art. Susan Ryan also describes the circumstances surrounding the composition of Somehow a Past, and explains the distinctions between this original version and two later ones also in the Beinecke Library. Somehow a Past is compelling both as historical document and as personal narrative. Although solitary, self-involved, and saturnine, Hartley nevertheless knew nearly every figure of the international avant-garde in his day and unfolds his life largely through a chain of personal encounters. His traffic with such major literary and artistic figures as Alfred Stieglitz, Vasili Kandinski, Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge, Eugene O¹Neill, Robert McAlmon, and Charles Demuth is recorded as are his travels both domestic and foreign. Somehow a Past is gossipy, discursive, and self-distanced. Hartley drafted it several times, truncating the description of his traumatic childhood, and leaving out any overt reference to his homosexuality. Yet there are moments of crystal clear self-characterization and leitmotifs that commemorate his troubled youth.
Hartley's diffident and elusive title does not convey the energy, charm and sheer pleasure of this artist's account of his life and travels.... Marsden Hartley is an extraordinary witness to his age. The book joins a rich body of 'witness' literature left us by Hartley's friends and conspirators in the 'modern movement' like Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle, Mabel Dodge and Ernest Hemingway. One of the few painters turned writer, Hartley has given usan intensely visual record of a time he called a 'cross 'tween a circus and a sacred affair,' when everything was possible, and the artist's goal was simply to remake the world.
The New York Times Book Review
As a writer, Hartley renders his life and the circumstances of hiswork with an often overblown drama, but it is precisely this dramathat mirrors the physic mood underlying his character and,consequently, much of his art. While biographical information existselsewhere, Hartley's own recounting of his story offers illuminationsthat transcend the factual. By making this self-view available tomore than a handful of scholars, this book will enrich the field ofearly 20th century art history.
Barbara Haskell, Curator, Painting and Sculpture, Whitney Museum of American Art