Thursday, December 11, 2008

On the Hunt for Information

Nonfiction authors, like cats and children, are insatiably curious. How else to explain the fact that long after a book is written, we're still willing to pounce on information about a subject, even if it means traipsing through a cemetery on a frigid December day?

A few days ago, with the wind chill at about 10 degrees, I attended a lecture by Dr. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, senior scholar at the Denver Art Museum Dr. Troccoli was speaking at Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery, 478 stunningly beautiful acres in the heart of a gritty urban neighborhood, and the final resting place of hundreds of famous--and infamous--Americans, including Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Lola Montez, "Boss" Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Leonard Bernstein, and Frank Morgan (aka the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz")

The subject of the talk was George Catlin's painting of DeWitt Clinton. Clinton, governor of New York from 1817-1828, is best known for his role in building the Erie Canal. Catlin, the subject of my book, Painting the Wild Frontier, is renowned as a painter of American Indians. Both men are buried at Green-Wood.

Dr. Troccoli's talk traced intriguing connections between Clinton and Catlin. But what struck me was the way it showed that studying history is like holding a prism that refracts light in all directions. By looking closely at any one incident in a person's life, you can find myriad connections to other people, places, and events. This is why scholars constantly re-examine familiar texts and mine old information for new insights, and why nonfiction authors tromp through cemeteries, always on the hunt for a good story.

After the lecture I took a trolley tour of artist's graves led by Green-Wood's resident historian. The trolley was packed, encouraging evidence of New Yorkers' enthusiasm for history, and a reminder that cemeteries are not just the repository of skeletons, but a unique and unusual opportunity to explore the past.

Afterward I walked back to Catlin's grave, high atop a windswept hill overlooking a picturesque lake.George Catlin is buried in his wife's family plot. She had predeceased him by many years, and when he finally passed away in 1872, his in-laws buried him in an unmarked grave. It wasn't until 1961 that a group of Catlin enthusiasts and family members finally raised funds for a monument.

After four years of working on my Catlin book, I was very excited to finally be visiting the grave. In fact, I was shivering in anticipation (or was it the cold?). What I found was a plain granite marker--just Catlin's name and dates. But there on the ground in front of it, someone had left an old paintbrush, stiff with paint. A scrap of artist's rag was wrapped around the brush, flapping in the wind. I hurried back to my warm car, marveling at this perfect tribute to a man who devoted his life to his art.


Jeannine Atkins said...

Susanna, Please tell me you had your camera with you at the gravesite!

Anonymous said...

Halfway to Brooklyn, I realized I had forgotten my camera! Otherwise I would have posted a picture. I guess I'll have to return to Green-Wood Cemetery someday. But I think I'll wait until it's warmer!