Norman Parkinson, Defending Israel, Anthony Powell, American Childhood, Life in the 1920s &’30s


By Benjamin Schwarz

October 2004 ATLANTIC

photo-norman-parkinson-jump-pamela-minchin-in-a-fortnum-and-mason-bathing-suit1939After four lackluster years at Westminster, Norman Parkinson started his career in 1931 as an apprentice in the studios of a staid court photographer. By the end of the decade he had revolutionized the look of fashion pictures. Models had previously appeared cold, static, and studied; Parkinson aimed to “unbolt their knees,” and to suggest action and playfulness by taking “moving pictures with a still camera”—nothing like his snap of Pamela Minchin in sunglasses and a 1939 Fortnum and Mason swimsuit, leaping arms outstretched in front of the breakwaters on the Isle of Wight, had ever been seen in the fashion magazines. He got them out of the studioand onto the street, where he seemed to have caught them on the way to work (or at least a lunch date); into the muck of farm fields; and even onto the backs of ostriches and among herds of slumbering wild elephants (Parkinson pioneered the use of outdoor color photography and exotic locales in fashion shots). His style of “action realism” gave fashion photography not merely a sense of movement but an almost innocent exuberance (his 1955 picture New York, New York, of a joyful, sprinting Manhattan couple, epitomized the hopefulness of postwar young marrieds). But what made Parkinson a great photographer was his adoration—and, more important, admiration—of women (thanks probably to his closeness as a boy to his geriatric great-aunts and his indulgent mother), whom he knew to be the superior sex: “They are more courageous, more industrious, more honest, more direct,” he said—unpredictable adjectives coming from a man whose profession concentrated on women’s appearance. More than any other photographer, he captured the charm, intelligence, and humor of great feminine beauty, qualities abundantly on display here in his shots—taken from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s—of the modelnorman-parkinson and stage actress Wenda Rogerson, whom he married in 1947. (Rogerson was his third wife; they remained married until her death, forty years later.) As a model, Rogerson, in her Simpson’s suits and cashmere sweater sets, wearing sensible shoes or posed with an open umbrella by her side in the fog near Hyde Park Corner (an iconic image of the lingering sophistication of postwar London), had the astonishing ability to look at once cool and warm, elegant and jaunty; above all, she brought what she called a “witty underplay” to his pictures. Theirs is simply the most successful collaboration of photographer and model in the history of fashion, beside which the partnerships of David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton, and even Irving Penn and Lisa Fonssagrives, pale. Parkinson died in 1990, and his most professionally successful decades were his last three; but the book is divided into chapters by decade, and I found my interest flagging in the 1960s and diminished entirely in the 1970s and 1980s, as his photos, in keeping with the times, grew increasingly garish and outrageous—and as he, with his upturned moustache, in the too many photos with his models reproduced here, increasingly resembled a raffish, even louche, Indian Army colonel. (In fairness, Parkinson seems to have lost much of his enthusiasm for fashion photography after moving to Tobago, in 1963; he grew far more interested in portraiture, and became the Queen Mother’s favorite photographer.) But nothing can diminish his earlier work. Parkinson always insisted that he was a craftsman, not an artist, and he’d have dismissed the critic John Russell Taylor’s assessment that he was Sargent’s “logical successor.” We shouldn’t.

cmimg_531Defending Israelby Martin Van Creveld (St. Martin’s). Like all other honest assessments of Israel’s strategic situation, this slim book offers no support to either hawks or doves, or to either the Israeli or the Arab positions, as conventionally defined. The best-known and arguably the most highly respected civilian commentator on Israel’s military affairs, Van Creveld coolly analyzes the country’s security policy and geostrategy. He concludes that Israel’s military preponderance over its Arab neighbors is stronger than ever, and is in fact growing. He further shows that—providing Israel deploys sensing and surveillance technologies at its disposal—its withdrawal from the occupied territories will enhance, not vitiate, its security. But he also convincingly demonstrates that unless it builds a security wall (bolstered, again, by high-tech sensors, and roughly following the pre-1967 border), Israel “will almost certainly be destroyed” by Palestinian terrorism and the growth of its Arab population. (Palestinians, he points out, are in fact already exercising the “right of return” by marrying and having children with Israel’s Arab citizens. Of course, even if a wall blocks a de facto right of return, Israel’s Arab citizens already make up about 20 percent of its population. This large and rapidly growing hostile group within its pre-1967 borders represents a long-term and potentially catastrophic threat to the Jewish state’s safety, to say nothing of its democracy. Van Creveld doesn’t address this problem, but his response would almost certainly be typically grim: that the existence of a future dire threat is no reason not to forestall a more pressing one.) His strategic appraisal, which Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment widely shares, demolishes the arguments of those who hold that a wall can’t be effective, just as it renders ridiculous the propagandistic view of Israel as David surrounded by Arab Goliaths. Van Creveld has a reputation within Israel as something of a dove. But even as he reveals that much of the rhetoric in discussions of Israel’s borders and of its military balance with the Arab states is unwarrantedly pessimistic, in evaluating Israel’s dismal strategic prospects he concludes by summoning the infamous phrase of Likud’s founder, the clear-eyed and ruthless Zeev Jabotinsky: unless Israel “builds an iron wall” between itself and the Arab world, Van Creveld avers, “it can have no future.” This seems to be the only realistic option, but make no mistake: this is a strategy of no exit.

Anthony Powellby Michael Barber (Overlook). Anthony Powell (pronounced “Pole”) wrote the twentieth century’s greatestNPG 6627; Anthony Dymoke Powell by Henry Lamb English novel of manners, the twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, along with a group of sparkling and sadly neglected novels of the 1930s. He also wrote a lot about himself: four books of memoirs and three of journals. Although the memoirs are, characteristically, elaborately unrevealing and the journals blusteringly so, his life has been thoroughly recorded, which eliminates the immediate need for a biography. And Barber can’t dig deeper, because Powell, who died in 1998, rejected him as his official biographer and chose instead Hilary Spurling (whose longtime friendship with the self-destructive and somewhat tawdry Sonia Orwell gives her unusual insight into the world of high bohemia, the cynosure of Powell’s fiction). Because Powell’s (and his wife’s) papers are closed to him, Barber resorts to such lame stratagems as the following: “I should like to say more about Powell’s marriage, but I can’t. What I can do, however, is draw the reader’s attention to how he treats aspects of married life in a couple of reviews.” Powell and his onetime great friend Malcolm Muggeridge agreed that a bore was one who “takes the greatest pleasure in telling you at great lengths what you know already,” and Barber, who tells us nothing new or important about, say, the close and complicated friendships Powell had with George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh (the two English contemporaries whose work he probably admired most), nicely fits that definition here. (To be fair, Barber does assiduously mine Muggeridge’s unpublished diaries, which give some texture to his account of the two writers’ once daily interactions, but the great question regarding their relationship—What reasons lay behind Muggeridge’s nasty 1964 review of Powell’s The Valley of the Bones, a piece that ended their deep friendship?—remains unresolved.) Nothing could jar more with Powell’s measured, ironic persona and precise, understated prose than Barber’s clumsy, sophomoric humor (at Oxford “many young men thought it sapiens to be homo”) and slangy, cliché-clotted writing (in a single paragraph he gives us “arm-twisting,” “cross the pond,” “would not take no for an answer,” and “an offer he couldn’t refuse”). One can understand how Powell arrived at his chilly verdict: “An uninspiring figure, to say the least,” he jotted after an interview with Barber. But Barber self-deprecatingly quotes that assessment, and manages throughout to make his oafishness more endearing than obnoxious. Moreover, he effectively conveys the intricately interconnected milieus of Grub Street, Fitzrovia, and high society between the wars that Powell inhabited, imbued, and made the subject of his fiction, while he synthesizes the memoirs of Powell and his contemporaries, the vast and ever growing secondary literature on literary life in the 1920s and 1930s, and Powell’s semi-autobiographical novels. Despite its conspicuous flaws and lack of critical acuity, Barber’s chronicle is smooth and surprisingly compelling. This is that rare literary specimen: a pretty good bad book.

L1_Children_playing_gameHuck’s Raft: A History of American Childhoodby Steven Mintz (Harvard). Beginning in the 1960s, with the once trendy but now somewhat discredited work of Philippe Ariès, the history of childhood has emerged as one of the most creative areas of historical scholarship. Although U.S. historians have lagged behind their British and European counterparts, they’ve nevertheless produced a vast body of specialized studies on everything from children’s reading habits to the political history of playgrounds. This book synthesizes much of that work, although its emphasis is less on the emotional life of children and their families—a notoriously tricky subject that has inspired both the most sophisticated and the most simplistic scholarship—than on what Mintz calls the “public thinking” on childhood. Although clearly written and well organized, the book is weak, owing largely to the scholarly and social agendas Mintz too single-mindedly pursues. He’s intent on showing that childhood (including attitudes toward children) is what he calls “a social and cultural construct” that has changed according to historical circumstances. There’s much truth to that point of view;those, for example, nostalgic for the middle-class childhood of the 1950s and 1960s should bear in mind Mintz’s observation that “[postwar] family patterns—a high birth rate, a stable divorce rate, and a low number of mothers in the workforce—were a historical aberration” (though it’s a shame he didn’t end his sentence there, rather than redundantly elaborating, “out of line with long-term historical trends”). But Mintz overstates his case. He maintains, for example, that until the mid—eighteenth century the death of a child “produced studied resignation” in parents, rather than “powerful anxiety and sorrow.” But for decades careful historians have been dismantling this emotionally relativist argument. (In fact, in an unusually subtle and meticulous account the historian Nicholas Orme found that in many essential ways even medieval children were “ourselves, five hundred or a thousand years ago,” and that in the Middle Ages parents3c30122r cherished their children no less, and grieved no less at their loss, than they do today.) But this book is most flawed when Mintz discusses contemporary debates surrounding policy and attitudes toward children, for here he loses his historical objectivity in his socially progressive indignation over what he calls “sanctimonious moralizing.” The “tough love” approach to juvenile criminality, for instance, may be misguided and even dangerous, but its emergence is no doubt owing to somewhat complex social, political, and intellectual causes; surely it’s not mainly (and nefariously) “a thinly veiled way to target minority and lower-income youths without provoking widespread outcries of racism and class bias”—or if it is, that’s a statement that in a work of historical scholarship must be rigorously argued rather than simply asserted. Finally, the solutions Mintz proffers to the problems now besetting too many children (“Government … can moderate the economic disruption of divorce on children’s lives. It can encourage family-friendly workplace policies … our society can provide the young with meaningful opportunities to contribute to their communities, and provide the young with adult mentoring relationships”) leave all the hard questions (such as “How?”) unasked and unanswered—and hence are as anodyne as a political party’s campaign platform. But more to the point, why does a scholarly author of a work of history feel impelled to give political prescriptions? Mintz, alas, is merely subscribing to a widespread trend—but it’s a trend that should really just cease.

02GREATDIVIDE-blog427Daily Life in the United States, 1920—1940by David E. Kyvig (Ivan R. Dee). Kyvig concentrates on how most Americans (which means primarily members of the middle and lower-middle classes who lived in small cities and towns) went about their everyday lives in a period when the country was being transformed by a national economy and a consumer culture. This is a rich and wide-ranging subject that Sinclair Lewis and John O’Hara dissected in their best novels; that was the focal point for Orson Welles in one of the greatest movies ever made, his adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and for Robert and Helen Lynd in their masterpieces of sociology,Middletown and Middletown in Transition; and that I’ve been obsessed with for years. So I came to this book expecting nothing new. But in examining the impact of cars, electricity, radio, and the movies on daily life, and in exploring changes in fashion, buying habits, family relations, and religious practices, Kyvig regularly comes up with illuminating details (as late as 1937 more Americans were born at home than in the hospital) and new ways of thinking about familiar subjects (by considering, say, the effect of the development of the school bus on the quality and character of rural education). He previously wrote a masterly account of the repeal of Prohibition, and his treatment here of every aspect of that policy is especially strong (he shows that, contrary to popular wisdom, the Eighteenth Amendment was effective—outside major cities; he estimates that alcohol consumption dropped by more than 60 percent from 1920 to 1933). This is an unusually satisfying book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s