American Letters: 1927-1947: Jackson Pollock and Family, Polity Press 2011, April 2011. 252 pp. $25.
“I became more in love with America the more I get out in it. It offers so much that art has never touched.” Thomas Hart Benton (Martha’s Vineyard) to Charles Pollock (New York)
Charles, Marvin, Frank, Sanford, and Jackson Pollock are five brothers who kept in contact with one another through letters. “American Letters: Jackson Pollock and Family” is a collection of their correspondences written between the years of 1927 and 1947. The letters reflect personal news and trivial observations as well as glimpses of each brother’s hopes and aspirations. When assembled, they also reveal an uncanny perception of American politics and current events. What results is an illuminating first-hand portrayal of an epoch of American history void of the hyper-consciousness that clouds typical autobiographies.
While Jackson Pollock, an artist known for pioneering the school of Abstract Expressionism, is emphasized as one of the participating authors, his letters are given no greater weight than those of the other four brothers. Each author garners equal significance in terms of weaving the larger narrative of “American Letters.” Pollock’s persona, while intimately elucidated, is not the book’s concern, but a rather noteworthy corollary.
The book’s intent is simple and sincere — to share a collection of family letters that reveal an exceptional view into America’s history as it unfolded. It is a glimpse into the mind of five brothers, whose eyes were wide open during two notable decades of American history and who possessed both the intuition and the eloquence with which to record it.
Readers will find interesting the letters between Thomas Hart Benton and the brothers, with whom he shared a close relationship and served as a mentor. Also worth noting are the many references to Martha’s Vineyard, where the brothers often found an escape from hectic city life.
What’s more, the brothers’ journeys in self-expression are accessible ones, stamped by the economic hardships of a working-class family that were heightened by the depression era. The need for income, to sustain family as well as self, is alluded to in almost every letter. It was a mentally and morally draining life obstacle, but one that is relatable.
The Pollock brothers fostered a profound intellectual engagement with their environment, one that allowed them to understand and question the American status quo. In their discourse amongst themselves, political observations and advice were exchanged, which allows the reader to partake in a critique of mid-20th century American culture.
“Things here in New York aren’t of the happiest kind,” Sanford writes to Charles. “On the project there is considerable unrest and demoralization due to the One Thousand dollar cost ruling which is being considered in Washington. The union is putting up a good scrap.”
Over the course of the book, the Pollock family’s proclivity for art is made clear. Both Charles and Sanford were artists working on the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) at the same time as Jackson. In the majority of the letters, the three brothers communicate as professional equals, giving one another advice that ranges from “must-see” expositions to how to obtain the desired paint consistency.
“American Letters” is no doubt intriguing for the artistically and politically inclined. Regardless of personal interests, however, the book presents five lives lived with self-reflection and cultural cognizance. The 21st century has fostered a world of expedience in which it is easy to forgo inconvenient communication. “American Letters” illuminates the importance of thoughtful interrelations, telling a classic American story along the way.
Sam McCoy, a seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard and former editorial assistant for The Times, is currently teaching English in Paris. She is the great-niece of Jackson Pollock.