The untimely death of James R. Mellow brought an end to a distinguished career. Mellow edited books and periodicals, wrote criticism of art and literature, and produced several impressive literary biographies. Each of them, he said, was meant to be not only a faithful portrait of his subject but also an accurate re- creation of an era. Mellow thought of his trilogy Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (1974), Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (1984), and Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences (1992) as a history of the lost generation and its writers. His book Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (1980) was the first in a projected series about nineteenth century Americans, which would also have included biographies of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Because Walker Evans is best known as a photographer, rather than as a writer, one might be tempted to compare this life with the monographs Mellow wrote for the Pace Gallery, Jim Dine, Recent Work (1980) and Picasso, the Avignon Paintings (1981). It is true that art criticism is an important component of Walker Evans. Whenever Mellow mentions one of the many photographs by Evans that are included in the book, he not only notes when, where, and under what circumstances it was taken but also points out how elements in the design produce the intended effect. Sometimes he speculates as to what kind of camera Evans may have used for a particular shot or explains how Evans overcame practical difficulties in order to get the picture he wanted—for instance, posing his wife in front of the camera while with a right angle lens he photographed his unsuspecting and thus unselfconscious subject.
However, in format and in overall purpose, Walker Evans closely resembles Mellow’s four literary biographies. Like them, it begins with an incident in the subject’s life, in this case the only meeting between Evans and Mellow. At the time, neither of the men had any idea that Mellow would someday write a biography of Evans. As the author admits in his prologue, in 1974, when The New York Times asked him to interview Evans, Mellow knew something about his photographs but almost nothing about the man, not even enough to guess the significance of Evans’s tossing down tumblers of brandy while they talked. Only after the interview appeared in The New York Times on December 1, 1974, did Mellow learn about Evans’s alcoholism, which his friends had hoped he had under control. In any case, Mellow did not have a chance to pursue this slight acquaintance with the famous photographer. During the winter, Evans’s health declined rapidly; he died of a stroke on April 10, 1975.
In the years that followed, Mellow moved on to other projects. However, it was almost inevitable that his interest in American cultural history would eventually lead him back to the photographer, who, like the men in the literary biographies, both reflected and influenced the times in which he lived.
After giving readers a glimpse of Evans near the end of his life, Mellow goes back to the beginning and, as in the literary biographies, proceeds chronologically from there on.
Interestingly, he devotes only one chapter, and a very short one at that, to Evans’s early years. After pointing out that both his mother and his father had New England roots, the biographer establishes the fact that the first Walker Evans, the photographer’s grandfather, lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and married a girl from Mexico, Missouri, where Evans’s father, Walker Evans, Jr., was born. It is suggested that Jessie Beach Crane, the poet’s mother, was from the same area. Although there are some photographs of her as a young woman, the reader is told almost nothing about her background or her interests.
Walker Evans III was born in St. Louis; however, because his father worked in advertising, the family moved frequently. Young Walker attended schools in Kenilworth, Illinois, near Chicago; in Toledo, Ohio; and in Windsor, Connecticut. After a brief period at Pennsylvania’s Mercersburg Academy, he spent two years at the famous preparatory school in Andover, Massachusetts, Phillips Andover. Subsequently he attended Williams College, but he dropped out after one year. Mellow hypothesizes that Evans’s passion for fixing time and place in photographs may have arisen out of the rootlessness of his early years.
Evans always dated his career as a photographer as beginning in 1928, five years after...
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