The Last Summer of the World
In her first novel, Emily Mitchell chooses as her main character the famous American photographer Edward Steichen. Although Steichen began his career as a painter, he soon turned to photography. Born in 1879, Steichen met his wife Clara in 1898 and in 1906 moved with her to France, where he resided until 1914. Although his later life included commercial work for Vanity Fair, the directorship of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the creation of the 1955 exhibit The Family of Man, Mitchell chooses to focus on Steichen’s life during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Well researched and finely written, Mitchell’s novel adds to a growing body of work by contemporary writers using historical figures of the past to people their fiction.
Using the bare bones of Steichen’s biography as well as the backdrop of World War I, Mitchell imaginatively creates relationships, conversations, events, and consequences for her fictive Steichen, his wife Clara, their friend Marion Beckett, and other historical figures lending their names to the project. The book opens in June, 1918, in France, and each chapter title bears a date, ending in February, 1919. Within the chapters are sections headed by the name of particular photograph taken by Steichen. In these sections, Mitchell flashes back to Steichen’s past to reveal an event or consider a person in some way suggested by the photograph. For example, Mitchell titles a scene detailing Steichen’s first meeting with French sculptor Auguste Rodin thusly: “Rodin in His Studio. Meudon, 1901. Pigment Print.” The linkage between the actual photograph and the events that follow serve to organize the past for the reader, just as photographs seem to organize Steichen’s past for the photographer.
The reader first meets Steichen in June, 1918. He is serving with the photographic division of the American Expeditionary Force in France. World War I has been raging for four long years, and the misery of soldiers in the trenches forms a constant background to the book, contrasting to Steichen’s presence in the skies above the battlefield. It is his task to go aloft with a pilot and photograph the scene below. Upon landing, he must interpret the photographic images to reveal enemy movement and strongholds. In a way, it is a kind of cryptography, looking at images and shapes that only take form after learning the code. As Steichen instructs his men, “You have to learn the meaning in these lines . You have to use the distances you know to measure the ones you don’t.”
Steichen has also just received a letter from Marion Beckett, a woman who had been a mutual friend of both the photographer and his wife Clara. However, Clara suspects the two of having had an affair and has ended the friendship. Now, after leaving Steichen and taking their daughters with her, Clara has initiated a lawsuit against Marion for alienation of affection. Ironically, although Steichen has been unfaithful several times in his marriage, he has not had an affair with Marion. The receipt of the letter begins a long unraveling of the past for Steichen, who tries to recall how his personal life has become so chaotic.
He begins with a self-portrait of himself as a boy in Milwaukee, enamored with the idea of photography. From there he moves on to his first trip to Paris and his meeting with sculptor Auguste Rodin, an artist who was to become one of his closest friends. He also travels back in time to pick up the story of Clara and of their meeting at a party in Paris in 1902. Clara, an accomplished pianist, is traveling in France with her sister and the noted journalist Mildred Aldrich. Marion Beckett is also in the room, as is Alfred Stieglitz. The moment of Steichen’s meeting with Clara seems fraught with significance for both parties, and Mitchell provides a description that could be a photograph itself.
Scenes such as this come back to Steichen as he flies over the battlefields of France. The force of memory becomes so strong that he manages to persuade a pilot to fly him over the house he shared with Clara in France, on the Marne River: “They were flying parallel to the road as it mounted the hill, racing up the escarpment toward a small outcropping of trees, horse chestnuts and lindens and there, there, he could see it rushing toward them, there it was: his house, the house he had come up this same rise and...
(The entire section is 1818 words.)