Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay - Book Review

Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival 
by Christopher Benfey
Penguin, 2012
Why?  TLC Book Tours
What Now?  Onto the glass shelves this one goes...a must re-read

Golden Lines

At fifty-four, life, at least my life, is as much a task of recovery as of acquisition.  The uncertain prospects ahead are weighed against the magnetic pull, stronger every day, of retrospect.  To own one's past and the past of one's own family takes on a peculiar urgency.  The archaeological impulse is a trust in the importance of origins, of beginnings.

A work of pottery like my grandparents' orange pitcher lives in two different worlds.  It is beautiful to look at, and Jugtown pots during the last fifty years have migrated steadily from private homes into museums.  But these pots were also made for use, for keeping iced tea cold.

Tamba grew directly out of the social fabric; it was the product of farmers who were close to the basic essentials of existence.  It had, therefore, a directness, an honesty, a suitability to purpose and lack of self-consciousness, which have been the mark of the best pottery everywhere.

An eminent psychoanalyst once told my father that all his interpersonal problems could be traced back to a single source: He was separated too early from his parents.  Abandoned like Hansel and Gretel in the forest of life, he was trying, against all odds, to find his way back home.  It is a sign of my father's strength, it seems to me, that he also traces much of his happiness in life to the same moment of separation.  "My survival," he once said, in an exchange with his foster brother, Wolf Mendl, "the fact that I wasn't ended rather early in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, was purely due to the love and care and concern of my family in finding the best way of getting me out of there and Wolf's family in taking me in."

"You don't need to look for suffering. Suffering will find you."

The modern world, in Anni's view, had changed the human sense of scale.  Skyscrapers and the monstrous dreams of dictators were typical expressions of the age, but they needn't be the only expression of it. 

Among the thousands of detainees crowded into the racetrack were several Japanese artists, some of whom had worked as animators at the Disney Studios.  They established a makeshift art workshop in a section of the Santa Anita grandstand, and Asawa studied there.  "How lucky could a sixteen-year-old be?" she reflected later.  The prison had become a santuary.

No one has been able to explain the sheer number of artists and writers and other creative people whose lives were decisively touched by the creative ferment of Black Mountain.  Perhaps it had something to do with the confluence of European refugees and American mavericks in search of safe harbor, finding unexpected common ground in the Appalachian outback.


Benfey traces his family history through the artifacts, places, people, and stories that mean home. With his mother's Quaker beginnings and his father's German Jewish heritage, his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as great grandparents, aunts and uncles were shaped by the events leading up to, during and after WWII, his mother's family within work/internment camps of sorts for conscientious objectors and his father's family as victim's of Hitler's stripping even German citizens of their livelihoods because of their Jewish ancestry, all of their lives converging, moving in and out of Black Mountain from all around the world.  

What I Liked

the family stories - Benfey covers his family history with artform (brick, clay, textiles, fairy tales, Greek mythology, art, pottery, poetry, collages, jewelry, literature) rather than a more expected timeline 

The central setting is Black Mountain North Carolina and no matter how far away family members are or travel from Black Mountain, specifically Black Mountain College, the connection always comes full circle.  Some started out there; others found their way there; and even Benfey himself returns there within a chapter aptly entitled "The Meander," the title alluding to Benfey's own shifting, zig-zagging journey, as well as those of his family members in comparison to the beloved art pattern of Benfey's great aunt and uncle.

Japan, Germany, Mexico, U.S. England, China, Russia, and Poland are just a few of the places touched by Benfey's family members and their art.

At times I was reminded of the early colonial free thinkers and their connections to one another...Walden, Thoreau, Colerige and Alcott...Benfey paints a picture of another community of intellectuals making sense of the world around them through their art in its many forms.

the appreciation of the art and a conscious resistance to defining or otherwise pigeon-holing it...an openness to interpretation but at the same time not a free for all creation or emotional, "what it means to me" response.

the search for the elusive white clay of the Cherokee nation...how the Englishman Wedgewood sought out the secrets of Chinese porcelain and early colonist potters began to throw stoneware...and the inevitable consequences for the Cherokee themselves.

Even though Benfey's book is a wealth of information, it never feels that way.  I never felt bogged down, and there was enough narrative intertwined with facts to keep the flow moving swiftly and smoothly.  The language is impeccable and was a joy to read.

What I Didn't Like

I honestly can't think of a thing.


This book is a perfect selection for those who love non-fiction, art in its many forms, family stories, early American as well as early history of marginalized groups forced to leave their homes and/or those who love reading about history without political agenda.  If Benfey has one, I never noticed.  

Other Reviews:

Wordy Evidence of the Fact
Anthony Foo
Travel Spot
Iwriteinbooks’s blog
Twisting the Lens
Why Not Pottery
Musing About Mud

**a complimentary copy of Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay was provided to me by the publisher via TLC Book Tours.  All opinions are my own.


  1. I am glad that you liked this one. I have been hearing some very good things about it, and it's not something that would have normally crossed my radar. Thanks for the thoughtful review on this one today. It's going on my list!

  2. a slow "meandering" kind of read for sure :)

  3. Thanks for stopping over- I am enjoying your blog.

  4. I love books that combine family history with local history and other fascinating details - sounds like this one would be perfect for me!

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.