Monday, October 4, 2010

Peter H. Wood's "Near Andersonville"

Peter H. Wood is Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, "Near Andersonville": Winslow Homer’s Civil War, and reported the following:
By the time you reach page 99 of Near Andersonville, Winslow Homer’s Civil War, you have already finished the three-chapter text, and you are plunging into the web of primary sources that underlie this short exploration of a remarkable painting by one of America’s great artists. Why such brevity? Because the book began as three illustrated talks at Harvard University in 2009, focusing on a little-known Homer oil called Near Andersonville. The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures in African American Studies allowed me to take a close look at a single work, much as I did with Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer’s ‘Gulf Stream’ (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).

Both of these Homer pictures zero in on an African American figure caught in a difficult dilemma, but they differ in many ways. Though often misunderstood, Gulf Stream (1899) in New York’s Metropolitan Museum remains an American icon. The picture of a man at sea surrounded by sharks is one of Homer’s final African American images and certainly his most famous. In contrast, Near Andersonville is one of Homer’s earliest black images, and probably the least well-known. This oil of an enslaved black woman at a cabin door disappeared for a century after its completion in 1866. Even after it was given to the Newark Museum in 1966, its correct name remained unknown for several decades, and its rich but subtle symbolism is only now being explored.

The notes on page 99 help reveal how I uncovered the original owner of the painting for the first time, and they suggest why Homer might have been motivated to create such an unusual painting. I go on to explain the relevance of Andersonville Prison and General Sherman’s Georgia Campaign to the meaning of the picture. I show that Homer leads the viewer “behind enemy lines” to provide a unique perspective on the tumultuous national events of the summer and fall of 1864—including Lincoln’s surprising re-election. As the notes make clear, the book combines elements of black history, women’s history, art history, and Civil War history. Its publication by the Harvard University Press this fall seems one suitable way to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Winslow Homer’s death, on September 29, 1910.
Learn more about "Near Andersonville": Winslow Homer’s Civil War at the Harvard University press website.

--Marshal Zeringue