This Above All (1924)

THIS ABOVE ALL (1924)
Fiction; 374 Pgs; Bobbs-Merrill Company

Summary:

American artist, Garrison Spaulding, arrives in New York City in October 1913 after studying art in Europe for two years. He finds a room at 43 Washington Square South. “Garrie” Spaulding struggles with an inner conflict over his art, in that he is only able to survive by creating advertising in artistic styles he emmulates from European magazines.

He abandons his bohemian life in the Village to volunteer as an officer with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. He desparately wants to lose himself, to give his full measure to a cause, yet at the same time sees his own life’s calling drifting away.

Upon return to civilian life, he is unable to work in advertising because he will no longer produce in the style of others. He wants to paint, but his attempts are haunted by the fact that he sees a shallow emmulation of others in his canvases. Despite praise of his work by friends, he is driven to dispare, to the edge of suicide, and finally to physical collapse.

There is one sketch, a street scene in Chinatown, that he recognizes as uniquely his own. From that point on he is determined to leave for provincial China on a personal quest; to get beyond his conventional experience and “see true”, to go directly to his subject, without the shade of any western painter’s influence.

This is a story of being true to one’s inner vision; of personal integrity amidst the temptation to surrender to superficial comfort, and giving to Life (and loved-ones) one’s full measure. In his only novel, Speakman reveals much of his personal struggle with the modern world in respect to his own romanticism, his sense of clarity of the human spirit and common sense over ritual and superstition, observations and feelings about women, and the meaning of Love and Art.

Excerpts:

Dedication: “To Clark Wing In Berkeley”

Excerpt Page 57:

“The next day when Garrie telephoned Ellis, the latter greeted him warmly.

‘The Sanford-Gill Company have seen your work and want to see you. They are one of the best agencies in the city and I think there is something in it for us. If you can come up this afternoon, we’ll go over to their office together’.

The interview at the Sanford-Gill Company was very agreeable. When they left the art manager’s shining mahogany cell, the heart of Mr. Garrison Spaulding was thumping quite violently against a contract for drawings which would carry him on for three months. These were to be automobile drawings (after a style he had adapted from Simplicissimus) to be done in black-and-white, with fine outlines, solid blacks and a few flat gray tones. The foreign touch had appealed again. The Sanford-Gill art manager called it ‘a modern note’ – but it was just the same thing.

Ellis looked at his client with subdued interest. In consideration, he said, of the fact that Garrie was really beginning to do something, he would only ask him ten percent commission instead of twenty – as he did for Neysa, McMein, Haskell Coffin and the rest. . . .

Back in the attic, Garrie threw open his window, and standing before it looked out at the stately buildings of the city. In the strong afternoon light they seemed to be plowing up-town with Washington Square in their wake. He could see the very bench he sat that first night in the rain. His mind went back over the happenings of the past two years – the meeting with Peyton, the hatframe drawings, the girl he had spoken to in the street, the magazine editors, the cold, the times of being hungry, the weary days of tramping through the snow in search of work. The city had seemed bitterly ruthless then. He had attacked it with all his strength; it had not even been aware of his presence.

But now a change was slowly coming over it. There was a sort of kindliness in its attitude which he had not thought possible. A warm and friendly spirit seemed to hover about it, mingling with the filaments of white vapor above its high cornices and pinnacles.

He stood looking for a time at its rows of windows, its sky-reaching spires, its vast vertical perpectives. Then a deep sense of thankfulness swept over him. With gratitude flooding into his face, he held out his arms to the city.”

Excerpt Page 152: “November came and with it a cold spell that prevented out-of-door sketching. He mounted a large canvas on which to begin a painting from one of his sketches. But this work which he had spiritedly planned for and looked forward to, now seemed utterly repugnant. Every brush stroke was a labored and prodigious effort of will. But above the dim and intricate maze which life now seemed, one steadfast thought shone with intense clearness. The need for honesty.

It was a strange and rather terrible thing to feel that in spite of most herculean efforts, one’s mind was gradually becoming sterile, blank, denuded . . . . One thing he did learn. Gradually, as he sat before his easel, he saw the fallacy of striving after technique.

‘Technique,’ he said with conviction to his canvas, ‘is not afterall a matter of brush strokes or little tricks, as I thought, or of using certain colors on one’s palette, or painting in a higher or lower key. Technique is a man’s own personality shining right through the paint and unconsciously expressing itself in everything he does….Of course, if a man has deadened his personality by aping other men. . . .

He got out the sketches he had made – small bastard Reniors, muddy-toned Whistlers, diluted Monets, an East Side back yard like Sloan, A High Bridge with broken color like Lever. There had been just one sketch which did not seem to be a cuckoo cry of some other man. It was the interior of a Chinese joss house in Mott Street, but it was so badly painted that he had tossed it aside and forgotten it. As he looked at the others, he likened himself to a cheap and common weed, clinging for a time to a shallow pocket of soil in the wall of a rare garden.

Even Steele at last saw that something was wrong, and gave him encouragement in his kindly roaring way; encouragement which cut like a two-edged knife: “Lord! You haven’t a thing in the world to worry about – doing straight creative work the way you are’.”

Excerpt Page 161: “Something drew him to the window. Great God! What had happened to the city? It seemed to him as though, under a thousand years of frightful cold and desolation, the great buildings had frozen down into terrible ghastly stumps of themselves. They lay, with their contents spewed out and frozen about them, under vast transparent mounds of green ice. The City Terrible. Putrescence preserved by ice. . . .

In the myriad, half-destroyed rooms were thousands of dead men – standing, sitting, or bent over, but all immovably caked in ice. And over all lay the solitude of grim frozen desolation.

The details showed hideously clear. They had been caught in the midst of their most private affairs – men taking money stealthily out of cash drawers; brokers destroying their books; men slapping other men on the back, while in their pockets were papers which would ruin those other men; two members of a vice committee, with their lecherous faces frozen enternally into ice, gloating over photographs which one of them had collected in Paris; editors leaving the apartments of their mistresses to write articles on morality; prohibition agents reselling their poisonous booty; a group of promoters altering a railroad map to make the railroad appear fifty miles nearer their mines; the editor of an elegant snob magazine stroking the leg of a young girl who had come in to sell him some work; Adelaide Dexter writing frozen lies upon a letter of ice to her sick husband; and here – open to the winds of eternity in a small crumbling chamber off a long corridor, was himself, Garrie Spaulding, at work, with a pile of foreign magazines beside him.

All frozen . . . . Terrible and still; like Dore’s pictures of a fronzen Hell. . . . .

But as he looked at that figure which was his own – grotesque and distorted under the magnifying glaze – an astonishing thing happened. It shuddered, stirred, then, amid a slow splintering of ice, rose tortuously up on ponderous, leaded feet, and with arms rigid at its side, started mechanically down the long corridor toward a blank wall. Its face wore the frozen mask of death; but for a breathless moment, Garrie was aware that a spark of some unknown, far-away power, more potent than a thousand years of death and ice, had roused the figure and was driving it on . . . .

Poor fool! And yet – not altogether poor fool. At least there would be no turning back . . . But all this cracking off of ice, this herculean raising of dead limbs was in vain. When the dead man reached the end of the passage he would only sink inertly down into the ice again. For now Garrie, looking out over Washington Square to the ice-bound ruin beyond, saw in the glacial horror of the city, only the doom of his own numbed and frozen soul.”

Excerpt Page 184: “Among all the desires in the world, there is one in particular all of us have known – the deep, strong – compelling desire to go away. The desire is much the same with all of us; its cause may differ greatly in each individual case.

It may be that something has been goading us very cruelly, or that we are sick, or very tired. Or it may be only the joyful urge of untamed ancestors in us crying for the open. Or perhaps, like disciples of Cervantes’ gallant hare-brained old knight, we must go out from our comfortable firesides and look at the stars and joust with windmills for a while.

Sometimes we may want to go away because we are cowards. In that case, the very time we wish to go may be exactly the time to ‘dig in’ and stick to our guns. Or perhaps, if to stay meant to surrender, it would be better to spike our guns and go quickly and quietly away.

As Garrie told Stella the plan which was in his mind, she saw that his going was not a matter of ennui or leisure or evasion, but that it had to do with very simple primitive things. Things like Life and Death and the Soul.

But, away. . . . To China. . .”

Excerpt Page 198: “The night called them out-of-doors, and they walked together along the white road under the eucalyptus trees, through the high branches of which the stars were shinning. It was only then that West asked:

‘What’s this nonsense about going to China, Garrie?’

They went on a little way before he answered.

‘It is on account of something that happened to me on the Western Front one night. You know – (I agree with you that the war was rotten and doesn’t seem to have got us anywhere; making the world safe for democracy, and all that, but) – One night, during an attack, it seemed as though for a few moments I could see all the values of life clear and true, more clearly and truly than I had ever been able to see anything in my life before.’ He lowered his voice. ‘It was as though for a few moments I could actually understand right and wrong. I don’t mean only our present-day code, but the great underlying colors of the thing beyond right and wrong.

‘I don’t think I can explain it with words. Words are such miserable substitutes for a moment like that. Sometimes they seem to hide our thoughts instead of disclosing them . . . . I don’t know . . . . If we could only cut clean to the cry of the heart. . . .

‘Whatever I saw, I am sure that it had to do with the necessity of seeing true . . . . “