Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Clara and Mr. Tiffany (and Walt Whitman).


I just finished my first new book of the year: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. The novel is based on a recent (2007) discovery that Clara Driscoll invented/designed the first Tiffany lamps (not Louis Comfort Tiffany) for Tiffany studios. I won't go much more into the plot but direct you this New York Times article which broached the issue for the first time. For me, Vreeland's novel was the perfect blend of history, narrative, and entertainment.

The article gives you the nuts and bolts of the historical Clara Driscoll, but the novel is all Clara's perspective which makes it historical fiction. As the reader, you get to live Gilded Age excess through her eyes in a boarding house in lower Manhattan. With Clara, you fall in love with art, flowers, the first skyscrapers, and the subway.

I loved the history and the character development. What made this novel practically perfect was Vreeland's use of poetry, especially Whitman. One of my favorite Whitman lines from "Leaves of Grass" appeared near the end, "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." Whitman always leaves me thinking (and hoping).

And, one of my favorite Whitman poems, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" also made an appearance! This poem holds a special place in my heart. It is the first poem I remember diving into in college. I remember reading it again and again, breaking it down and discussing it in class. It was the first time I felt that I had made it as a college student and as a scholar. I never tire of it and here it is, for your own edification. Please listen - it is how poetry is meant to be enjoyed.