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Red Brick, Black Mountain

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


Last night I wrote about Matt Dellinger’s book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. As described in that post, two weeks ago it took me a couple of days to figure out what the book was that had come out a couple of years ago and that focused on the politics of a new interstate. While searching in vain for it, I had begun reading Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution. I put it aside when I found Interstate 69 , anticipating returning to it soon. But then the NYT posted their annual list of 100 notable books online last week. (It appeared in print yesterday.)

In scanning the list, I noticed Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival, with the short description, “mixing memoir, family saga, travelogue and cultural ­history.” I clicked the provided link, taking me to Adam Goodheart’s review from last April, which includes an expanded description:

Part memoir, part family saga, part travelogue, part cultural history, it takes readers on a peripatetic ramble across America and beyond, paying calls on Cherokee potters, Bauhaus craftsmen, colonial clay-diggers and the author’s brick-mason grandfather.

Further along, Goodheart writes:

Benfey’s roots are indeed far-flung. His mother’s ancestors were North Carolina brickmakers and bricklayers, delving into and molding the soil of the Piedmont. His father’s German Jewish kinfolk were delvers and molders of a different sort: scholars, jurists and aesthetes. They included the artists Anni and Josef Albers, the author’s great-aunt and great-uncle, who found their own raw material in the Carolina upcountry, improbably journeying there in the 1930s to help establish Black Mountain College, an outcrop of Bauhaus modernism in the New World.

Such a family tree might appear, on its own, to provide more than ample material for a book. But Benfey, a distinguished historian, critic and literary scholar, is interested in connections less obvious than the merely genetic. Propelled by a lifelong fascination with ceramics, he takes his narrative far afield in pursuit of pots.

Two days ago, I downloaded and read the free opening portion, which was sufficiently enchanting that I downloaded the book in full. I’m about a third of the way through now and thoroughly enjoying it.

Here is a passage that gives a taste of Benfey’s writing. For context, I should explain that Benfey’s father was a chemistry professor at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, which itself had been settled by North Carolina Quakers early in the nineteenth century. Benfey’s mother was from North Carolina and had gone to yet another Quaker school, Guilford College, in Greensboro. Her father, a master bricklayer, still lived in N.C.

One spring—it must have been around 1960—my grandfather packed the trunk of his white Cadillac with beautiful long bricks and drove to our house in Indiana and right there laid our mantelpiece. Carrying the bricks one by one from the big-finned sedan, I knew in my hands what bricklayers have known for a thousand years: that bricks are human scale, made by hand to fit the hand. My grandfather showed me how to get the mortar, spread with a pointed trowel like icing on a cake, just right. He was a connoisseur of well-laid brick; he would point out to me, with his stub of an index finger, the shortcomings of certain walls and buildings. Graceless attempts to hide a careless alignment of brick or a shoddy mortar job were never lost on him. He believed—believed in his fingertips—that honesty in brick was as important as honesty in any other transaction.

Benfey’s mother had once been engaged to a Quaker, Sergei, who performed domestic service during World War II as a conscientious objector, then attended Haverford (the Quaker school in suburban Philadelphia) while she was at Guilford. I don’t want to give too much away. You may wish to skip ahead at this point, past the quote below.

If you keep reading, what you need to know is that Sergei drowned in a boating accident just weeks before the wedding. Here’s another passage.

It is the fall of 2009. My mother is planning her wedding to Sergei Thomas. He has been dead for six decades but evidently not to her. A series of strokes following heart surgery has abolished the boundary in her mind between the living and the dead. She tells me that after sixty years of marriage to my father, she has decided to marry someone else.

“I wanted another life,” she says.


From time to time, my father asks her whether he should attend the wedding. “Of course,” she says. In what capacity? He will give away the bride.

On Benfey’s father’s side, his grandfather was a prominent lawyer in Germany, becoming a supreme court justice in Berlin. Though Jewish, he had converted to Lutheranism as a young man. Benfey’s grandmother was from a family that ran the largest publishing company in Europe. They too had converted. The grandfather was fired from the supreme court in 1935. On introducing himself at a Nazi office as Chief Justice Benfey, he was told, “You are not Chief Justice Benfey. You are Jew Benfey.”

The family would get out. Benfey’s father is sent to England to live with friends who had already fled. Later, the father’s parents, brother, and sister join him, before going on to the US. The father would stay in England through the war, separated from his family until he finishes his studies for a PhD.

This is about where I am in the book. Lots of compelling stories. But the book is not just a family memoir. For instance, so far Benfey has also discussed the pottery tradition of North Carolina and the establishment of Jugtown, as well as a visit to famed English potter Mark Hewitt, based in Pittsboro, N.C.

With Joel in Chapel Hill, just a few miles from Pittsboro, it’s tempting to embark on a pottery tour next time we visit. We did see a Jugtown pottery exhibition when we went to the Greensboro Historical Museum last April, as I wrote about at the time. The photo below is taken from their website.


I’m glad the NYT included the book in its end-of-year list. I would have missed it otherwise.

(By the way, next Sunday’s NYT book review will have their annual selection of the 10 best books of the year. There’s no link to the list that I can find at the website, but it’s already available, as a search reveals. You’ll find it here.)

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