This is an utterly captivating biography of an artist whose best-known paintings today—grand scenes of storm-tossed boats and rescues at sea and fishermen staring off into the angry waves—make up just a small portion of his work. Born in 1836, Homer achieved national fame for his drawings of the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly, drawings that allowed readers to experience both the terror and tedium of warfare. He certainly had his sentimental streak, best shown by his painting of a boy whittling, but his depictions of Black Americans show an implicit understanding of how to answer indignities with dignity. Cross has done a superb job of bringing to life a man who kept no diaries, never married, and confided in few, but whose work, so beautifully reproduced in what is as much an art book as it is a biography, speaks not just to a time and place but to an eternal yearning. “He aspired to observe but be unobserved,” writes Cross, “a kind of human periscope, both subjective and precise.”
What Meyer has done is remarkable: find an aspect of Franklin’s life that has not been written about to death. Shortly before he died, Franklin gave a gift of $2,000 to Boston and Philadelphia to be doled out as loans to tradesmen, repayable with interest so the funds could continue to grow until the final payout was handed out in 1991. Not all went according to plan, but enough of it worked out for Meyer to produce a lively and engrossing narrative of how a person known for so many other things can make a mark by also being a philanthropist. Tech titans, take note.
The author is a wonderful novelist (we especially recommend The Invention of Everything Else, inspired by the life of star inventor Nikola Tesla, who died penniless in a New York hotel in 1943 and whose accomplishments also inspired a certain car-maker), but here she writes both a memoir and a meditation on books, finished and unfinished, the costs of lives ended too soon, her father’s own unfinished novel, and the ending that awaits all of us. She is obsessed with the dead and with ghosts, but in ways that make readers feel alive and their curiosity rekindled. It is a compliment of the highest order to say that you will not read another book quite like this one.