Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What I Read: Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

Part of my 101 in 1001 list is always to try to read one non-fiction book a month. I'm eternally interested in the world around me and reading a constant and broad range of non-fiction helps me do just that.

Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler's Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.

Like other, more historical non-fiction I've received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it's from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna's own correspondence. But for anyone with a committed interest in art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens, it may be a read that is worth the work.

*in exchange for this review

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