It began with The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
I went to see them at the Renwick Gallery: a series of dioramas by Frances Glessner Lee that look like dollhouses – except that each one painstakingly recreates a real-life scene of unexplained death: a woman found hanging in an attic, a girl found stabbed in an abandoned building, a man found dead next to a shotgun with his wife and child dead in adjoining rooms. Each diorama had a plaque that noted details that may or may not be relevant – what a witness saw, what the weather had been like. But none of them had an explanation.
Here is what was found in the “Parsonage Parlor”:
And here’s what was on the plaque beside it:
Date: Friday, August 23, 1946
Deceased: Dorothy Dennison, a high school student
Witness: Mrs. James Dennison, mother
“On Monday, about eleven o’clock, Dorothy walked downtown to buy some hamburg steak for dinner. She didn’t have much money in her purse. When she didn’t to return in time for dinner, I called my neighbor, who said she’d seen her walking toward the market, but hadn’t seen her since. I also called the market and the proprietor said he had sold Dorothy a pound of hamburg some time before noon, but didn’t notice which way she turned when she left. By late afternoon, I was really alarmed and called the police.”
Witness: Lt. Peale, police officer
“On Monday afternoon, at 5:25 p.m., I took the telephone call from Mrs. Dennison at Police Headquarters, and at once took charge of the matter personally. The customary inquiries began and by Wednesday, a systematic search of all closed or unoccupied buildings in the vicinity was undertaken. It was not until Friday, August 23, at 4:15 p.m. that me and Officer Patrick Sullivan entered the Parsonage and found her.”
Additional Information: The temperature during the week ranged between eighty six and ninety two degrees with high humidity.
A week later I started reading William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow – completely by chance. The first chapter – “A Pistol Shot” – opens with a murder scene described as obliquely as one of the Nutshell Studies:
… One winter morning shortly before daybreak, three men loading gravel there heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring. Within a few seconds it had grown light. No one came to the pit through the field that lay alongside it, and they didn’t see anyone walking on the road. The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.
Other characters testify.
Wilson’s uncle, who had lived with him for a number of years …, testified that while he was feeding the horses he saw his nephew’s lantern as he passed on his way to the cow barn … He did not hear the shot and he was not aware that there was anybody on the farm that morning who did not belong there.
The housekeeper testifies that “on the last morning of his life Lloyd Wilson got up at five-thirty as usual … He was in a cheerful mood and left the house whistling. Usually he was through milking and back in the kitchen before she had breakfast ready.” But not today. She sends his six year old son to fetch him – but he is dead.
The novel – a good one – tells the story that leads up to this killing as well as the repercussions that follow. But for me, part of the pleasure of the book was that it transported me right back to the Nutshell Studies. It enlarged my thinking and made me wonder what happened after the woman was found hanging in the attic, who else the child-killer stalked, what others were killed and who got away and how did they live after?
I saw that reading after art could enrich both experiences – the reading and the art. I wondered what other pairings there might be. What to read after seeing a Rembrandt self-portrait? A series of Sally Mann photographs? Kara Walker’s silhouettes? A silent Rothko? Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party? Ron Mueck’s Untitled (Big Man)?
I hope you submit a review essay that tells us.
After the Art was founded and is edited by Randon Billings Noble. She is an essayist whose debut collection, Be with Me Always, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019. Her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017, and other essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative nonfiction at American University and in the West Virginia Wesleyan Low-Residency MFA program, and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, is forthcoming from Nebraska in 2021.
The citation for the main image on this site is a detail from: Josephine and Mercie by Edmund Charles Tarbell. Oil on canvas, 1908. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.