Book Review: “Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson,” by Agnes Grinstead Anderson

This book reveals what it’s like to be married to a mad genius. The author, “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson was Walter Anderson’s long-suffering wife. The text is her own reconstruction of diaries she’d previously burned, a fact which may convey a bit of the ambivalence she must have felt about sharing the fraught experience of her marriage. Evidently, she decided in the end on complete candor, and the result is very powerful.

Anderson remains my favorite artist, despite what I learned from reading this book. I suppose my prior understanding of him was that of a tourist (I am a frequent visitor to his namesake art museum in his adopted hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi), and I would often describe him to friends as a little “touched.” I learn from Sissy’s account, however, that he was neglectful and violent, far beyond what one would expect from an amiable eccentric. Perhaps this book will lead some readers to obsess on whether it’s permissible to enjoy his art, considering what a terrible husband (and father) he was; but I don’t believe the human experience is so neat, and the paradox is fitting that a man whose art has made me feel euphoric was also the creator of great pain and trouble for his own family.

Accordingly, one of my favorite parts of the book is toward the end, after the death of Walter (known as Bob), when Sissy, on exploring the house where he lived alone, discovers the “little room” (preserved and on display at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art), which he’d consecrated as a temple to the sun, replete with murals showing all God’s creation in its fluttering, creeping, and crawling sublimity. “The room is full of the presence of the Creator,” Sissy writes, “not the artist, although he is surely there, but God.”

Bob had kept the room padlocked. (p. 175)

Elsewhere: “I know now that the alienated must seek forever the means of reentry into the world of man. Bob was seeking, for some reason, through the simpler world of animals. ‘Dogs, cats, birds are holes in heaven through which man may pass,’ he said.” (p. 84)

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Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and a soon to be published novelist.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: “Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson,” by Agnes Grinstead Anderson”

  1. Harry, where’ve you been? Glad to see a new post! I’d never heard of Anderson so looked up some of his artwork. His paintings seem inspired by tribal designs and the natural world, but the murals in his house are striking. I would love to visit that little museum next time I’m in MS (never been.) Hope all is well!

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      1. Pssh, it was right in time to try a new dish for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, after all the preparations, including summoning four young men from Auvergne to do the slow lamb sear, and after I potted and fired the clay, etc. Etc. The damn casserole wouldn’t fit in the oven!

        Actually life got away and I just read it. Funny, funny, and I remember Mathews is one of your harbingers of the Oulipo method. The story interlude (“what mother never did for her son”) during the lamb roast was an apt addition to “country cooking” and the connection of it to farce double, (the stars pin-pricked light in the firmament relating to the holes in the lid of the roasting pit) was simply great. As was, “slic[ing] the cylinders into sections no larger than a small headache. Dip each piece in truffle crumbs.”

        Thanks for sharing!

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      2. You’re welcome! I’m really glad you liked it.

        Mathews has a posthumous novel coming out soon, called The Solitary Twin, which is described as “his most accessible and perhaps one of his best.” I have already forced my school library to purchase it.

        In the meantime, “Do not be upset if you yourself have lost all desire to eat.”


      3. Haha, yes. Then of course there was the interlocutor who had to unfortunately hear of the narrator’s misuse of plastic, and, leaning back with arms outstretched “as if appealing for divine aid,” fell into the marinating trough and burst into tears.

        Liked by 1 person

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