Friday, September 26, 2014

“The Belated Return of the ‘Son’”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son

Thomas Hart Benton, Prodigal Son

I (finally) finished working through, researching, and writing the section of the book on Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the richness and complexity of her work. As I studied her subtle use and reworking of a couple parables from Matthew 13 in ways that flesh out two of her characters (Rayber and Francis Marion Tarwater), I found a couple minor things that I did not see reflected in scholarship (she reworks the parable of the Sower and incorporates aspects of the parable of the Wheat and Weeds that follows it in Matthew 13).

I'll save details of that for later. What finishing that section means, though, is that I have turned to (a) a first revision of chapter one of the book, which currently is 30,000 words, about 10,000 too long and (b) my Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) paper for the annual meeting in November.

For the SBL paper--my thanks to Chris Joynes for the invitation--I was asked to try to connect the paper in some way to the SBL theme of "Labor and Migration." I therefore chose Thomas Hart Benton's Prodigal Son lithograph.

I'll give more details later, since this lithograph will also be covered in my book, but here is the abstract:

“The Belated Return of the ‘Son’”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son

Thomas Hart Benton’s Regionalism emphasized that art should represent life as it is actually lived in a specific time and place: “penetrating to the meaning and forms of life . . . as known and felt by ordinary Americans” (Benton 1951: 9). Religion did not play a dominant role in Benton’s work—Benton himself had little use for religion—but his art portrays the religious experiences of numerous people; his lithographs include, for example, African-Americans headed to their country church in southern Arkansas (Sunday Morning, 1939), a pastor preaching to his small white congregation in the mountains of West Virginia (The Meeting, 1941), and people headed to an evening prayer meeting in a church “anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line” (Prayer Meeting or Wednesday Evening, 1949). Other works illustrate additional dynamics of religious life, such as revival meetings, hymn sings, Ozark baptisms, and Salvation Army street testimonials, including the paintings, The Lord is My Shepherd (1926), Holy Roller Camp Meeting (1926), Lord Heal the Child (1934), and the provocative Susanna and the Elders (1938).

Benton’s lithograph, Prodigal Son (1939)—which was a study for his later painting of the same name—could be interpreted as connecting aspects of labor and migration in the context of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Benton, in fact, created this lithograph around the same time that he was employed to create a series of drawings of the characters of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the 1940 Twentieth-Century Fox film.

The black and white lithograph presents an idiosyncratic and haunting view of a prodigal son who has waited far too long to return home. The house stands as only a ramshackle shell of its former self—with no father to greet the prodigal, no servants to attend to him, and no elder brother to complain about him. The evocative sun-bleached bones of a cow are all that’s left of what could once have been a fatted calf. Although other interpretations are possible, this lithograph can speak about the utter despair of those people in the rural areas of the United States who were not able to survive on their desolate farms.

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