CORNWALL — When Harriet Beecher Stowe was the sister of your great-great-great grandfather, writing courses through your blood.
Stowe, the author of the literary masterpiece and socially significant “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” would indeed be very pleased with the impressive writing career her thrice-great niece, Roxana Robinson, has amassed. The Cornwall resident (more on her residence later) is the author of 10 books — six novels, three collections of short stories, and an acclaimed biography of artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these works were chosen as New York Times Notable Books, two as New York Times Editors’ Choices.
Robinson’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere; her work has been widely anthologized and broadcast on NPR; and her books have been published in England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain. She is a scholar of American paintings and an environmentalist, and her essays, criticism and op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, Bookforum, The Nation and elsewhere. She has twice been a finalist for the Balakian Award for Criticism from the NBCC.
Robinson has received fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Guggenheim Foundation, and she was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. Robinson has served on the Boards of PEN and the Authors Guild, and was the president of the Authors Guild from 2013-2017. In 2019 she received the Barnes and Noble “Writers for Writers Award,” given by Poets and Writers.
Kent Memorial Library and House of Books are inviting those interested to join a book talk with Robinson, who will be discussing the new edition of her biography, “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life,” on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. on Zoom.
One of the preeminent and most admired artists of the twentieth-century, Georgia O’Keeffe’s accomplishments, such as often eroticized flowers, bones, stones, skulls, and pelvises she painted, are made the more remarkable when seen in the context of the struggle she waged between the rigorous demands of love (her personal relationships were intense) and work.
When Robinson’s biography of O’Keeffe was first published in 1989, it received rave reviews and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A new edition features a new foreword by the author setting O’Keeffe in an artistic context over the last 30 years since the book was first published, as well as previously unpublished letters of a young O’Keeffe to her lover, Arthur Macmahon. It also relates the story of Robinson’s own encounter with the artist.
Robinson called O’Keeffe “one of our greatest American painters, someone whose radical style and brilliant renderings made it possible for us to enter our own native landscape — the country itself — and our own hearts. She and her work are endlessly rich subjects for discussion.”
Robinson “loves” the fact that O’Keeffe said she was always afraid. “It is not an accomplishment to do something you’re good at and can do easily. What’s impressive is to do something that frightens you, and to do it anyway. I think that’s useful for anyone. I always thought she was a great artist.”
During the Kent Library event, Robinson will talk about the new edition of the book, describing her meeting with O’Keeffe, and the writing of the book itself, and the unpublished letters from O’Keeffe to a man who was important to her and her work early in her career.
She hopes those taking part in the Zoom discussion will find, as she did, O’Keeffe’s life and work to be “inspiring and beautiful.” She added, “Just this week a woman wrote to me from Paris, an artist, saying that she was grateful to have learned that O’Keeffe fell sick during the 1918 pandemic, and survived it, and went on to live her incredibly fruitful life. She said it was heartening to know that. There are lots of ways in which people — especially women — can find sustenance in O’Keeffe’s story.”
Being a writer came quite naturally to Robinson. “It’s part of my family culture. Many people in my family were writers.” Some of the writers she admires include Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen. Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, and Shirley Hazzard. As for how she has matured as a writer, Robinson hesitated a bit. “That is such a difficult question to answer. I don’t know. A fiction writer never is in full control of her work. I find it impossible to assess my work in any neutral way; nor do I ever reread it.”
Robinson writes on varied subjects and also has conducted important interviews. One wonders if it has been a challenge for her to balance the various subjects and interviewees she tackles.
“I think my fiction and non-fiction writing are very similar; I use words in the same way, that is, my style is the same, I try to create images for the reader to absorb. I have always written about art, about books and literature, and about family. I have always written about things that delight, trouble and confuse me.”
Robinson’s family has its roots set deeply in the Connecticut soil. “I’m a Beecher. My great-great-grandfather, Henry Ward Beecher, was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and they were both born in Litchfield; my family has been in Litchfield County since some time in the 1700s. Henry’s daughter married my great-grandfather, Samuel Scoville. I have been coming to the same family house for my whole life, and I now live in it. It means a lot to me to be in a place where my family has such a deep connection. I think the landscape where you grew up seems like `the right’ or `the real’ landscape. Many other places are beautiful, of course, but the hills of Litchfield County seem to me like the real landscape.”
The Robinson book discussion is free and open to the public. Register at www.kentmemoriallibrary.org/event-registration/?ee=3447 for Zoom login information.