The Last Summer of the World By Emily Mitchell
I often make the most wonderful discoveries when I am looking through publishers catalogues deciding which books to order for the coming season. When I came across the title The Last Summer of the World by Emily Mitchell it sounded intriguing. The story was described as a novel based on the life of photographer Edward Steichen around the time of World War I – just the sort of story I might like - a real person and a fiction created by a writer based on the facts of a life. I am interested in photography, and stories set in wartime, and I was not disappointed in this one. This is the first novel by the talented writer and a gifted storyteller.
We meet Edward Steichen as a young man with an interest in photography. He takes his first pictures in his family home, learns to develop them and decides to make a career of photography. Together with his mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, he founded a photography gallery in New York City and much later, after the time period covered in this novel, he became a commercial photographer in New York City working for Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1955 he organized the famous Family of Man exhibit that toured the world and resulted in the publication of a book by the same name - one I remember looking at again and again as a child. Steichen then became the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum for Modern Art - quite a career!
The years we are concerned about in this novel are those just prior to, during, and just after World War I. At this time Steichen was living in Paris, as were many Americans, Leo and Gertrude Stein, among them.
There Steichen married Clara Smith, an aspiring pianist, and became great friends with the sculptor Rodin. Steichen had discovered that the secret to opening doors, to getting what he desired, is this: "most people follow the rules because they are afraid not to. All you have to do to successfully break them, then, to act like you deserve to.”
In the following years, as Edward finds success as a photographer and painter, he and Clara purchase a home in the country outside of Paris. Clara has given up her career to raise their two daughters. Clara, who thought she would have a career as a concert pianist has "drawn ever further from the passion that animated her when she was young. This relinquishment was never an explicit choice, only an ebbing away as time and energy were, little by little, siphoned off for other things."
In the summer of 1914 Edward, and Clara's friend Marion, found themselves very attracted to each other - as the threat of war sends Edward and Clara, with their children, back to the United States with a marriage that is crumbling.
Edward returns to France as the commander of the photographic division of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces. The descriptions of Edward Steichen's war time experiences are fascinating, especially his flights over the front lines: "Further on, the early morning shelling had crept forward in a solid wall across No Man's Land and over the Allied lines. The walls of the trenches had collapsed inward where shells fell near them, and he saw men shovelling mountains of dislodged earth. He saw them digging and then stopping to pull things from the pile: there, the body of a man…"
"Then the gas attacks began. Edward saw the first gas shells fall, the high-pitched cream of their flight, then the mustard color billowing silently outward from the point of impact…"
Marion is working as a nurse in the same area as Edward. And it is Marion, as Edward walks toward her, who thinks back to "that final summer, the very last summer of the world it seemed now, came back to her in a rush that was so fierce that she had to put her hand over her mouth to prevent herself from crying out."
As I read about this time, I was struck by the importance of the intensity of the shared experience, and the fact that others who had not experienced the horrors of war could have any understanding of this time.
Yet husbands and wives were expected to share their lives again after having had such different wartime lives apart. In fact, as Edward and Marion and Clara discover, they cannot.