The Last Summer of the World

Frame a scene between your thumb and forefingers – a lens focusing and condensing the picture.  Emily Mitchell effectively does just that by zooming in on the life of photographer Edward Steichen in her first novel – The Last Summer of the World.  Although Steichen became an icon before his death at 93, an innovator in color photography and an artist awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mitchell focuses on his early years – during a short but important window that influenced his later work and life.

Rodin by Steichen

With a talent for photography and art at a young age, Steichen found his mentors in Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz before becoming a first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps in World War I.  Mitchell stays true to Edward Steichen’s life story, as he marries his first wife, philanders, and finds his niche in the world of art.  Mitchell provides a disclaimer in her “historical note,” but I still looked for more background information on the real Steichen – interested to know how much was fabricated and how much was real.  The dialogue is fiction, but believable and even possible; the relationships and events are real.

The story starts by vacillating between Edward’s daring exploits, as an espionage photographer – taking aerial pictures of enemy sites, while manning a machine gun from the tail of a plane – to his struggle with his married life and artistic career.  Mitchell has Edward mourning a dead comrade in one scene, and then sleeping with Isadora Duncan in another.

His first wife, Clara, a talented pianist who gives it all up, torn between wanting to be the dutiful wife and mother at the expense of her career – cracks under the strain of seeing her husband’s star soar as hers falls…”{she} apparently cannot have both love and time.”

Throughout the narrative, the upcoming divorce looms – with Edward claiming he has done nothing wrong, and Clara feeling betrayed by his alleged sleeping with her best friend.  Mitchell, cleverly keeps you guessing about who is telling the truth – even when the third-party, Marion, makes appearances in and out of the war scenes.  Later in the novel, she flips back and forth from Clara’s point of view and experiences to Marion’s.  Both suffered from loving a great artist, whose great love was his art.  The real Clara did sue Marion Beckett, charging that she had destroyed her marriage to Steichen.

The heart of the story is Edward’s talent and the mystery behind his perception which produces such amazing pictures – some described in detail. Steichen was famous for blurring his images, attributed to his early work as a painter.

With a little of Ian McEwan’s style of storytelling, Mitchell combines historic events with real information and intrigue to tell a story that is hard to put down.  Her facts are always woven into personal triumph and tragedy; I learned about Steichen, his early life and art, but I also had a great time anticipating how he would manage to rationalize his next adventure – in the name of art, freedom, and love.

Mitchell’s story ends with Steichen burning all his original paintings – this really happened in 1923, after he returned to France from serving in the war.

“I’m burning my paintings…to be free of them…it would be better to get rid of them, start again…”

And he does start again with photography, and goes on to fight in another war and marry again and again – but that’s another story.

Related Articles:

Time – Looking Back on Edward Steichen

Biography – Edward Steichen