The Sphinx and the Milky Way - Selections from the Journals of Charles Burchfield

The Song Cave


The Sphinx and the Milky Way - Selections from the Journals of Charles Burchfield, edited by Ben Estes / ISBN 9781734035148 / 174-page paperback, 5.75 x 8.25 inches, published in 2023 by the Song Cave / illustrated


In the early years of the twentieth century, Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) began painting mystic and visionary landscapes, and with some of his contemporaries, including Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, and Grant Wood, can be seen to have built the foundations of a particularly American sensibility that the critic Dave Hickey said "continues to evoke an unrepentant, gnostic vision of this vast, rolling, abandoned continent—America without Europe—America without Americans—a massive, alluring kingdom ..."

For most of his life, Burchfield also kept a journal. Over 54 years, he filled nearly 10,000 pages. To call this journal epic would be an understatement. A masterpiece whose bulk has remained unread, it is a handwritten tome that combines elements of the American nature journal with a dash of nineteenth-century spiritual autobiography. It is the record of a man who spent much of his life looking at and considering the sky. In this comparatively small selection pulled from the original 72 volumes, we have Burchfield writing about sitting in the grass with his wife to nap and watch the sunset. He writes about the elation he feels at seeing the first flowers in the spring. He writes about the rain, wind, and the sun. There's the resentment of having a job; the depression that sneaks in as he gets older; sometimes, too, he writes about the state of human progress; and occasionally, thoughts about God. Featuring an introduction by scholar Nancy Weekly, The Sphinx and the Milky Way is a tender record of a life devoted to the essences of earthly beauty.

"Ben Estes has done a magnificent thing with The Sphinx and the Milky Way, making Burchfield’s journals available to a new generation of readers in a succinct yet abundant way. His selection is acute, well-tuned, generous, and makes for a compelling read. At their best, Burchfield’s journals approach the cutting clarity of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, Thoreau’s Walden, and John Burroughs’ own naturalist ekphrases." -- David Levi Strauss, The New York Sun

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