Norman Rockwell: How Innocent Was He?

Culture Watch

Mr. Halpern is the author of Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence (University of Chiacgo Press, 2006).

In early October, The Boston Globe ran a piece about my recently-published book on Norman Rockwell. That book argues (among other things, but this was apparently the sole point of interest) that Rockwell’s work has a sexual dimension, often of a harmlessly perverse kind. The response of the paper’s readers was volcanic. Some of the postings on the website’s discussion board were so violent (most notably by someone writing under the worrisome nom de plume “kalashnikov”) that they had to be taken down. I was variously excoriated as a dirty old man, a pedophile, and an academic elitist out to tar a popular icon. Oddly, the last of these charges stung the most, since I’m a great admirer of Rockwell’s work. The episode was instructive, though, in confirming my hunch that Norman Rockwell is a touchy subject for many people. Bringing him in proximity to sex was like combining the two halves of a binary explosive.

Along with the proprietary feelings that many New Englanders have for Rockwell, other kinds of territorial instinct also played a role. Many people love Rockwell’s work precisely because it offers an apparently sex-free zone, a worry-free zone, a thought-free zone–a refuge, of sorts, from the troubling state of modern life. Rockwell country is precisely where you don’t have to think about such things. But an historical dimension is also involved. Even people who don’t find my readings of Rockwell’s work outlandish often respond: “Yes, well, I see why you might say that today, but Rockwell lived in a simpler time, when people just didn’t think that way.” This raises an interesting question for me: When was innocence, exactly? Maybe Rockwell can help us track it down.

Norman Rockwell began his career as an illustrator for children’s magazines–a niche he soon found constraining, as if he himself had been condemned to a never-ending artistic childhood. He lived in New Rochelle, New York at the time and had his studio in an office building there, to which often brought his child models. In his autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, published in 1960, he tells a story about how he and his two favorite boy models would horse around in the studio. One of the boys’ running gags was surprisingly edgy:

Four ground glass windows faced the hallway to the other offices. When Billy and Eddie saw the shadow of a passing person on the glass, they’d shuffle their feet and scream, “Oh Mr. Rockwell, don’t. Please. Oh, Mr, Rockwell, we didn’t know you were that kind of man.” And I could see the person stop and turn his head to listen. Then Billie and Eddie would fall silent and the person would put his head close to the window so that he could hear better. But Billy and Eddie always ruined their own game at this point by breaking into shouts of laughter.

I find this anecdote suggestive on many counts, though surely not because it reveals any dire proclivities in Rockwell. If it did, I doubt he’d be chuckling over it in his published memoirs. In fact, the chapter from which it’s taken playfully and repeatedly urges the reader to connect the dots between budding artist and budding pedophile, only to have the joke blow up in our faces. What were we thinking?

No, what interests me is the way that the episode confronts Rockwell--the innocent, childlike adult--with two surprisingly adult, knowing children. The boys were somewhere around ten or twelve years old when this took place–in the years not long before 1920. Not only do they understand the suspicions that might gather around an artist and his boy models, but they work it up into a skit that catches the unwary victim every time. Rockwell is untarnished by the story–but what about those passing businessmen, their ears cupped to the frosted glass? What forms of unexpected excitement taint their curiosity?

Historical and personal nostalgia often collaborate in Rockwell’s work. Innocence lives at once in some historical moment prior to our world of internet porn and violent video games, and also in that state of shining childhood purity that supposedly precedes our more tattered, adult condition. Both of these intertwined forms of innocence are nicely upended by Rockwell’s tale.

Rockwell was an indefatigable sexual jokester, on canvas as in life. He is also a cannier artist than we let ourselves know. His work does not so much embody a distinctively American form of innocence as it confronts us–if we’re willing to look–with the stratagems through which we construct this pleasant fiction for ourselves. He lures us into a lost world of swimming holes and barber shops because he knows it’s precisely there that we often stash our more peculiar longings. When was innocence, exactly? “Right now,” answers Rockwell, “as long as you keep your eyes shut.”

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