ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 76 Tennessee Mitchell Anderson
Old Omar’s famous dictum about being buried once, nobody want ‘em dug up again, doesn’t hold in the case of Tennessee Mitchell Anderson. Rather to her should be applied the sentiment of Wordsworth about an idolized English poet: “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour; England hat need of there, she is a fen —“ At her simple funeral the last day of the year of calamities, 1929, as I recall, nobody said anything about her “loss being irreparable.” Nobody said much of anything. Somebody read Tennyson’s "Crossing the Bar” and somebody else played a violin, and that was about all.
But every day of the seven years that have elapsed, somebody or other has regretted that tragic death of hers. She lived along, in her big music and sculpture studio. It was the Christmas holiday season, and everybody who knocked at her door or rang her telephone thought she must have gone out of town for the festivities. But for a whole week, she lay dead on her studio bed, having passed out from a heart attack. Against her door were piled cards, packages, and letters, Christmas and New Year’s greetings. The maid, having reported daily from Monday to Friday to clean her studio, became alarmed eventually and the police broke down the door.
Tennessee Anderson’s studio was the last and, in my time in Chicago, the only “salon” of the arts worthy the name. Music, drama, painting, sculpture, and poetry interested her, and she played with them all airily, and drew about her people engrossed in one or the other with the deadly earnestness of fanaticism.
A sense of humor and a ready wit, kindly or, if biting, followed by an immediate disarming apology, served to weld into a harmony all the brooding, conflicting elements of “genius” assembled.
Other artists of Chicago — and not a few society women eager to shine in “bohemia”— have had their “salons,” but none like Tennessee Anderson’s. In the case of the society leaders, the snobbishness of the upper strata guests mingling with the artists has ultimately driven away such as are worthwhile, leaving only the fawning sycophants. In the case of the artists who have thrown open their studios, these too often have been aggressive in politics, making their “open house” a forum for social debate instead of an assemblage for “culture.”
Tennessee Anderson knew how to control both the society snobs and the political “reds” who came to her “salon.” They and everybody else were welcome. She could meet the “dumb rich” without letting them know they were dumb, and she could look a Communist straight in both his eyes without letting him perceive she knew how infinitesimal was the space from eyeball to eyeball.
Tennessee Anderson, better than anybody else in my dozen and more years in Chicago art circles, was able to bridge the gap between artist and “patron” — a gap of turgid fog wherein operate the museum staffs with their smudge pots of “art politics” — wherein operate the art “critics,” with their vapors of dull blue vapidities. Tennessee Anderson brought personality into direct contact with personality, let them strike each other and flash fire.
She was impish without being malicious. From infancy, she spoke her mind. She was of a Michigan family, in a town of 20,000 whose “women folk,” her mother and her grandmother, were brave enough to name her “Tennessee” after the “notorious” Tennessee Claflin, who so harassed Henry Ward Beecher.
As a little girl, she sat on the knee of Robert G. Ingersoll and listened to him discuss for hours Thomas Paine, Darwin and Huxley with her grandfather, an intimate friend he always visited when in that neighborhood. Verily her house, in the eyes of the neighbors, was the house of Satan.
Robbed of a normal little girls’ Sunday school career, Tennessee Anderson in later life made up for it with an odd and intense investigation of the American religious life. In her profession of teaching music to children — that’s how she earned her living, her sculpture being a plaything — she once was engaged for a month in a convent of the Dominican sisterhood. She made no secret of her heathenism, as was her frank wont. The sisters, one particularly of intelligence as sprightly as her own, discussed creeds with her. In her last conversation with this sister, Tennessee asked her what her idea was of the sin against the Holy Ghost.
“Without getting a satisfactory answer,” writes Tennessee in the fragment of an autobiography she left, which I hope some publisher some day will be astute and brave enough to print, “I told her mine was to gain a human being’s love by appearing to have qualities that won admiration and love when those qualities were not genuine.”
“Tears came to Sister Ruth’s eyes,” continues Tennessee, “as she kissed me and said she would pray the Blessed Virgin that I never have such an experience, and I left the convent as the sisters crowded around, begging me to come back to visit them.”
That, more than anything I have heard, explains Tennessee Anderson.
In her late teens, Tennessee Mitchell came to Chicago determined to make her way as a piano tuner. Her adventures in a profession then thought to be exclusively for men form amusing episodes of her “autobiography.” On one call, she tuned the piano in no less a place than the Everleigh Club, where one of the sisters, hearing her story and how she had won out against petty persecution on the part of the male tuners in the big piano establishment that employed her, remarked with a laugh, “It’s a good joke on the men!” Tennessee observes that, after finishing her work, she left “with no suggestion made that I take to a life of sin.”
From piano tuning, she turned to teaching piano, and having a good head for business she specialized in the children of the rich. In the studio in which she died, she had a gorgeous-toned grand piano on which she gave the future bankers and their wives their first appreciation of what they were to hear from their boxes in the grand opera houses (presuming, of course, our capitalistic system is to endure).
In 1916, she married Sherwood Anderson, then a Chicago advertising man, shortly to become famous as a novelist.
It was as illustrator of one of his early novels, “The Triumph of an Egg,” that Tennessee made her debut as a “sculptor.”
She modeled tiny figures in clay which the publisher saw, and these were eagerly snapped up by him as pictures for the book.
It was in company with Sherwood that Tennessee became an important figure in the “bohemia” of Chicago. After about a decade, they were divorced. Sherwood Anderson remarried, and his later years were spent mostly away from Chicago. Tennessee remained single and “Carried on” alone among the artists, musicians, and writers.
After her first “toys” for “The Triumph of an Egg,” Tennessee Anderson became more and more serious as a sculptor without, however, departing from the spirit of drollery and light satire. Still humorous, her figures grew ever more and more important as “art.” At the time of her death, she was working on a big nude that gave promise of being something “monumental.”
She was deficient in the technique of sculpture and had to rely too often on her “instincts.” But despite their crudities, her sculptured procession always was lively and entertaining and never bored , which is something you can’t say about either Michelangelo or Phidias!
Her skill in the last three or four years of her life was improving with astonishing rapidity. Had she lived to 1936, she doubtless would have taken serious tank among American sculptors, even in technique. She already ranked higher in qualities or originality and power.