three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
user_rating: 
0

The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America

A-FebruaryHouseIn the early 1940s, a run-down Brooklyn brownstone housed some of the 20th century’s most iconic writers. Forming a commune decades before communes became cool, the writers W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Paul and Jane Bowles, as well as composer Benjamin Britten and burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee fueled their own creative spirits while carving bohemian lifestyles under one roof. McCullers began The Member of the Wedding in this house; Lee started The G-String Murders. Tippins reconstructs the daily life of this household, depicting its residents’ wild parties and mixed-up love lives, while simultaneously drawing in the broader landscape of America just prior to its entrance into World War II.
Houghton Mifflin. 317 pages. $24. ISBN: 061841911X

Rocky Mountain News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"… a wonderful narrative that captures the full ferment of creativity that collected under one roof. … This is a book that made me wish I were 20 again or living in the ferment that was pre-war Brooklyn circa 1940." John C. Ensslin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Amid all the buoyancy, February House sounds notes of gravity and even despair. … The house itself has long since been demolished, but Sherill Tippins has rebuilt it with intelligence and charm." Dennis Drabelle

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A more serious shortcoming is that while Tippins tries valiantly to indicate the march of history … her subjects—except Auden, Britten and the Mann siblings—appear to have been largely oblivious of it. … Where [it] succeeds is as a story of young artists trying to become themselves." Amanda Vaill

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Tippins gives as much detail as anyone could want about these lives in that long year. … She takes up the story of each personage as it arises, and tells it pretty well." Denis Donoghue

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"... February House might have worked better as a shorter, tighter piece—say, an extended Vanity Fair article—without losing any of the gained insights." Linda Yellen

Philadelphia Inquirer 3 of 5 Stars
"While sometimes lapsing into psychobabble, February House is a cozy, gossipy read punctuated by solid, if perfunctory, literary criticism and able summations of the era’s political pressures. … Tippins efficiently draws out the idiosyncrasies and personalities of these artists." Elizabeth Hoover

Critical Summary

The disparate personalities of February House, so called because many of the residents had birthdays in that month, makes for fascinating reading. By weaving together thorough biographies of 7 Middagh Street’s artists-in-residence with interviews from surviving contemporaries, Tippins vividly reconstructs a crazy, chaotic, feverish year. At times her attempts to underpin the historical happenings of the day to her subjects’ frames of mind seems forced; at other points, critics questioned whether 7 Middagh Street truly inspired its residents’ creativity. Yet her able portraits of the house’s inhabitants and their guests, written with an ear for both gossip and scholarship, should satisfy devoted fans as well as casual readers.

Supplemental Reading

A Chance Meeting Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 | Rachel Cohen (2004): 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004. Cohen links the lives of 30 seminal artists, composers, and writers.