Eisler, Benita 1937-
Eisler, Benita 1937-
Born July 24, 1937, in New York, NY; daughter of Morris Aaron (in business) and Frances (a homemaker) Blitzer; married Colin Eisler (a professor of art history), June 23, 1961; children: Rachel. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1958; Harvard University, M.A., 1961. Religion: Jewish.
Home—New York, NY. Agent—Watkins Loomis Agency Inc., 133 E. 35th St., New York, NY, 10016-3886.
Writer, photographer, and educator. WNET-TV, New York, NY, producer, 1975-78; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, part-time lecturer in French.
(Editor) The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women, 1840-1845, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1978.
Class Act: America's Last Dirty Secret, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1983.
Private Lives: Men and Women of the Fifties, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1986.
O'Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Chopin's Funeral, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Benita Eisler is best known for her research and writing on sociological topics. Her first book, The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women, 1840-1845, is a collection of writings from a periodical that was largely run and read by young women who had been recruited from their New England farms to work in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. The Lowell Offering was a forum for the poetry, stories, letters, and essays of the mill's female workers. Benita Eisler's collection gives many examples of how these women, while not directly criticizing their watchful employer, expressed in their writings the difficulty of their situation. For instance, one young woman wrote of her work at the mill: "At first the hours seemed very long, but I was so interested in learning that I endured it very well; and when I went out at night the sound of the mill was in my ears, as of crickets, frogs, and jewsharps, all mingled together in strange discord. After that it seemed as though cottonwool was in my ears, but now I do not mind at all."
In their struggle against long hours, unequal pay, and poor working conditions as well as the limitations of a strictly regimented lifestyle where they were either at work or in boarding houses chaperoned by company officials, these women found strength in the ideal of the unity of sisterhood. Their goal was to attain the self-respect and opportunities for self-improvement that they felt their situation denied them. While much of the writing by the mill women is characterized by the sentimental themes and flowery style popular during that period, reviewers of Eisler's anthology found in these writings examples of feminist thinking in America. C. David Heymann in the New York Times Book Review stated that "the consolidation of this material into a single volume is a significant step toward a better understanding of the roots of working-class America, and specifi- cally of the female mill laborer of the nineteenth century. Here and there among these diversified documents we glimpse the first seeds of the slowly evolving feminist."
Eisler's next book, Class Act: America's Last Dirty Secret, looks at the ways contemporary Americans view their place in the social structure and their ability to move within the seemingly rigid divisions of class. The book is based on a combination of statistics and interviews Eisler conducted with people from a wide range of socioeconomic levels. Eisler concludes from her observations that society is in constant motion; that is, a person's present class is neither an unchangeable limitation nor protection from moving into another one. Reviewers found the book to be full of interesting portraits of individuals who have either risen to a high social status, fallen from it, or remained in a stable middle ground, but some voiced reservations about Eisler's lack of more pointed economic and sociological analysis. In a review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Elaine Kendall described the focus of Class Act as "essentially and narrowly economic—democratic and cheery."
Using this same strategy of addressing social trends through personal portraits and interviews, Eisler's Private Lives: Men and Women of the Fifties examines the way young adults of that decade dealt with the expectations of a society geared toward conformity. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was president during the 1950s, U.S. society emphasized the ideals of middle-class suburbia while avoiding action on sexuality, racism, and other uncomfortable topics. The book follows its subjects from childhood to adulthood, discussing their attitudes and problems encountered along the way, including the anxiety that the Vietnam War, the assertion of civil rights and women's rights, and other volatile issues of the 1960s produced in a generation solidly grounded in traditional values. Critics praised Private Lives as a descriptive portrait that added a new perspective to the canon of literature concerned with the decade of the 1950s. Andrea Barnett of the New York Times Book Review called it "an engrossing, well-rounded portrait."
Eisler moves away from social themes with her fourth book, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance, a dual biography of painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. The book chronicles their relationship, from their initial meeting around 1916 until Stieglitz's death in 1946. During this period the two artists were at the center of intellectual and artistic activity in New York City. Eisler characterizes the marriage of these two important figures as a mutually enriching and inspiring union in which each retained a unique personality and talent. Stieglitz appreciated the constant contact and interaction with artists that he received through his prominent gallery, 291, whereas O'Keeffe preferred to remain withdrawn and isolated, working off the energy of her private artistic vision. Critics hailed the thoroughness of Eisler's research and documentation on O'Keeffe and Stieglitz but were ultimately dissatisfied with the book's emphasis on their marriage rather than their artistic careers. Michael Peppiatt, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted the wealth of "industrious research into the period and the people surrounding O'Keeffe and Stieglitz" that went into Eisler's biography of these highly influential contributors to American art.
For her next book, Eisler left the American arena to offer a biography of the famous and infamous British poet George Gordon Lord Byron. Probably the most celebrated writer in Europe from his mid-twenties until his death from a fever in 1824 at the age of thirty-six, Byron was also the leading creative force in the British romantic movement. This was an era in which poets captured the popular imagination in much the way movie stars do today. Many women of the time kept portraits of Byron and treasured purported locks of his hair. In Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, Eisler depicts the author's private life in great detail: all of his scandalous amours, his unconventional and sometimes perverse sexual behavior (cross-dressing, homosexuality, pedophilia, masochism, incest), and his sham of a marriage that lasted only a year. Eisler also discusses the more public side of Byron and examines his political radicalism, linking his rebellion against the injustices of society and his involvement in the causes of the oppressed not to some innate sense of moral right, but rather to the disregard of conventional moral codes in his own behavior. Eisler's biography received considerable praise from most critics. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted: "Eisler's lusty enjoyment of her subject's many escapades animates the story she tells in words both elegant and provocative." A writer for the Economist commented that "Eisler presents the narrative of Byron's whirlwind career with modest flair and scholarly attention to detail," and goes on to praise the perceptiveness and sensitivity she demonstrates in her psychological analysis of the flaws and contradictions in Byron's character. David Kirby, in Library Journal, deemed Byron to be a "thoroughly engaging study" and noted that that "Eisler pays ample attention to Byron's work." Bryce Christensen of Booklist remarked: "The strength of Eisler's masterful biography lies in her rare insight into how the embattled poet distilled from his life of scandal and betrayal a literary art of soaring power."
In Chopin's Funeral, Eisler begins her biography of the renowned pianist and composer with Chopin's lavish funeral in Paris in 1849. The author then reflects back on Chopin's arrival in Paris from Poland eighteen years earlier and his romance with George Sand, the pseudonym for the French writer and feminist Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. The author then concentrates on the final years of Chopin's life, delving into the complicated family relations of Sand's family and how Sand's daughter, Solange, who Sand rejected, remained one of the few people loyal to Chopin as his health declined. She also delves into Chopin's personal failings and how the composer continually sought to improve his music.
"Eisler portrays him as tender but also as a dandy, whose life constitutes a cameo in a French society torn by revolution," wrote Alan Hirsch in a review of Chopin's Funeral in Booklist. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the biography "a sad story superbly chronicled." The reviewer also noted that Eisler "strikes exactly the right elegiac tone on the first page of this slender volume." A Publishers Weekly reviewer referred to it as "a skillfully written and mercifully brief overview that hits the right notes." Lorna Koski wrote in WWD: "The technical descriptions of the composer's music are well done and easy for the lay person to follow. [Eisler] also clearly traces the relationships between such traditional Polish folk forms as the mazurka and the polonaise and Chopin's versions of them and his other compositions. Spectator contributor David Hughes commented: "In common with the tense balance Chopin achieved not without extremes of effort, Benita Eisler's book is a model on the small scale that says most."
Eisler follows up her biography of Chopin with one of his lover Sand in Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand. Eisler delves into Sand's early life and her devotion to her working-class mother (her father was from a distinguished family). The author tells of Sand's eventual decision to take a man's name so she could succeed in a male-dominated culture and world and describes Sand's many public love affairs. Sand's family life is also presented, including Sand's relationship with her two children, whom she took care of badly according to most accounts. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commented that the author's "portrait … brings Sand and her boldly improvised life forward more vividly than ever before." Noting that "Eisler remains a rather severe moral critic of this fascinating, and rule-bending, personality," a Kirkus Reviews contributor went on to write: "Eisler skillfully incorporates much correspondence within a frame of lively writing." A Publishers Weekly reviewer referred to Naked in the Marketplace as "a bustling study," adding that the author "authoritatively sketches the themes and philosophical preoccupations of Sand's novels in an age of revolutionary ferment." New York Times Book Review contributor Thomas Mallon wrote: "Eisler can write with wit and brio."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Eisler, Benita, The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women, 1840-1845, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1978.
Booklist, March 15, 1999, Bryce Christensen, review of Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, p. 1274; March 1, 2003, Alan Hirsch, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 1134; October 15, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, p. 16.
Contemporary Review, February, 2004, Susan Reynolds, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 116.
Economist, June 5, 1999, review of Byron, p. 82.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2003, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 123; September 15, 2006, review of Naked in the Marketplace, p. 937.
Library Journal, April 1, 1999, David Kirby, review of Byron, p. 94; March 1, 2003, Larry Lipkis, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 90; November 15, 2006, Erica Swenson Danowitz, review of Naked in the Marketplace, p. 72.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 6, 1983, Elaine Kendall, review of Class Act: America's Last Dirty Secret, p. 1.
New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1978, C. David Heymann, review of The Lowell Offering, p. 25; December 18, 1983, Barbara Ehrenreich, review of Class Act, p. 10; July 6, 1986, Andrea Barnet, review of Private Lives: Men and Women of the Fifties, section 7, p. 15; May 26, 1991, Michael Peppiatt, review of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance, p. 9; July 11, 2004, Scott Veale, "New & Noteworthy Paperbacks," includes review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 24; December 3, 2006, Thomas Mallon, review of Naked in the Marketplace, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1991, review of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, p. 82; March 15, 1999, review of Byron, p. 41; February 3, 2003, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 65; September 18, 2006, review of Naked in the Marketplace, p. 45.
Spectator, June 7, 2003, David Hughes, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 40.
WWD, April 3, 2003, Lorna Koski, review of Chopin's Funeral, p. 13.