Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival

Written by:

Additional Formats
  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781101561027
  • 304 Pages
  • Penguin Books
  • Adult


New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012

“Beautiful, haunted, evocative and so open to where memory takes you. I kept thinking that this is the book that I have waited for: where objects, and poetry intertwine. Just wonderful and completely sui generis.”  (Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes)

An unforgettable voyage across the reaches of America and the depths of memory, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay follows one incredible family to discover a unique craft tradition grounded in America¹s vast natural landscape. Looking back through the generations, renowned critic Christopher Benfey unearths an ancestry–and an aesthetic–that is quintessentially American. His mother descends from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen, who carved new arts from the trackless wilds of the frontier. Benfey¹s father escaped from Nazi Europe–along with his aunt and uncle, the famed Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers–by fleeing across the Atlantic and finding an eventual haven in the American South.

Bricks form the backbone of life in North Carolina¹s rural Piedmont, where Benfey¹s mother was raised among centuries-old folk potteries, tobacco farms, and clay pits. Her father, like his father before him, believed in the deep honesty of brick, that men might build good lives with the bricks they laid. Nurtured in this red-clay world of ancient craft and Quaker radicalism, Benfey¹s mother was poised to set out from home when a tragic romance cracked her young life in two. Salvaging the broken shards of his mother¹s past and exploring the revitalized folk arts resisting industrialization, Benfey discovers a world brimming with possibility and creativity.

Benfey¹s father had no such foundation in his young life, nor did his aunt and uncle. Exiled artists from Berlin¹s Bauhaus school, Josef and Anni Albers were offered sanctuary not far from the Piedmont at Black Mountain College. A radical experiment in unifying education and art, Black Mountain made a monumental impact on American culture under Josef¹s leadership, counting Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller among its influential students and teachers. Focusing on the natural world, innovative craftsmanship, and the physical reality of materials, Black Mountain became a home and symbol for an emerging vision of American art.

Threading these stories together into a radiant and mesmerizing harmony, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is an extraordinary quest to the heart of America and the origins of its art.


A New York Times Notable Book of 2012

“To paraphrase Emily Dickinson only slightly, there is no vessel like a book. Especially when it’s as well wrought and far-sailing as Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, a book about earthen vases, epic voyages and ancestral blood. Part memoir, part family saga, part travelogue, part cultural history, it takes readers on a peripatetic ramble across America and beyond.”
–Adam Goodheart, New York Times Book Review

A book like no other… Red Clay, Black Mountain, White Clay provides a new and useful way to examine American culture, where it’s been, and where it might go. Call it what you will, but you can’t ask more of a book than that.”
–Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“[Benfey] spins a grand web out of his own fascinating lineage… In this revelatory mosaic of lives, Benfey reclaims radiant swathes of history, traces hidden links between remarkable innovators, and celebrates serendipity, resilience, and the refulgence of art.”
Booklist (starred)

“Most memoirs are mush. Given the tender emotions, fragile reminiscences and flights of fancy that tend to flit and twirl within your average autobiography, the genre is known for its shifting, dreamlike core, not its steely spine. Christopher Benfey is out to change all that with Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, a new family memoir that’s as tough as nails. It is grounded in solid things as well as wispy memories. In hard edges as much as subjective musings… dramatic and poignant.”
Chicago Tribune

“[A] lyrical but unsentimental family memoir, taking in art, memory and time… Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now largely forgotten.”

Beautiful, haunted, evocative and so open to where memory takes you. I kept thinking that this is the book that I have waited for: where place, objects, and poetry intertwine. Just wonderful and completely sui generis.”
–Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes

“Christopher Benfey takes us on a journey of discovery that meanders into the most curious corners of family and world history, from colonial America to Nazi Germany to Mexico, Japan, and beyond. And what a splendid cast of characters: brickmakers, Quakers, erudite scholars, famous artists and obscure craftsmen, explorers, poets, and Mr. Benfey’s own parents, whom he portrays with an amused and deeply touching affection. His prose is often delicious. This is a fascinating and charming book.”
–Stephen Mitchell