Martin Duberman’s The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein

One of the most striking elements of Martin Duberman’s new biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, is the breadth of his subject’s achievements. While previously written about alongside George Platt Lynes and Paul Cadmus in David Leddick’s triography Intimate Companions (2000), Kirstein has not been the subject of a solo biography until now. After reading Duberman’s exhaustively researched account of the enormous role Kirstein played in 20th Century American art, dance, and theatre, I was amazed that I had never heard of him before.

That surprise was compounded by the fact that Kirstein spent much of his childhood and young adulthood in Boston. This period of his life was recently the subject of a public lecture at Harvard University, Kirstein’s alma mater, by Eugene Gaddis, a curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. Both the lecture and Duberman’s book were timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Kirstein’s birth in May.

Kirstein’s achievements were legion—after founding the groundbreaking literary journal Hound & Horn and the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art while an undergraduate, he went on to a professional life that included bringing legendary choreographer George Balanchine to the United States, helping to found both the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, creating the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, and publishing various volumes of art and dance criticism. He also worked on behalf of the federal government, making art-hunting trips through Latin America and rescuing looted artworks as a part of the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Kirstein had just as fascinating a personal life, moving in circles that included figures as diverse as Virginia Woolf and the Rockefeller family, and carrying on a loving half-century marriage to a woman while indulging in a series of homosexual affairs.

Duberman constructs his approach to Kirstein’s life around the central thread of the man’s frantic desire to be loved and appreciated, an insecurity derived from a lack of affection from his emotionally unavailable parents. He makes an excellent case for this premise, supporting it throughout with excerpts and insights from Kirstein’s extensive personal diaries and correspondence. Kirstein kept meticulous track of important conversations and events in his private papers, and the author’s access to those records proves vital to his textual portrait of a very complicated existence. These constant returns to Kirstein’s inner thoughts help to ground the book in a kind of psychological foundation. The reader is always reminded that despite the diversity of Kirstein’s myriad accomplishments and failures, they were all the purview of one talented, ambitious, and fallible man.

Unfortunately, that grounding is not enough to make The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein an unqualified success. The book, much like Kirstein’s life itself, can only be described as sprawling. He was known for his lack of focus, always juggling multiple projects simultaneously. This tendency, married to his boundless energy and a long life, left a lot of ground to cover for any would-be biographer. Duberman attempts to capture the entire scope of Kirstein’s life on the page and succeeds, but perhaps at the cost of events blending into one another. The incidents of Kirstein’s life wash over the reader without any authorial indication of their relative import; there is no echo of Kirstein’s urgency or vitality in the book’s prose.

A crucial event such as Kirstein’s marriage is given the same (lack of) emphasis as an anecdote about an amusing encounter he had at a party—a flaw that, combined with Duberman’s comprehensive attention to detail, can at points make the book seem monotonous and overwhelming. It’s just as well, then, for the author that the opportunity to gain an appreciation for the enormous impact Lincoln Kirstein made on our nation’s arts community makes his unworthy prose still well worth engaging.