Two events with a lasting effect on American culture are celebrating a centenary in 2016: the founding of Planned Parenthood and Georgia O’Keeffe’s fateful meeting with Alfred Stieglitz. The women at the center of these events are at the heart of two new works of historical fiction.
With the mission of Planned Parenthood being questioned almost as much today as it was at its inception, the timing is eerily apt for Terrible Virtue, Ellen Feldman’s powerful novel about the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger. Sanger, whose personal life was as tumultuous as her political and social convictions, remains a controversial figure, held to current standards of ethical correctness just as she was held to impossible models of femininity during her lifetime.
Watching her own mother succumb to an early death after bearing 13 children led Sanger to advocate for family planning, despite a limited formal education. Her desire to make a difference in the lives of poor and working-class women led her to Europe, where ideas about contraception were more progressive. After her return to the United States, she opened a clinic in Brooklyn—and was jailed for it.
Feldman lets Sanger tell her own story, but separates the chapters with sections narrated by Sanger’s two husbands, her sister and her children. The voices of those who suffered under the singularity of Sanger’s purpose offer depth to Feldman’s vision of this complex figure—a reminder of what was gained, but also what was sacrificed.
A different kind of sacrifice was made by Georgia O’Keeffe in Dawn Tripp’s gorgeous novel, Georgia, which focuses on the years O’Keeffe spent with photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
The love story of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz is well known. Their passionate affair and his incredible photographs of her, both clothed and nude, caused a sensation at the time and are still considered seminal in the history of photography. But Tripp suggests that O’Keeffe paid a price for that notoriety. The battle that rose between her and Stieglitz was ultimately about her work as an artist, especially her early abstractions, which she believed were overshadowed by the obvious eroticism of his photographs. O’Keeffe’s iron grip on her legacy and her need to reinvent herself in the Southwest is a key part of this exquisitely told story.
Like Terrible Virtue, Georgia relies on a first-person narrative, but in this novel, there is no other voice but O’Keeffe’s. Though the novel opens and closes in 1979 in New Mexico, it quickly plunges into the years just before World War I. The arrival of the young art teacher at Stieglitz’s gallery in New York, the expansive family home on the shores of Lake George and O’Keeffe’s first glimpses of what would become the major inspiration for the second half of her life, are all beautifully told.
Terrible Virtue and Georgia remind us that the ongoing culture wars are nothing new, but that life can be changed for the better with bravery, dedication and vision.
This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.