Stories Uncle Sam Told Us

Michael Delahunt

 

When I was very young — in Wisconsin in the 1950s and early 60s — my uncle Sam Manierre used to sit down with his nieces and nephews to tell us wonderful stories. He was an art historian (Harvard class of 1929) who also broke into spontaneous recitations of poetry. (Robert Louis Stevenson was one of his favorite poets.) There were several fairy tales he told us, and we listened to them as often as he'd tell them. Our attention was always merited. He delivered each telling of a story in the same impassioned manner — the same studied pacing and tones of voice.

 

One story was my favorite. It involved two magical bottles, each of black glass. And when he told the tale Sam brought out two dark bottles — the very ones in the story!

 

 

They were empty old wine bottles, but I've never seen their like — their shape was ordinary, but their color was fully dark and mysterious. (They were definitely not painted, neither outside nor in.) I hoped that one day those bottles would be mine. I remember eyeing them on a high shelf in Sam's rooms. They were probably discarded long long ago.

 

 

Sam died at the age of 80 in 1988, survived by his wife, Louisa, who died in 1993. Here are some photographs I took of them in 1982. I decided to get really near to Sam's eyes for the second photo, and he laughed while I took it, amused at how close I held the camera. I hope you can see the grin in his eyes. Now I wish I had backed away and gotten his whole face, but he shows some of that open-mouthed smile in the picture with Louisa. Click on these photos to see enlargements.

 

 

Sam held a much more serious expression in the photo below. Sam-the-Storyteller rarely showed us this face.

 

 

I remember looking long into his animated eyes, Sam's strongest feature. He let his eyebrows grow to extraordinary lengths. When anyone suggested he'd better cut them back, he calmly stood his ground, asserting, "Every man is entitled to his plumage!!" (I cited this truism in the 1960s in defense of my own lengthy hair.)

 

Sam and Louisa married late in their lives, and had no children, but their 14 nieces and nephews think of them fondly as among the most civilized persons ever.

 

 

By the time I'd grown up I'd realized that Sam was reciting stories he had memorized word-for-word, and I've often wished I could find the source of that story about the magical black bottles. This year, 2003, I did. My cousin Molly told me she thought it was probably from a book by Howard Pyle. Sam adored Pyle's books. As it happens, also this year, three since my mother died, one of the things I brought home from the dispersal of her things is Pepper and Salt, a book by Howard Pyle, inscribed as a gift to Sam from his mother in the 1940s.

 

There are several stories in this book, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle (American, 1853-1911). Pyle founded the "Brandywine School" of illustration. Among his students were N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith and Frank Schoonover. Pepper and Salt was first published in 1885 (copyright renewed in 1913 by Anne Poole Pyle), and although he produced many other wonderful books, only this one contains the story of "Clever Peter and the Two Bottles," and the other two you'll find below.

 

 

Professionally, Sam was an art historian who wrote and lectured on it. Among his published articles: "Six Wisconsin Painters" (The Studio, January 1946, pages 20-23.) [This is a PDF file. To view it, you must use the free application Acrobat Reader.]

 

In order to lecture about Howard Pyle's work, Sam had slides made of some of the illustrations. His mother, an artist herself, watercolored some of the illustrations, as you'll see. They were otherwise all black and white.

 

 

— a gift to my siblings and cousins, and anyone else who'd like to read them:

Three of the stories Uncle Sam told us

 

Click on the book cover above to flip through the first few pages before reaching the stories, or click on one of the three titles below and go straight to a story.

 

In 14 pages.

 

In 14 pages.

 

In 13 pages.

 

 

 

 

The Delahunt Family's Home Page.

 

ArtLex Art Dictionary

http://www.artlex.com



This page last modified September 8,
2006.