Jamaica Kincaid on being “Kept In”

On a recent Saturday afternoon writer Jamaica Kincaid offered 90 minutes of personal remembrances in one of the most interesting and heartfelt presentations in the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture series at the American Art Museum. Although she started, hesitated, then began again, you couldn’t help but be on her side. “I’m thinking of this as a dress rehearsal,” she said, after trying to get her Powerpoint to behave, “because if this works, I’m taking it on the road.”

Edward Lamson Henry, “Kept In,” 1889, oil, 14″ x 18″, Fenimore Art Museum, New York State Historical Association

Kincaid first became familiar with Edward Lamson Henry&rquo;s 1889 painting, “Kept In”, when she was beginning her life as a writer in New York City, in the mid-1970s. “When I was a very young person, I lived in Soho. The rent was $275 per month and I was often late. There was a postcard shop on Prince Street and I collected postcards. I loved the [Henry] picture, but could not say why. I loved looking at it and thinking about it. It entered my very being.”

Kincaid then took us back to her childhood in the exotic land whose name she took as her own. She was a precocious child who was taught by her mother to read at three and a half years old, and not for the reasons you might expect. “My mother, a poor woman in a poor place, took me to the library to read. I was upset that my mother found a book more interesting than me.” And so, in order to get any reading done, Kincaid’s mother taught her daughter how to read, and in effect, to “leave her alone.” In fact, as the years wore on and Kincaid became a young woman and a writer in the United States, she “did leave her mother alone.” But as Kincaid added, “That is a ‘nother story.”

In Henry’s painting, it’s as if we’re given a window into the portrait of the writer as a young girl. Kincaid identified with the child left alone in Henry’s painting while her classmates are outside in the brighter light of the world. Kincaid told us that as punishment for her misbehaving, she was once tasked to copy out books one and two of Milton’s Paradise Lost. She dutifully did what she was told, but it had an unexpected twist. As Kincaid tells it, “I fell in love with Lucifer…not what was intended.”

The kept-in girl in the painting is the artist, writer or dreamer, forced to grow in a different light. But it’s a situation that will bring rich rewards. “She’s a very intelligent person,” Kincaid told us. “She’s plotting a new way to be. She’s plotting her own light. I find her a revolutionary figure. She’s a philosopher. She’s trapped in with knowledge. She doesn’t know what to do with it, but will.”

This post originally appeared on the American Art Museum’s blog “Eye Level.”

Posted: 18 May 2009
About the Author:

Howard Kaplan is a Washington-based writer, editor of the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ award-winning Asiatica magazine and a frequent contributor to Eye Level and The Torch.