Staring at Hopper’s Bright Diner, Author Sees Dark America
A Contrary review by Laura M. Browning

       Gordon Theisen's book isn't really about Edward Hopper. Even though Hopper’s name appears in the title, and even though Nighthawks spreads across the cover, Theisen never pretends that this is a biography, either of Hopper or his iconic painting. Instead, Hopper’s Nighthawks guides Theisen’s fanciful travel through time—and through tobacco, film noir, and hard-core porn—while revealing the “dark side of the American psyche” promised in the subtitle. Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche meditates not on a single painting but on the rich matrix of cultural pessimism that, Theisen argues, lurks beneath twentieth-century American life.
        Theisen starts with the premise that “optimism in America… is a core tenet of the national faith.” If we just work harder, work better, then self-improvement, wealth, and happiness can be ours. And then he calls our bluff: our lives are “nothing like a sitcom, with its harmless pranks, warm, fuzzy feelings, and tidy morals….” As he dismantles American optimism, he lays the foundation for Nighthawks to assume the brunt of American pessimism. 
        It's a lot of weight to place on one painting. Even though Nighthawks is instantly recognizable, both as Hopper’s original painting and as any one of a handful of copies (with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe replacing Hopper’s figures, for example; or on the cover of a ubiquitous free AOL diskette, with a laptop on the diner counter), it’s hard to take Theisen too seriously as he repeatedly engages with the painting (both its characters and its setting) in different scenarios: Theisen writes of Nighthawks as the inspiration for filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner); as the backdrop of the Jazz Age; as a scene of group sex. It is the diner that every American goes to late at night; it is the Archimedean point from which the dark side of the American psyche becomes clear. Nighthawks underlies everything dark about America, from the country’s Puritanical beginnings to a futuristic big city, an “American Noir” upended by alienation and desolation. About halfway through the book, one begins to imagine that Theisen suffers from some grave mental illness in which he sees Nighthawks everywhere, in everything. 
        Even if Theisen is crazy, it’s easy enough to pick and choose from his more deserving ideas. His writing is clear, beautiful, and tightly conceived, and even the strangest chapters manage to connect to Nighthawks in a way that, if not completely convincing, give the painting a robust history without falling prey to dry descriptions. With darkly overwrought chapters like "The End of the World Came Sometime Yesterday" and "How to Expect Failure and Avoid Disappointment," he covers a century of American history and pop culture, from the crime-scene photographer Weegee to comic book artist R. Crumb. Although the book often feels like the author’s self-indulgence, his repeated engagements with Nighthawks suggest that staying up much too late, staring at the same painting over and over again, may indeed yield an imaginative way of thinking about art.

Laura M. Browning is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy. She has also written extensively on the arts and museums.

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Staying Up Much Too Late
by Gordon Theisen
2006, Thomas Dunne Bks.
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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