The Limner

Mr. Tuttle was among the masters who preferred their servants to be mute, deaf, and blind—except when his convenience required the matter otherwise. Of course, masters and servants had become citizens and hired help once the juster republic had declared itself. But masters and servants did not die out; nor did the essential inclinations of man.

The Limner by Julian Barnes, Jan 5 2009

Inspired by the life of John Brewster Jr., a deaf itinerant painter who made his living doing portraits of wealthy families in the early Republic, “The Limner” is a sketch of class and caste in 18th century America. The painter Wadsworth, standing outside of the normal strictures by virtue of his disability, his talent, and his lack of a permanent address, can make wry and telling observations about the interactions between masters and servants, as well as effect some quiet justice.

Barnes brings the society and culture of the period to life largely through Mr. Tuttle, a blowhard of a customs official, and Wadsworth, a clear-eyed and critical observer. Tuttle is not so terribly original–blowhards seldom are–but Wadsworth is a fascinating character.

The story’s title is taken from the professional name of the itinerant artists of the Colonial period, and derives from “illuminate” (as in illustration). And Wadsworth is certainly an illuminator. I also like the echo of “liminality,” suggesting someone in a transitional state, an in-betweener; and Wadsworth is very much that as well.

“He hoped that there would be painting in Heaven, but more than this he hoped that there would be deafness in Heaven.”

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