By William Drennan
Published January 2007
Date reviewed: May 29, 2007
Originally reviewed at: BookReview.com
My first exposure to Frank Lloyd Wright came in fall of 2003, when I took a tour of his Spring Green estate Taliesin. I was pulled in by the beauty of the landscape and the design, but also by the story that it had been rebuilt twice – the first time as a result of a servant who burned half the house and murdered seven people, Wright’s mistress among them. A gruesome story, and yet one that garnered no questions on the tour and got as much time as the design of the drafting room.
The actions of the murderer Julian Carlton and their impact on Wright now have the necessary coverage though, thanks to William R. Drennan’s “Death in a Prairie House.” Drennan, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, has written a solid book that gives novices a picture of the famous architect and scholars a new look at his lowest point.
Drennan starts with the blueprints of Wright’s life, showing how his family’s Unitarian roots and his own Emersonian free spirit contributed to his architectural maturation. After years chafing under suburban comfort he entered into an affair with feminist thinker Mamah Borthwick Cheney, constructing Taliesin as their love nest. This piece was shattered by Carlton’s hatchet and gasoline, and Wright’s style – artistically and personally – was never the same afterwards.
Drennan’s research is exhaustive, going over interviews, newspaper articles, memoirs and even decades-old gossip to piece together the full picture of Wright. He shows the opposition of Spring Green’s moral residents to Wright’s “sinful” ideals, how racism played a part in Carlton’s motivations and suggests the killings were what removed the “prairie house” community design from his homes. The book is always reasoned, never committing to a single viewpoint until he finds historical support for it and disproved all other alternatives.
What I really appreciated about the book was its writing style: not the dry academic voice of most conventional histories but discursive, almost conversational. Drennan frequently inserts random facts or anecdotes in the middle of his sentences, and describes the crime with phrases such as “the unhappy calculus of body count.” Though occasionally distracting, they remind the reader of facts that are easily forgotten next to Wright’s personal drama.
“Death in a Prairie House” is an excellent work of both journalism and history, well-written and well-researched. I already plan to make a return trip to Taliesin as a result, and the tour is sure to be more interesting with a picture of the mind that built it and the blood that stains it.