Character and Feasting in Mamie Neugent’s 81st (?) Birthday with Family
By Emily Kulenkamp
David M. Spear’s Mamie Neugent’s 81st (?) Birthday with Family is one of an extensive series of photographs taken of the Neugent family by Spear. He photographs them in their day-to-day life, doing everything from working, to recovering from injuries, to feasting. This particular photograph illustrates the Neugents’ character as it relates to the feast. Their birthday meal is a straightforward celebration. It is depicted as a practical and unostentatious recognition of Mamie rather than as the social display that feasts often become, such as in the works L’Assommoir and Madame Bovary.
Spear began photographing the Neugents in 1987 and took Mamie Neugent’s 81st (?) Birthday with Family in 1989 (Spear, 1993, 1; Spear, 1989). The Neugents are primarily tobacco farmers and live in Rockingham County, North Carolina, near the town of Madison (Spear, 1993, 1; Williams 1). As of 1990, Rockingham County had a population of 86,064 people (“County Facts”). As of 2002, there were 871 farms in the county, of which 93.2% were family owned (“County Facts”). The town of Madison had a population of 2,371 as of 1990 (“Demographics”). Spear selected the Neugents as his subjects “because of the uniqueness of their lifestyle” (Spear, 1993, 1). He views them as “throwbacks who continued to struggle within a system that had been replaced by agribusiness and industrial development” and “have clung to the traditions of the tenant farmer” yet are simultaneously “spirited, able-bodied” and possess “real vitality” (Spear, 1993, 1, 4).
The Neugents’ celebration of Mamie’s birthday is what it is; they do not feel as if the occasion requires that they prove something to one another or to the outside world. The point of this feast is to honor and celebrate Mamie for her and for themselves. Spear’s mission was “to make these images more intimate, more empathetic…more into their world” (Spear, 1993, 2). As he and the Neugents worked together, the Neugents “[became] subjects” rather than “objects,” partaking in “a loose sort of collaboration” with Spear (Spear, 1993, 3). This photograph shows they are sure enough of the validity of their life that they have no need to use this feast to act out any kind of pretentious ideal. In numerous other works, the feast functions as an expression of social class and, in many cases, social pretensions. In both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Zola’s L’Assommoir, feasts are representative of much more than the pure commemoration of an event. In Madame Bovary, Emma’s father insists on hosting her wedding to Charles in a grand fashion (Flaubert 25-27). The bride “would…have preferred to have a midnight wedding with torches,” but her father cannot conceive of the wedding as anything but a public spectacle (Flaubert 23). He presents a lavish display of food for his guests, which highlights his middle-class financial success (Flaubert 25-27). In fact, the use of the wedding as an exhibition is sufficiently apparent that it is acknowledged by Monsieur Rouault while interacting with a guest (Flaubert 26). At the wedding, one of Emma’s cousins starts to act out a traditional and bawdy nuptial custom (Flaubert 26). However, Emma’s father stops him as “the distinguished position of his son-in-law would not allow of such liberties” and the cousin begins to harbor a mild resentment of Emma’s father, Rouault, for his perceived pretension (Flaubert 26). In L’Assommoir, Gervaise and Coupeau’s wedding feast is also shaped by the perceptions of their family and other peers. Gervaise “[feels] a little ashamed and [does] not care to parade their marriage before the whole Quartier” (Zola, Chapter 3). However, her fiancée holds that “[it] would never do not to have some festivities” (Zola, Chapter 3). Neither of them appears to have much of a personal desire to celebrate their wedding elaborately. Instead, they borrow money and agonize over the cost of the feast in order to make a positive impression on their guests and community (Zola, Chapter 3). Neither of the pairs feels secure enough to dispense with the pretense of their union. The discontented Emma allows her father to use it as a display of his financial success. Gervaise is anxious not to make a bad impression on her new relatives while Coupeau, like Monsieur Rouault, cannot conceive of this celebration as anything but a public spectacle. The Neugents, conversely, approach the feast in a highly unpretentious manner. About Mamie Neugent, Spear states “Chattering magpies, dressed in ostentatious clothing, look at this woman!…she is purity…[she] is not interested in a world full of idiot fools that mass produce false dreams and make false promises by the screaming minute” (1993, 1). Mamie Neugent’s 81st (?) Birthday with Family depicts a group of people celebrating a feast entirely without ostentation, without falseness. They stand and sit lined up behind the table in everyday clothing; each one of them is wearing a button down work shirt. Their expressions are likewise straightforward; none of them try to project happiness through artificially inflated smiles but rather look to the camera with realistic looks of contentment. The table is crowded with dishes presented in an unadorned fashion. There is a plastic milk jug, a can of PET evaporated milk, and a plastic container in which something was bought already made from a store lain out on the table amidst more permanent dishes. The Neugents’ willingness to use these containers at their feast illustrates their lack of concern for appearance; they do not project an image of artificial affluence or grandeur. The uncertainty in the title of this piece additionally highlights their straightforward approach to the feast. The Neugents’ feast is not impaired by concern about the image that the uncertainty of the occasion sends.
The contrast between Mamie’s birthday feast and the feasts depicted in Madame Bovary and L’Assommoir highlights the manner in which Mamie Neugent’s 81st (?) Birthday with Family portrays the character of the Neugents. This photograph reveals that, in keeping with their unostentatious life off the land, they approach the feast simplistically and add no unnecessary adornment in an effort to live up to a socially conceived notion of the feast as grand and conspicuous occasion.
“County Facts: Rockingham County, NC.” Rockingham County Government. Rockingham County. 2000. Web. 28 November 2010.
“Demographics.” Town of Madison, N.C.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. Print.
Spear, David M. Introduction. The Neugents: “Close to Home.” By Spear. 1993. 1-4. Print.
—. Mamie Neugent’s 81st (?) Birthday with Family. 1989. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Williams, Jonathan. Afterword. The Neugents: “Close to Home.” By David M. Spear.
Zola, Emile. L’Assommoir. Project Gutenberg: 2005. Web. 28 October 2010.