Cover image for The song of the earth
The song of the earth
Nissenson, Hugh.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, NC : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001.
Physical Description:
244 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm
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Even before his birth, Johnny Baker's life is in danger. His mother breaks the law when she has her fertilized egg endowed with genes that will give her son the potential to become a visual artist. Born in 2038, John Firth Baker is the first genetically engineered artist. At the age of nineteen, at the threshold of his career, he is murdered. Now, ten years after his death, Baker has become famous. An art curator has organized a show of his work, and his biography-culled from journals, e-mails, and interviews with those who knew him best-is published. The Song of the Earth is this "biography." It presents a powerful and haunting portrait of an artist as a young man in the twenty-first century.

Baker is born into a world transformed by technology: genetic profiles, space travel, and controlled housing communities are commonplace. Global warming has altered the environment. A planetary gender war is raging, familial structures are shattered, and new religions contend with the old. Yet human needs remain the same: the search for love, the desire for approval, the longing for fame, and the quest for knowledge. The Song of the Earth is a hypnotic novel about our desire to control our destinies, our yearning for immortality, and the very human impulse to create art. With prose, poetry, and images, Nissenson tells an original tale that brilliantly captures the experience of another time and place.

Author Notes

Hugh Nissenson was born on March 10, 1933 in New York. He received a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1955. After college, he worked briefly as a copy boy at The Times, but found that newspaper writing was not his ambition. In the late 1950s, he spent two years in Israel working on a film about the Israeli war of independence. His first short story, The Blessing, was published in Harper's Magazine at that time. In 1961, he covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for Commentary magazine.

In 1968, he published Notes from the Frontier, about his time living in a kibbutz. His first novel, My Own Ground, was published in 1976. His other works include The Tree of Life, The Song of the Earth, and The Pilgrim. He died on December 13, 2013 at the age of 80.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

John Firth Baker (2037^-2057) was one of three children genetically engineered and experientially guided to be artistic prodigies. Ten years after his murder, an art historian who conducted the only interview with Baker presents this biographical collage of relevant reportage and documents, entries from Baker's and his mother Jeannette's journals, and excerpts from the Baker interview and others with his closest associates. Illustrated with Baker's and the other two, also short-lived prodigies' artwork, the book tells a story of circumstances foiling science as well as art or, perhaps, of religion trumping science and art, as Baker's Gaian guru suggests. And it is the later-twenty-first-century circumstances that Nissenson extrapolates from present predicaments that initially make this clever, darkly witty mock documentary so engrossing. In Baker's time, World War II is called the Great Tribal War, and the political polarization of liberalism versus conservatism has transmogrified into feminism versus the Christian Republican Party. There are extremists on both sides, of course, such as the Gynarchists, whom Jeannette Baker supports and whose radicals blow up Temple Square in Salt Lake City after Mormon terrorists kidnap, rape, and sexually mutilate a radical Gynarchist leader. Present-day religious tendencies have elaborated, too, and Baker becomes a devotee of Gaian consciousness, the religion of the earth, whose staunchest male adherents have their breasts enlarged and made capable of nursing, as Baker does. Another of the artistic prodigies, Yukio Tanaka, falls under the reactionary spell of the imperial theocracy that led Japan into the Great Tribal War. In the end, the prodigies are destroyed by corruptible human emotions and longings as much as by science, art, or even religion. An sf masterpiece. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Nissenson (The Tree of Life, etc.) creates a Rimbaud-like figure for the 21st century in a bizarre mock biography that supports the notion that art can't be taught although perhaps it can be engineered. Born in 2037, Johnny Baker is an arsogenic metamorph (a test-tube baby whose genes have been illegally tailored to make him an artist). It comes as no surprise when he turns out to be sensitive, open-minded, ambitious and (like his mother, Jeanette, a member of the group of gender activists called Gynarchists) gay. In high school, he has a few flings and becomes obsessed with a religious guru named Sri Billy Lee Mukerjee in fact, he eventually has his breasts augmented in imitation of the guru. He leaves home at 16 to live in New York, shacking up with a sugar daddy he meets through a personals ad, telling his mother he has gone to study art. His surreal, often morbid artwork is interspersed throughout the book, which acts as a sort of extended elegy, since Johnny dies violently at age 19. Nissenson has created a complete and fascinating future world full of details that tease the imagination, such as genetic manipulation, astronomical price inflation ($60-a-liter Evian), virtual reality and the submersion of most of New York City under water. The book consists of reconstructed dialogue, e-mails, fragments of interviews and downloads of information from fictitious Web sites. Although this approach is a pointed reference to the increasingly staccato nature of communication in contemporary society, it gradually loses its dynamism and becomes distracting. But the cumulative effect is a haunting warning against the hazards of pushing technology forward without regard for human integrity. (May 11) Forecast: The time is ripe for a reconsideration of Nissenson's quiet but distinguished career, and this latest offering his strongest since the 1985 National Book Award-nominated Tree of Life may spark reviews with a retrospective slant. QPB, Insightout and Reader's Subscription selection; author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



This biography of John Firth Baker, illustrated with his work, is published in collaboration with The Virtual Museum of Modern American Manual Art, which organized and mounted the current Baker retrospective that commemorates the tenth anniversary of his death. The book's title comes from the title of Baker's favorite poem: The Song of the Earth by Clorene Welles I mother his figurative images, always the work of his own hands, appeal to the sense of touch, as well as sight. They convey Baker's deepest feelings, his fantasies and dreams. The political and sectarian uses to which his art was put by others made him famous at nineteen; then he was murdered. Baker was posthumously transformed into a myth, which continues to grow. His work is now given an iconic significance he never consciously intended. Gaians claim the images he made, particularly those they call "Baker's Dozen," are tangible visions of his quest for Gaian Consciousness. John Firth Baker's inner life was more complex-far richer-than that. He died before he could fulfill his promise as an artist. Yet his handful of work endures. Baker was an American original. This book tells his whole story for the first time. I organized The Song of the Earth around interviews I conducted with John Firth Baker which appeared in the June 2057 issue of The International Review of Manual Art. I was then a young reporter with a Ph.D. in Art History who admired Baker's work and was intrigued by his celebrity. I have remained interested in Baker and his art. In the decade since his death I have edited and annotated his mother's journal and Baker's extensive correspondence, which was preserved in his central data storage system. I have interviewed his family, friends, and acquaintances. The text of The Song of the Earth is made up of selections from all these sources, along with other documents pertinent to Baker's life and work. Whenever possible I have allowed the material to speak for itself, in the belief that it presents on its own an honest portrait of John Firth Baker. I regret that Dr. Frederick Rust Plowman twice refused my request for an interview; however, he allowed me access to his papers. I'm grateful to all those who graciously cooperated with me in the preparation of this book. Except where otherwise indicated, all of the art reproduced in this book was created by John Firth Baker and is in the collection of Polly Baker. Katherine G. Jackson May 19, 2067 Excerpted from The Song of the Earth by Hugh Nissenson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.