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"Why Don't You Speak for Yourself, John?"

"Why Don't You Speak for Yourself, John?"
Title
"Why Don't You Speak for Yourself, John?"
Date 
1884
Medium 
Painted plaster with lead parts
Dimensions 
Overall: 24 x 18 x 14 in. ( 61 x 45.7 x 35.6 cm )
Description 
Genre figure
Credit Line 
Gift of the First Presbyterian Church
Object Number 
1958.14a
Gallery Label 
Rogers' mature oeuvre includes a number of successful sculptures inspired by theatrical and literary subjects, many from the plays of Shakespeare. However, Rogers' first such groups were a series based on the work of an American writer, Washington Irving's tale of Rip Van Winkle. The artist returned to native authors with this subject, taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1858 poem The Courtship of Miles Standish. Longfellow's poem relates the story of a love triangle among the pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. The author, an Alden descendant, claimed that the story was based on family tradition. While the nuances of the tale cannot be confirmed, the three were recorded inhabitants of the colony, and John and Priscilla were married, as described in Longfellow's poem. Rogers depicted the crucial moment when Alden has come to press the suit of his captain, Miles Standish. Alden's heart is heavy because of his own love for Priscilla, and, as Longfellow related, "Archly the maiden smiled, and, with eyes overrunning with laughter / Said, in a tremulous voice, 'Why don't you speak for yourself, John?'" The artist created a stagelike space with a turned chair and a high-back bench on which Priscilla is seated. Rogers did not include the "carded wool like a snow-drift piled at her knee" that Longfellow described; rather, he placed a beautifully shaped bundle of wool on the spindle of her spinning wheel. Rogers asked a friend's mother about the mechanics of spinning so that he could depict Priscilla's actions in a convincing way. In his further concern for accuracy, Rogers created a remarkably detailed spinning wheel so intricate that it was necessary to have it fabricated in metal, as he sometimes did for the fragile parts of his groups. Priscilla's psalm book lies in her lap, because she had been interrupted singing the one hundredth psalm. She turns toward Alden with a coquettish smile as if she is about to speak. Alden stands awkwardly fumbling with his hat; according to the poem, he will turn and rush out of the room in confusion after Priscilla has spoken her piece. Longfellow's poem was considered to bring the country's early history alive; it met with instant acclaim and huge popularity. One commentator confirmed the poem's ubiquity asking, "Who has not read Longfellow's 'Miles Standish' time and again, until the story has almost assumed the dignity of history." The poem was commonly taught in schools, and Rogers' sculpture was suggested as a useful educational aid. In choosing a familiar and distinctly American subject, Rogers appealed to the current interest in the country's early days, and he created a scene of flirtation and courtship that struck a chord with his audience. "Why Don't You Speak for Yourself, John?" became one of his best-selling groups. This was remarkable, since it was produced in the later stages of Rogers' career, and other beloved sculptures, such as Coming to the Parson (1936.649, 1929.102, INV.710, 1948.411), had been enjoying prodigious sales for many years.
Bibliography 
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 3, 4, New York Historical Society. "National Academy of Design," Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Nov. 29, 1884, p. 6. Barck, Dorothy, "Rogers Group in the Museum of the New-York Historical Society," New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 3, October, 1932, p. 80. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp. 92-3. Baker, Charles E., "John Rogers As He Depicted American Literature," American Collector, Vol. 13, No. 10, pp. 10-1, 16. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 109, 251-2, 294. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 190-1.
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group