In the tradition of They Might Be Giants' "James K. Polk," the band Two Man Gentlemen Band, who describe themselves in an email to me as a "vaudevillian-swing duo," have released the song "Franklin Pierce," in honor of the fourteenth U.S. president. They rhyme the president's last name with the word tears and beer, perhaps on account of his struggle with alcoholism. (It may not have been pronounced that way, though. His contemporary Lydia Maria Child, who loathed Pierce for opposing abolitionism, once said his name rhymed with curse.)
“They are evidently man and wife,” wrote the journalist George G. Foster, of two customers in one of 19th-century New York’s upscale ice cream parlors, “though not each other’s!”
I write about adulterous ice cream and other dark secrets in my chapter on old New York’s high life and low life in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York. I’ll be giving a short reading from my chapter at the launch party, free and open to the public, this Sunday night, May 2nd, at 8pm at the Bowery Poetry Club.
In my chapter, I take a quick tour of the literature of the down and out, but since the 19th-century down and out have been fairly well studied of late, I spend most of my page count describing a group of writers less well remembered: the chroniclers of the mid-19th-century rich, including such odd ducks as Charles Astor Bristed, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Régis de Trobriand, Ann S. Stephens, Donald G. Mitchell, George Templeton Strong, and George William Curtis. I discuss such vexing questions as how to mix a sherry cobbler properly, how to throw a party when your brownstone is only twenty-five feet wide, and what to do about the dangerous rash of flirtations between middle-aged women and much-younger men, as satirized in cartoons like this one, from 1852:
The caption, in case the scan is too grainy to read:
Young New York at a Party
Lady of the House.— Charlie, why don’t you ask Miss Brown to dance?
Charlie.— Cawn’t. Too demn’d young.
Over at the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog, Christopher Shea relays the news that NPR has a new slideshow up about jobs that no longer exist, including copy boy, bowling pin setter, and lector, a person paid to read aloud to people rolling cigars by hand.
I knew I’d heard about this job before, though it took me a minute to remember that it was in James Weldon Johnson’s lovely 1912 novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:
After I had been in the factory a little over a year, I was repaid for all the effort I had put forth to learn Spanish by being selected as “reader.” The “reader” is quite an institution in all cigar factories which employ Spanish-speaking workmen. He sits in the center of the large room in which the cigar makers work and reads to them for a certain number of hours each day all the important news from the papers and whatever else he may consider would be interesting. He often selects an exciting novel, and reads it in daily installments. He must, of course, have a good voice, but he must also have a reputation among the men for intelligence, for being well posted and having in his head a stock of varied information. He is generally the final authority on all arguments which arise; and, in a cigar factory, these arguments are many and frequent, ranging from discussions on the respective and relative merits of rival baseball clubs to the duration of the sun’s light and energy—cigar making is a trade in which talk does not interfere with work. My position as “reader” not only released me from the rather monotonous work of rolling cigars, and gave me something more in accord with my tastes, but also added considerably to my income. I was now earning about twenty-five dollars a week . . .
The narrator is even able to afford to hire a piano.
Update (March 24): Jenny D. just relayed to me the news that on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm, here in New York, the Americas Society is hosting a reading by Araceli Tinajero from her new book El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. (Alas, I won’t be able to make it, because I’m chained to my laptop impersonating El Escritor until further notice.)
Further update (later on March 24): The topic reminds my friend Gabe of Felipe Jesus Consalvos, a cigar roller in the early twentieth century who incorporated cigar boxes into his outsider-art collages.
I found this bookplate, unglued but still tucked into the front endpapers, in a history that I spent today reading. The book, which I bought used last week, was published in the 1930s; the Internet tells me that Edwin B. Coddington, its sometime owner, was the longtime chair of Lafayette College’s history department and wrote the definitive history of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1968, some time after his death. I like the way the bookplate evokes the idea of American history. I’ve been using it as a bookmark, and I must have looked at it half a dozen times before I had a Sesame Street moment and realized that the Indian and the airplane don’t belong in the same picture.
"Beer Buddies," my review of Richard Stott's Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America, appears in the February/March 2010 issue of Bookforum.
Before I started reading for my recent New Yorker article “It Happened One Decade,” I hadn’t actually read James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) all the way through. I vaguely recall that I was supposed to have done so in college, but I didn’t. That’s probably a good thing, according to comments that Evans made in 1974 when his photographs were exhibited at the University of Texas at Austin. Agee “wouldn’t approve of reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for a class assignment,” Evans wrote, “because it robs the work of its freedom. Agee was never reasonable about the heavy hand of duty.”
Reading it at age forty-two, however, I kind of loved it, even if (like Morris Dickstein, the author of the book I was reviewing) I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the portentous table of contents and other elements of gratuitous “structure.” This excess does have its rewards, however, including a sense of depth—a sense of the complexity of reality. Several times over, from different perspectives, Agee describes the home of the family whom he calls the Gudgers (in real life, their last name was Burroughs), and different aspects emerge each time. On page 153 (of the Houghton Mifflin edition), for example, Agee writes that the family’s
left front room is used only dubiously and irregularly, though the sewing machine is there and it is fully furnished both as a bed room and as a parlor. The children use it sometimes, and it is given to guests (as it was to us), but storm, mosquitoes and habit force them back into the other room where the whole family sleeps together.
Agee returns to the room much later in the book, on page 419, when he finally gets around to describing the first night that he spent with the Gudger/Burroughs family. He describes the parents “telling me where I would sleep, in the front room” and then describes the “waking and bringing-in of the children from their sleeping on the bed I was to have.” There’s a touch of inconsistency between these observed facts and the general observation made earlier, and it occurred to me that the Burroughses, wanting to be hospitable, may have told Agee a white lie about how often the children used the room. Surely a family with so few resources would have made regular use of a bedroom that they kept furnished, even if it was drafty. If it were true that the Burroughs children didn’t often sleep in the bedroom because it was too easy for mosquitoes and rain to get in, why were the children sleeping there on the night of Agee’s arrival, which took place in July, during a downpour? Of course it only makes the Burroughs family seem even more appealing to think that they might have fibbed to help Agee feel at home.
Among the book’s many pleasures is comparison of Agee’s prose descriptions of the tenant farmers’ habitats with Evans’s photographs of them. At the start of the section titled “A Country Letter,” for example, Agee describes in detail a coal-oil lamp in the Burroughs’ house:
The glass was poured into a mold, I guess, that made the base and bowl, which are in one piece; the glass is thick and clean, with icy lights in it. The base is a simply fluted, hollow skirt; stands on the table; is solidified in a narrowing, a round inch of pure thick glass, then hollows again, a globe about half flattened, the globe-glass thick, too; and this holds oil, whose silver line I see, a little less than half down the globe, its level a very little—for the base is not quite true—tilted against the axis of the base.
If you turn to the front of the book, you can see the lamp he’s talking about and verify his description of its shape and its tilt, in a Walker Evans photo, which, like many of the photos that Evans took of Alabama’s tenant farmers, is also available in a high-resolution scan at the Library of Congress. Agee describes the graniteware washbasin visible in the same photo toward the end of “A Country Letter” and again in a later section titled “The hallway; Structure of the four rooms.” In the section “Shelter,” he gives a lengthy ekphrasis of a decorated mantelpiece at the Burroughses’, down to the whitewash print of a child’s hand to one side of it. In Evans’s photo, available at the Library of Congress and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s also some graffiti above the mantel, unmentioned by Agee. I wasted some time trying to decipher it from the high-quality scan, but without success. Any guesses?
In his collaboration with Agee, Evans was funded by the government’s Farm Security Administration, and the copyright of his photos are now owned by the public and many of his original prints are in the care of the Library of Congress. In addition to individual photos, the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division has digitized two albums, containing slightly more than a hundred prints, that Evans assembled to document his trip with Agee. (If you click on one of the albums at the top of the page, you can then flip through it in an online reader page by page.)
Most of the photos that Agee glosses are printed in the front of his book, and a few more may be found online in the Library of Congress’s two albums. To find still more photos, search the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division for ‘Walker Evans Alabama’ or for ‘Walker Evans’ and the name of one of the tenant-farming families (‘Burroughs’, ‘Tingle’ [sometimes spelled 'Tengle'], or ‘Fields’). Once you do this, click on ‘Display Images with Neighboring Call Numbers’ if you want to see Walker Evans photos in the Library of Congress that haven’t been given titles or otherwise indexed. That’s the only way to find this portrait of the children Floyd Lee Burroughs Jr. and Othel Lee Burroughs, this alternate portrait of Floyd Burroughs on his porch or this one of him on a mule, or this enigmatic close-up of one of the Fields children.
Still more images may be found at the Walker Evans Archive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it’s easy to compare the stoic close-up portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs (Annie Mae Gudger) that Evans chose to print in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with her sly smile in two variants. (Here’s yet another, from the Library of Congress, which was reproduced in Evans’s American Photographs of 1938.) The Met also has a striking image of Floyd Burroughs in profile, which I’ve never seen anywhere.
Though the photographic archive is abundant, there are intriguing lacunae. A few times, Agee describes photos taken by Evans that don’t seem to correspond to images available anywhere online or in any publication that I’ve looked in. At the bottom of page 364 and top of page 365, for example, Agee describes a picture of the Ricketts (Tingle) family thus:
there you all are, the mother as before a firing squad, the children standing like columns of an exquisite temple, their eyes straying, and behind, both girls, bent deep in the dark shadow somehow as I listening and as in a dance, attending like harps the black flags of their hair
There’s another ghost photo on page 369, when Agee describes a family portrait of the Burroughses:
The background is a tall bush in disheveling bloom, out in front of the house in the hard sun: George [Floyd] stands behind them all, one hand on Junior’s shoulder; Louise (she has first straightened her dress, her hair, her ribbon), stands directly in front of her father, her head about to his breastbone, her hands crossed quietly at the joining of her thighs . . . ; Burt sits at her feet with his legs uncrossing . . . ; and there again they are; the three older of them thoroughly and quietly serious, waiting for the shutter to release them . . .
I have no idea where this image is, if it survives. At least one Evans portrait of the Gudgers/Burroughses as a family does survive. It’s reproduced on the cover of William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America, and is held by the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, source of the image to the right. As you can see, though, the family is standing in front of their house in this image, not in front of a bush, and the configuration of persons is slightly different from what Agee describes.
Toward the end of his book, Agee describes images of a naked infant boy and naked infant girl, but it isn’t clear from his wording whether the images were photographed by Evans or existed only in Agee’s mind’s eye. In any case, it seems likely that someday even more photographs by Evans of the families in Agee’s book may turn up, perhaps in the form of negatives that the Library of Congress has yet to digitize. In conclusion, and just for the hell of it, here’s a link to a funny picture of Evans himself, taken by the great Helen Levitt, which was recently donated to the Museum of Modern Art.
In Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), the character at the focus of the novel, if not quite its hero, is Tod Hackett, an artist who has come to Los Angeles to design sets and costumes for the movies. Hackett is fascinated by a character type he finds there—"the kind of person who comes to California to die"—who seems to be the clay out of which an American fascist could be modeled. Here's his first description of the species:
Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.
When, in preparation for writing my New Yorker article "It Happened One Decade," I began reading around in the literature of the nineteen thirties, I had the impression that the idea of going to California to die was metaphoric. I was surprised to discover in Edmund Wilson's American Jitters (1932) that it wasn't. Wilson wrote that at the time, San Diego led the United States in suicides, perhaps because "a great many sick people come to live in San Diego." If one allows for the poetic license of substituting Los Angeles for San Diego, it seems probable that West was inspired by Wilson's description:
The climate of Southern California, so widely advertised by Chambers of Commerce and Southern California Clubs, but probably rather unhealthy with its tepid enervating days and its nights that get suddenly chill, brings invalids to San Diego by the thousand. If they have money to move about and have failed to improve in the other health centers, the doctors, as a last resort, send them to San Diego, and it is not uncommon for patients to die just after being unloaded from the train. In the case of "ideational" diseases like asthma—diseases which are partly psychological—the sufferers have a tendency to keep moving away from places, under the illusion that they are leaving the disease behind. And when they have moved to San Diego, they find they are finally cornered, there is nowhere farther to go. According to the psychoanalysts, the idea of the setting sun suggests the idea of death. At any rate, of the five-hundred-odd suicides during the period of fifteen years mentioned above [i.e., between 1911 and 1927], 70 per cent were put down to "despondency and depression over chronic ill health."
I'm quoting here from the revised 1957 version of Wilson's essay "The Jumping-Off Place," because that's the version I happen to have access to at the moment, but the quotes of Wilson in my article come from the original American Jitters, which Wilson published in 1932, when his youthful vitriol was not yet tempered and his faith in Marxism still intact.
"It Happened One Decade," my review-essay focusing on Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, is published in the 21 September 2009 issue of The New Yorker. The book under review is a genial and comprehensive guide to the literature, film, and music of the nineteen thirties. Though I often post an online bibliography of my New Yorker articles, there's not much call for one in this case, since almost all the books that I refer to in my review are cited by author, title, or both. Instead, in the next couple of posts, I'll try to write about oddments that I couldn't find a place for.
As in the past, I'd like to offer on this blog some description of the sources that were useful to me in writing the article. The customary caveat: this post won't make much sense if you haven't yet read the article in question first. My first thanks, as usual, are for the book under review, Leeson's Invisible Hook, which is dapper and brisk besides being very well researched.
The best descriptions of pirates come from people taken captive by them. Captain William Snelgrave, whom I use to start my article, tells his story in A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade, which, though published in 1734, is mysteriously unavailable in Google Books. The only physical copy I can find for sale is a 1971 reprint—for $430. Talk about piracy! Within the scholarly world, Snelgrave's narrative is also famous for his observations of Africa and of slave-trading, which he defends. Another captive, Captain George Roberts, describes having been seized near the Cape Verde Islands in 1722 in The Four Years' Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. "You Dog! You Son of a Bitch! you Speckled-Shirt Dog!" one of his captors curses him. Asked who he thinks his captors are, Roberts submissively answers that "I believed they were Gentlemen of Fortune belonging to the Sea," only to be told off once more: "You lie by God, we are Pirates, by God." Roberts tells a good yarn, so good that some have wondered whether it might be fiction, but I think it's too good for that. When, for example, one of the pirates maroons Roberts on the high seas in a boat with no sail and no provisions, the pirate bestows on Roberts, in parting, a musket with a small amount of powder, calling it a special gift. The gift puzzles Roberts. In fact, though Roberts never figures it out, a loaded gun was traditionally given by one pirate to another when he marooned him—so the marooned man could shoot himself instead of starving to death slowly. It would take a subtle novelist to resist writing the scene where it dawns on Roberts what the musket is for; it seems more likely to me that Roberts's experience and ignorance were both genuine.
Two more captives tell their stories in the General History of the Pyrates, a book I'll describe in a moment. One of them, Captain Evans of the Greyhound, is quoted in my article saying he prefers to keep his hand and lose his gold. At the moment when another captive, Captain Macrae, is afraid that he's going to lose his life, "a Fellow with a terrible Pair of Whiskers, and a wooden leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck." To Macrae's surprise, the blustering fellow acclaims him "an honest Fellow," and the testimony saves him. (After reading this story, I wasted a fair amount of time trying to figure out who "the Man in the Almanack with Darts" was, and here's the answer, courtesy of Notes and Queries, 13 June 1908: "The reference . . . is evidently an allusion to the woodcuts in the ephemerides of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries illustrating the supposed effects of the planets, &c., on the diseases in various parts of man's body. . . . The arrows are merely lines pointing to the head, heart, breast, legs, feet, &c., of a small naked figure."
Several buccaneers left narratives. The most famous is The Buccaneers of America (first English edition, 1684) by A. O. Exquemelin, a Frenchman who served with Henry Morgan and later became a surgeon in Holland. Exquemelin has some nice observations of life in the New World—flamingo meat and crocodile eggs are very tasty, he reports, and one of the few drawbacks of Caribbean life are these insects known as mosquitoes ("most vexing of all is the noise they make in one's ears")—but there's so much torture in his story that it's quite grim and grisly. I read Alexis Brown's translation, but there's an older translation available for download on Google Books. The Library of Congress offers an online display of the illustrations to the 1678 Dutch edition. Another buccaneer, Basil Ringrose, wrote an account of further depredations that picks up where Exquemelin left off, and it has often been reprinted as the second half of Exquemelin's book.
Pirates (as opposed to buccaneers) left few first-hand documents. The General History reprints a few fragments from what it claims was Blackbeard's diary: "rum all out:—our Company somewhat sober:—A damn’d Confusion amongst us!" And there is the occasional threatening letter, such as the one from Henry Every that I quote, which is reprinted in J. Franklin Jameson, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period (1923), a collection of letters, reports, and legal documents, glossed with very helpful footnotes. There is also the testimony that pirates gave in court, the amplest source of which may be the four volumes (well, two of the four volumes) of Joel H. Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age.
And then there's Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1724), which is droll and vivid. You want the version edited by Manuel Schonhorn, because it's the most meticulous, even though Schonhorn thought that "Charles Johnson" was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe. In fact, Arne Bialuschewski has shown that it was almost certainly a pseudonym for the journalist Nathaniel Mist.
Between them, Exquemelin's Buccaneers and Johnson/Mist's General History are the source of almost all the great stories about pirates. Given the standards of historiography of their era, they're considered to be remarkably accurate. Still, they do contain instances of embroidery, including, in the case of Johnson/Mist, a long Voltairean (in style though maybe not spirit, depending on the level of irony you choose to read it at) fantasy about a pirate utopia in Madagascar called "Libertalia." Another problem: Johnson/Mist's book is a jumble, chronologically speaking. Only modern history will help you sort wheat from chaff. C. R. Pennell has written an excellent bibliographic essay about pirate scholarship, which appears at the start of his collection Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, which itself contains a broad sample of historical essays, including several on pirates other than the English-speaking ones. To speak very generally, pirate history comes in two sorts: those that describe piracy as a system, and those that describe it as a series of events. (I'm speaking crudely, of course; all do both, to some extent.) Leeson's book falls into the first category, as do such works as Christopher Hill's essay "Radical Pirates?" (1984) and Marcus Rediker's wonderful Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. (Rediker's pioneering effort on pirates was a chapter in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 – 1750.) Villains of All Nations is lively and astute, and in many ways Rediker's Marxian analysis of pirates anticipates Leeson's. Rediker also seems to have read every pirate-related document ever created. Somewhat lighter in spirit, but also very responsible, is David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, which overlays pirate sociology with a tour of the literature and film created out of pirate lore in later centuries.
As for books that offer a more narrative history of pirates, English-speaking pirates did so much dastardy that it's hard to fit the whole story between two covers. One book that manages to tell the full tale is Patrick Pringle's Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (Norton, 1953), which covers it all—Elizabethan privateers, colonial-era buccaneers, and Enlightenment-age pirates. Pringle was a sedulous researcher, but new facts have come to light in the half-century since he wrote, so he can't always be relied on as a final authority. His felicitous style more than compensates, though; he's something of a wit. On the matter of pirate governance, he, too, anticipates Leeson's arguments:
Those seamen, mostly illiterate and uneducated, freed from moral and legal restraints, would to-day be regarded as unfit for self-government. . . . Where discipline is removed, self-discipline emerges in the most unlikely places. . . . It worked. Anarchism on a small scale usually does, if it is left in peace. Anarchism on a large scale has not yet been tried.
For in-depth and fully end-noted history, three relatively recent accounts are as riveting as adventure tales: Peter Earle's The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean (1981) describes the buccaneer Henry Morgan's opportunistic but (in English eyes) legal raids on Spanish territories in the 1660s and 1670s; Robert C. Ritchie's Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (1986) lucidly narrates Kidd's late-seventeenth-century plundering against a background of political intrigue between Whigs and Tories; and Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007) tells the story of the last generation of Golden Age pirates, those of the early eighteenth century, including Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Samuel Bellamy, and the role played in their demise by Bahamas governor Woodes Rogers.
A note on pirate sex: B. R. Burg argued in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1983) that pirates practiced homosexuality more freely than their contemporaries. The circumstances do suggest that this might be likely, as do Bartholomew Roberts's pirate articles, which forbade the presence of any "boy or woman" on board. I'm reluctant to rule it out, knowing what one knows about the British Navy, the original employer of most pirates, and about the propensity of modern-day historians to sweep such matters under the rug. (In Under the Black Flag, for instance, Cordingly quotes Roberts's articles, including the diktat against "boy or woman," and then writes, "There is no mention in this code . . . of homosexuality." Argh, as the pirates say.) But there's not enough evidence to make any positive assertion. The ultimate source of a number of supposed accounts of pirate homosexuality is Louis Le Golif's Memoirs of a Buccaneer, widely suspected of being a twentieth-century fiction. When Le Golif's tales are excluded, very little evidence of pirate sodomy remains. Ringrose's narrative is the source of the anecdote in my article of the servant who claims to have been buggered by his buccaneer master. (Confusingly, the relevant passage does not appear in the reprint linked to above, but only in the original 1685 edition.) The servant confesses, however, just as his master is losing a power struggle with other buccaneers, so his confession might be true, might be part of a smear campaign, or might be both, but in any case it isn't a happy moment of love and liberation. Also intriguing is the testimony given in a court case involving a pirate named Powell, who told a sailor, "I wish you and I were both ashore here stark naked." Rediker reports the line as possibly containing an erotic charge, but when read in its original context (the line appears at vol. 3, page 186 of Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age), it seems more likely that the statement was recalled in court as evidence of the extremity of Powell's wish to be off the pirate ship, not as evidence of sexual interest.
Pirates, you will not be surprised to hear, are all over the internet. In conclusion, as a representative sampling, here are American soldiers flying Jolly Roger in Afghanistan, a Victorian toy theater for rehearsing the adventures of Blackbeard in your pinafore at home, and an early episode of the exceedingly goofy "Auto-Tune the News" featuring both pirates and gay marriage.
"Brother, Can You Spare a Room," my essay about Thomas Butler Gunn's 1857 book The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, appears in the 29 March 2009 issue of the New York Times Book Review. There's also a blog post about it on Paper Cuts. In buying the book itself, you have the option of the Cornell University Library facsimile, which has all the illustrations (browsable online here), or the Rutgers University Press reprint, which has an introduction, explanatory end notes, and a sample of the illustrations. The woodcuts featured with my essay in the Times illustrate (1) the joy of sharing a bed with people who lie "on their backs, with their knees making a pyramid of the bed-clothes . . . [and] moan all night like broken-hearted ring-doves," (2) German boarders, and (3) the Landlady Who Drinks.