Ugly duckling

I have a blog post about Splice, the new science fiction movie about baby-sitting, over at The Paris Review.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1852 edition

Scene in a Bowery Ice-Cream Saloon on a Sunday Evening, Yankee Notions 1:184, May 1852

“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:

Young New York at a Party, Yankee Notions 1:327, November 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.

Annals of translation

The China Reading Weekly has published an abridged translation by Guo Yu of a 1999 Lingua Franca article of mine about Milan Kundera’s vexed relationship with his translators.

I’m guessing that this is my name: 凯莱布•克雷恩文.

The Hard-knock life

"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.


A printout, corrected in green ink, of Google's scan, partly obscured by the hand of Google's scanning technician, of an essay by Immanuel Kant on the injustice of counterfeiting books

“Terms of Infringement,” my review of Adrian Johns’s new history Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, appears in this weekend’s issue of The National (Abu Dhabi).

In the opening paragraph of my review, I refer to an essay by Immanuel Kant. Its title is “Of the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books,” and in Google Books, you can see a Google technician’s hand obscuring the text of it at the bottom of page 234. Above: My scan of a print-out, corrected by me in green ink, of Kant’s essay as scanned by Google, along the scanning technician’s hand.

There used to be a word for that

“Semantic Time Travel,” my essay about the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, appears in the 10 January 2010 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

The Knee-capping of intercapping

“Against Camel Case,” my attack on the intrusion of capital letters into the middles of words, is published in the 29 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Herewith an online bibliographical supplement.

The Wikipedia entry on camel case is perhaps the most thorough treatment, and traces in detail the contribution of software programming to the trend. For those interested, wiki pages elsewhere also explain and critique the use of camel case in programming. As for journalistic treatments, William Safire tackled camel case in 1984 and again in 1997. New Scientist looked at the problem in 2007. That same year, font genius Jonathan Hoefler wondered if camel case could redeem itself by making web links newly legible. Among language mavens, Bill Walsh tried to draw the line in his 2000 book Lapsing into a Comma; some of his arguments appear in one of his online columns. He wasn’t able to, of course. You can also trace the camel’s depredations in back issues of the online magazine Copyediting.

In the course of researching modern camel case, I stumbled across the medieval phenomenon of run-together text, formally known as scriptura continua, and could not resist chasing it down the rabbit hole. The pioneer and dean of this paleographic subfield is Paul Saenger. As I explain in my article, Saenger believes that the introduction of space between words in the seventh and eighth centuries laid the psychic groundwork for modern individual consciousness—that most of the intellectual breakthroughs that Marshall McLuhan credited to Gutenberg are more properly to be attributed to monks in Ireland and England, who, because their native tongues of Gaelic and Saxon shared so little with the Romance language family, needed space between words to make Latin a little easier for them. Saenger first set forth this bold theory in “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” in the medieval-studies journal Viator, vol. 13 (1982), pp. 367–414, an article that, as far as I can tell, has never been digitized, not even by any of the for-pay scholarly databases. Saenger elaborated the theory and provided further evidence for it in his book Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford University Press, 1997). Because the original journal article
is less heavily laden with technical descriptions of manuscript evidence, I as a layperson found it livelier and easier to digest. Saenger’s thesis is not uncontroversial! Reviews of his book in the scholarly literature either acclaimed it as a paradigm-busting breakthrough or disparaged it angrily—or both.

What is to be done? Here is a simple program of orthographic reclamation: When all the elements of a camel-case compound are words that could stand on their own, slice it open: Master Card, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Word Perfect. When some elements are letters or word fragments, sew it up and capitalize conventionally: Iphone, Ebay, Fedex. Proper names with hyphens can keep them (Jell-O), and new compounds can stand unaltered if their capitalization is traditional (Facebook). Humanism in orthography forever!

Update, Nov. 28: Michael Hartford lucidly lays out the case for camel case, at least in Irish and in programming languages.

Cockney Keats?

“Keats Speaks,” my essay about whether the real Keats spoke the way the one in the recent Jane Campion movie does, appears in the 1 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

You can read the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article that accused Keats of “Cockney rhymes” here (though signed “Z.,” it was by John Gibson Lockhart, and it appeared in the August 1818 issue). Just as infamous was a similar attack in the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker (though the issue was dated April 1818, it actually appeared in September).

My review of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”

"A Very Different Pakistan," my review of Daniyal Mueenuddin's story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, appears in the 5 November 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books. You need an electronic subscription to the NYRB in order to read my article online; to buy one, or to buy an old-fashioned ink-on-paper subscription, click here.

Mueenuddin has been nominated for a National Book Award in fiction, which he surely deserves. The New York Times published an interesting profile of him in July. As you'll see if you read my review, I was struck by the parallels between Mueenuddin and the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Turgenev. Sometime after finishing my review, I discovered yet another such parallel. Mueenuddin's description of a woman's scorn for her father's new lover struck me as sharp and amusing, and I quoted it in my review:

When the lover speaks up one day at lunch, Mueenuddin brilliantly captures the daughter's scorn: "Sarwat looked at her in amazement, as if the furniture had spoken."

It turns out that Turgenev used a similar metaphor in Virgin Soil, to describe the scorn that the landowner Sipyagin came to feel for Nezhdanov, the young anarchist whom he had hired as a tutor for his son:

For Sipyagin, Nezhdanov had become simply a piece of furniture, or an empty space, which he utterly—it seemed utterly–failed to remark! These new relations had taken shape so quickly and unmistakably, that when Nezhdanov during dinner uttered a few words in reply to an observation of his neighbour, Anna Zaharovna, Sipyagin looked round wonderingly as though asking himself, "Where does that sound come from?"

I don't know whether this is Mueenuddin's clever homage to Turgenev, or an example of great minds running on similar tracks. In either case, I highly recommend Mueenuddin's book.

The People who go to California to die

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.