Row, Row, Row Your Boat

On 6 July 1906, Grace Brown wrote to her lover, Chester Gillette, who had got her pregnant, that she had “been bidding good-bye to some places today. . .

Oh dear, you don’t realize what all of this is to me. I know I shall never see any of them again, and mamma! great heavens, how I do love mamma. I don’t know what I shall do without her. . . Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does know, she won’t be angry with me.”

Brown seems to have thought that she and Gillette were going to elope. They did take a trip soon after, to the Adirondacks, where they rowed a boat out onto a lake. You know where this is going. According to the indictment in People of the State of New York vs. Chester Gillette,

The said Chester Gillette, on the 11th day of July 1906 . . . did beat and strike the said Grace Brown . . . and . . . did push, cast, and throw the said Grace Brown into the water of Big Moose Lake . . . and did then and there smother, asphyxiate, and suffocate the said Grace Brown beneath the waters of said lake . . . and . . . the said Grace Brown did languish and languishing did die. . . .

If this sounds familiar, it may be because Theodore Dreiser wrote a book about the case, An American Tragedy, and because Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor starred in the movie, A Place in the Sun. (Elizabeth Taylor, I hasten to assure you, did not play the Grace Brown role. Shelley Winters did.) Now the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York has digitized the record and briefs of People vs. Gillette, which clock in at over 2,000 pages.

By the way, if the name “Edmund Pearson” means anything to you, and/or if you find that you’re developing a taste for antique murder, check out Clews, the Historic True Crime Blog, by Laura James, which I discovered because she was kind enough to link to an old article of mine not long ago.

“Steamboats” is moving

All nine of you who read this blog regularly, please adjust your bookmarks. I’m moving to a new location: Mostly because of the elephant, which you’ll see if you click through. But also because it’s a shorter URL to type, because there’s the promise of allowing comments again (if the anti-spam tools work as advertised), and because this server goes down a lot. I’ll leave this site up for a while, anyway, as an archive, but not forever.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado has published a series of before-and-after shots of America’s glaciers. Their website says they’re affiliated with NOAA and funded by NASA, but the connections are tenuous enough for them to have escaped the long arm of the Bush administration.

Here’s McCarty Glacier in Alaska, as photographed by Ulysses Sherman Grant in 1909 (black-and-white) and by Bruce F. Molnia in 2004 (color):


At rest in the park

Peter has been reading Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Disappointment Artist, and he reported to me yesterday morning that, according to Lethem, Montgomery Clift is buried in Prospect Park. Not only that, but I walk past his grave whenever I take the dog to the Nether Mead.

Forgotten New York confirms it. When the park was laid out, it surrounded a Quaker cemetery but didn’t absorb it, and the cemetery survives, like a mitochondrion inside a eukaryote. It’s still private property. Since it was nice here yesterday, I took my camera and walked around the barbed-wire perimeter. Just up from a baseball field, in a sort of alcove under some trees, there’s a decent sight line, but not a great one. A sleeping man in a camouflage shirt, boots, and a trucker’s hat roused himself for just long enough to assure himself that my presence was no more than documentary. No sign of Clift per se. (The whole thing is completely invisible in Google Earth, by the way, because their satellite pix were taken in summer, and the tree canopy covers it.)

Since I had the camera out, I also took this, an exposed cross-section of the layers that compose our street. We have no running water during the day this week, which is so nineteenth-century it’s eighteenth-century.

Byron’s lapdog

In the department of hitherto-unnoticed nineteenth-century antecedents to indie-hipster pop songs of the early twenty-first century, today we consider the fetching and puzzlingly mild Swedish rocker Jens Lekman.

Lekman sings a song titled “When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog,” on an album of the same name, in which he imagines a relationship with his beloved somewhat like the elegiac, cross-species love in David Garnett’s novel Lady into Fox (which you should drop everything in order to read, if you haven’t already):

You can take me for a walk in the park
I’ll be chasing every single lark
I’ll be burying all the skeleton bones
Peeing on every cold black stone

As it happens, this trope has been deployed elsewhere—notably, in the out-of-control screed that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in the Atlantic in 1869, when she heaped shovelful after shovelful of sexual condemnation onto Byron and championed his wife. In Stowe’s narrative, after Lady Byron concludes that her husband is not only incest-prone but also insane, she has a moment of regret before she leaves him—and his sister—forever:

On the day of her departure she passed by the door of his room, and stopped to caress his favorite spaniel, which was lying there; and she confessed to a friend the weakness of feeling a willingness even to be something as humble as that poor little creature, might she only be allowed to remain and watch over him. She went into the room where he and the partner of his sins were sitting together, and said, “Byron, I come to say good by,” offering at the same time her hand.

Note that sometime in the course of the intervening century and a half, the Romantic poet-figure went from having the dog to being the dog.

Note: Peter adds that I ought also to have referenced Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”