June 24, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Warning: the slideshow below contains images deemed obscene in the fifties.
Fifty-seven years ago today, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Roth v. United States, the preeminent obscenity case of the time. That Roth isn’t Philip—not that he’s any slouch when it comes to indecency—but Samuel, a widely reviled publisher perhaps most remembered today for bootlegging portions of Ulysses. As Michael Bronsky described him in a piece for the Boston Phoenix,
Roth became so notorious as both literary pirate and smuthound (the word in use at the time) that he was attacked in The Nation and The New Yorker as a literary fake and social nuisance. Vanity Fair included him, along with the up-and-coming Adolf Hitler, in its 1932 photo essay titled “We Nominate for Oblivion.”
In the course of his long and thoroughly ribald career, Roth often found himself dragged to court—this particular case saw him violating a federal statute that banned the transmission of “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” materials using the postal service. Roth had been doing just that: his magazine American Aphrodite (“A Quarterly for the Fancy-Free,” the covers of later editions said) was the finest in literary smut. (And trust us: The Paris Review knows a thing or two about literary smut.) Read More »
June 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
A few days back, MessyNessyChic—let’s not dwell on the name—posted a series of photographs of Cincinnati’s old public library, erected in 1874 and demolished in 1955. Even if you’re disinclined to fetishize the past, it’s hard not to greet these images with awe and a certain degree of wistfulness. This was one hell of a library, with a checkerboard marble floor, soaring shelves, cast-iron alcoves, and several stories of spiral staircases. In the grandeur of its design, it’s something on the order of McKim, Mead, and White’s original Penn Station—a work of architecture so self-evidently valuable to the contemporary eye that its demolition can be met only with bewilderment and righteous despair: What clown authorized the wrecking ball here?
But aesthetics were not then, and aren’t now, a high municipal priority—as evidenced by the criticism of the time. Harper’s Weekly once wrote about the library, “The first impression made upon the mind on entering this hall is the immense capacity for storing books in its five tiers of alcoves, and then the eye is attracted and gratified by its graceful and carefully studied architecture …”
It seems backward, and dismayingly utilitarian, to note the “immense capacity” first and the “graceful” design second—by that logic, the world’s warehouses and hangars rate among our architectural marvels. But maybe they do; we won’t know for sure until we start tearing them down.
May 28, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The Morgan Library has published a rich cache of Rembrandt’s etchings—nearly five hundred of them—in a new digital archive, a remarkable testament to his skills as a printmaker. (He was Rembrandt, after all.) The portraits are especially affecting: here are preachers, gold weighers, print sellers, a woman having her nails trimmed, many men in exotic plumed caps. My personal favorite, above, is Self Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed, from 1630: what a pleasure to see the Dutch Master himself, flummoxed, staring just over the viewer’s right shoulder, from a distance of many centuries.
May 27, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Dashiell Hammett, born today in 1894, found a home for a lot of his fiction in Black Mask, one of America’s great bygone pulp magazines. Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly, and other masters of detective fiction all placed their work in Black Mask, which first published Hammett in 1922, and which serialized The Maltese Falcon in 1929. The magazine had high-minded origins—H. L. Mencken cofounded it in 1920 as a lucrative companion to his more literary (read: less profitable) journal, The Smart Set, which also published Hammett, though later he decided to slum it and began to appear solely in Black Mask. Mencken and his partner sold the pulpier magazine only eight issues into its run; I guess they thought they’d made enough money on it by then. Tant pis—The Smart Set (“A Magazine of Cleverness”) met its demise in 1930, when Black Mask had a circulation of 130,000.
Alack, the forties saw a decline in fortune, as a fan’s history of Black Mask explains:
By 1940 circulation had dropped ... and the owners decided to sell Black Mask to their competition, Dime Detective. A new editor tried to make the magazine tough again and brought in new writers, but the problem was no longer the magazine. The technology of entertainment was changing. Readers had taken up comic books and mass-market paperbacks during the Depression, and by 1940 radio was also taking away audience. These media were, variously, either cheaper or more durable or resalable or more immediate. Its days numbered, Black Mask staggered on, using lurid covers of sex and violence, featuring espionage stories during World War II and finally cutting back to fortnightly publication. The magazine’s size was reduced, the price raised—nothing helped. The last issue appeared in July 1951. After thirty-one years of publication, Black Mask folded: it had printed over 2,500 stories by some 640 authors and been the dominant magazine in hard-boiled fiction.
It was Black Mask, particularly the aforementioned grotesqueries of its later years, that inspired Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the covers here offer images out of a Tarantino wet-dream: unabashedly titillating, chock full of lantern-jawed private dicks and glinting gunmetal and doe-eyed doll-faced dames who like to leave messages in lipstick (or blood). Serialized novels were called novelettes, not novellas (“The Flying Hearse: A Cellini Smith Novelette”); headlines ran to all shades of yellow and purple. “Leaving Killings to the Cops.” “Let’s All Swing Together.” “The ‘Phantom Crook’ Returns in ‘Tommy Talks.’” “And a Little Child Shall Bleed Them.” “Alcoholics Calamitous.”
Of course, Hammett’s frequent appearances in these pages might imply that he was just part of the hard-boiled schlock-peddling machine, and I suppose he was. But all you do have to do is read a few lines of dialogue from The Maltese Falcon to see why he outlasted his contemporaries—there was no tough-as-nails before Sam Spade was tough-as-nails.
May 23, 2014 | by Lilly Lampe
A professor’s unlikely quest for busts of Alexander Pope.
“Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteen-Century Britain,” recently on view at the Yale Center for British Art, tells a curious tale of Alexander Pope’s legacy, focusing on the strange fervor that continues to surround busts and portraits of him. Pope, whose birthday was earlier this week, was a household name, at least in one sector of British society. He was the first English poet to publish two volumes of his own collected works while living—and with the publication of the first volume, he also became the first English author to sustain himself entirely on the proceeds of his work. And he didn’t lead a meager existence. Pope was able to lease a sizable villa near Richmond, a painting of which was on view in Yale’s exhibition.
For any writer, these achievements would’ve been no small feat, but they’re especially impressive in light of Pope’s many obstacles. He was a Catholic at a time when Catholics weren’t allowed to live within ten miles of London or Westminster or to attend university; and he was beset with health problems that led to a visible hunchback and permanently stunted his height. Even so, Pope became a celebrated member of the British literary canon—someone whose very image evoked intellectual achievement.
Paintings and busts of Pope were commissioned for wealthy families and artistic friends—they conferred status among men of letters. According to Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale, when Voltaire visited England in 1727, he marveled that he saw Pope’s portrait in “twenty noblemen’s houses.” The placement of these busts was telling of the poet’s reputation; he was displayed with such notable British intellectuals as Laurence Sterne and Isaac Newton.
“Fame and Friendship” assembled an intriguing array of these busts, made of stately marble or—in the case of a petite, mass-produced work—porcelain. At the center of the collection are eight busts of Pope by French émigré sculptor Louis François Roubiliac, created between 1738 and 1760. Though they were made over the course of twenty-two years, they carry certain hallmarks: a telltale droop beneath Pope’s eyes, a marked thinness in his cheeks, an inquisitive gaze, and a slender nose. In Roubiliac’s skillful hands, the signs of Pope’s infirmity are presented instead as characteristics befitting a poetic countenance, with all the sensitivity that poetry implies. Read More »
May 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
In celebration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, have a look at these illustrations from the original serialization of his novel The Lost World, which appeared in The Strand Magazine from April through November of 1912. Conan Doyle’s novel tells of an expedition to South America, where—wouldn’t you know it?—dinosaurs still roam the earth. Everyone associates Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, but The Lost World also left its mark on popular culture: though Conan Doyle borrowed a large part of its conceit from Jules Verne, it remains the paradigm for a sort of swashbuckling supernatural adventure, full of bumbling professorial types and out-of-their-depth journalists and strapping, granite-abdomened men in pith helmets. It’s served as the source material for everything from The Land That Time Forgot to Land of the Lost and plain old Lost, and, of course, for Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park.
This is no country for Jeff Goldblum, but these illustrations, full of terror and adventure, do seem like the sort of thing Steven Spielberg and George Lucas might have hanging in their offices—and there’s definitely something of that Industrial Light & Magic awe in Conan Doyle’s vivid description of a pterodactyl nest:
Creeping to his side, we looked over the rocks. The place into which we gazed was a pit, and may, in the early days have been one of the smaller volcanic blow-holes of the plateau. It was bowl-shaped, and at the bottom, some hundreds of yards from where we lay, were pools of green-scummed, stagnant water, fringed with bulrushes. It was a weird place in itself, but its occupants made it seem like a scene from the Seven Circles of Dante. The place was a rookery of pterodactyls. There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs. From this crawling flapping mass of obscene reptilian life came the shocking clamor which filled the air and the mephitic, horrible, musty odor which turned us sick. But above, perched each upon its own stone, tall, grey, and withered, more like dead and dried specimens than actual living creatures, sat the horrible males, absolutely motionless save for the rolling of their red eyes or an occasional snap of their rat-trap beaks as a dragon-fly went past them. Their huge membranous wings were closed by folding their forearms, so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-colored shawls, and with their ferocious heads protruding above them. Large and small, not less than a thousand of these filthy creatures lay in the hollow before us.