The Paris Review Daily

On History

New Candor

April 10, 2014 | by

Rebecca Mead, Jill Lepore, and a new direction for biography.

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A portrait of George Eliot by Frederick William Burton, 1864.

Feminism, Paula Backscheider explains in Reflections on Biography, transformed the study of history. “The arresting power of women’s deepest feelings, their comments about their own bodies, and the stark force of their drive to work” are part of the new candor, she says. And there are new things to consider: “How do you do justice to boundary-breaking acts, such as learning to read, or, as with [George] Eliot, not marrying?”

It was thanks to feminism that the relationship between biographer and subject took on a new life—for women to tell other women’s stories, they had to find ways to reconstruct those women’s lives. Ordinary women and their domestic lives became respectable subjects. Their diaries, letters, photographs, and other records could be taken seriously as evidence. Minor details, even in non-events, nuance the undertaking.

Reading Rebecca Mead’s intimate and scholarly My Life in Middlemarch, her memoir about George Eliot’s masterpiece, got me thinking about this shift in biography. What is it that compels one woman to explore the work and personality of another, often with centuries between us—and what are we trying to say? Read More »

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Ovid’s Ancient Beauty Elixirs

March 20, 2014 | by

The man knew his makeup. Ovid, in a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

The rumors are true: it’s Publius Ovidius Naso’s 2,057th birthday. You can score some points with the classicists in your life by mentioning this in casual conversation, especially if you toss in a reference to the Metamorphoses. (“I was just thinking of Pyramus and Thisbe,” you might say, wiping a tear from your cheek as you gaze wanly upon a crack in the wall.) And if you’re wooing a classicist, or wooing anyone, really, be sure to heed the advice in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, his instructional elegy on romance—its efficacy has not been diminished by the passage of millennia. Mental Floss even has eleven dating tips from the poet himself. They include “the theatre is a great place to pick up girls,” “do not make a parade of your nocturnal exploits,” and “pay your lovers in poetry.”

But I write today with a more urgent, and more profitable, message. Even if readers still (occasionally) reach for the Metamorphoses or Ars Amatoria, there’s a massive blind spot in our modern view of Ovid. We’ve all but forgotten the man’s gifts as a beautician. Read More »

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Who Wants Flapjacks?

March 4, 2014 | by

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Photo: Janine, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is Mardi Gras, yes—the beads, the cake, the booze, the breasts. We get it. I love a Dionysian spectacle as much as the next joe, but one can take only so many years of unhinged debauchery, face paint, and galettes des Rois before the charm wears thin, even when there’s nudity involved. We need a change of pace.

Enter Shrove Tuesday, i.e., National Pancake Day, i.e., today. Picture a Mardi Gras where men lust not for nipples, but for fluffy flapjacks. The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day has just taught me about the pancake bell, “A bell rung on Shrove Tuesday at or about eleven a.m., popularly associated with the making of pancakes.”

Imagine! A bell devoted entirely to pancakes, a bell whose mellifluous peals say to all within earshot, Abandon your post, hire a sitter, and get thee to the griddle—it is time to eat starch.

Shrove is the past tense of shrive, meaning “to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve.” On the Tuesday before Lent began, the same bell that called people to confession served as a stern reminder: use your eggs, milk, and butter now, because once the day is out, we must begin ritually fasting and you are totally fucked.

Thus, everyone began to run home and whip up hotcakes; some people, rumor has it, even tried to cook the pancakes as they ran home, tossing and jogging, jogging and tossing, perhaps ladling syrup on occasion. To this day, the British town of Olney holds a pancake race (“Participants must don an apron and hat or scarf to compete. They are also required to toss the pancake three times during the 415 yard race, serve it to the bell ringer, and receive a kiss from him”) and IHOP hosts a fundraiser, though it does not, to my knowledge, involve the tolling of a pancake bell.

The OED includes an early reference to the bell, from Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemakers Holiday, which dates to 1600: “Vpon euery Shroue tuesday, at the sound of the pancake bell: my fine dapper Assyrian lads, shall clap vp their shop windows, and away. This is the day, and this day they shall doot, they shall doot.”

 

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Open Ye Gates! Swing Wide Ye Portals! Part 2

February 16, 2014 | by

This is the second in a two-part series on St. Louis and the 1904 World’s Fair. Read part 1 here.

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Photo: Edward McPherson

The Palace of Agriculture is a blinding colossus in the sun. The man next to me reads from a booklet: twenty acres large, covered with 147,250 panes of glass. I have timed my visit—in one minute a giant clock made of 13,000 flowers will strike the noon hour. I am finished with the exhibits. I have seen the Missouri corn palace, the 4,700-pound cheese; I have laughed at Minnesota’s contribution, “The Discovery of St. Anthony Falls by Father Hennepin” shaped out of one thousand pounds of butter. Now a hiss of compressed air throws the 2,500-pound minute hand the final five feet, where it points to the giant numeral 12. An hourglass flips, doors open to reveal the gears of the clock—the triumph of industrial time—and a massive bell tolls the death of more agrarian rhythms.

Pyramids of fruit on a sea of china plates—the entire Palace of Horticulture smells like apples. Virginia has created a statewide shortage by sending too many to the Fair. I dip my fingers into the fountain, which gushes ice water. Farmers shake their heads at the monstrosities on display: a pineapple the size of a turkey and a mysterious dimpled fruit, said to be the unholy cross between a strawberry and a raspberry.

 * * *

The company is a major employer in this city. One cannot miss its print and radio campaign: “We grow ideas here.” “We work together here.” “We dream here.” “We’re proud to be St. Louis Grown.” Its website offers videos of employees working in food banks, cleaning up after tornados, visiting Forest Park, and standing in front of the Arch. Articles rate the town’s best burger joints, as judged by company workers. The company is a major donor to local charities and institutions, including the university in which I teach. In 2013, the company’s net sales were $14.8 billion, up ten percent. Its chief technology officer won the 2013 World Food Prize. The company has 21,183 employees in 404 facilities in sixty-six countries—but its headquarters are here, where, over the years, the much-maligned Monsanto Company has worked to produce saccharin, PCBs, polystyrene, DDT, Agent Orange, nuclear weapons, dioxin, RoundUp, bovine growth hormone, and genetically modified seeds. Read More »

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Open Ye Gates! Swing Wide Ye Portals!

February 14, 2014 | by

St. Louis turns 250 today—or is it tomorrow? A two-part series on the city’s 1904 World’s Fair.
Read part two here.

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Temple of Mirth, 1904 World’s Fair.

I hand the attendant a fifty-cent piece and watch him drop it into the automatic turnstile, itself a marvel. Behind me, the murmur of moneychangers, the swish of gored skirts tapering to white shirtwaists. Beyond that, the din of St. Louis. My sack suit rustles as I stride ahead. I’m crossing the threshold of an impossible city: a manicured wonderland of symmetrical lagoons winding through sculpted gardens studded with allegorical statues. In the distance loom the massive palaces of learning, their Beaux-Arts façades harkening back to Ancient Rome and heralding a future brighter than the hundred thousand incandescent lights that line them against the night. The words of Exposition President David R. Francis ring in my ears—Open ye gates! Swing wide ye portals! Enter herein ye sons of man, and behold the achievements of your race! Learn the lesson here taught and gather from it inspiration for still greater accomplishments!—and I step into the Fair.

* * *

St. Louis is a city of gates that do not normally swing wide. The urban private street, or “private place,” is believed to be a local invention, dating to the 1850s. Private places are owned by their residents, who typically build and maintain the road, median, sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, and—most crucially—gates. Some gates were utilitarian, imposing, and plain; others were small castles, complete with clock towers, fountains, statues, gaslights, and gatehouse apartments that caretakers (and, later, college students) lived in until the 1980s. Private places offered a refuge from the ever-booming city, a world apart. Some have been razed, their gates uprooted, the neighborhoods now troubled by crime; many still stand, pockets of wealth and privilege, with boards of trustees that oversee matters of law (historic preservation, landscaping) and etiquette (street parking, book clubs, Easter egg hunts).

Nearly two years ago, when my wife and I were moving to town and looking for an apartment, we were taken aback: everywhere, gates, gates, gates. Gates that lock and unlock according to byzantine schedules publicized only to residents (thus thwarting commuters and anyone else who might try to cut through the neighborhood). Gates that open by remote control. Rolling metal gates with yellow hazard signs. Gates built for carriages that now barely fit a car. Even in less-rarified neighborhoods—with weeds in the lawns and unwashed economy sedans on the street—at the end of the block might stand a pitiful sawhorse made of white PVC pipe. A symbol that speaks to the natives. Private Street: Not Thru. Private Street: No Public Parking. No thru traffic. Private neighborhood. No smoking beyond this gate. Private. No trespassing. Keep Out. Read More »

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The Attic of Empire

February 4, 2014 | by

Remembering the National Air and Space Museum and the nation’s guilty conscience.

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Photo: Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons

People think of Washington, D.C., as a transitory place—a city of four-year leases, tourists, and revolving doors—an impression that dates back to the earliest days of the federal capital. The city fathers, desperate to counter the District’s reputation as a provincial backwater, fought back by building monuments. Think of it as overcompensation, the attempt to create an illusion of age-old power. Why else plant a fifty-story Egyptian obelisk in the center of town?

For those of us who were born and raised in Washington, there was both a pride in living near the nation’s symbolic center and a nagging feeling that the city didn’t really belong to us. A drive down Massachusetts Avenue, past the mansions of Embassy Row, was a reminder of how much of the town was actually built on foreign soil. Even the parts that were supposed to be ours were somewhat foreign, in the sense that they belonged to the whole country. Our Fourth of July fairground was the National Mall; the church in which I sang was the National Cathedral; and our local museums were the Smithsonian Institution—the “Nation’s Attic.”

The museums were the best part of living in Washington. My friends and I took a proprietary interest in them. This might not be our town, exactly, but these were our museums, none more so than the National Air and Space Museum, which opened when I was nine years old and obsessed with outer space. Read More »

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