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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

Context

November 6, 2014 | by

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson from Mount Holyoke Seminary, ca. 1847.

I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.

What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:

It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. ------ is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.

In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.” 

The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise. 

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Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”

November 4, 2014 | by

1900_New_York_polling_place

A polling place in New York ca. 1900.

A reminder: Walt Whitman really, really liked Election Day. Nothing could quicken the man’s pulse like a good showing at the polls.

As “Election Day, November, 1884” has it, he preferred the spectacle of democracy—the “ballot-shower from East to West”—to any of our nation’s natural wonders, including, but not limited to, Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Lakes … you name it, Whitman thought the vote was better than it. (You’d think someone could’ve sold him on the Rockies, at least.) One can imagine a latter-day Whitman passing up a trip to the Grand Canyon and instead hunkering down at the TV, flipping anxiously from network to network as the precincts begin to report, wringing his hands. Not, mind you, that he would have any particular stake in the outcome; he’d just be along for the great democratic ride, clucking his tongue at the gerrymanderers of the world.

(If you need an antidote for all this unalloyed patriotism, try Charles Bernstein’s “On Election Day,” which contains, among many excellent lines, “The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on election day.” I know which poet would get my vote.)

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest
         scene and show,
’Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
         your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-
         loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—
         nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name— the
still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the
         quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland
         —Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
         California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
         flict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:)
         the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the
         heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

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A Complete Guide to Flinging in Oscar Wilde

October 16, 2014 | by

August_Macke_-_Eine_Frau_auf_einem_Divan_(1914)

August Macke, Eine Frau auf einem Divan (Woman on a Divan) (detail), 1914, watercolor on paper, 11.5" × 9".

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your life as a gay man.

CARSON

It’s been a somewhat checkered career as a gay man. I was never totally successful. I think it started in high school, when in grade ten or eleven I developed a fascination with Oscar Wilde. Some of my friends shared this fascination so we used to dress like Oscar Wilde and memorize his aphorisms and construct conversations in the lunchroom, as if we were Oscar Wilde and his friends.

—Anne Carson, the Art of Poetry No. 88, 2004

I also had an early fascination with Oscar Wilde, though mine hasn’t, to my knowledge, led to an exciting double life. In high school, as I read through Wilde’s plays and then some of his prose, I came to recognize a pattern: his characters were always flinging themselves onto sofas. That was the only word Wilde ever used for it, fling, and he used it inordinately, constantly; the more I looked for it the more it turned up. No one in Wilde’s domain, it seemed, could get any thinking or moping done without first flinging oneself onto the nearest possible surface—cushioned, ideally, but not necessarily—and lighting a cigarette or bursting into tears. Over and over again, his lords and ladies had no recourse but to fling. They never pitched, cast, heaved, hurled, or tossed.

I didn’t object to this, as melodramatic as it was. In fact part of me aspired to such melodrama: I imagined that in adult life I would be confronted with one impasse after another for which the only cathartic response would be to fling myself onto a couch, weeping, smoking, or both. I was looking forward to it—if anything, I disappoint myself today with how rarely I’m compelled to do flinging of any kind. Little did I know that, as a teenager surging with hormones, I was at peak flinging age, with my best flinging days right there for the taking.

To this day, though, I associate the verb with Wilde; he left his mark on it, or it left its mark on him. Since today’s his birthday, I found his collected works online and made sure I hadn’t been deluding myself. Lo and behold, an amateurish concordance confirms that fling is everywhere. Herewith, then: your comprehensive guide to flinging in Wilde. Consult it in moments of emotional strife, perhaps just before or after your own bouts of flinging, and know that you are not alone. Read More »

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All Aboard L’Armand-Barbès

October 7, 2014 | by

JulesDidierJacquesGuiaudLArmandBarbes1870

Jules Didier and Jacques Guiaud, L’ Armand Barbès, 1870, 1914.

Say you’ve got to skip town in a hurry. Maybe you owe somebody a lot of money; maybe the mayor’s daughter is in love with you and you’re below her station; or maybe it’s 1870, the Franco-Prussian War is on, and you have to ditch Paris because it’s under fierce siege and you’re the minister of the interior. In any case, here’s what history advises:

Flee in a hot-air balloon.

Léon Gambetta did it on October 7, 1870. Worked like a charm.

Okay, Paris ultimately lost the war, so “worked like a charm” may be overstating things, but still—Gambetta lived, didn’t he? He did. He became a prominent statesman.

At the time of his spectacular escape, Paris had been shelled by the Germans and Napoleon’s empire had fallen; Gambetta helped to improvise a new government and advised running it from someplace other than the capital, given the city’s precarious condition. A delegation left for Tours to organize the resistance, but Gambetta himself had to be sure to elude capture by the Prussians.

The safest way, against all odds, was by balloon: couriers had been delivering the mail to Paris that way with great success. And so they smuggled him out on the sumptuously named (if not sumptuously appointed) Armand-Barbès, one of some sixty-six balloons. He made it to Tours intact and resumed his post with vigor.

After this comes the part where the French lose anyway, but let’s skip that and wonder instead how Gambetta felt up there, in transit. I mean, I’m sure he was terrified, at least partially—his capture would be the end of him—and yes, there must’ve been a good bit of patriotism coursing through the old veins, but I hope he took a deep breath and saw the bigger picture, saw himself wafting into the history books on a hot-air balloon, Prussians cursing the sky and stomping on their hats.

And how, once he’d reached safety, could he find it in himself to talk about anything else?

Hello, I would say by way of introduction for the rest of my life, It is I, the man who fled Paris by balloon. No, no, remain seated. Hold your applause.

Les_ballons_sortis_pendant_le_Siege_de_Paris,_1870-1871

A broadside about ballooning during the Siege of Paris, 1870–1871, with a list of balloons that left the city.

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Admiration

September 24, 2014 | by

Louisa_May_Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

We had typed our stories in the computer lab, and I remember thinking that mine looked professional. I was also pretty sure it was excellent. Fiction writing was not my strong suit—I would never have ranked myself up there with Travis, whose stories were universally regarded as hilarious, or Vanessa, whose imagination gave birth to miraculous plots of which I was in awe. But this one (which, despite its modern setting, bore the strong stamp of Louisa May Alcott’s influence) was better than my usual offerings, I had worked harder on it, and I was eager to see the teacher’s glowing comments.

But here is what she wrote: “This sentence does not make sense. This is not what ‘admire’ means. Find another word in the thesaurus.”

Here is what I had written: “She’d admire to have you.” I knew it was accurate because Louisa May Alcott used this exact construction in An Old-Fashioned Girl, in the course of a house-party invitation. In my story, someone was being invited to a sleepover. I was indignant. I went home, spent a long time finding the passage in question, and then brought the book into class. But then the teacher was sick, and out for a few days, and I forgot to make my point.

If you enter that particular construction into a search engine now, you will find much vindicating evidence. Read More »

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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

Collect_Pond-Bayard_Mount-NYC

Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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