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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

The Room of Flowers

February 4, 2016 | by

Childe Hassam, The Room of Flowers, 1894.

I am fully and intensely aware that plants are conscious of love and respond to it as they do to nothing else. —Celia Thaxter 

Last year, I picked up a book called An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter. I’m not interested in gardening—I can’t keep a plant alive—but I’d loved her Among the Isles of the Shoals, a sort of informal travelogue. An Island Garden conjures the same passion for a remote and challenging and fiercely beloved place. It evokes a sense of belonging, too. Read More »

I’m Not Dead Yet

January 6, 2016 | by

The nineteenth-century obsession with premature burial.

Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

I was eleven when the family cat died—we found her on the cold concrete floor of the garage—but once we’d buried her in the backyard and erected a modest wooden cross, it occurred to me that she might not be dead. Sure, I had seen her dead, had held her dead body, but what if we’d been premature, what if she were only sleeping very, very stilly? The thought haunted me: I had a few nightmares where her little calico paw came jutting up through the ground, as in the archetypal images of zombie uprising. I went so far as to visit the grave with a trowel in hand, but the ground was soft and spongy, the soil still unsettled, and I got the creeps. I convinced myself the cat was extremely, entirely deceased.

Maybe I should’ve been more diligent. There was a big story a year ago about Bart, a bona fide zombie cat from Tampa Bay, who “clawed his way out of the grave” after five days underground. You’ll find that vivid, morbid phrase in almost all the coverage: “clawed his way out of the grave.” I missed all this in 2015, but it’s been brought to life again by the black magic of the news cycle: this is the first anniversary of Bart’s resurrection. “ZOMBIE CAT WHO CLAWED HIMSELF OUT OF GRAVE AFTER BEING KNOCKED DOWN BY CAR IS UNRECOGNIZABLE A YEAR ON,” read one headline this week, indicating Bart’s revivified fluffiness. “ ‘ZOMBIE CAT’ NOW AT THE CENTER OF CUSTODY BATTLE,” said another. Read More »

A Quasquicentennial

January 5, 2016 | by

At the start of the new year, Georgia’s oldest bookstore turned 125. Horton’s Books and Gifts is in Carrollton, west of Atlanta. Its founder, N. A. Horton, was an undertaker who, in 1891, decided to sell schoolbooks in his other business—which is to say, inside a funeral parlor. Although the store moved several times in its early days, it’s returned a long while ago to that original location—and, yes, it’s said to be haunted. Read More »

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.

stlukeshomeforlunatics

Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. Read More »

Letters from Vladivostok

December 14, 2015 | by

From Letters from Vladivostok.


More and more I enjoy seeing the herds go home at sunset or a little before—I amuse myself studying the faces of the cows and there are so many different expressions on them: the intellectual cow, the woman’s rights (or rather the cow’s rights) cow, the peasant cow, the grand duchess cow, the lesser nobility and the cows who would be charwoman if they were humans. And most of them remind me of people I have met. —Eleanor Pray, 1909

Last week, I received a letter from a reader named Birgitta Ingemanson. She’d read a piece of mine from last month in which I mentioned the doldrums that one can sail into when one is between books. These inter-book periods are restless times, and the transition from one world to another can be a challenge. If the book you finished was good, you mourn its loss. Conversely, a bad book can make you gun-shy. What if the next one’s no good, either? Birgitta wrote, “The thought came to me to send you the enclosed book, with the following simple suggestion when the in-between time strikes again: ‘Try this.’ ” The book was one she had edited: Eleanor L. Pray’s Letters from Vladivostok, 1894–1930Read More »

Hatched in Prison, and Other News

November 5, 2015 | by

From Gil Batle’s “Jargon” series: carved eggs alluding to the hidden messages that inmates and their friends and families used to avoid censorship by prison staff monitoring their correspondence.

  • The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
  • When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
  • When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
  • For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
  • Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”

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