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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Jefferson’

The Indescribable Frankenstein: A Short History of the Spectacular Failure of Words

March 5, 2013 | by

frankenstein-jj-001Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.

But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive. Read More »

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Book Perfume, Newspaper Dresses

May 11, 2012 | by

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The Founding Farmers

February 23, 2012 | by

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is the transcription of a handwritten recipe collection that came to Martha Washington through her first husband, Daniel Custis. By the time she received it, in 1749, its value would have been mostly sentimental, not culinary; the old family recipes date from Jacobean and even Elizabethan England. This we learn from the book’s spirited annotator, Karen Hess, whose commentary, published with the transcription in 1981 by Columbia University Press, works like salt: without it, the old recipes, filled with antiquated spelling and vocabulary, would be hard to choke down. With it, the reader—this reader—can’t get enough. (“Lady comes from Old English words meaning kneader of loaves,” Hess writes. How was I muddling along in my floury apron without this fact?)

Karen Hess, who was given access to the manuscript by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was an instinctive cook, trained at her grandmother’s side between the two world wars in a Nebraska community where the competition to prepare the tastiest supper for the pastor was, by her own account, fierce. Her contempt for the use of flour—“demon flour”!—in sauces was the result of years of cooking and tasting. Her interest in food deepened in the sixties, when her husband, John, a reporter for The New York Times, took the family to Paris for a nine-year stint. France did its thing, and the housewife eventually transformed herself, despite her lack of formal training, into a pioneer of food scholarship. “No other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking,” she wrote. “I cannot help but feel that this neglect is also related to the ageless depreciation of the work of women.” In her books she strove to re-create our domestic past accurately, without sentiment. After Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, Hess published annotated editions of several more important early American cookbooks, such as Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, a social history of rice cultivation in South Carolina, with an emphasis on the role of knowledgeable slaves. In 1985, she became one of the founding members of the Culinary Historians of New York.

The book that launched her career, however, came out in 1977, and was cowritten with John. The Taste of America was a scathing indictment of American food culture in the twentieth century. Conventional wisdom held that early Americans were too busy surviving and fearing God to bother with their appetites, but the Hesses convincingly described a “colonial Eden” in a generous new land where one couldn’t help but eat well. (Though the New Englanders had to work a little harder than the Virginians.) Back then, “local and seasonal” was not a cliché or a trend but a fact. “The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence,” they write, giving us as examples not only Thomas Jefferson’s Frenchified tastes and habits—a surprising proportion of his correspondence concerned the purchase of wine—but also Benjamin Franklin’s ardent defense of the tastiness of corn (“one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world … a delicacy beyond expression”). By contrast, they cite a New York Times account of Gerald Ford’s habitual lunch: “a ball of cottage cheese, over which he pours a small pitcherful of A.1. Sauce, a sliced onion or a quartered tomato, and a small helping of butter-pecan ice cream.” Eating was, Ford said, “a waste of time.” Read More »

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Maira Kalman

May 16, 2011 | by

Photograph by Thessaly La Force.

Maira Kalman lives surrounded by chairs both life-size and miniature. Her studio is two floors below her West Village apartment, and it's filled with such objects as hair tufts from her beloved (and now late) dog Pete, puppets from the 1930s, and hats adorned with feathers from friends and admirers. I dropped in to chat about Maira’s first retrospective at the Jewish Museum and heard, among other things, about her love for Thomas Jefferson—unlike Abraham Lincoln, he’s apparently “not boyfriend material”—and her studio moss collection.

When I left college, I decided I wasn’t going to write anymore. I started out writing fiction, and I thought I would be a writer—it was something that I just always assumed when I was a little kid. I had a teacher who told me I was a good writer, and I loved writing. Then it became tormented, as it often does when you hit your teens. So I thought, I have to lighten up a little bit. And it was the age of New Wave and punk, and there was a whole new era of illustration going on. So, I started to draw.

Kalman’s desk, where she paints. Photograph by Thessaly La Force.

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