- Coney Island today is a fine place to force-feed yourself hotdogs and get a weird rash, but in centuries past it was a bona fide dreamland—so much so that a new exhibition of early Coney Island art is called “Visions of an American Dreamland.” J. Hoberman writes, “As befits a dreamland, the exhibit—curated by Robin Jaffee Frank, who also wrote much of the show’s excellent, richly illustrated catalogue—is a mix of artifacts and artworks and a trove of suggestive juxtapositions … A 1910 wooden cut-out cartoon of Mae West and Jimmy Durante, both of whom got their starts in Coney Island ‘concert saloons,’ is positioned opposite a selection of roughly contemporaneous Sunday pages by the master draughtsman Winsor McCay, whose gorgeously inventive comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland was surely the greatest graphic expression of fin-de-siècle Coney.”
- Morgan Jerkins reflects on the role of the diary for black women: “The boundaries of a black woman’s social life are many and varied. Alice Dunbar Nelson, who had been married to the famous black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote in her diary of her lesbian and other extramarital affairs. One of the fears that many black women writers have historically had is that if they reveal too much of their intimate lives, it could reflect badly, not only on themselves but on the black community. In addition to matters of romance and money, these earlier diaries of black women are filled with confessions about strained familial relationships, and personal demons and insecurities … For a black woman in a white world, a conversation with the self is crucial: for when she walks through that often-unwelcoming world she is subjected to confining perceptions of who she might be. When that world insists on racist and narrow paradigms, the diary gives these women a chance to scratch out and rewrite such definitions.”
- Today in unsolicited advice for parents: take your kids to see Where’s Peter Rabbit, a new puppet musical designed to preserve the memory of Beatrix Potter’s darker side. It’ll scare the shit out of them … but, you know, in a good way. As the designer Roger Glossop argues, “[Potter’s] stories really are not all fluffy bunnies. I mean, Mr. Tod, the fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, is one of the darker villains you will find anywhere in children’s literature … It is a really foul piece and so, dramatically, that is terrific! We do wonder if some children in the audience may leave weeping, although we will certainly not try to scare them.” Sold!
- Not unrelatedly, a new book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s letters sheds some much-needed light on her past and her feelings about the coddled youths of her day: “Later in life, as the Little House series grew in popularity, her letters are devoted to readers—children, parents, schoolteachers, librarians, even a congressman—who flood Wilder with fan mail. The Laura in this period is given to mildly political disquisitions on how things used to be. ‘The children today have so much that they have lost the power to truly enjoy anything,’ Wilder wrote from her ten-room house in 1944. ‘They are poor little rich children.’”
- To go by the new collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, Love and Freindship [sic], no one would ever accuse her of being a poor little rich kid. The book is, at its best, sublimely ridiculous, as in the case of a 1788 work called The Beautifull [sic] Cassandra: “Escaping her parents’ millinery shop with another woman’s hat on her head, Cassandra sets out to ‘make her Fortune.’ Her attempt would last seven hours. For a lot of heroines, that exit from the parental home would be precisely the moment when a handsome man, whether a villain or a preserver, would be thrown in her way. But when Cassandra finds herself in just this situation, passing an attractive Viscount, she walks right by him to devour a gluttonous amount of dessert … The heroine ‘proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away.’ ”
- The drugs in the real world are okay. But fictional drugs—those are some drugs. A tour of drugs in fiction suggests, among other things, that we’ve been disappointingly unimaginative in choosing names for actual drugs: Where can we find the likes of “moloko plus” or “The Diabolical Drug” in day-to-day life? And where, in fiction, can we find a drug that isn’t a metaphor for our dumb ambition? “We all want to be stronger, sexier, more formidable; taking a synthetic shortcut, in drug fiction, is rarely a good idea … That’s the commonality throughout all of our mind-warping fictions: they’re mostly depictions of our hubris. They skewer our persistent belief that there is some pill, some plant, some substance that could cure everything for us, fix things.”
- Meanwhile, the explosion of narrative food writing seems to have helped everyone but the service staff: there are no signs of labor to be found. “Contemporary cookbooks devote as much energy to their narrative or expository content as they do to providing recipes; they tell stories, that is, rather than merely instruct. Despite this impressive reach, however, you have to read hard, and most often in vain, to catch glimpses of waiters, dishwashers, or line cooks … If one were to do the impossible, and take food criticism seriously, we would have to imagine a restaurant as a kind of lively phantasmagoria, where food and beverage enter the purview of the critic as if of their own volition. It is the staging ground for the most classic forms of commodity fetishism.”
- Today in TV nostalgia: from 1947 to 1957, a live TV show called Kukla, Fran and Ollie attracted some four million viewers each night, in prime time. Its secret: puppets. “It revolved around the antics of the Kuklapolitan Players, a theater company made up of one human—radio actress and vocalist Fran Allison—and a dozen puppets, all of which were animated by the show’s creator, Burr Tillstrom. The puppets talked and danced and sang on a small stage while Allison stood in front of it and talked and danced and sang with them … Kukla, Fran and Ollie created a new, gentle intimacy with its audience, one shaped by routine but not bound by formula, in which it was always possible to be delighted or moved. Perhaps it’s less that it’s strange for adults to feel strongly about children’s television and more that we’ve coded such qualities as childlike.”
- Mary-Kay Wilmers on Marianne Moore: “In place of a diary she kept a notebook … She didn’t use it to write about her feelings or about herself. She was interested in the fate of her poems, not in the mood she was in. Her mother had warned against introspection; consciously or unconsciously, she’d taken the lesson to heart. Or perhaps she didn’t need a lesson. Ideas, attitudes to this and that were more rewarding, and more fun to think about and make fun of, even her own. But words principally gave her pleasure. Sentences, metaphors, tropes, her own—she worked constantly at them—and other people’s, including her mother’s, were noted down and reappear in the poems, which borrow many of Mary’s mannerisms as well as those of the home language more generally: not its sentimentality but its histrionic tone and nursery décor and its tendency to metonymise and otherwise play the figures of speech. Like Wallace Stevens, whom she much admired, she made jokes, and even more than in Stevens’s case, the jokes were sly, hardly perceptible, there for her own pleasure. Yet for all the ironies, visible and invisible, some of the poems even have a moral.”
- The artist Ana Mendieta, a Cuban émigré who died thirty years ago, is at last getting her due: “The young and promising Cuban-American artist fell to her death in September 1985 from the 34th-floor window of her Greenwich Village apartment; her newlywed husband, legendary sculptor Carl Andre, was indicted, tried, and eventually acquitted of her murder … [Mendieta] used her own body as a major component of her artwork. Her films and photos often used her sometimes naked form as subject and many had deep, earthy, bold colors and natural but stark shapes and elements. She used sticks and blood and dirt and plants—her work has the feeling of a pagan ritual. It is somehow both haunting and life-affirming.”
“And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?”
“The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the center of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wire or thread only this center, the attached limbs are just what they should be … lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You’ll look for it in vain in most of our dancers.”
—Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre”
Besides being World Poetry Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, World Down Syndrome Day, Truant’s Day (in Poland), Harmony Day (Australia), and the Anglican Commemoration of Thomas Cranmer, tomorrow (March 21) is World Puppetry Day. Read More
There are lots of interesting things to see right now at the New-York Historical Society: a delightful exhibit on Ludwig Bemelmans’s New York, a look at the role of cotton in the Northern war effort, a moving show called “ ‘I Live. Send Help.’ 100 Years of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.” All of these are worth seeing. None of them is what I want to discuss right now.
Swinging through the gift shop post-visit, my eye fell upon a sock monkey–making kit. This is not in itself so noteworthy; the gift shop contains an enticing selection of educational toys for young nerds, including a “My First Tatting” kit, a loom, and a mobcap. What was interesting, rather, was the image of the finished sock monkey displayed on the label. He looked vaguely familiar.
It took me a long time to realize the resemblance. It came to me hours later, in fact, when I was in the basement laundry room of my apartment building, cleaning the lint trap of the dryer: Read More