Friday, August 8, 2014

The 1880s again

Hamlin Garland, William Dean Howells, young Henry James, and, last but not least, Mark Twain
1880s armchair, japalac on oak
Back in March and April, 2111 (posts between March 17 and April 4), in my usual kind of Chain of Browsing, I came upon an author that none of my teachers had succeeded in making me read, Hamlin Garland, and learning that he was befriended by William Dean Howells I began to read his correspondence with Henry James and became interested in the decade, the 1880s, when my grandfather was born: but these were the writers born before the Civil War.
Yet, so thoroughly had I been driven from the most famous of them, by the anthologizing of the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and the choice of Tom Sawyer (I did know the movie of the 1940s) as something for Norman Rockwell to illustrate, that no amount of pressure had succeeded in getting me even past page one of Huckleberry Finn.  I seem to have felt that it was disrespectful of my friends of African (and Asian) ancestry to make them Types, and unsubtle, at best, to treat southern persons, much as I disagreed with them, as if they were all cruel slave drivers.  Besides, my quote-loving friends had tried a few dozen times too many to make me admire Mark Twain's 'calculation' of the length of the Mississippi as the pinnacle of wit (and, of course, its context was never given).
Anyhow, as you see, I was obdurate.  But just as too much secondary school had saved Hamlin Garland for me (and led me to acquire a whole library on my little Kindle), now the rebroadcast on PBS of Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey West's 2002 Florentine Films' Mark Twain has brought me to, first, Huckleberry Finn, which belongs to that annus mirabilis, 1885-6, and which, after all, all the best minds liked best (if both Arthur Miller and Bernard Shaw did, how could I not?).  And, behold, it is much, much more than about Race!  In fact, it is in the context of the whole work that the question of Race is a serious question.  Twain was much too wise to argue anything like that.
Now I shall decide which Complete Works is better (neither is expensive) and as with Howells and William James (Henry is the one that I'd read the most of) and Arthur Conan Doyle, with the help of zoomable fonts, I shall set about reading Mark Twain.  How (after writing my last post!) can I not have to read the great writer who came to accept the unknowable as such?  How can I not accept his  getting from day to day in his old age by playing the role that the World took pleasure in?
And now that I understand the American Renaissance Revival (see the headpiece here) I can happily appreciate the Hartford house.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The question of Iraq

Encyclopedia Britannica XI (1910) s.v. Syria
(click to fit to screen)
When the invasion of Kuwait appeared suddenly on CNN, I found Kuwait on a map easily, and I knew from the excellent map in Henri Frankfort, The Art of the Ancient Orient, Pelican History of Art, 1954, to look for Babylon where the Rivers nearly met.  For that book had been my introduction to the subject.  In the meantime, I had learned that during the first years of the war beginning in 2003, Syria had received numerous refugees from northern Iraq.  True, I knew that Halaf, for example, was in Syria, and Mari and, of course, Damascus.  I mean, I knew bits and pieces but where the border had been drawn I really didn't know.  Being used to Europeans that I talked to on trains often knowing only New York, Chicago (gangsters) and San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge)— not much more and not necessarily where to look for them (for example, Hollywood was simply Hollywood), but that did not excuse me.  Or the makers of atlases. The great and good Bavarian Grosser Historischer Weltatlas had a beautiful ancient Mesopotamia and a detailed (color coded) modern Arabian Republics of the periods 1945–1961.  But I got it only in the 1960s, and I'm sure it's still in copyright.
But I had nothing for c. 1918.  T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars… had no map, and the movie with Peter O'Toole was filmed in Jordan.
This is an awful confession of ignorance but perfectly true, in so far as I knew nothing (unless you counted the Assyrian Empire in the back of my Sunday School Bible).
The 1910 Britannica was still very British.  It has a double page map in color of Ireland but no political map of Mesopotamia; as for Iraq, of course, the name had not yet been assigned to the country we know.  For some reason, it wouldn't say, or even index, Ottoman, and only later did I find Turkey in Europe, but less detailed than the Syria, above.  The Eleventh Edition  has become invaluable as the encyclopedia of the world before World War I, recording all its biases and assumptions, and its maps, engraved in Switzerland, I think, were great.  The Syria map I found for the area that I have had to read about for the last 25 years is perhaps an ordnance map and it is signed by Walker.

So much for my supplying the above half-page map of Syria to head this blog post.

The whole world would seem to be snowballing towards disaster of the senseless kind.  Though it was true that an almost predictable march back into Iraq from Syria was awful news, foreboding news, after watchers of CNN in 2003 had watched the Iraqi army dissolve through palm trees and across the Euphrates, and Syria had welcomed many Iraqi families, it was high time that we understood that it may not have been mere cowardice in the face of unbeatable invading forces; it might have been what they were instructed to do: cross the river and desert and regroup with their nearest ethnic relatives and train themselves in their own way.  Why would I think that?  I don't know.  I only could look back over the fluid and yet unchanging history of the truly middle Middle East.  And who could not reflect on the Kurdish people spread out across at least three modern nation states?  How can we expect that Iraqis will cling with deep pride to Iraqi identity?  To find their name on that Britannica map, you look for a people, but not a nation, and almost all the way down to the marsh arabs.  It may be enough to be glad if what was once Babylonia hangs together and what was once Assyria, for its part, too.  And Ctesiphon, of course, is not in modern Iran.  But we are still hung and bound and gagged by the insoluble problem of Palestinians and Israelis.
That is why I have no opinions, can form none, about the World.  I have known for decades how bitterly Ukrainians resent Russians and Russians hold them in contempt.  I don't know why, really, but when I lived in New York I heard it all the time.
I won't go through a laundry list to write an updated Merry Minuet, but I know how bitter and unhappy things feel.  I keep trying to tell myself that it's just an octogenarian's lack of élan vital.  Partly it is, but not primarily.  I find some solace in reading good spy fiction, like John le Carre.  Reading the tragic biography by Kai Bird of Robert Ames.  Even the patient rehearsal of my own youth and worst fears of  the Age of Edgar J. Hoover's FBI; my friends and I never dared even to speak of the FBI and that a lot earlier than Betty Medzger thought we did.  What is awful is the consolation afforded by this literature: none of what we hear today is new.  Small consolation.  It has taken most of my lifetime for civilization to put itself together again.  To me, civilized values and all the arts and all decency is what I love, or at least all that I flatter myself in believing.
That's inadequate and incoherent, but it's all I can muster right now.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Mulling over our Species, in History
An author today on Science Friday talking about everything to do with the concept of Self, confessed that for clarification she had resorted to William James, even though a century old.  More than a year ago I had done the same (I think it was in the series of posts that had begun with Hamlin Garland).  When it comes to really good thinking, Henry's older brother is hard to beat, and it does us good to realize yet again that human minds can think straight and radically with very little technology.  Not that they always do, and not that we needn't keep in mind that, say, in archaeology it is important to remember what hadn't been discovered yet and that then, as now, there were fantasy governed or otherwise limited minds.  I mean, Werner Jaeger is not merely anti-Platonic; in many respects he may be right.  Anyone read Paideia recently?  Don't worry; I'd have to read it again if I were to discuss it.  But I've been mulling over a question that is very hard to frame and that may be inane anyway.

What seems to have gotten me started was Memorial Day's statistics of huge numbers of war dead; of all the litanies of lost generation, of the holocaust and Hiroshima accounts in David Remnick's wonderful anthology of The New Yorker in the 1940s; of seemingly unlimited varieties of moths in my friend Bill's blog, Naturally.  

But what about homo sapiens?  How much of a die off or plague has been needed to modify us?  Appalling as the 20th century cemeteries from D-Day or those "In Flanders Field" are, as dreadful quantitatively as well as morally the European harvest from ethnic cleansing, as difficult even to count the dead of Hiroshima, is the consequence of such lost generations genetically sufficient to alter nations affected?  They aren't as numerous as many migrations have been, as of Irish or Mexicans in the 20th century.  That is, was even the loss of Jewry in Europe as large a fraction of their numbers as of Hispanics from South to North America?  The former are as large a proportion of promising lives that never reached full adulthood as I can think of.  Perhaps the remnants of the Confederate armies after 1865?

There are all sorts of difficult questions that come to mind.  Does it in fact matter a great deal if the British lost generation included so large a proportion of educated idealists as the literature tells us?  And the young artists in France and Germany?  And, in Europe, the influenza  epidemic (not that it wasn't bad in America as well).?  What about the famous Black Death of the 14th century?  Not surprisingly, it is the literate who write history, and they can only properly record what they know.  I was thinking that it is very hard (and regarding calculations with some skepticism) to know what fraction of a population perished by great natural or man-made disasters so as to leave a permanent mark on the population.  And how noticeable a mark?  Arguably, the potato famine affected the peopling of the USA more than any wars that we have fought.  How terrible do things have to have been to be noticeable a couple of centuries later?  How important is population explosion today?

I'm not talking about for good or for ill.  If the Old World could populate the New World with its leftovers, it must be said that the result is not by any means so bad as might have been guessed.  I'll vote for the minds and beauty of African-Americans any day.  Also, I'm not sure that we aren't seeing epigenetic changes among them with the North American diet and climate.  If brown bears are much bigger in Katmai State Park than the same-species grizzlies of Yosemite….?

Also, what about miscegenation?  If the ancient world had a much smaller population, it also could not mix so freely as we do.  What about the ancients' inability to count much beyond 10,000 (myrioi) and even so, we often suspect, with only a vague realization of the number?  I first understood the long-term consequences of a lost navy, a lost war, reading Thucydides on Syracuse.  But I understood the loss to have been more societal than genetic.

And yet, I bet our Last Ice Age ancestors may have been a little less identical to us than their bones suggest.  After all, we ARE regular mammals just as the Katmai brown bears are.

OK, perhaps this is inane.  Certainly, there are no ways of getting answers that I could regard as reliable.  But it's hardly as if we could all look just like Masaccio's Adam and Eve, and even less likely that their originals, from the land of Sumer in perhaps the 4th millennium BCE, looked like them.  No harm in wondering.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Some still loose threads

At 301 East Blvd in Baton Rouge, almost "midtown"

(1) When one is driving across Baton Rouge, E to W across town, one first learns to use North Blvd to allow for I-110 as it slices N to S, and to turn south to stay on surface streets.  Your landmark is the big First United Methodist Church and you take East Blvd south in the shadow of the elevated Interstate  before you reach the second landmark church, Mt. Zion First Baptist.  Later I learned that in the first half of the 20th century (and really still today) these were the fashionable protestant churches of their respective denominations, with notable families in their congregations, respectively African-American and European-American.  All the major Christian churches are convenient to downtown and to the Capitol.
The Interstate highway was ruinous to East Blvd, but it hasn't quite ruined it.  Not that Mt. Zion, in particular, enjoys the noise of traffic.
Long before I had retired and began studying pre-WW II Baton Rouge, or had discovered Governor Fuqua's house in the heart of Beauregard Town, I used East Blvd to get from North Blvd to Government St and noticed the handsome house, 301 East Blvd, above, just north of and across the street from Mt. Zion First Baptist.  I still am trying to learn about this house.  It really is quite like Governor Fuqua's, though smaller, tetrastyle instead of hexastyle, but to my eye perfectly Greek Revival and quite old, more distingué than its immediate neighbors yet less lovingly maintained than this house that, I understand, belongs to Mt. Zion:
No nuisancy freeway (see at right) can daunt the careful maintenance seen here

I need to take my photos of this fascinating neighborhood to the EBR Parish Library, now that it is in its new building.  Also, the whole neighborhood is plainly of substantial, established importance, and I need to return to solidify my impressions of it.  To my shame, after 20 years, I still don't know it.

(2) How to define (is it possible?) Spanish Town Road.
Spanish Town Road is complex, and I ran out of daylight and legal parking.  Start at the Capitol park:

As I have said in an earlier post, this is too complicated for an amateur like me, but I'd like to get a richer impression of it.
(3) The neighborhood defined by our fine Magnet High School.  Once, when I was serving on an LSU committee, I learned that Baton Rouge Magnet High School was the best secondary school in the State;  in any case, its alumni and the city are very proud of it.
The west flank of the original building

The new north buildings (where for years and years there were "temporaries")

On the west of the central divider with its spreading oaks, a modest well kept bungalow
View of the well known businesses on Government Street from the Eugene St. divider

In fact, right in Midtown, the wellbeing of the city embracing its schools is well illustrated.  Athletic teams can always be bussed to playing fields.  Here, it seems to me, the schools and the residential neighborhoods anchor each other.
Rather than wait still longer, I'm posting what I have.  There are, of course, more houses in the Albums.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Female Image

The Images as I Remember Them
Gene, age 29, 1943

Gene and Sid, 23 and 28, June 1937
Just as the present U.S. Chief of the Federal Reserve does not represent the same public icon as one of the young female celebrities, almost all of them elaborately made up, or Eleanor Roosevelt during WW II the same kind of public icon as Veronica Lake, for example, or, at the opposite extreme, the haggard mothers in FSA photos, who had no hairdresser and no dress but the cotton housedress, the self-presentation of most female authors or scholars does not represent their decade.  Nor do the debutantes or their mothers (as shown in the Press or in illustrations to novels intended for followers of soap operas).
The movie magazine photos of stars like Norma Shearer inspired the outfit that 'Gene' wears in a 1937 snapshot, and those clothes were for sale in all the readymade outlets.  The house dresses that went with them were used in ads in women's magazines (Edward Steichen when strapped for funds to pay alimony was one of the photographers who did excellent work of this kind, but he didn't choose the clothes or accessories).  The date of the snapshot, "Gene and Sid, June 1937" is that of their 4th wedding anniversary.
Just six years later, well into WW II, 'Gene' not only is posed in an attempt to provide a publicity picture for her attempt to fulfill an adolescent dream to be a pop singer.  Though taken with a good camera, a 4 1/4" X 3 1/4" Press camera, it is a naive disaster for its intended purpose; a professional with studio lights and training in that sort of imagery was called upon to make a Hollywood kind of glamor glossy.  That image used a softening lens, full pancake make-up, and lipstick extending much beyond her natural lips, which was the rule at the time also for close-ups of Betty Grable and Lucile Ball (and most of the other stars) who, like 'Gene', naturally had a cupid's bow mouth, more or less.
Try as I might, I cannot locate a copy of the pro close-up, but the hair style could not be disguised as other than that where she is posed on the piano stool.
Wartime was the decade of rayon acetate.  The white dress of 1937 was probably linen.  The dress printed with tulips, magenta, green, black on off-white, as well as the stockings were rayon, and shoe soles were a new product, neolite.  Linen, most leather, silk, "virgin" cotton, were unavailable (nylon, of course, was for parachutes).  But the skirts of dresses were barely knee length; things were skimpy to save materials.  Maybe so, but the styles, with padded shoulders and fitted jackets, were very perky and expressed more attitude than mere patriotic sacrifice.  Think Andrew Sisters in wartime movies; think Hollywood's Joan Leslie; think Petty Girls.  And that with permanented hair, often rolled over a "rat".
I repeat, though: neither Mrs. Roosevelt nor my grandmother was affected by that Look (nor our president by zoot suits, which, where I lived, were not confined to African-American or Hispanic men).
I wonder whether 'Gene' if she had stayed in her parents' small town would have changed so much as in that manqué-glamor photo: a chanteuse was not posed on a piano bench.  But her nurse's aide uniform also was knee length.
And everyone wore lipstick.  It was thickish, and it came off easily, but washed out only with difficulty.  At school, though, the other girls made fun of you if you didn't wear it.  Janice, who walked to Jr. High School with me, was the child of a fundamentalist minister, and we stopped at a gas station restroom so she could put it on.  I never dreamt of being free of lipstick or of shaven legs.
The point is that, at the lower-middle class popular level, in the six years between those two photos, the icons changed quite radically.  And this change concerned not Vogue so much as subscribers to Good Housekeeping, for example.  Not how young women thought or what they read so much as their collective image.
Shortly after nylon was relegated, along with leather bullet cases, to army surplus shops, the New Look appeared, first in haute couture by Yves St. Laurent but promptly in the new Seventeen magazine.  It also was tight waisted, and the skirts were mostly full as well as long.  The magazines emphasized that we could have camel's hair and silk (also woven gingham, real gingham).  You didn't go to the army canteen or build figher planes in such a style.  I hear that our county public library has just subscribed to a complete digitized run of Vogue to which you are referred.  But this was not easily aped by J. C. Penny or by Sears or,  in England, by Marks & Spencer.  Their revolution, and that of college shops, was consonant (and typified in my memory by cashmere or lamb's-wool sweater sets), with calf-length skirt hems.  And the plentiful nylons (though still with garters) were seamless!
To a certain extent, again, a new young woman was launched.
The real liberation, apart from pills (which many of us didn't need, yet), in the 1960s was from the ladylike (and lipsticked, hatted, etc.) post-war New Look.  One thing after another.  Not setting one's hair.  Wearing pants, even bluejeans, instead of skirts.  Wearing sandals, not pinchy 'ballerina' shoes, and not without stockings (in California through most of the winter, too), no lipstick at all, and no bra!
That was the new icon.  Of course, if we went to the opera, we dressed properly; if poor, the little black dress and a nice string of beads would do.
Meanwhile, the little girl on Sunbeam bread and the little girl happily spilling Morton's salt ("When it rains, it pours") were updated.  The tiger on the corn flakes box and the cats in Disney's Aristocats were brought into line with prize-winning LP album covers: commercial modernity, some of it very attractive.
With the millennium (and somewhat before it), the mascara, the eyeshadow, the liquid make-up, the lipstick and indescribable varieties of outer wear, and the poses in the advertising photographs, and, especially, the kind of slenderness of, e.g., Special K advertisements has exploded again.  Like (something I just learned) fireweed, the pioneer weed that comes back like a vengeance.
Nota bene: I am not so silly as to suggest that pretty women should not be 'objects' (nor, of course, pretty men).  It's just that the iconology of sex in commercial imagery keeps recycling and I keep feeling that the changes are full of signifiers, signifiers whose meaning often puzzles me.  I mean, you can use almost any types to make human faces and bodies look sexy.   I admit that the models in the recent Korean Airlines TV ads are especially puzzling.  And why do we have to revert to something very like Gloria Swanson?  What is being concealed?
Both of my parents are dead, and I apologize for having to resort to using their pictures.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Residential Neighborhoods North of Government Street

A February Day and a Tall Tree and Cleared Spaces (DSC_1290)

I. The Enclave between Government St and North Blvd, between 19th Street and Eugene.

The word 'enclave' is used, because here it was four-lane surface thoroughfares running parallel to the minor railway, the Louisiana & Arkansas, not heavily used today (but watch for its signals and, if you're sleepless, listen for the night-train whistle at about 2:00 am), North Blvd. changing from a parkway to a plain throughway (and to be distinguished from North Street, to be grouped rather with Spanish Town Road), several important cemeteries and two old and important schools, Dufrocq Elementary and Baton Rouge High School, one of two Magnet High Schools.  Major churches are farther downtown, most of the First churches west of the freeway, Interstate I-110.  The 'enclave' I studied first also is characterized by recent and ongoing renovation, as are its two old schools, and by its alignment to Roseland Terrace and Drehr Place, the two first tracts (19th Street was the city limit then) of the Garden District, some of whose contractors very evidently also worked in the 1920s for owners of lots north as well as south of Government Street.  There were no utilities alleys, however, which are characteristic of whole tracts which a major realtor like Zadok laid out and installed in advance, and there may have been some other conveniences lacking that I don't know of (City Park was being developed, the new LSU campus, too, and the late, great mid-city department store, Goudchaux (later Maison Blanche), like other features related to Main Street, was begun only in the 1930s.

The new images on which today's Post is based are stored in:

I became interested in these characteristics only after I had seen Louisiana Public Broadcasting's  documentary for the 1950s successful and non-violent bus boycott in the early 1950s.  They say that it did not eventuate like the infamous events a decade later in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, because of the large, rooted middle class of African Americans here and the strong leadership of the Rev. T. J. Jemison, of Mt  Zion First Baptist Church, who died only recently.  I wondered which church that is, since Scotlandville, plainly, is mostly later, and in fact First Baptist is just a block south of First Methodist, which most of us know because it's the one we see on crossing under I-110.  But more of the First churches in another Post.  Here just what documentaries don't tell you, where the "power churches" (of whichever denomination) are (again, Taylor Branch taught me that importance in Atlanta), and where it was that people were waiting for buses (compare the populations of 1950 and 2000!).  I came here in 1981, and I knew from Oakland, CA, not to generalize about ethnic and social groups in a city of a quarter million.  My mother was working, c. 1950, for Stanley Home Products (cf. Tupper Ware), and we went (I assisted her) in homes where we were invited, so that we gained a network of Likes (yes, as in Facebook, et al.) all over neighborhoods (barring VanAstorBilt) from S. F. Bay some 30 miles over the hills as far as Livermore, in all the variety that implies.
Wherever possible, Baton Rouge retained its street names and address numbers, so the enclave I was in on Friday is numbered from 100 to 499, N-S, and from 2200 to 2399 W-E.  One is grateful, because, what with cemeteries and railroads and, later, with intervening non-grid freeways, they are useful.
I admitted that three decades ago, when I first saw the Garden District, there were some houses up for sale that weren't selling; they not only hadn't been mowed and trimmed and painted but they had some of those spray dipinti that are so alarming when you're house-hunting.  There are none today.  Commercial contractors (and occasionally do-it-yourself improvers) have bought those that needed help, and they have been selling for as much as five times their price in the 1980s.  I was right to assess the GD as too good to perish.  What about across the street?  Zoning permitted lawyers and dentists and insurance agents and the like to buy up bungalows which rush-hour traffic on Government Street deterred young families from buying.  And obviously there are still some zoning restrictions.  Evidently, though, if you want a house as good as in the Garden District, it can be had less expensively, and you won't have hip-flasks thrown in the gutters or dipinti sprayed wherever a dog could reach or broken-down window air conditioners, either.  Even better, when a six- or eight-room house has been maintained only on the make-it-do principle (the English used to mock our "do-it-yourself" cult in such terms), you won't have the expense and trouble of undoing bad "improvements" from the 1950s or 1960s.  In my post for January 16, above, "What Evergreen Drive Tells Us", you can see how rewarding the results can be.
Similar rewards can be seen on the next street to the west, Delphine, but there, once a block away from Government Street, there will also have been numerous lots for houses one room wide and three or four rooms long : "single shot guns".  There are some in Beauregard Town, and I know of one in Roseland Terrace in the Garden District (in downright poor parts of town they are the rule, as the four-room cube of brick with stucco is in California—neither is to be confused with rural shacks).  Now, in the greater part of two blocks on Delpine Street, they come in rows, for a good reason: the lots on the city plat are measured for them and have been sold and owned as such.  There are other good reasons, too.  Though they usually (like all brick-pillar houses) need to be leveled and given new joists, they are really well built; some may have been so neglected, of course, that they have to be wholly rebuilt.  We have such things as dry rot and powder post beetles hereabouts.  Houses need to be lived in, and past a certain point you can't even rent them (which of course is itself a kiss of death for a century-old wooden house).  But somehow, and I congratulate the couples and singles who have realized it, a "single shot gun" in good  condition is easier to care for, more pleasant to live in, and MUCH closer to your place of employment (and no freeway driving) and far more neighborly, than some suburban ranch on a slab, badly built to begin with, with no trees or persons that share your culture.  And so Delphine should get a medal for urban renewal.  I photographed one house, a shot-gun duplex (two front doors) that is raised in order to be leveled and have the joists replaced.
Finally, the first thing I noticed, when I left that first block of Evergreen, in the enclaves north of Government Street is openness: not just the bareness of the deciduous trees or the use of several house lots for law offices' parking.  Often you have one or more lots empty, but even more often (and unlike what hurricanes may have done) a whole corner once with three houses today is perfectly flat, flattened I think.  In these 1920s blocks the corners or other grouped lots, on flood-free, on-the-bluff land, the last choice land—not requiring flood insurance, where within a mile or two to the south or southeast you are on alluvium, riddled with minor tributary streams that flood at least a little every year, empty lots on every side demand an explanation, despite the effect of the N-S thoroughfares and the Louisiana & Arkansas railway tracks, this should be the most fully built up neighborhood in the city.  Empty corner lots that are meant to take the large houses?  I haven't found an explanation in histories of Baton Rouge, but deliberately I want to see if I, an outsider till recently, can read the evidence truly.  The model of Oakland, CA, where most of the 19c large, proud houses (costly to maintain) got chopped up into the smallest possible apartments, got hopelessly abused by tenants who couldn't afford to take care of them (and who had no means to borrow money), would help explain what may have happened north of Government, except that Baton Rouge was younger and smaller and more modest (this wasn't Lake Providence), and, as PBS observed, had a large middle-class native born African-American community—the circumstance in which "community" is a reality.  What even I can see (and have read about) is that black community itself was sorely tested by not only white flight but by the choice of Scotlandville at the same time, after WW II, as the place to take flight to.
But this enclave next to my own is not grand, not so impossible to afford fixing.  Folks tell me that it is "black", but even today it is more salt-and-pepper, like much of New Orleans.  Anyway, color is not the reason why, evidently in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much too much trashing of these old wooden houses and much too much of "flight" on everyone's part.  What was hopeless and could destroy quiet and decent society within it has been torn out; what can be restored by new joists and new roofs and porches will richly reward the effort (who wants to live in a house with a splattered-on ceiling that falls all over your heads and books and furniture when the hot-water heater in the attic leaks and ruins everything?  Who wants floors with no spring, with astroturf carpets or linoleum tile underfoot?
I hope that the improving financial picture continues to brighten, so that north of Government Street can fulfill its mission.
Bear in mind, this is just an archaeologist's reading of about 20 square blocks, but far more interesting than I'd have thought.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Popular Biography

After 65 years I still remembered Gene Fowler's biog of John Barrymore.

Public Library reading through a lifetime
A single PBS broadcast can provoke a flood of memories.  In this case, it was the film version of Christopher Plummer's one-man (or two) last year of John Barrymore's life.  Adolescents consume journalistic biographies avidly, to broaden one's views, to test one's feelings, as a source book of Life.  I can date my readings fairly accurately by remembering which library I borrowed them from: Alameda, San Pablo, a branch library somewhere in East Oakland, the wonderful Berkeley Public Library, which  was my library of choice once I discovered that the 51 bus and the A and F electric trains (replaced by buses similarly named) connected everything I wanted.  But, let's face it, I'd have found the same sort of reading wherever I was.  Besides, with the rise of cable TV, canned biographies were abundant; now, only the best of their kind survive, on PBS as American Masters / Experience or, imported, from the UK.
Children of each cohort have their own favorites.  It is no wonder that I honestly remembered how seriously I took not only the British princesses but Shirley Temple.  My second blog post, of February 9, 2009, with the Label 'Shirley Temple Movies', commented on that fact.  There was more than paper dolls, though, that led me to the Barrymores.  Somehow vaudeville had led me to Sigmund Spaeth and him to famous theatrical families of the time; the Dewey Decimal System brought the Drew and Barrymore families into proximity, a current film (which I found hard to understand), None But the Lonely Heart, featured Ethel, we had Lionel telling the story of A Christmas Carol (well, too, as I recall, on 6 sides of 10" shellac 78rpm), and lots of stuff in the weekly magazines on John (who was dead only two years).  Eventually, these led me to Gene Fowler's popular biography (see above: the gossip column dignified as Hollywood history in hard cover).  The Wiki's list will give his range; his own mentions of himself in his"Good Night, Sweet Prince" will hint at his own proximity to the Barrymore life style.  A number of copies are available even today, though most will have been sold off.  By the time I was out of high school, in 1952, I was no longer enchanted with the Barrymores as theatrical artists, but the idea of sinful Hollywood during The War (ours, WW II) had led me to The Dream Life of Balso Snell (much, much worse than Miss Loneleyhearts) but as good an adolescent trip as can be found anywhere: incompetently extremely ambitious.  Something far better kept being mentioned by critics, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  And within a couple of years I had a friend who was a librarian eager to send me de-accessioned copies ("ex-library", if you don't mind marginalia that today can be matched in the comments of Twitter, et al., meaning indestructibly well bound) of memoirs written "with" a writer or alone with a tape recorder and a typist, or independent biographies, written without the object's having the right to object).  None of these are candidates to become a classic Life of any kind.
I don't mean those in the EB 11th edition, the most famous being Swinburne's sv Mary Queen of Scots, that have a remarkable point of view.  Swinburne's, which is only 6 two-colum quarto pages (which will come to about 48 octavo pages of Penguin Classics. and even so much longer than any modern encyclopedia editor will tolerate).  Of course, Mary Queen of Scots has always attracted those in some measure prone to identify with her, at least imaginatively or operatically.  Indeed, I have read only half of one of them, lent to me by a neighbor herself at that time an octogenarian herself, so I was not surprised when she lent me her copy of Victoria Regina, the favorite role of Helen Hayes, a play by Laurence Houseman no longer as highly regarded as it was in 1934.  In the present generation, biographies of Princess Diana probably fill the bill (though I don't know what may exist for more recent celebrities).
Also, for whatever reason, I don't quite know why even today, and even in the most liberal and literary Press, Shirley Temple stands apart.  Or why, even in the conservative Press, most are just as fond of Pete Seeger as I have been.  But why have they forgotten the Tale of Abi Yoyo?
Who has more to contribute?  Did anyone else for a while feel that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major poet?  Who took her place in the 1960s?
And remember that Drew Barrymore, however talented, is not very closely related to John.
And, again, the Canadian film with which I began this Post is really excellent.
P.S. I had intended to say something about Waugh's The Loved One but neglected to do so.  Anyway, it wasn't a Public Library self-indulgence but a choice of a different kind.  So I'll just say that it is hilarious to read, even when it turns gruesome, so enjoy it.  In Evelyn Waugh (who had problems of his own, of course) reacting to Forest Lawn brought out the best and worst in him.