Society

A street in Ireland, 1907 (Courtesy National Library of Ireland via the Commons on Flickr)

Among the hundreds of historical photographs I’ve looked at this week, this one stands out, jarring my sensibilities, its everydayness so strikingly at odds with ours.  Whereas many historical photographs appeal because of their near-resemblance to the life we know, others are fascinating in their strangeness, in their capacity to demand independent consideration.

So it is with this photograph from the National Library of Ireland.  It shows a muddy street in the port city of Waterford, where teamsters are conveying several carts of live turkeys up from the wharves.  Their destination may be a local poultry store, where the turkeys were likely to be sold to customers live, then kept at home and butchered by those in the kitchen for the holiday meal.  The date is December 16, 1907.  To have a rich turkey feast was then, as in Dickens’ time sixty years earlier, a singular joy and a sure token of prosperity.

There was a different appearance to a street.  The bricks of the gutter are evident, but the rest of the paving is scarcely visible beneath a thick layer of mud and animal waste, which night crews may have periodically combed smooth.  The only conveyances in sight are carts and wagons, though elsewhere, we know, automobiles were beginning to appear.  Besides teamsters hauling goods away from the harbor, the only other traffic is a pair of ladies in decent hats, driving themselves on their calls and errands.

The real point of interest, though, is along the curb, where we see a barefoot boy standing in the road.  He and his friend may be hoping to earn a few coins by helping the teamsters unload the turkeys.  Just a few feet away are a well-dressed lady and gentleman, and behind them are a trio of poorer, working-class women known as ‘shawlies.’  Whereas the lady has a proper overcoat or wrapper and a fur hat, the other women go about with their heads and bodies unceremoniously wrapped in shawls for warmth.  They carry baskets.

Class was different then, as clothing and shoes and manners marked out very visibly just how different one type of person was from the other.  Though the classes rubbed elbows much more intimately than they do today, the gulf between rich and poor was more evident and less was done to ameliorate it, to ease the suffering of the barefoot and hungry.

Image from this source.
Click on the image to enlarge it.

The Best of Everything

Hope Lange in The Best of Everything (Courtesy of SweetSundayMornings via Flickr)

My reservoir of civic concern has yet to fill up again, so let me fill the time by writing a few lines about a worthwhile old movie, The Best of Everything (1959).

Mid-century modernism and the sexual and social mores that went with it inform this surprisingly somber melodrama, which stars Hope Lange, Joan Crawford, Donna Baker, and Suzy Parker as working women whose lives intersect at a New York publishing firm.  Shot on location in Manhattan in glorious Technicolor, the film is a visual and sociological trove of period detail.

A steadfastly chick-centric perspective and an emphasis on female solidarity lend distinction to the film’s portrayal of sexual opportunism and the hazards of women’s sexual freedom just prior to the dawn of modern feminism (a.k.a. “women’s lib”).  For more on the premise, plot, and fun modernist setting of the movie, click here, here, and here.

Image:  Hope Lange in The Best of Everything, from this source.

‘Style Is Forged on the Terrible Anvil of Daily Deadlines’

Drawing of Emile Zola at his desk (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I love this expression of Emile Zola, while being greatly relieved it doesn’t apply to me.

What’s great about it is the physicality of the suggestion of something being hammered, the anvil being the great inflexible immovable thing whose thereness furnishes the base for creativity, a base around which sparks fly, a base where one creates a din.  Yes, something like that does happen as a deadline nears.

Then there’s the imagined act of forging.  I imagine a lot of sweat, and a man with great physical strength wielding crude tools.  His ingredients are unpromising and unmanageable; dangerous, even.  But with enough stamina and skill, the smith—or forger, if you will—can unite and shape them into miraculous things.  And any smithy worth his salt can get up and do this every day.  Thus, style, no matter how miraculous, is tethered to “the terrible” and the everyday.

There, in a nutshell, is the proof that Zola himself had become a great writer.  A journeyman journalist who was immensely prolific, Zola was capable of tossing off amazing aphorisms like the one above that people like me are still gushing over 100+ years later.  He was one of France’s great novelists, wrote the withering political diatribe J’Accuse, and is suspected of having been killed by his enemies, who may have caused his fatal asphyxiation by stuffing his chimney.  Famous as a realist, Zola rose to great heights by grappling with the messy facts and implications of the everyday in a way that was fearless and unrelenting.

Writing is both heaven and hell, I used to say.  Each person who writes has to find her or his own motivation, her own rationale and guiding image.  Was it Joyce Carol Oates who once likened writing to pushing a peanut across the floor of a room using the tip of her nose?  And I believe it was Henry James, an inexhaustible writer, who, when asked what made him write, answered, “Doubt.”  So here’s to all those writers living and dead, who’ve tended to their forges, and their peanuts, and their doubts.

Image: Drawing of Emile Zola (1840-1902) at his desk, from this source.