Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe, and a cheers to the Poe Toaster

Poe would be 210 if he was alive today, which would be a surprising development for all concerned. And presumably today will see the appearance of the Poe Toaster at Poe’s Baltimore grave. Alas, this is a revival of the original mysterious decades-long toaster:

 

Poe Toaster is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from sometime in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son”.[1] Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster,[2] nor has he appeared any year since, signaling an end to the 75-year tradition.[3][4]

Pleasingly, the revival since 2016 has maintained the anonymity aspect:

 

In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to select a new individual to resurrect the annual tribute in a modified, tourism-friendly form. The new Toaster—who will also remain anonymous—made his first appearance during the daylight hours of January 16, 2016 (a Saturday, three days before Poe’s birthday), wearing the traditional garb and playing Saint-Saëns‘ Danse macabre on a violin. After raising the traditional cognac toast and placing the roses, he intoned, “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“Glory paid to one’s ashes comes too late”, from an epigram by the Roman poet Martial), and departed.[25]

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Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.

9780195371857

In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link

 

The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.
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“Shakespeare was the NASCAR of its day” : 5 greatest bar brawls in American history

A while ago there seemed to be a vogue for rather pompously titled (albeit often quite entertaining) books on various drinks / foods / animals / trees / whatever that “changed the world” / “shaped history” / “transformed how we X” and so on. Any few years back  Christine Sisimondo chronicled five illustrious bar brawls that Changed America! . Here is the second, wherein The Scottish play’s reputation for ill luck was burnished:

 

2. The Astor Place Riots, 1849
An estimated 25 dead and the “Scottish” play’s reputation further damaged.

Hard to believe that one of New York’s most shocking riots started over rival interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Apparently, the bad-luck Scottish play came by its reputation honestly.

In 1849, it was opening at the freshly-minted, hi-falutin’ Astor Opera House on Broadway, with William Macready on the marquee. Macready was a staid, traditional British actor, who had long feuded with American thespian Edwin Forrest, the people’s choice for Macbeth.

Five Points saloon-keeper Isaiah Rynders saw this as an opportunity for mischief, since theatergoing was one of his patrons’ most passionate pastimes. Shakespeare was the NASCAR of its day and Forrest, who had debuted at the Bowery Theater, was the working classes’ favorite actor.

Rynders, one of the most powerful men in the city thanks to his control of the gangs of New York, bought tickets to the Astor House performance and distributed them to every ruffian in his network of watering holes. But not before winding them up on booze and anti-British sentiment.

The drunken mob descended on Astor Place, took their seats, and began pelting the stage and audience with rotting fruits and eggs, forcing actors to pantomime the rest of the show, since nobody could hear the dialogue. As they say, though, the show must go on, and, three nights later, Macready took the stage again. This time, Rynders’ crew had swelled to some 10,000. This brought out the militia and, in the end, a reported 25 deaths before the riot was quelled. The Astor Place became known as the Dis-Aster Place and was converted into a library not long after.

“worth seeing yes, but not worth going to see”: An article on Samuel Johnson and Ireland, written for the Johnson Tercentenary in 2009

Going through old emails, I came across this. It was written for History Ireland magazine who accepted it… but I don’t think it ever appeared. One for the 310th anniversary I guess

 

 

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18th 1709. One of the great ironies of literary history is the fact that he is best known to posterity as the subject of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and perhaps a distant second as the “harmless drudge” of a lexicographer who produced a seminal dictionary. Johnson’s own output was vast and tremendously varied. In the tercentary celebrations in 2009, one would hope that the Irish connection will not be forgotten. It was Trinity College Dublin that put the “Dr” in Dr Johnson – and it could be also argued that it set Johnson on a literary course forever.

 

In 1728, after his mother received a legacy, Johnson enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford. Later in life, Johnson described his undergraduate self as “rude and violent, [possessed of] bitterness that they mistook for frolic. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and authority.” Indolent, and refusing to attend lectures or present work, he ended up leaving Oxford without a degree in December 1729. The following decade was one of struggle and poverty. He did occasional translation work, married the much older widow Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, and opened a school in Edial, Staffordshire, in 1735. This was not a success.

 

Johnson’s lack of a degree was a major obstacle.  He would require support and recommendations from whatever influential persons he could contact. One such was Lord Gower of Trentham, who was not personally acquainted with Johnson, but knew of his reputation as a scholar. Mutual friends persuaded Lord Gower to write to an unknown Irish friend on August 1st 1739 “to prevail upon you to write to Dean Swift, to persuade the University of Dublin to send a diploma to me, constituting this poor man Master of Arts in their University.”

 

Swift seems to have made no response. Alexander Pope also generously tried to use his influence to obtain a Trinity MA degree for Johnson, but to no avail.  This was Johnson’s last attempt to enter the world of schoolmastering. Over the coming years he eked out an existence of literary drudgery, working on the Gentleman’s Magazine on articles, brief biographies, occasional verses and translations. He  reported on parliamentary debates, which was banned – so the proceedings were printed as those of the Senate of Lilliput.  Four years later, he published his first major prose work, The Life of Richard Savage. Much difficulty, personal, financial and literary lay ahead – widowerhood, poverty, disease, the epic genesis of his Dictionary, supposedly patronised by Lord Chesterfield, to whom Johnson delivered the magnificent rebuke “is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” However Johnson’s path from 1739 would be a literary one, thanks perhaps to the silence of Swift and Trinity.

 

In 1765 the year Johnson published his edition of Shakespeare with its famous Preface, Trinity College Dublin recognised Johnson’s eminence and awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws.  Johnson never travelled to receive this degree (Lord Gower, in his 1739 letter, wrote that Johnson “is not afraid of the strictest examination, though he is of so long a journey”) and, as he was notoriously averse to travel. Johnson never visited Ireland – he damned Dublin as a “worse capital” and the Giant’s Causeway as “worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”

 

 

Despite these sentiments there is much to suggest a more positive view of Ireland. He certainly does not seem to held the aversion towards the Irish that he held towards the Scots. Boswell reported him advising an Irish acquaintance “Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them.” In a similar spirit, he observed “”The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions [of the early Church] , of such severity as that which the protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice.”

 

He wrote to a correspondent “I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.” And who could disagree with Johnson’s view that “the Irish are a fair people; — they never speak well of one another.””

 

As a coda, one twentieth century Irish dramatist  was a tremendous admirer of Johnson and conceived a trilogy of plays based on his life. His name? Samuel Beckett.

This Be The Best

In 2013 I entered this in one of the Spectator’s poetry competitions, if memory serves a version of a well-known poem endeavouring to convey the precisely opposite message. With apologies to Philip Larkin:

They raised you well, your mum and dad,

You might not think so, but they did.

They made the most of what they had

And tried their utmost for their kid.

They were well brought up in their turn

By dedicated caregiver, teacher, and so on.

I am glad the soldiers were made return,

So our children could afford this glorious dawn.

Man hands on incremental progress to man

All rising, clear shore to sunny beach.

Reproduce as quickly as you can

And always enthusiastically teach.

“You’re no good at reading, then, mate.”

While I am partial to a a bit of Amis, Kingsley, when it comes to Amis, Martin I have never quite found it to “take”, so to speak.

I came across this gem of an Amisism (of the Martinian subspecies) in a comment on an article in The Dabbler. Or rather, “Brit” (AKA Andrew Nixon), the author of the comment, came across i. Anyway, here is Brit’s comment:

In the Grayson Perry edition of The New Statesman I mentioned in my Diary last week there is an interminable ‘conversation’ between the aforementioned transvestite potter and Martin Amis.

If you wade through the endless batting back and forth of their pre-prepared parcels of de Bottonish ‘insight’, you will find this gem from Amis:

A book, anything that’s got quality, is incapable of depressing the reader or the viewer. When people say, “I liked your last novel – depressed the hell out of me, though,” I think, “You’re no good at reading, then, mate.”

That strikes me as an excellent rhetorical device, and author’s version of invoking Sumai. If anyone criticises your novel, you simply say: “You’re no good at reading, then, mate!”

Review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition”, Nthposition 2009

Another review of mine from the departed nthposition.com. I quite enjoyed this from Robert Pogue Harrison. And  I am now even further along my immersion in the “dull adult world”, ten years later.

 

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press.

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In adolescence, gardening seems to embody the dull adult world. Why waste time weeding and pruning and mowing when you could be listening to some angry young band or other convince you that the world is there for the easy changing, or wrapping you in a comically soggy blanket of miserabilism? As you get older gardening begins to gain some appeal, though if you need some convincing of the value of it Robert Pogue Harrison’s book is invaluable.

 

Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, and has previously written on forests and on graves. He is poetic, digressive, discursive – with some respect for the sciences of botany and horticulture, but ultimately siding with poets (especially female ones).  “When it comes to speculation about origins we would do better to credit the intuition of poets rather than the conventional wisdom.”

 

Harrison begins with Voltaire’s injunction at the end of Candide  that “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” and ends with Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano haunted in his alcoholic despair by his own mistranslation of a sign encouraging us not to destroy este jardín  on a neighbouring municipal garden. Firmin believes the sign is really a statement of threat, and one of Harrson’s themes is the Western perception of life as being all about force and purpose. We are “driven but aimless” in his conception, and he writes well and passionately about our times of goal-setting and to-do lists but of nothing beyond narcissism to do.

 

Harrrison rather grudgingly gives us a note on Versailles, which for him is incarnates “highly refined vice…The cultivation of envy, spite, pride or greed does not transform those vices into virtues: on the contrary, by submitting them to extremely regimented rules and protocols, it gives them a style that renders them sublime while leaving their vicious essence intact.” The majesty of Versailles is exactly that, majesty, and for Harrison the vast scale and order of the place incarnate a certain evil.

 

He writes of the magic gardens of Gilgamesh and the Garden of Eden, ideal pleasure gardens perhaps but ones which humankind could not bear for very long. Think of Odysseus desperate to leave Circe’s idyll. For Harrison, humanity was shaped by Care (personified in an ancient fable as moulding and naming humanity) and needs to exercise Care to achieve fulfillment. Gardening is the epitome of care taking –  all gardeners are constant gardeners. The Czech author Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”) is a particular favourite. His “The Gardeners Year” is the source of some of Harrison’s most impressive and thought-provoking reflections. For Capek, before becoming a real gardener, “a certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary” – in youth, one “eats the fruits of life which one has not produced oneself” and one believes a flower is “what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents a girl with.” The gardener is concerned with long time, with the future in the broadest sense.

 

Gardens and thought are closely related. A garden can be the most exciting place in the world, a place suspended in time, away from the world and yet part of the world. For Harrison, a garden should not be isolated from the world around it, for to be a “still centre of the world” requires the tension that comes from the presence of the world. He writes about Plato’s Academy, a garden for training future leaders, and contrasts it with Epicurus’ Garden School with its principled “idiocy” or withdrawal from public life and competition, and cultivation of gardening and friendship.

 

We read of princely gardens intended to embody state power, of university gardens, of Japanese gardens, of the convent gardens profaned by Boccacio’s heroes, of the gardens of the homeless in New York City. The book is wide ranging, allusive, and erudite, but it is not authoritative or definitive. There is no Montaigne, or Shakespeare. There is no Garden of Forking Paths. Harrison deals with monastic gardens incredibly briefly and dismissively. His big ideas are at times fascinating, at times tendentious. He devotes much energy to suggesting that the faultline between Islam and the “west” is partly due to the specificity of the Islamic conception of paradise as a pleasure garden of fulfillment, versus the vagueness of the Christian, which may indeed involve further yearning. More profitable is his use of Orlando Furioso as a key text to understand the chaotic nihilism of modernism.

 

We stray quite far from the garden in the later pages of the essay, and one is relieved to get back to the firm earth. If the gardener is opposed to anything, it is to nihilism. The garden is life-affirming because of its very insistence on care and need for care. Care is what makes life worthwhile, and in Harrison’s reading it was Eve who agitated to get out of the Garden of Eden because everything there was provided all too easily.