Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cortázar: Cartas (new edition)

A post by Gustavo Ribeiro at Blog Morellianas brings news of a forthcoming, vastly expanded edition of Julio Cortázar's letters, replacing the already substantial three-volume edition published twelve years ago.

The new edition, which promises more than 1,000 new letters, will appear in five volumes, three of which (shown above) are being published in February 2012, with the balance to follow in March. The publisher is Alfaguara in Argentina; the ISBNs of the initial volumes are 9789870421238 (Vol. 1), 9789870421405 (Vol. 2), and 9789870422709 (Vol 3.).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Rotograph Project

I have spun off a separate blog, The Rotograph Project, to serve as a virtual gallery for the display and interpretation of the American view postcards created c.1904-1911 by the Rotograph Co. of New York. This new arrangement should give those images more room of their own without unduly monopolizing the webspace here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The truth

This photographic postcard, most likely created between 1907-1914, depicts a family group against the backdrop of a snowy field. The identities of the subjects and the photographer are unknown, and there's no inscription or address on the reverse. The only external information is the mark of photographic paper (Velox) and the existence of another image, not in my possession but evidently taken on the same day, that shows only the man, the boy, and the woman on the far right, and thus perhaps can be taken as an indication of which of these figures are the boy's parents.

So in this picture we see four women, one man, a boy -- and a cat. But of course one more person is present, the photographer, who may have been a professional but more likely was another member of the family, an amateur shutterbug. His or her possible role in the family, even though it can't be determined, shouldn't be overlooked.

I'm not an expert on period clothing nor am I particularly good at reading family relationships from facial features, and in the end there's only so much information to be gleaned from a photograph like this. Still, there are a number of curious things here that leap out, things that, without telling us anything more for certain about these people and what they were like, at least open up some suggestive possibilities.

Let's start with the background. It's a barren, snow-covered field, at least part of which is hilly, and there's a line of trees, perhaps other hills, in the far distance. There is a pole on the left that at first sight looks like a utility pole, but it's too short and the apparent crosspiece at the top seems to be an illusion caused by a horizontal line of brush behind it. There's at least one other vertical structure some distance back, but I suspect it's just a small tree. If the field is barren in winter it may be pastureland; there's no sign of stubble left over from a summer harvest.

The woman on the right is clutching a small potted evergreen with one hand, almost as if it had been set there temporarily and might fall over if she didn't support it. At least one and more likely two similar trees are partially hidden by the human figures. It seems a curious way to pose, but maybe the bucolic effect of the greenery was deliberately sought. It's also possible that the evergreen on the right is a Christmas tree. Perhaps the image was taken to be used as a Christmas greeting, though since it's a photographic print and not a lithographic reproduction there's no certainty that this is not the only copy ever made. The dark diagonal shadow at the bottom of the picture may be a developing flaw -- or it may just be a shadow.

The formidable-looking old woman at center, the only seated figure, may be a widow; in any case she seems to be the unquestioned center of authority in the family. She wears an elaborate lace collar, perhaps of her own making. The woman in the dark dress immediately behind her -- her daughter or granddaughter? -- peers at the photographer with a look that could be called anxious or just curious; in either case she seems to be accustomed to a subordinate role. The woman on the far left might be a family member (she bears some resemblance to the seated woman), but she could also be a domestic. She wears an apron, one of her eyes behind her spectacles doesn't look quite right, and the awkwardly downturned corners of her mouth might be an indication of Bell's palsy.

The man, who is quite far back in the group, appears to be a bit of a dandy, at least for out in the country. He's wearing a lively cap and a bow-tie and clearly hasn't been laboring with his hands today. He may work in an office in town or perhaps has simply dressed up for the occasion. His son, obscured except for his face, appears to be about five years old. Off to the right, with the barest hint of a smile and a distinctly independent bearing, is the boy's mother.

Finally, there is the cat. From his body language he is evidently feeling the cold. No one else appears to have noticed his presence (though the photographer no doubt sees him) and he seems to have crept into the margins of the group with the deliberate intention of being included in the shot.

I'm not sure that there's anything terribly profound to be learned from this particular photograph. If you looked at thousands, or tens of thousands of similar images from the same period (many millions exist) then you could, if you wanted, make interesting deductions about how people lived and thought about themselves, and perhaps reach conclusions that would tell you things you didn't already know about the broader social and economic currents of the period, but that's not my intent, at least here. My interest instead is epistemological, perhaps even metaphysical. This photo is an indication that the people in this image once existed, it's potentially evidence for who they were and how they existed, but in the end it's also a reminder that, whatever conclusions we may reach about them, the truth will always be something quite different, something forever out of reach, something that in one fleeting instant on a snowy hillside left an indelible, inscrutable trace.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Money home

These receipts from The Williams & Guion steamship company were made out to a young Irish immigrant named Margaret Nagle for sums she sent to her father from New York City in 1866 (or possibly 1868) and 1870. A portion of the correspondence between Margaret and her family also survives, and is the subject of an earlier post.

A contemporary account, John Francis Maguire's The Irish in America (1868), conveys in vivid if occasionally rather florid terms the importance of the widespread practice of sending money home, which served both to maintain emotional ties with distant family and to provide a crucial lifeline for those left behind.
The great ambition of the Irish girl is to send "something" to her people as soon as possible after she has landed in America; and in innumerable instances the first tidings of her arrival in the New World are accompanied with a remittance, the fruits of her first earnings in her first place. Loving a bit of finery dearly, she will resolutely shut her eyes to the attractions of some enticing article of dress, to prove to the loved ones at home that she has not forgotten them; and she will risk the danger of insufficient clothing, or boots not proof against rain or snow, rather than diminish the amount of the little hoard to which she is weekly adding, and which she intends as a delightful surprise to parents who possibly did not altogether approve of her hazardous enterprise. To send money to her people, she will deny herself innocent enjoyments, womanly indulgences, and the gratifications of legitimate vanity; and such is the generous and affectionate nature of these young girls, that they regard the sacrifices they make as the most ordinary matter in the world, for which they merit neither praise nor approval. To assist their relatives, whether parents, or brothers and sisters, is with them a matter of imperative duty, which they do not and cannot think of disobeying, and which, on the contrary, they delight in performing. And the money destined to that purpose is regarded as sacred, and must not be diverted to any object less worthy.
One of the receipts pictured above is dated December 12th (the other date is harder to make out), which corresponds to what Maguire has to say about the seasonal pattern of homeward remittances:
With all banks and offices through which money is sent to Ireland the months of December and March are the busiest portions of the year. The largest amount is then sent; then the offices are full of bustling, eager, indeed clamorous applicants, and then are the clerks hard set in their attempts to satisfy the demands of the impatient senders, who are mostly females, and chiefly "girls in place."
The "girls in place" were domestic servants, the army of Irish "Bridgets" like Margaret Nagle who freed upper- and middle-class women from household duties that conflicted with Victorian ideals of womanhood. At least in urban areas, the daughters were regarded as more reliable remitters:
In populous cities the women send home more money than the men; in small towns and rural districts the men are as constant in their remittances, and perhaps send larger sums. Great cities offer too many temptations to improvidence or to vice, while in small places and rural districts temptations are fewer, and the occasion for spending money recklessly less frequent; hence it is, that the man who, amidst the whirl and excitement of life in a great city, but occasionally sends $10 or $20 to the old people at home, sends frequent and liberal remittances when once he breathes the purer air of the country, and frees himself from the dangerous fascination of the drinking-saloon.
The Williams & Guion steamship company was operated by John S. Williams & Stephen B. Guion. Below are excerpts from the latter's obituary in the New York Times (December 20, 1885), which provides an overview of the company's history.
Stephen Barker Guion was born in New-York June 17, 1820. [...] In 1843, at the age of 23, he entered into partnership with John S. Williams, and founded the firm of Williams & Guion to engage in the ocean-carrying trade. In those days the great bulk of the business of transportation between this country and Europe was done in sailing vessels, and Williams & Guion established a line of fast sailing packets between New-York and Liverpool, known as the "Black Star Line." They carried cabin and steerage passengers as well as freight, and the line soon became popular on account of its speed and the superior accommodations provided for its passengers. The ships were American clippers, and the fleet soon grew to 18 vessels, which did a large and profitable business. The Adelaide, John Bright, Cultivator, Universe, and their sister ships made some remarkably quick passages which old sailors are fond of recalling even in the present day of ocean steamships. In 1858 Mr. Guion went to Liverpool, and while still retaining his connection as junior partner of the New-York house established a new English house under the title of Guion & Co., which acted as agents of the Black Star Line. He had resided there ever since.

In 1868 Williams & Guion determined to abandon sailing-vessels, and the Manhattan was built, the first steamship or the Williams & Guion Line. The old packets were kept running until a sufficient fleet of steamers to accommodate the patrons of the firm was constructed, and then the Black Star Line disappeared from the commercial world. The old flag, with its inky star, was retained, however, and it still floats above the Guion steamers.
Since Margaret Nagle is known to have arrived in New York by August 1866, she may well have taken a Black Star ship on her voyage across the Atlantic and then continued to use the company for her remittances home.

Further reading:

Lynch-Brennan, Margaret The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930 (Syracuse University Press, 2009)

Miller, Kerby Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford University Press, 1985)

Stansell, Christine City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1987)