Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of cobblers and cameras

Anthony Lee's exemplary microhistory, centered on a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts, begins with a vivid recreation of a pivotal -- and unexpected -- moment in the town's history:
On the morning of June 13, 1870, an enormous crowd began assembling at the local train station. Reports tell us that men and women were elbow-to-elbow, lined the railroad tracks, and overflowed onto the streets outside the station. The people massed northward from the station for a quarter mile, on either side of Marshall Street, one of the main north-south thoroughfares of town. Thousands had turned out. Given that the census for that year counted about twelve thousand residents in and around town, at least a fifth of the locals, possibly a quarter, had gathered. Many were angry and primed for confrontation. All the region's papers put reporters on site; even the Boston papers, normally uninterested in the western half of the state, sent men to cover the events. A local shoe manufacturer, Calvin T. Sampson, was importing seventy-five strikebreakers to fill the workstations left empty by the local shoemakers' union, the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin. Although able-bodied men were available throughout New England, including many who were not formally associated with the Crispins and possessed considerable skills at shoemaking, strikebreakers were being brought on a two-week train journey from San Francisco and scheduled to arrive that day. What's more, they were Chinese.
The Chinese workers, we learn, had been brought in as strikebreakers to take the place of another migrant minority, for the local chapter of the Crispins was mostly composed of French Canadians, large numbers of whom crossed the border in the 19th century seeking refuge from legal discrimination and the grim economic prospects of rural Quebec.

We thus begin with three sets of actors: Yankee entrepreneurs, personified by Sampson, the Crispins, and the Chinese migrants (to call them immigrants seems a step too far, since few were to remain permanently). But as Lee quickly make clear, there was another group of key players at work, one around which he structures his entire absorbing tale, and that was the local photographers, who not only played a crucial role in documenting what happened in North Adams in the next few years but also, inadvertently or not, served as a means through which the other groups advanced their own interests and identities. No sooner had the Chinese arrived then Sampson arranged to have them photographed, en masse, against the backdrop of a wall of his factory. The resulting stereo card view was, in effect, a shot across the bow of the union and a declaration of the owner's dominion over both the building and his employees. Not long afterwards, a group of Crispins thumbed their noses at their former employer by commissioning their own photograph, modeled on the original, depicting a group of workers who had formed a co-operative standing together outside the very same building, still owned by Sampson.

Lee's narrative comprises four chapters, which examine in detail respectively the perspectives of Sampson, the photographers William Hurd and Henry Ward, the Crispins, and the Chinese. The amount of visual documentation he has uncovered, much of it from the personal collections of descendants of longtime North Adams families, is extraordinary, in particular for the Chinese shoemakers, who often sat for studio portraits and used them, variously, as a means of connecting themselves with or declaring their independence from their ancestral culture. Lee is particularly good at showing how, rather than submitting to the artistic conventions of the local "professors" who operated the studios, the Chinese took an active part in shaping how they would be portrayed, adopting poses based on traditional Chinese portraiture and, in one notable instance, mimicking a striking photograph of one of their countrymen taken across the continent in San Francisco.

There is much else in the book: the clashes between management and labor and between rival ethnicities, the hellish construction of of a railway tunnel through nearby Hoosac Mountain that dragged on for twenty-five years and took the lives of nearly two hundred workers, and in the end, as a sad coda, the eventual fate of the Chinese workers, whose presence in the country would eventually be forbidden by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although a handful managed to settle down and remain in the US, some starting families, most apparently returned home, and the nascent Chinese-American presence in the Berkshires was extinguished.

A Shoemaker's Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town is available from Princeton University Press. The author, Anthony W. Lee, is Professor and Chair of Art History at Mount Holyoke College

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The theory of dilemmas

One of the many interesting revelations of Jonathan Lee's documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life is that Goodman saw The Empire City, his most ambitious (and in its weird way, most autobiographical) work, as a kind of Don Quixote in reverse, in which it is society that is delusional, and the Quixotic heroes are people who have determined to live with integrity, in a way that is not an affront to human dignity. He observed that the reversal wouldn't have made sense if only one character had chosen be be sane, for to be alone, to be without society, intrinsically led, in Goodman's way of thinking, to its own kind of derangement. As his articulated it in the somewhat cryptic "Theory of Dilemmas" he set forth in the novel (and how like Goodman it was to present a theory in a novel), "If we conformed to the mad society, we became mad; but if we did not conform to the only society that there is, we became mad."

Goodman will have been dead for forty years this August, and few people under fifty would be likely to know his name. Most of his books are out of print (The Empire City, however, is available), and the long-promised biography by Taylor Stoehr seems unlikely to appear soon, if ever. Jonathan Lee reports that when he approached Random House, which must have sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies of Goodman's books in the 1960s and '70s, about re-issuing some of them in conjunction with his film, the response he received from an editor was "Who's Paul Goodman?"

Is Goodman ripe for rediscovery? One would think that the generation that has produced Occupy Wall Street would find some food for thought in an anarchist and pacifist who advocated bottom-up, decentralized, community-based practical solutions and eschewed ideological loyalties and political allegiances, and who spoke out forcefully against the corruption he found to be pervasive in American politics, industry, commerce, urban planning, and education. The Dilemma of Political Action that Goodman articulated, that in the employment of the only political tools available one becomes part of the very system one opposes, remains relevant, and unresolved. But just as Goodman ultimately wore out his welcome with much of the New Left (not because he changed, but because they did), he would probably wind up as an awkward fit with today's protestors as well. In the end, Goodman was not an economic thinker at all, and only accidentally a political one; he was above all a moralist, one whose philosophy was grounded in the social ties which he saw as fundamentally arising from his tutelary deity, which was, of course, Eros.

Goodman opposed the Vietnam War and the nuclear weapons race because he found these things to be immoral, and for that he was adopted, for a while, as a father figure to draft resisters and others on the Left, but he had no patience with armed liberation movements or their sympathizers. Though no apologist for capitalism, he was never a Marxist (he may have had at most a brief fling with Trotskyism in his teens), nor did he ever become a neoconservative convert, as did many of his peers from the Commentary crowd of the 1950s and '60s. He instead became, or rather remained, what he called "a neolithic conservative," a traditionalist whose fundamental allegiance to human values (it wouldn't be amiss, in his case, to say "Western values") led him almost invariably to positions that were deemed "radical" by American society, whether those positions involved opposing the military-industrial complex, abolishing compulsory education as inimical to the free spirits of young people, or advocating the banning of automobile traffic from much of Manhattan.

He could be frustrating enough, as a writer and as a person, and with the possible exceptions of Growing Up Absurd and Communitas (the latter co-written with his brother Percival, a noted architect), his work seems ill-suited to the current directions of academic scholarship, even on the Left. His short fiction could be so stylized as to be virtually unreadable, he showed little interest in women's issues, and he was prone to ex cathedra statements that demonstrated a condescending assumption that he was the bearer of the accumulated wisdom of Western civilization and that everyone else needed to benefit from his insight. (To be sure, he was hardly alone in that regard; the New York intellectuals in general were not a modest crowd.) He was personally and politically disruptive, a scold, a prophet. And yet, as contrarian as his ideas could be, they were often prescient, and where they were not, in retrospect, what makes Goodman now seem dated is often simply an indication of how badly we have strayed away from a world in which his proposals just might have made sound good sense. The whole notion of "social criticism," that the ways in which society is organized, the "means of livelihood and ways of life" which Communitas addressed, should be open to inspection, debate, and reform, now seems sadly anachronistic, as the machine grinds on, inexorably, for its own sake.

As little as his poetry and fiction has in common with what has emerged as the contemporary canon over the last fifty years, much of his verse remains highly rewarding, and The Empire City, the sprawling novel he worked on, in fits and starts, for some twenty years, publishing it in sections, like The Dead of Spring above, is eccentric, messy, infuriating, arguably unfinished, but also often enlightening, invigorating, daring, witty, astonishingly beautiful, and certainly like little else published before or since. Is it his failing or ours that the book has hardly found an audience?

Goodman wrote little fiction in the last decade of his life, which brought him unexpected fame after decades of obscurity, but also a series of disappointments and personal tragedies before his death at 60 in 1972. One must thus return to the later sections of The Empire City, written during the Eisenhower years, to find a note of optimism that may have eluded him at the end of his life. Two brothers, Lefty and Droyt, who are part of the novel's second generation of main characters, leave New York for the West Coast. Some time later, Droyt resurfaces in Manhattan, bearing what seems -- to his jaded audience -- an inherently incredible tale: that Lefty has found a meaningful job and a place to live where he feels comfortable and among friends, that he has settled down with a woman whom he loves and who loves him, and that they have even produced a child who, rather than driving the couple apart, has only added to their joy. His listeners, long inured to the idea that society, and individual human beings themselves, will put up any number of roadblocks rather than permit simple happiness to flourish, are skeptical, raise any number of objections, but in the end they are convinced:
"You have come to us with a marvelous story. We find it hard to believe our ears. You speak of a free artist who has an immediate audience; of lovers who wish each other well; of a man who gets paid for a useful job that fits him; of the confidence that there will be some use for another human being in the world. All this is unlikely, yet you convince us that it is a fact. What does it mean? It means that all along the time a certain number of people are not committing an avoidable error."
Such happiness may have eluded Goodman, but to his credit he seems to have believed that the dilemmas were not, in the end, beyond all possibility of resolution.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Of stories and their migrations

Here's a little fable, which, like all fables, isn't really true, although it isn't really untrue either. Once upon a time there was a vast city, whose inhabitants had come together from all parts of the earth and spoke all sorts of different languages. Some of those languages were thriving and were spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and some of them were dying tongues known only by a dwindling handful, the dispersed survivors of cultures that hardly anyone even knew existed. In that city lived a writer, a curious little man with a mellifluous voice, who spoke the language that most of the people of the city knew the best, and he used it to write and tell stories for his own amusement but also so that other people would be entertained and maybe even enlightened.

From time to time someone would gather up a few of the writer's stories and make them into a book, so that people who had never heard him read them aloud -- an art at which he excelled -- could buy a copy and get to know his work, and also so that people who had heard him read in person or on the radio could open the book from time to time and remind themselves of just how enjoyable the stories were. This went on for a long time until finally the little man became old and one day he died, and many of the people who used to listen to his stories also died and others lived on but thought about the writer less and less, except once in a while when something -- a turn of phrase, a inexplicable flash of whimsy -- would suddenly recall him to their memories. His books disappeared and were forgotten, with only a few copies lingering in dusty attics or the bargain bins of second-hand stores.

But in the meantime something unexpected happened. Someone who lived in a country thousands of miles away (though he knew the writer's language as well as his own), came across a copy of one of the books and was captivated by it. He passed it along to a friend, who gave it to another friend, and eventually someone went to a publisher in that country and told the publisher about the book and suggested that a translation of it might find an audience and make everyone involved a little bit of money. The publisher was persuaded, perhaps reluctantly at first, and the book was issued and it sold a few copies but in the end not very many and after a while it vanished from the market and no one thought that it would ever return. A few people still treasured their copies, however, and they continued to read them and share them with friends, and the book became famous in the way that things that hardly anyone has ever heard of sometimes do in defiance of all logic, and even though many of the people who read the book knew nothing of the author and couldn't speak the language he had originally used to write his stories, the translation was good enough that it didn't matter or maybe the stories even sounded a little better in their new language, and after a while the publisher decided to issue a new edition and new people bought the book and read it and passed it around. And in the end the writer's name was all but forgotten in the city where he had lived but became better and better known in another tongue far away.

Okay, the above is really very silly, and for the record at least one of Spencer Holst's books is still in print in the US, but I can't help thinking that Holst, whom I used to see now and then in the streets and reading venues of New York City many years ago, would have been amused by the irony that The Language of Cats, reborn as El idioma de los gatos, seems to have found a more appreciative audience in Spanish (a language in which his stories seem to work rather well) than in his native tongue and his own country -- at least, that is, judging by the enthusiasm expressed in blogs and reviews in the Spanish-speaking world.

For those who can understand Spanish, there is a very entertaining audio recording of Holst's sweetly demonic story "El asesino de Papá Noel" (translated from "The Santa Claus Murderer") online at a website called esnips (link no longer active). The text of the story (again, in Spanish) can be found on the website of Página 12, along with Rodrigo Fresán's very amusing introduction to the translation of El idioma de los gatos, an introduction he too has wrought in the form of a fable (a better one than mine, I have to say). The translator of the Spanish-language edition is Ernesto Schóo; the publisher is Ediciones de la Flor in Argentina.

Though I don't mean to imply that Holst's stories aren't enjoyable on the page (they are), the best way of experiencing them is in his own mesmerizing performances. Many recordings of his readings were made, including some that were broadcast on WBAI radio in New York City in the 1970s. Unfortunately, I've found no audio or video of his readings online, although some cassette recordings may still be available from the New Wilderness Foundation. A good selection of Holst's stories is available in The Zebra Storyteller from Station Hill Books. For his story "On Demons" see my previous post.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Two group portraits

These two Azo Real Photo postcards date from roughly the same period (c. 1904-1918) and may or may not have any connection with each other. Only the first, which has "Mary Ertwine Bloomsburg Pa" penciled on the back, has any kind of identification. Because of the mix of ages of the women, and the informal attire of the two kneeling men, I suspect that we're looking at a group of fellow employees rather than, for instance, students at Bloomsburg's Normal School, and the four women in the rear are standing on what is probably the end of a loading dock. Some of the women pictured appear quite cheerful, although the one at far left, clutching what may be a folded outer garment, seems lost in thought and, like one or two of the others, isn't looking in the direction of the camera at all. Overall it looks like the work of a professional photographer, though there are no marks on the back to prove that. There are two six-pointed stars on either side of the central platform, and the arm closest to the door of each star has been truncated.

The second photo shows what is probably a school group, mixed in age with the girls on the left and the boys on the right. The foreground is unpaved and stony and the kids don't look particularly well-off, although one of the boys on the far right is wearing a necktie, as if his parents had dressed him up for the day knowing that this picture would be taken. Some can be assumed to be siblings based on their proximity and matching dress. Hardly anyone is showing anything that could be taken for a smile, and the male teacher (if that's what he is) is staring off into the distance. You can see through the window into the interior of the building but it's hard to make out what's inside.