Thursday, February 25, 2016


At midnight, over the murmur of the wind, a knock at the door jolts us awake. It's a Roman centurion, in full regalia, but he's read the house number wrong, we're not who he's looking for. As he prepares to depart a ball of flame whooshes up from his chariot's gas lantern. A tarantula climbs up the window-screen.

In the morning, gulls, flown inland for shelter, dot the soccer field.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Melville at the Paper Mill

Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. From the steepness of the walls here, their strangely ebon hue, and the sudden contraction of the gorge, this particular point is called the Black Notch. The ravine now expandingly descends into a great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains. By the country people this hollow is the called Devil's Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid, brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels suddenly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray-haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible lowlands.

— Herman Melville, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (emphasis added)
Herman Melville, we are told by biographer Hershel Parker, made an excursion to Carson's Old Red Mill in Dalton, Massachusetts in January 1851 in order to obtain "a sleigh-load of paper." One result was the writing of a curious narrative diptych, the second (and far more interesting) half of which — "The Tartarus of Maids" — is devoted to the narrator's fictional passage across a landscape of deep snow in order to procure supplies for his mail-order seed business from a paper factory near the aptly-named "Woedolor Mountain." It's an extraordinary (and extraordinarily odd) piece of bravura writing, marked by obsessive and blatantly allegorical use of color imagery and swirling with affinities not only to other Melville works and those of his contemporaries, but also to things as far afield as Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and The Castle and Fritz Lang's silent-film masterpiece Metropolis.

Until around the beginning of the 19th century, paper was handcrafted in small workshops. The invention and perfection of the Fourdrinier Machine changed all that, and by Melville's time a paper mill had become, at least in his eyes, a monstrous inhuman industrial machine, "menially served" by a chilly host of pale, spectral virgins who, like their product, were spotless, blank sheets themselves:
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.
The Carson's mill was acquired, even before Melville's visit, by the Crane & Co. stationery company, which still exists and which operates a museum in Dalton dedicated to the history of papermaking. Lothar Müller's White Magic: The Age of Paper, among its other rewards, includes a quite interesting discussion of the Melville story.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Life list

We live on a small lot on a fully developed street a couple of blocks off the main drag in a busy suburban town. The train station and the nearest hospital are a ten-minute walk away, and there are more restaurants, banks, and stores nearby than I can keep track of. So even though it's not a major urban area, it's not exactly rustic either. In spite of that (partly because of that) we see a healthy variety of wildlife, far more in fact than I did when I grew up a half-century ago a few miles away in an area that had more open space then where we live know. Within a half-mile of our doorstep (often in our yard itself) we've seen:
White-tailed deer
Eastern coyote
Grey fox (6/9/2016)
Bobcat (possible) (4/29/2017)
Weasel (3/26/2020)
Gray squirrels (some of which are black)
Red squirrel (6/12/2016)
Falcon (at least one species, possibly two)
Hawk (including an albino red-tail)
Barred owl (5/9/2016)
Great Horned Owl (April 2017)
Turkey vulture
Black vulture
Pileated woodpecker
Red-bellied woodpecker
Downy woodpecker
Mourning dove
Sea gull
Mute swan
Mallard duck
Wood duck (3/23/2016)
Canada goose
Heron (three species)
Eastern bluebird (3/22/2016)
Ruby-throated hummingbird
Garter snake
Snapping turtle
Red-eared slider
Painted turtle
Eastern box turtle (4/29/2017)
Red eft (5/7/2016)
Red-backed salamander
I'm sure I've forgotten some, and that's not counting miscellaneous songbirds, many of which I can't identify, frogs and toads, and invertebrates (like the leopard slug at the top of the page). Going just a few miles further afield we've seen bobcat, fox, mink, owls, and bald eagles. Bear and even moose are rumored to be occasional visitors, though I haven't seen them, and ravens are said to be moving into the region. Feral or semi-feral domestic cats are, of course, common.

Sighting a deer was very uncommon when I was young; I never saw a wild turkey at all, and coyotes were unheard of. Dogs were pretty much allowed to roam the neighborhood at will, back then, which I'm sure made a difference; there's also probably less hunting locally than there used to be. Several of the common species (Canada goose, mute swan, deer) are now regarded as serious pests.

In many parts of the world the prospects for wildlife are grimmer than they are here, where there seems to be a resurgence as opportunistic and adaptable species either come to terms with human presence or even learn to benefit from being around us (crows that live in urban areas reportedly live longer than woodland crows). I can't imagine how impoverished the landscape would be without them.

I'll fill in more species to this last as I spot or recall them.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Reading Austin Reed

More than one hundred and fifty years ago, Austin Reed, an African-American inmate of New York State's Auburn State Prison, wrote a book-length record of his life, which to that date had included several terms at Auburn as well as earlier period of confinement, as an adolescent, in the House of Refuge, a juvenile reformatory in New York City, which he first entered in 1833 at the age of ten. His manuscript was clearly intended for a potential reading public, and he apparently showed it to at least one prison official, a chaplain named Benoni I. Ives, some time around 1859; the author's handwritten note to Ives, on a tiny slip of paper, still exists.

After compiling the manuscript (some of which was written on Herman Melville's favorite writing paper), Austin Reed spent several additional years in the state prison system, receiving another conviction in 1864, but was eventually pardoned. As late as 1895 he was still alive and corresponding with the superintendent of the House of Refuge about his case records, some of which by that time would have been more than sixty years old. What became of him after that is unknown. The manuscript, still bearing the little slip of paper addressed to Ives, first surfaced a few years ago in Rochester, New York (Reed's native city), and was acquired by Yale University's Beinecke Library, which has posted it online. Caleb Smith's edition of the text, which includes a substantial introduction explaining how Reed's identity was determined and his account largely corroborated from other sources, has just been published.

The historical importance of Reed's narrative is, of course, immense; it's believed to be the earliest prison memoir by an African-American, and as a record from a "free" state, it provides useful comparison with contemporary memoirs by former slaves like Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass. As a literary document it resists simple readings; it blends a protest against the brutal treatment he and others received at the hands of the keepers of both of the institutions he describes with a warning, couched in the language of 19th-century evangelism, to others who might follow him down the path of crime. The outlines of the story he tells, including the details of his whippings and other punishments, and the names and fates of his fellow inmates, can be verified from existing records (the institutions were nothing if not thorough in their record-keeping). At other times, particularly of his activities during the brief periods when he was free, he evidently embellishes liberally; he was clearly familiar enough with the tropes of a variety of popular literature of the day to imitate them (though he professed a vehement loathing for novels), and here and there he plagiarizes brief descriptive passages. Aside from a lively but fairly implausible picaresque section in the middle, the overall veracity of his account seems well-established, but its documentary value does not exhaust the reasons for reading it.

Because it remained unpublished until recently, the narrative was never censored or "improved"; it preserves, for instance, Reed's lengthy diatribe against masturbation, which would presumably have been suppressed by a contemporary editor. Smith has normalized punctuation and corrected the spelling of some words, but has let Reed's grammatical and other errors stand. (All of the emendations are recorded in an appendix.) The edition provides essential background and annotation, but I have no doubt that the coming years will see additional clarifications and re-interpretations of both Reed's life and the text.

There is a brief interview with Caleb Smith on the website of WXXI radio.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

On Novels (Austin Reed)

"I despise the looks of a novel. The cursed infernal things, I can't bear the sight of one. They are a curse to every one that reads them. I never could bear the looks of them. They are pack full of lies. They are a store House of lies. I never could take any comfort in reading them. Give me the history of some great and good man who is laboring for the welfare of his country, like Wm. H. Seward, who is fighting against the world of enemies every day for the promotion and benefit of his country, and laboring with a strong arm for to crush vice and crime and morality under the feet of the world. That is such a book which I love to read. Novels are books that will bring many a young man to a gloomy cell, and many a weeping mothers to their graves."

Austin Reed, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, edited by Caleb Smith.