May 8, 2014
For the last decade or so, slate.com has been one of my semi-regular news sources, largely because I am a fan of Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon’s excellent Supreme Court coverage. Awhile back the site went through a major redesign that aligned it with what a lot of other news-commentary sites are also doing: it shifted from being dominated by text links, blurbs, and small images to being a ‘big-blocks’ construct of interlocking large images with headlines. If you adhere to a standard modernist aesthetic—a minimal number of elements organized in rectangles along invisible gridlines—the visual aspect of the design is arguably an improvement. But from the point of view of information access and readability, it’s a step backwards. Worse, in its attempt at self-improvement it migrated towards what I consider the current scourge of the internet: the filler pic. Also known as a ‘stock photograph’, a term I dislike because it has been so normalized that I believe we are insufficiently critical of the role such images play in news websites.
Here is an example of my issue with filler pix: In the screenshot at left—which is just the top half of the Slate home page for April 27, 2014— there are just six large photographic images visible. Of these, five are completely pointless in information terms, and two of them are duplicates of each other (the desert scene). Make the experiment yourself: replace any of these images with a black box, and you won’t be missing any information you didn’t already have. What Slate reader hasn’t already seen a million pictures of deserts, coffee cups, and Vladimir Putin, not to mention some version of the ubiquitous Chandos portrait that might be Shakespeare? The sole exception is the image accompanying the item on the Spider-Man movie: as a still from a movie then in the theaters, it is probably something many readers had not yet seen.
These photos, in other words, are serving mainly as designer filler. But though they don’t add anything informational to the story, they do tend to reify cultural stereotypes of various kinds, as other critics have observed, including writers at Slate itself. There are the obvious ones: ‘attractive’ women being posed in ways that are supposed to signify broadly about womanhood, or jobs, or family; or a national leader posing as authoritative and commanding. And there are the less obvious ones: the spread of highly styled food photos, for instance, which convey messages about what the food should look like that ‘we’ are supposed to be interested in. There is an overrepresentation of middle-class aspirational values: cleanliness, neatness, good design, unspoiled landscapes, tasteful art, well-furnished interiors. By the hundredth time you see a certain type of image, you stop noticing it consciously, but it continues as a kind of subliminal cultural advertising—what was long ago termed “the new heraldry“—reassuring you that nothing you think really needs to change, no matter what the text says.
And then there are the structural problems these kinds of images create or exacerbate. For one thing, their sheer size banishes a great deal of actual information from the home screen. The comparison screenshot at right from 2009 shows the difference quite clearly. In the 2009 design, there are actually more photos (9 instead of 6, not counting the banner ad), but they are so much smaller that they take up substantially less screen real estate, leaving room for many more items: a complete top menu, two side menus, a central listing of stories, and a most-read/most-emailed section. And all of this is ‘above the fold’, meaning it is visible on a laptop screen without any scrolling. The difference in available choices is stark: 10 or so stories and a couple of links in 2014 versus 18 or so stories and a dozen general links in 2009. As someone who likes to visually skim a collection of stories before deciding what to read, the new Slate is maddeningly skimpy.
Here’s what I do when I go to the new Slate: I ignore the entire front page and immediately click on the tiny ‘hamburger’ dropdown menu at upper right, because that is now the only way in to the realm of text links that I value because they can be assessed at high speed. Yes, as far as I am concerned, the only item of importance on the entire Slate front page is an icon taking up—what?—a hundredth of the available screen real estate?
The mobile version of Slate is slightly better because it converts the tiled front page into a stacked list of stories, which is much faster and simpler to navigate. But here, too, I usually only glance at the top three stories before moving over to the hamburger menu for further navigation. And the mobile version has its own problem related to filler pix: when you do click over to a story, there is usually a significant pause while the image at the head of the story loads. You can scroll down to pick up the text and start reading, but if you do, you will often get popped back to the top of the screen a time or two as the image loads and lose your place in the story as a result. Waiting for a pointless image to load is pretty much my definition of a complete waste of time.
Here’s a suggestion for all these over-image-laden sites (I’m looking at you, too, Atlantic and New Yorker): banish your stock photos. You could replace them with simple color rectangles. Heck, if you want to get fancy, make yourself a bunch of faux Albers squares. Free mockup at right. You’re welcome.
Or better yet take a long, hard look at longform.org.
Comments (0) | Tags: 2009, advertising, design, photography, software
May 6, 2014
Posted a brief item about the uncanny valley as an extensible trope over at Difference Engines.
Comments (0) | Tags: memes, technology
May 5, 2014
I’ve had to revert this site to an older version of the WPFolio theme I’m using because the newer version has some squirrely coding in it somewhere that is preventing me from adding a search box to the site. I use search boxes on every site I go to, including my own, so I just don’t feel the site can live without it. For this, I will give up the nicer type design and much larger images until (big if!) I can get this sorted out. So far, I haven’t had the time to hunt this problem down and slay it.
Comments (0) | Tags: design, Wordpress
March 17, 2014
Recently I created a softcover edition of my World of World book. Check out this page for details and price.
Comments (0) | Tags: books & objects, webcam, WOW
March 12, 2014
“The tea and coffee habit is very strong with our small children. I once surprised a boy of four in the drinking of his midday coffee and persuaded his mother to take it from him. I said that he was only thirsty and would like water instead. Water! He turned from it in disdain and wept dismally for fifteen minutes.”
This is exactly how I feel when someone offers me water instead of coffee.
Comments (0) | Tags: food, history
March 9, 2014
24 x 24″ open-edition digital print on archival paper, signed and numbered by the artist: $475
12 x 12″ open-edition digital print on archival paper, signed and numbered by the artist: $175
Comments (0) | Tags: art, drawing
March 7, 2014
Descriptious #1: softcover, 20 pp, $25
I recently designed a book for my friend, the writer Ruth Coppens. It’s a book of quotations, of an unusual kind, and it is best described in her own words:
“One of author Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing was: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ By this he almost certainly meant descriptions, especially of place. Leonard was a fine writer, but this rule ignores a simple fact: some of us love the parts that other people skip… I collect writers who are good at this kind of thing; they can be found in most genres, but what they all have in common is an ability to unite specificity of observation with a strong emotional valence. Here I am sharing some of my favorites among what are loosely termed nature writers.”
She includes in this book extracts by well-known writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Willa Cather, and Aldo Leopold, but for me its real value was in introducing me to obscure or somewhat forgotten writers like Rumer Godden, Henry Beston, and Edward Thomas. The accompanying images are photographs she has collected that resonate with particular descriptions. The perfect gift for a compulsive reader.
Comments (0) | Tags: books & objects, landscape, photography, writing
March 4, 2014
Comments (0) | Tags: flowers, garden, spring
March 2, 2014
It’s hard to escape the Oscars, even when one isn’t interested in them, but at least this year I stumbled across Raymond Chandler’s excellent 1948 takedown, “Oscar Night in Hollywood.” A whole of lot of ink has been spilled on What’s Wrong with the Oscars (or, alternatively, the Movies) in the intervening half century, but Chandler pretty much nailed it: the triumph of the box office, the back-channel politicking, the preference for sentimental plots, the astronomical costs, the “mechanical slickness.” People who have nothing further to add to his argument should just link to this article instead because they probably aren’t going to be able to top his prose style, either:
If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck?
What struck me as the most original thought in the article, though, almost slipped right by. It comes during a section when Chandler is trying to explain what’s right with the movies, and why film is “the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.” He argues that the structure of film is much closer to music than to any of the visual, plastic, or performing arts,
in the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. [emphasis mine]
This is as eloquent an argument for the primacy of editing in film art as I’ve ever seen. Transitions and dissolves are the keys to film editor’s kingdom, after all; without them, there is just footage. Chandler himself makes the point even more explicitly further on, noting
the casual, cavalier treatment given to film-editing and to camera work, two of the essential arts of film-making, almost and sometimes quite equal to direction, and much more important than all but the very best acting.
I’ve long agreed with Chandler that film editors are underranked in the Hollywood hierarchy, which puts the stars and the director at the top, with the cinematographer and the writer vying for (maybe) third place. The central problem for film editors—as also for their literary counterparts—is that their work is invisible to the audience, which never sees the unedited version of the movie. So the film editors too remain all but invisible and no one reports on What They Wore.
February 28, 2014
Recently I did a site update — theme revisions, link fixes — in the course of which I added a “checkout” link to the top menu bar to make shopping here easier. Wherever you are on site, that link will take you to a page showing what (if anything) is in your shopping cart. In addition, when you add any item to your cart, you will be taken directly to this page, where you can either finalize the checkout or continue browsing and adding to your cart.
On this site, some of pages have a sidebar (the blog) and some don’t (the portfolio), which has made it difficult to consistently position the shopping cart in an easy-to-spot location. Some site shoppers have mentioned this, so I’m hoping this fix will improve the experience for visitors. Comments for further improvements are, as always welcome.
Comments (0) | Tags: shopping, Wordpress
February 21, 2014
For a couple of days I’ve been reading about a Silicon Valley rich person’s hilarious plan to break California into half a dozen new states. The six will be: Silicon Valley Eats the Bay Area, something, something, something, something, and who cares.
Now this is a kind of silliness I can get behind. It’s like the game we played in college thinking up terrible movie casts. Bob Denver in the title role of Hamlet. Sidney Greenstreet as Achilles in the Iliad. And as someone who has lived in California off and on for a quarter of a century, I can think up a hundred funner plans even before my first cup of coffee. So here is today’s pre-coffee counter-proposal. Please add your ‘yes!’ vote down in the comments, with name and address, and when we get to 808,000 votes, it will qualify for a statewide ballot.
Unlike Mr. Silicon Valley, I don’t think it’s quite such a good idea to quarantine the wealthy away from the rest of the state’s citizens. That’s just wealthist. So I made sure to make my six states economically integrated. And although the new maps might look rather odd geographically, remember that gerrymandering is a proud American tradition.
State 1: Berkvine. As a UC professor, I believe the University of California has suffered neglect from the state in recent years and needs to become a state of its own in order to exert political power commensurate with its intellectual standing. Territory: university real estate in Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, and San Diego; plus all of San Francisco and Alameda counties.
State 2: New Colorado: An outdoors person’s mecca. Angelenos don’t have enough access to parklands for their population, so we’ll start with the Sierra Mountains and throw in all of Los Angeles. Territory: Los Angeles, Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placera, Eldorado, Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mono, Mariposa, Madera, and Kern counties.
State 3: Desertia: Big largely desert area for turtles, off-roaders, drug lords, the military, star-gazers, environmentalists, the porn industry, and venture capitalists. Territory: Tulare, Inyo, San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial, San Mateo, San Fernando, and Santa Clara counties.
State 4: South Oregon: The next big thing economically, poised for the emergence of a major marijuana industry. Territory: Del Norte, Siskiyou, Shasta, Modoc, Trinity, Humboldt, Marin, and Monterey counties. Throw in Fresno, Merced, and San Joaquin as storehouses of ag knowledge.
State 5. All Saints. Territory: San Benito, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego, San Luis Obispo. Because why not.
State 6: Orphania: The counties no one visits or remembers. E.g. Butte, Kings, Yuba, Tehama, Orange, and some others I don’t recall offhand.
Comments (2) | Tags: California
January 30, 2014
It’s free to the public this weekend (Feb. 1-2), a book lover’s dream world.
Comments (0) | Tags: art, books & objects
November 7, 2013
One of my purposes with this blog is to promote DIY-oriented websites that enable people to create and acquire art at less-than-astronomical prices and without the intimidation factor or the need for advanced skill sets. I recently learned about a nifty website that solves several of the main obstacles to creating small artist’s books. Bookleteer.com technically belongs to the larger world of print-on-demand publishing populated by the likes of SharedInk, Shutterfly, Blurb, and Lulu, but it takes a quite different tack from those sites. The general approach of POD sites is to offer book templates into which users plug their own text and JPEG images, after which they can order commercially printed, perfect-bound books on nice paper stock for a (comparatively) reasonable price.
Bookleteer also offers templates, but their goal is to make it easy for someone with just an ordinary inkjet printer and a bunch of digital images to print out and assemble a booklet at home. Essentially, they are simplifying the production of hand-made books rather than helping people gain access to commercial printing.1 Anyone who has ever tried to create a hand-made book knows that it can be surprisingly tricky to get the pages organized in the right way, especially with double-sided printing. For example, in a 4-page booklet bound with a staple down the middle, it is not immediately obvious that pages 1 and 4 would actually be on the same piece of paper. Bookleteer has come up with a way of streamlining this production process for small books. Their templates are set up to create finished books of about 4.25 x 5.5 inches, or one-quarter of a standard 8.5×11-inch piece of paper.2 Each printed sheet has 4 pages on it—half of which are upside down with respect to the other half—and the sheets are folded over to create double-sided pages in the finished book. Particularly clever is their method for assembling the finished book: instead of the traditional staples or sewing, pages are held firmly together with a self-locking variation on tabs-and-slits (as shown in the image at right).
To create a book using the Bookleteer method, you upload your images and text to their website, just as with other POD sites.3 When you are done, they create a print-ready PDF for you to download to your home computer. You then print it out and follow their very straightforward folding, cutting, and insertion instructions to create the final booklet. You can make a complete, finished, self-covered book this way—like my 8-page test booklet shown at the top of this post—or you can print only the inside of the book and add your own cover afterwards. The adventurous can print a book with some blank or half-finished pages and add hand-drawn or collaged elements to make each book unique. The maximum size of a book you can create using the Bookleteer software is 40 pages, including the covers, and you have a choice of either portrait or landscape orientation. Theoretically, you could make even bigger books using their downloaded templates once you figured out the page-order logic necessary to create your own printable PDFs, but my guess is that 40 pages is probably the practical limit for books held together by this slit-binding method.
Bookleteer is a project of a pair of designers based in the United Kingdom, Alice Angus and Giles Lane, who work under the name Proboscis. They have an interesting practice that extends well beyond book design and publishing, reaching out to socially engaged practitioners in a lot of different fields, including the sciences. But they have been working with DIY publishing and the idea of shareable media for quite a long time, expressing a commitment to “playful hybrid digital/material publications combining the tactile pleasures of tangible objects with the ease of sharing via digital media.” Indeed, once you have created a booklet on Bookleteer, you have the option of sharing it with others by way of the Bookleteer ‘library’. One of their latest projects is a publishing wing called the Periodical, in which they attempt to “re-imagine publishing as public authoring.”
I’ve been designing and producting both hand-made and commercially printed books for a couple of decades now, and I’ve never come across a simpler method for creating and sharing small books than what the Bookleteer folks have come up with. Check it out: hand-made books make excellent holiday presents.
1. Bookleteer does also offer professional printing of books created with its software, but the minimum order is 25 books.
2. Bookleteer also has templates for standard European paper sizes.
3. You can also download their templates to create your book in InDesign, after which you upload individual pages back to the Bookleteer website to produce the final printable PDF.
| Tags: books & objects, DIY, internet, publishing, software, technology, tools
September 23, 2013
I’m a member of FemTechnet, a loose network of women involved professionally with technology, feminism, science studies, and related areas. Specifically, I’m part of a subgroup who are spending time working on Wikipedia to add missing material in our areas of expertise. I was very happy to join this group since I’ve been writing and editing Wikipedia entries in technology and art more or less on my own for several years now. Another subgroup of FemTechNet has organized a collaborative open course for 2013-14 across a number of participating colleges and universities on the topic “Dialogues on Feminism and Technology.” This DOOC (distributed open collaborative course) has embedded in its structure a shared pedagogical activity called Storming Wikipedia “designed to write women and feminist scholarship of science and technology back into our web-based cultural archives.” I’m not participating in this DOOC formally, but I am including a Storming Wikipedia unit in one of my fall courses. I’ll be having my students work on new entries for Wikipedia while also reflecting on what kinds of material are inappropriate for that encyclopedia and doing some work with those non-Wikipedian materials.
Storming Wikipedia briefly (and predictably) drew the ire of Fox News, but I imagine a bunch of feminist academics and their students are a pretty low-level target because they seem to have dropped the story almost immediately. Predictably, Fox News got it wrong, framing us as vandals out to “corrupt” Wikipedia rather than just another group of editors with a set of expertises and the same right to edit Wikipedia as every other living person on this planet. The Daily Dot ran a piece that gives a clearer sense of why FemTechNet organized its wikistorming activities in the first place. And Mother Jones also covered the story briefly, running a telling graphic showing the gender distribution of Wikipedia editors (spoiler alert: it skews 85-97% male depending on which English-speaking country you are looking at).
The brilliance of Wikipedia still resides in the fact that anyone can contribute to it—although learning the interface and the community standards is a bit of a pain, there is no other intellectual resource of such magnitude and social importance that I am aware of that is not a closed shop. (OK, maybe Linux.) The Digital Media + Learning hub at UC Irvine’s Humanities Research Institute has a useful post here on how to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool. It links to some good resources developed by the highly experienced Wikipedia editor and Occidental College professor Adrianne Wadewitz. FemTechNet has wikistorming resources here and here as well. But teaching is just one way to approach expanding Wikipedia and its editor base. I encourage everyone I meet to try their hand at editing Wikipedia at least once. Almost certainly, something you consider important is still missing from that bit-heap of knowledge fragments. You can stand on the sidelines carping until someone else gets around to it—if they ever do—or you can write it yourself.
| Tags: feminism, social media, technology, Wikipedia
September 21, 2013
One of our early discussions on “Far-Flung follows function” has been how to make and hang a 9×12-foot projection screen that will be visible from both sides. Most of the discussion has been around different possibilities for attaching the PVC screen material to its frame: staples, tape, clips, grommets, combination, other? So I was prompted to dig out my old grommeting set, something I haven’t used in a long time.
As I took the photo at left to share with my collaborators, I was reminded of just how primitive the technology feels to use, even though industrial precision methods are employed to create the tools, and sometimes even more modern materials like plastic are used for the grommets themselves. It’s basically a miniaturization of the hammer and anvil concept: a striker and a strike plate, with a third item—called a punch—to transfer the force of the blow more precisely and evenly. (This photo shows just the punch and the anvil; BYO hammer and grommets).
If you’ve never done this before, the basic idea is to seat one half of the grommet in the circular depression in the anvil, lay over it the layer of fabric being grommeted, lay on top of that the other half of the grommet, seat the anvil in the hole, and give a mighty whack. The two halves of the grommet are designed to lock permanently together under the force of the blow. Refinements include prepunching a hole in the fabric to avoid rips, but the process hardly ever gets more complicated than this. You can get mechanized grommet presses, but even these look like early Victorian technology and mostly run on arm power rather an electricity, so they aren’t much of an improvement on the hammer-punch-anvil setup.
Grommets are a fairly ubiquitous kind of eyelet: think shower curtains, boat sails, the lace holes on your shoes. But they weren’t widely used until the 20th century; before that, the reinforcement that grommets offer tended to be hand-sewn into fabric (like that other most familiar eyelet, the buttonhole). Sometimes they were reinforced with a hidden, oversewn metal or wooden ring, but that was comparatively rare. The word itself came into the English language in the 1720s as a term for a ring or circlet of rope; it didn’t come to signify a metal eyelet for another century and a half. So in the modern meaning of the term, we’re looking at an 18th century technology that hasn’t been substantially improved despite remaining widespread. Grommeting is one of those technologies that have been stable for so long we no longer think of them as technologies, until a random photo lets us see both the ancientness of form and the refinement of modern manufacture.
| Tags: technology, tools
September 19, 2013
We are now one week into our residency on my fall project, the new performance work “Far-Flung follows function.” The lead artist on this is Ursula Endlicher; I’ve signed on as both a general collaborator and a performer (more about that later). My longtime collaborator Robert Allen is the movement director of the piece and also a performer.
We’ve spent the last week in the Experimental Medial Performance Lab at UC Irvine working with the physical organization of the space. The xMPL has no permanently defined stage and audiences areas: it’s a big black box. So you have to begin with the basics: Where will the performers be working? Where will the set pieces go? Projectors, speakers, lights? The audience is going to be circulating freely through the space rather than seated, so that has to be borne in mind also.
Almost the first thing that happened, then, was that Ursula sketched out her floor plan with those giant pieces of tubular chalk that kids love so much. The black-painted wooden floor became a giant record of drawing and redrawing: pentimento city. At the end of the first day I took some photographs and created the digital collage above. Yet another redrawing, and far from the last—we are now slowing replacing the chalk with vinyl tape to create an abstract motherboard. More on that in a later post.
| Tags: art, Far-Flung, performance, technology
August 2, 2013
One of the enduring pleasures of walking seaside is picking up beach glass. When I was little, we had a strict hierarchy of colors: the most desirable was the rare red, followed by the somewhat rare cobalt blue. Then, in descending order, turquoise, aquamarine, dark green, light green, amber, dark brown, white, clear. It made a useful sort of currency whose exhange values fluctuated wildly, complicated by the fact that it was interlinked with a second oceanic currency, the seashell. Gold and silver jingle shells, whelks, periwinkles, boat shells, tiny clams (double angel wings preferred), mussels. Unusual rocks—’diamonds’, black-white sandwiches, heart shapes, ‘gold’ nuggets, mica—had their own values, as did oddities like the sinister but elegant skates’ egg cases and the translucent infant horsehoe crabs.
We would keep our bits of glass in water to bring out their color and translucency. The other day on the beach I found some glass of odd colors and put them in water and painted this quick study.
July 29, 2013
I recently spent a few days in the Bay Area Studio of my friend the artist Christel Dillbohner playing around with wet media. One of the things we did was collaborative drawings (Gemeinschaftsbilder), something I had never done before. Though I’ve collaborated on drawings with a poet, and played exquisite corpse any number of times, the shared work of 4-handed drawing had somehow never come my way. Basically, we set up 5 sheets of paper on a large table and, starting on opposite sides, went from sheet to sheet drawing and painting whatever we wanted. At first there was a lot of latitude because the paper was mostly empty, but soon we were working with, through, around, beside, over, and against each other’s marks. It was a great deal of fun. After several hours, we ended up with just 4 completed drawings because we ran out of time and energy to complete the fifth. One of them is posted over at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry’s website. At left is a blackboard of notes that we wrote to ourselves over the course of a couple of days. This is one of the things that I get out of art: it’s one of the few places where the phrases “Durchblicke schaffen”, “neolithic meets baroque”, and “the sun becomes the moon” can be part of a meaningful event.
| Tags: art, collaboration
July 13, 2013
Somewhere along the line I acquired a copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not in very good shape, but I’ve held on to it for years, not only because it is often spoken of as a high-water mark for excellence in encyclopedia writing but also because—having been published in 1910—it is out of copyright, meaning that everything in it, including the sparse but excellent illustrations, can be used as raw material for art projects without anxiety. Recently I was looking into it for a new project and I stumbled on the entry on American Literature. Although I’ve read a lot of American literature—it formed part of my college major—I didn’t recall ever having read the Britannica entry, so I sat down to take a look at what their editors thought of our literature at the turn of the last century.
In the end, I had to read it twice because the first time through I got thoroughly distracted by scorekeeping the ins and the outs. In: all three Mathers—Richard, Increase, and Cotton—who remembers there were three? Out: Emily Dickinson (really??), Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce. Bronson Alcott in; Louisa May Alcott out. Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories in; Frederick Douglass out. Although books published as late as 1890 are mentioned, the editors seem to have set a cutoff for births around 1860 as there is no mention of anyone born after 1858. This excludes such important late 19th and early 20th century writers as Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Booth Tarkington. (There is some tension between the literature entry and entries on individual authors: Crane, although excluded from American literature proper, is given a brief entry under his own name.)
I was most curious to find out which women (if any) were included in the entry, which runs to nearly 11 full pages. Initially, I was surprised at how many of them there were: beginning with the poet Anne Bradstreet and ending with the novelist Mary Noailles Murfree (who wrote under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock), about 20 women are mentioned. But as these stand next to some 180 men, they represent just about 10% of all the American writers named. (It should be noted that the authorship of literature, as construed in this entry, embraces not only novelists, playwrights, and poets, but historians, scholars, ministers, orators, politicians, and humorists—professions mostly closed to women at that time.)
It was only on a second reading that I grasped this entry’s full peculiarity. It is signed “G.E.W.,” which the volume index identifies as the initials of George Edward Woodberry, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University between 1891 and 1904 and author of a book on Edgar Allan Poe. Woodberry evinces a deep disdain for the literature of his own country; so much so that I was astonished when I looked him up and discovered that he was not British, as I assumed, but American, born in Beverly, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard University. Oh, a few writers do merit his praise: he writes at length and for the most part approvingly on Washington Irvine, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant (his first holy trinity), on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (his second holy trinity), and—no surprise—Poe. But even here there are barbs: although the Irvine-Cooper-Bryant trinity rates one and a half of the 11 pages, Woodberry does slap down Irving for being a humorist and Cooper for being clumsy. Irving: “The excellence of his work lies rather in the treatment then the substance.” Cooper: “He wrote voluminously and with great unevenness. His literary defects, both of surface and construction, are patent.” (p. 834). And Woodberry goes out of his way to praise both Poe and Henry James for their un-American qualities: Poe for taking his cues from English writers (“He had no American origins, but only American conditions of life,” p. 836) and James for being a “cosmopolitan writer [who] has no other connexion with America than the accident of birth” (p. 840).
Most of the time, though, it is impossible for Woodberry to discuss any individual American writer, movement, period, tendency, or genre without putting it down. Often this is done subtly, as in the Irving example above; Woodberry is a master of damning with faint praise, backhanded compliments, litotes, and other forms of polite derision. A few examples (italics mine):
“The older clergy were not inferior in power or learning to the leaders of their own communion in England” (p. 831).
“The first books of true excellence were experiments; they seem almost accidents” (p. 833).
“American Romanticism and thus began with these three writers [Irving, Cooper, and Bryant], who gave it characterization after all by only a few simple traits” (p. 835).
Individually, these are not so bad, but in their relentless march down the page, they add up to an overall verdict of dismissal. And it is the women who fare worst. Early on, he writes of two now largely forgotten writers, “Fiction had been earlier attempted by Mrs. Susanna Haswell Rowson, whose Charlotte Temple (1790) is remembered, and contemporaneously by Mrs. Hannah Webster Foster in The Coquette (1797)” (p. 833; italics mine). “Attempted by” suggests a failed attempt, and “is remembered” is weak, signaling evasion of a judgment—remembered for what?—that could not have been good.
Some other examples (italics mine):
In the course of writing off much of the first half of the 19th century, which Woodberry terms a period of “sentimentality”, he mentions Lydia Sigourney as “a prolific writer” and Maria Gowan Brooks as “a more ambitious aspirant” (p. 835).
The novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick is said to have written “the best current fiction which was not to be incorporated in literature” (p. 836).
The historian Sarah Margaret Fuller (whose life was cut short at the age of 40 when the ship she was traveling on sank off Fire Island) is given as “a woman of extraordinary qualities and much usefulness, who is best remembered by her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844), but contributed no permanent work to literature” (p. 838).
Lydia Maria Child is tagged as one of a “line of notable American women who served their generation in literary ways” (p. 838).
A small flood of women— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Eleanor Wilkins, Mary Hallock Foote, Mary Noailles Murfree—are subsumed under this categorization: “The principal minor product of the novel lay in the provincial tale” (p. 840).
Julia Ward Howe is brought in as one of the 19th century’s “minor poets of less distinction” (p. 840).
My point here is not to champion these women as writers—there are many people much more versed in this material than I am who are doing the hard work of reassessment—but that the many male writers mentioned don’t draw anywhere near the same degree of head-patting even when Woodberry treats them as minor or peripheral figures. Woodberry has established a clear hierarchy here: among writers, women rank below men, and American men rank below the British (and Europeans more generally). America is criticized for having moved away from European culture while at the same failing to produce a literature from within itself. After all this, it comes as no surprise to read Woodberry’s cruel summary of the state of American literature ca. 1910: “The imaginative life is feeble, and when felt is crude; the poetic pulse is imperceptible” (p. 840).
Addendum: After I finished the first draft of this post and was looking further into the history of the 1910 edition—trying to get a grasp on why Woodberry, of all people, was chosen to write this entry—I stumbled on a very early critique of the 1910 Britannica by the writer Willard Huntington Wright, better known today as the author of the Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dyne. In 1917, Wright published the book Misinforming a Nation, a scathing 222-page dissection of the Britannica’s errors of prejudice, bias, omission, misstatement, misdirection, and misjudgment. I recommend Wright’s book as an excellent introduction to thinking about what an encyclopedia should be, by way of what it should not be. A pertinent sample from Chapter 2:
“The importance of English writers is constantly exaggerated at the expense of foreign authors….in the majority of cases outside of England, criticism, when offered at all, is cool and circumscribed and not seldom adverse…. When we come to the American literary division of the Britannica however, prejudice and neglect reach their highest point. Never have I seen a better example of the contemptuous attitude of England toward American literature than the Encyclopædia’s treatment of the novelists of the United States” (pp. 24-51).
I’m cheered by the thought that it’s not just 100 years of hindsight that makes the 1910 Britannica entry on American literature so hair-raising; its defects were evident to at least some contemporary readers.
Note: All quotes are from volume 1 of the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.
| Tags: encyclopedias, women, writing
May 27, 2013
I come from a family that doesn’t talk a lot about the military or military service, and it doesn’t have many career soliders, so I don’t know much about this aspect of our family history. But thinking about it today, I realize that the fragmentary information I do have adds up to what is probably a common pattern in this country: a good deal of wartime service, and some other scattered service here and there. So today I am remembering:
Jean-Fréderic de la Farge (paternal great-great-great grandfather), who came to the new world in a somewhat unusual way. The following excerpt is from an 1896 book by Cecilia Waern about his son, the artist John La Farge. It’s doubtful that this story is wholly accurate, given that it was probably told to Waern at second or third hand and was probably already burnished to show its protagonist in the best light. In addition, the reference to an Easter Sunday massacre in 1806 is possibly a misdating of a more prolonged event that took place between February and April 1804.
“Jean-Frederic de la Farge, when a midshipman in the French navy, took part in the famous and ill-fated  expedition of General [Charles] Leclerc to St. Domingo [St. Domingue, later the Republic of Haiti], where, tempted bv a still more adventurous life and by promotion to the rank of lieutenant, he exchanged into the land forces. While on an inland expedition he was taken captive by the insurgent negroes under General [Philippe] Guerrier. His companions were tortured to death, but his life was spared in order — so runs the family tradition — that he might instruct the future President of the negro republic in reading and writing. De la Farge was held a prisoner even after the withdrawal of the French, but at last, being warned by his coloured friends of the impending massacre of all remaining whites on Easter Sunday, 1806 [1804?] he managed to escape in company with a Dutch gentleman and his wife. They put out to sea in a small boat and got away along the coast ; then, abandoning the boat, made their way through a tropical forest to the Spanish side of the island. Here they found a ship which took them to Philadelphia.
After Leclerc’s death [of yellow fever in 1802] there was less hope of advancement for the officers of Napoleon’s rivals. The young Frenchman, who had already seen the most terrible side of war, was quick to note the great commercial future awaiting America and decided to settle there. A youth of energy and keen insight, he rapidly became very wealthy, as wealth was reckoned in those days, by ventures on the high seas, running blockades, and later by purchases of land in New York [where other refugees from St. Domingo had settled, among them the planter whose daughter later became his wife] and the Southern States.”
Christopher “Kipper” Grant La Farge (paternal grandfather), who served in the U.S. Army in World War II as a war correspondent. His postwar book “East by Southwest” is a group of eleven fictionalized stories from his time on the South Pacific front.
Frances Hoar (paternal great-aunt), who worked in some hush-hush way on cryptography during World War II (probably for the Army).
Charles Hercules Boissevain (maternal grandfather), a naturalized citizen who served in the U.S. Army as a doctor during World War II, part of the time posted in Great Britain.
C. Grant La Farge (father), who served as a doctor in the U.S. Air Force ca. 1956-1960.
And then, too, there are those who served in different ways:
Robert “Bop” and Helena Suzanna “Sonia” Boissevain (maternal great-uncle and aunt, greatly beloved of my mother), Dutch citizens who lived in Haarlem during World War II, where they sheltered a Jewish family named Goldberg for over two years. Active in the Resistance, Robert was eventually forced to go into hiding but was eventually caught, tortured, and sent to Buchenwald. Sonia spent the remainder of the war caring for herself, her six children, and the four Goldbergs under conditions of extreme deprivation; one winter, the family story goes, they lived for a time off of several hundred pounds of tulip bulbs. When Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945, Robert was still barely alive, but he collapsed on his way to the entrance to meet the Americans and died.
Father John LaFarge, Jr. (great-granduncle), one of three Jesuit priests who, at the request of Pope Pius XI, drafted a papal encyclical that strongly condemned racism, antisemitism, and totalitarianism (though marred in places by the Catholic Church’s inherent anti-Judaism). Entitled Humani Generis Unitas (On the Unity of the Human Race), it was delivered to Pius XI shortly before he died. It was never promulgated in its original form, but the new pope, Pius XII, used material from the draft in his own first encyclical.