Round Mountain Road

On Round Mountain Road in 1986

Thinking about the “why” of the years I invested a great deal of my time, energy, and resources into making photographs, I find myself wondering about what I really wanted to get out of pictures. In the beginning, I think, I was trying to figure out what I thought about the landscape around me.  It felt to me as if I was sleepwalking. It was simply there, and it seemed like it always had been there— and it was strange. Or, perhaps better— I was estranged from it.

My family moved to Bakersfield in March of 1963. I turned five years old that year, and we moved into a house on Melody Lane, next to the runway at the airport. By September, we moved to a new tract house on the west side of Highway 99, but my father spent most of his time in the oilfields up on Round Mountain Road.

Looking it up on Google Streetview, it looks different. On the driveway side, there was chain link fencing and tall climbing rosebushes, as well as a row of oleander bushes that went all the way back separating the houses. There was no fence and no palm trees on the other side. We were friends with the neighbors, the LaFoys— he worked in the oilfields with my dad.

It was hot in Bakersfield, so hot that it was painful to walk on the street in bare feet. My brother was walking home from Norris School and strayed off the street to walk in an irrigation ditch with a little water in it because it was cooler. He stepped on a broken coke bottle and collapsed. He severed an artery and was bleeding profusely. A local family saw him and put him in their pick-up and brought him to our driveway. My mother was understandably panicked, and called my dad in the oilfields to come home. They drove Stephen to the emergency room, and my dad took me with him when he left from there to go back to work in the oilfields on Round Mountain Road while they stitched my brother up. I remember having a good time playing in the shack he worked from, maintaining steam injection oil wells. I have a vague memory of him hosing down the driveway when we got home, washing the blood down the driveway into the gutter in front of the house.

Pumping units on Round Mountain Road

I have a lot of memories set in the oilfields. When someone in Oildale decided they needed my cameras more than I did and broke into my apartment there in 1982, I was forced to move in with my brother Stephen in a Tenneco Oil lease house on the western end of these fields. Because of strike activity, I had to check in with a security guard before driving up the non public roads. Round Mountain Road is public, though, and gives expansive and otherworldly views of the ancient sea floor that is the basis of this corner of the valley.

[metaslider id=3011]

My friend Slim often said that what made the valley special was the dirt. Near where these photos were taken, there’s an archeological dig at where the locals call Sharktooth Hill. Millions of sharks teeth have been dug out of these hillsides, once around 200 feet underwater in an inland sea. In a sense, when you stand there you are on a killing field where whales were being devoured by sharks. Even the megalodon swam here. Though I have so many memories of this place, it never seemed “right” to me. There is a coldness to my relationship with these fields, and I think that’s a big reason why I always wanted to drive back from time to time to test and see if my feelings had changed. I think from the moment I arrived here, I could think of very little beyond leaving.

There is a long tradition of connecting memory with the senses, with vision, with smell, and with taste. This has never been relevant to my experience. If pressed, I can smell the oil tar baking in the sun, or the chemical stench of the pesticides constantly sprayed on the fields and hills. But for me, I think it always comes down to touch— but a special sort of touch— the touch of the somnambulist.

When I wake up in the night, I generally try not to open my eyes when visiting the bathroom down the hall. It’s never a problem really, I can feel the space around me and negotiate it without walking into things. If I am uncertain, I reach out my hand or foot to touch something. Even when I’m on the road and in an unfamiliar room, it takes little time to become accustomed to the layout and be confident navigating it with minimal interaction. Bakersfield was always like that to me. I could just feel it, and move through it without touching it or it touching me very much. It’s as if I spent 32 years of my life sleepwalking there, and because of that it will always be a special place. The dirt never washes off, really— so you try not to touch too much.

[metaslider id=3038]

I remember getting really irritated once when a well meaning viewer looked at one of my photographs of a musician and said “but I can’t really hear the music.” I never wanted anyone to smell the dirt, or hear the music, or much of anything else with a two dimensional photograph. I suppose all I ever wanted to do was give someone (myself mostly) the chance to revisit the feeling of what it felt like to be somewhere else or give them the chance to trace the contours of a hole that’s been left behind. Witnessing so many musical performances over the years, I think the thing that I usually remember the most is that feeling of almost lurching forward when the music ends because a majestic thing that has once filled the room is suddenly gone. You feel yourself lurching forward into the vacuum left by an absence.

Turning the page often feels like that to me.


Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt. As he turned over the almost ​endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

“ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)

The first lines in most of Jane Austen’s books strike right at the core of what follows. Though Sir Walter is not the hero, or even the principal character in Persuasion, his attitude points to the general object of persuasion: to move someone or something away from the tradition which we have become accustomed to, which gives us a sense of “place” in the world. Tradition is a comfort to most people, and reaching back into personal history is the most common trope at a writer’s disposal to elicit some sort of identification or sympathy with an unknown audience. Attention to the past can be a diversion or salve against the pressures of the present, but it provides one means of gaining grounded authority against uncertainty.

The common center of any definition of rhetoric is that persuasion is the goal, and I was surprised to find a twenty-five year old article from the DGS at Minnesota during my time there, Art Walzer, about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Art argues, and I think rightfully, that this novel has at least a minor spot in the rhetorical canon due to its interface with rhetorical theory. Art’s core thesis is that Austen pursues the idea that persuasion functions using reason as well as desire.

The tension in the persuasive process between desire and reality is an instance of this broader theme, a process in which the will, under the influence of the imagination, is moved to act. As such Austen’s depiction of the process follows in its basic mechanics the account provided by the theorists. But while for Austen reason is often an effective critical faculty disciplining judgment to attend to what Bacon calls the “nature of things,” reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process, a function of desire in the case of characters such as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who are in the grip of their appetites, or of the moral passions in the case of Anne.

The relevance to my project here is that “reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process” – Art always had a certain spare eloquence in scholarly writing. When humans desire new technologies, these desires are always rationalized using a number of strategies implying that new technologies are generally superior to old technologies. In this case, reason often fails us, blinded by better faster shiny new. Reason is simply one tool among many, urging us ever onward on our technological path, ignoring the inconvenient reality of planetary destruction.

Reason cannot, and will not, win over desire– particularly when there are as many reasons to gratify our desire as there are to deny ourselves. Resistance to technology (and change in general) often takes the form of a nostalgia for a time before the change, and like Sir Walter thumbing through the Baronetage to trace our place, we ignore the new at our peril. Witold Rybzynski’s second book, Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology (1983), recounts the long history of the failures of reasonable means of resistance to technology. Desire, whether for technology or people, is tricky and often tragic given that what we want and what is good for us are seldom the same thing.

In Persuasion, once Anne Elliot is persuaded by Lady Russell that Captain Wentworth was a poor match for her, she resists desiring him although his circumstances have changed. She applies reason to her passions in service of thwarting change. Reason, in an Austen heroine, often restrains and disciplines decision making. It’s a complex and interesting tale in which competing interests apply a wide range of persuasive techniques to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Everyone involved is pulled between what they feel is their duty and their desires.

A similar process occurs when we suddenly discover a new attractiveness in old technologies, “quixotic attachments” to old realities as Rybczynski labels them: “The picturesque medieval hamlet is appealingly portrayed in charming paintings, but the smell, the putrefaction and decay that were part of a sewerless society are forgotten” (225). Self-satisfied revisionary reasoning slows decisions, but it does not stop the progress of change (or desire). The troubling part, regarding technology, is that new technologies are generally portrayed as inhuman while older technologies get a makeover as somehow more human in their impact on our lives. This does little to thwart the “progress” of technology. Most people inevitably give in to their desire for better faster shiny new. Does this make us weak?

The answer, for Austen, lies in a sort of feminist rhetoric. As Art Walzer describes it:

That persuasion is under the sway of the passions does not, however, make persuadability a sign of weakness, for the novel complicates the simple dichotomy of the rhetorics between a non-rational, weak, feminine persuadability and a strong, rational, masculine conviction. The novel invites the reader to subject the ethical questions the theory raises to Elizabeth Bennet’s more complicated test-whether a persuadable temper might indicate an affectionate heart, rather than a weak will, and a mind characterized by a discriminating moral sensibility rather than by a timid suasibility.

Understanding that we persuade ourselves to accept technological progress is an important part of my current thinking. It’s not simply a matter of capitalism overshadowing all decisions through “bad rhetoric.” Wanting things, however, may not be a bad thing. A desire to improve the range of possibilities seems natural, and perhaps admirable. But there should be a limit to what we expect from the tools we use. That’s the hard part.

Langdon Winner’s seminal The Whale and the Reactor: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986) aims at understanding how technology might actually be tamed (limited) by political will. In the eponymous essay that ends it, Winner describes visiting the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant as a whale swam by, driving the realization that reason wasn’t always the best way to approach the presence of the technology that surrounds us: “The thing should have never been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit, calculations may have shown” (176). The implication, obviously, is that deference should be given to the natural world that provides for our “common humanity.” It’s an old trope, really: the book of nature cannot be understood through reason. Like Sir Walter Elliot, he opens the book for comfort.

The core of Winner’s book, however, is frequently cited for a reason. It presents a cogent argument that we have been “sleepwalking” our way to our own destruction, largely by taking refuge in the idea that it isn’t the technology that’s evil, it’s the men that deploy it. The view doesn’t hold— technologies are far from neutral instruments of our will. Arguments for limits, or to position technology as “savior” for the human condition are notoriously bad. It’s time to work on better, more workable policies towards it in the political sphere. I found myself wanting to substitute “rhetoric” for “politics” in many key arguments in his book, wondering how that might change a reading of it in the 21st century.

Rybczynski’s aim is different from Winner. He suggests that it’s fruitless to try to separate “human” from “inhuman” technologies, and that we would be better served by thinking of technology (and the desire for it) as being inseparable from being human. This would be a positive turn and it necessitates better definitions of just what we consider to be technologies. The limits then, are not simply on which technologies we condone or adopt, but rather on our own desires and expectations for technology.

Whether  we control technology by directing its evolution, by choosing when and how to use it, or by deciding what significance it should have in our lives, we shall succeed only if we are able to accept what appears at first to be an impossible shift in point of view: different as people and machines are, they exist not in two different worlds, but at two ends of the same continuum. Just as we have discovered that we are a part of the natural environment, and not just surrounded by it, so also we will find that we are an intimate part of the environment of technology. The auxiliary “organs” that extend our sight, our hearing, and our thinking really are an extension of our physical bodies. When we are able to accept this, we shall discover that the struggle to control technology has all along been a struggle to control ourselves. (227)

We control things by political choices we make, as Winner frequently invokes, but we also control ourselves by self-persuasion. I think that the future of our relationship with technology lies as much within, as it does without. It isn’t about not being persuaded by technology and our desire for it (Luddism) but rather by exercising better judgment with more meaningful expectations. Both technophobes and technophiles will be better served by being persuadable.

Year End

Tampopo screen capture

When I started writing here back in October, I had in mind writing my way through some basic issues of concern to me. The clumsy framing question, which I hope to refine, is “What makes some technologies good and others evil?”

I wrote a bit about my early obsession with technology and its roots in the “appropriate technology” moment of the late 1970s, as well as the emergence of “blogging” at the turn of the century. The method that started me thinking in the early summer of 2018 was encountering Hannah Arendt’s precise terminology in her essay “On Violence.” However, the method that makes it possible to attempt to fashion some sense from my thoughts is basic storytelling, including stories of encountering ideas for the first time. As a child of the 70s, it’s hard not to want to look back on thinkers that I completely missed along the way, like Martin Pawley.

Selecting a consistent and defensible descriptive terminology lead me from Arendt to Engels, pushing me back to storytelling. I’m not well versed in economics or economic theories so I started reading a lot of unfamiliar and familiar texts. It also pushed politics up to center stage. Karl Marx has been a conversational topic since my childhood. But I always end up circling back to technologies of making. I suppose I never read much in economics, simply because money was generally a foreign concept for me, rather than an animating spirit.

Two technologies have dominated my life, photography and musical recordings. I always found photography to have great explanatory power, akin to poetic language in the way it makes new worlds, so I wrote my way through aspects of that. In graduate school in Minnesota, for the first time I really started to think about it as a means of employment rather than an artistic pursuit; not for myself, mind you, but for practitioners at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s easier to think of language and  life in the abstract than it is to actually identify what concepts of productive labor actually mean. Photography changed what “art” was for me, and it amazes me how most of the core topics of the “work” of art were addressed, at least in a surface manner, by Walter Benjamin. From aura to artifacts, Benjamin’s terms remain deeply significant for me.

I was surprised to find a chance reference to aura from George Berkeley which lead me to consider the shift in meaning of the term “artifact” when it’s applied to digital media. I didn’t realize that it was going to be the beginning of the end to this particular exercise in “writing to know.” For the first time, I started writing about sound, alternating it with parallel concepts in visual work. I’ve been following my wife’s work on sound for quite some time, but for the first time I started thinking for myself about the politics of sound. The politics of images is a familiar topic to me. Researching sound, though, was new.

I had a track figured out, where I would alternate researching and writing about sound and vision, but I had just barely gotten through writing about woodcut technologies when I came to a dead stop. The reason? Jonathan Sterne. I’m thankful that someone else has already been there/done that with sound before. It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep thinking about it, but I think the time has come to stop writing about it for a while and read some books. It seems that he had the same hunch about the politics of sound ten years ago and wrote two books on the topic, as well as many articles.

I was on a roll, though. I had a lot I wanted to know and thankfully that should be easier to find thanks to him. I think my time next year will be better spent working on the question concerning technology. I mean that in terms of framing a workable question, not a Heideggerian exposition about life, the universe, and everything. I hope to continue writing my way through things, finding a new path for a while before (probably) circling back to the parallel tracks of sound and vision.

What seems different, and productive, is the constellation of craft that crosses into both universes. What vocabulary and what stories might circulate around the fabrication of tools in general? I think that’s how I’ll start my new year. I think it’s time to get back to Arendt and homo faber vs. animal laborans. Of course, I suspect I’ll take a long detour through Langdon Winner and the politics of technology first.

Love is a rose

I hated the song “Love is a rose” when it dominated the radio waves. Later, when I discovered that Neil Young wrote it, it seemed to prove out the cliché that nobody’s perfect. From a formal standpoint, “love is a rose” is a metaphor, and one of many clichés circulating long before Shakespeare:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare (Sonnet 130)

At the most basic level, any metaphor is a “false compare” between two things that are not identical. It calls upon us to interpret, to actively try to constitute meaning from the information we’re given. At the word level, one is tempted to substitute a synonym but often this simply isn’t satisfactory. “Making an exposure” doesn’t have the impact of “taking a shot.”

As the ad copy here relates, the area of overlap between photography and shooting is broad and deep; it’s not simply a matter of using a simple substitution to make meaning out of the terminology. It’s a network of associations that are crowded around the word as connotations. But it isn’t a 1:1 comparison. A camera will never give someone a red badge of courage, a wound. Metaphors always entail a sort of tension between the expressed meaning, and its intended interpretation.

Exposure lacks the sort of immediacy, the flash of insight involved with taking a good shot. This is a major reason for the popularity of metaphor. Over time, photographic shots (or snapshots) have lost all associations with martial terminology. The camera is seldom assumed to be an instrument of violence.

Schemata derived from the networks of metaphoric comparisons seem to be foundational to our ability to acquire and deploy knowledge, particularly when new technologies are introduced. Metaphors, it seems, are one of the keys to framing knowledge. In short, we don’t know what makes a technology “good” or useful without some sort of frame of reference to slot it into. In fact, this idea of knowledge frames may hold a key to developing artificial intelligence.

What Shakespeare is poking with a stick is our conception of love as a mass of nonsensical metaphors. However, as a master of metaphor himself he knows full well that metaphor drives our intelligence forward on our journey to the undiscovered country. The riddle of it, or perhaps better still the joke, is that metaphoric knowledge almost always comes upon us quickly like a punch line, euphoria, followed by the satisfaction of having figured it out. Thank you Vicki Mikelonis.

The mechanism through which metaphor works its magic according to Paul Ricoeur is its distanciation. It renders the familiar unfamiliar, giving us a necessary distance to actively engage in the process of making sense. It is estrangement with the emphasis on strange.

In a weak sense, though, all language is metaphoric. When I see a chair, I can simultaneously apprehend a chair as an object of utility and hold its abstract word “chair” in my mind with neither being destroyed or altered by their apprehension although both are completely different with no overlapping characteristics. What is different about strong metaphors is that the tension between two terms creates a third, unnamable knowledge that once apprehended, is seldom forgotten. Eventually, though, the strangeness fades– as Nietzsche suggests, the face wears off the coin and it becomes useful only as metal.

In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of “new media” in the manufacture of stereographs. In 1873, the Kilburn Brothers of Littleton, NH were printing 3,000 stereographs per day and they weren’t alone. Stereographs work by means of an apparatus where two photographs taken from slightly different perspectives are fused in the mind of the viewer to create the illusion of a three dimensional image. The potential exists for great realism, but also for captivating illusions.

An ephemeral historical moment? Not necessarily. Stereograph publishers distributed actual photographs from just after the civil war (1865) in massive numbers until supplanted by halftone printing around the turn of the century. The cards were compiled and circulated like encyclopedias that could be purchased a single card at a time. With halftones, their currency was devalued until it was given away for free on cereal boxes in the early 20th century.

It wasn’t a bad run– perhaps comparable to broadcast television, which entered the scene with standards in 1961 before being supplanted by digital television at the turn of the 21st century. Stereographs lingered into the 1930s and 40s before transmuting into ViewMasters stripped of their 3d illusion.

Throughout, a process of estrangement dissolving into familiarity persists.

Time and Love

Sally Mann What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann was coincident with her exhibition/meditation on death.   Her choice of terms for corpses, “carapaces,” jibes with my experience: when I touched the body of my father, my first thought was “this isn’t my father.” The shell felt somehow plastic, although important to others. For me, it meant nothing. Mann says for her “what remains is time and love.” But if love remains, how is love manifest? Lately, I believe the essence of love can be found in our daily meals— the moments when we stop and sustain our bodies.

As the holiday season approaches, it seems important to note that most key social celebrations are built around feast (or fast) days. It’s where we find the intersection of past and present in its most poignant form. A photograph, as an aide–mémoire, is quite thin. In a recent talk, Sally Mann suggested that Proust never could have written A Remembrance of Things Past triggered by a photograph. To remember, it takes the engagement of more senses. For Proust, it was a madeline.  A photograph can evoke, but its affect is a surface one. Again, her use of “thin” seems apt. To stir our entire being, it takes something more than a breeze brushing across the skin, or the decayed bones of a dead pet. To really feel alive and connected to our fellows, both past and present, a meal is almost always called for.

Cooking is a craft, at times celebrated and at other times dismissed as secondary to more ambitious pursuits, “mere cookery” as Plato would have it. A meal is an opportunity, and for most, an opportunity lost, for reflecting and connecting with what it really means to be mortal. I started a recording my meals a few years ago, inspired partly by Jaques Pepin.

Jacques Pépin's Artwork

I lack the talent to draw or even hand letter menus; my experiment consists of a pedestrian list in a google document. But it started to matter to me. I liked being able to see what I used to eat. It didn’t start out as an artistic, or even poetic practice, however. It was more accurately a byproduct of reading The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. They recommended keeping basic records of consumption in order to better manage one’s household, and meals are indeed a part of that. It seemed hardly surprising that Sally and Larry Mann also were moved by the Nearings, at least according to her recent Q&A. The “love” part, so apparent in Pepin’s menus, exists, albeit thinly, even in something as simple as a list of the food consumed over a period of time.

Going through my mother’s things after her death, I was always struck by the incredible number of small bits of paper with “lists” on them, listing when flowers bloomed, when relatives visited, etc. She wrote it all down increasingly as she got older. I am reminded that the origin of civilization comes down to us through time as pedestrian lists of cellar and larder inventories. If what remains is “time and love” then these records, strange as they may seem, carry with them a kernel, a seed of the human condition.

As the contentious election heated up this year, my compulsion to keep some sort of record of what was “good” about life became stronger. My wife has long kept photo sets of things that made her happy, but I’ve been disillusioned by photography these last few years. Although I dedicated most of my life to it, it just didn’t seem to be a repository of joy for me. I’ve found a way to recover just a bit of that though by photographing my meals. To combat the constant stream of political memes coming my way, I started posting those photographs to Facebook. I was surprised at the response. It seems that lots of people like food, especially in troubling times.

These photographs, for me, are simply an extension of the lists. I don’t look upon it as an aesthetic exercise at all, though I do try to capture what’s significant about the colors and textures of the food. When Lloyd Bitzer died a few days ago, I began to examine why I like taking these pictures from a different angle. Bitzer was a rhetorical scholar whose signature essay, “The Rhetorical Situation” occupied a significant part of my time in graduate school. Thinking my way through those concepts, hashed out so long ago, has brought into focus why I think of meals (not photographs of meals) as an important thing to remember, and to think deeply about.

In a grossly simplified version, Bitzer might argue that meals are a reaction to the exigence of hunger; his critic Richard Vatz might respond that we also eat as a response to being persuaded that we are hungry, while Barbara Biesecker would suggest that both of these responses deny and obscure the potential for radical transformation that occurs at every mealtime. Skipping past the Derridian doublespeak, Biesecker’s point is well placed: we don’t simply eat to satisfy a need, or eat because we’re convinced to, we eat because every time we eat we are changed by it.  In turn, by exercising control over what we eat we can indeed change ourselves, with time and love.

Each meal has the potential to be a uniquely kairotic moment (last supper?). Every meal presents the opportunity to change the world, and ourselves, simply by appreciating were we are at that particular moment. Such moments, when one recognizes the potential for love and sharing, can be radically transformative. The world can be made better by understanding the complexity of our place within it.

Hats off to Hungary

While reading Typee, I found myself marveling at the sheer density of his descriptions of food on the Marquesa islands. It’s a romance of sorts, so I was expecting and not disappointed by the number of interludes with native girls and such; but food? Why so much attention to food?

Melville wrote Typee while living in Troy, New York (coincidentally the point of origin for the character/ caricature “Uncle Sam”) in 1845 and because of its success he made enough money to finance a home across the Hudson near Pittsfield, Massachusetts he named “Arrowhead” in 1850. I found a letter written December 28, 1851 from Mrs. Sarah A. Morewood, his neighbor, that speaks to hungers of various kinds.

I hear that he is now so engaged in a new work as frequently to leave his room till quite dark in the evening when he for the first time in whole day partakes of solid food— he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health

If he frequently starved himself to write, this might explain it somewhat. Or, it might be the memories of a sailor who had spent much time thinking about food while at sea. But the food references don’t end there, as the letter continues:

I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think that he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself but if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hunger would suffer

I pondered a moment what he meant by “the cause in hunger” without any really satisfactory conclusions, but the punning is tantalizing, as is Mrs. Morewood’s further observation:

—Mrs. Melville is looking better in health than I have ever yet seen her look— I am strangely and strongly attracted to her and her family now that I know them as well as I do.

Curiously, a book suggesting an affair between Melville and his neighbor has just been published. What interests me more is the reference to Hungary. Hershel Parker, Melville biographer extraordinaire, has a direct explanation for the passage in his appendix to a volume of Melville’s poetry:

Late in 1851, when all good Whigs and Democrats were telling themselves they had set the slavery issue to rest for their generation by the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law, Americans gave Lajos Kossuth a triumphal tour of the country on behalf of the liberation of Hungary from Austria at a time when the United States should have been confronting its own political crisis, there was an element of hysterical displacement, a feel-good ineffectual celebration which required no national outlay of money and no commitment of American troops.


Melville would have read in the Literary World of December 6, 1851, the “Lines Addressed by Walter Savage Landor to Kossuth on his departure for America,” an appeal to the north wind Boreas to spare him so that the United States might arm him for a return to his home: “Hungary! no more / Thy saddest loss [Kossuth] deplore; /Look to the star-crowned Genius of the West, /Sole guardian of the oppress. / Oh! that one and only nation dared to save /Kossuth the true and brave!”

Calling this particular passage a “grim pun,” Parker explains it thusly:

His attitude, expressed in a grim pun as he was completing the short version of Pierre, was that if he left home to look after Hungary (that is, to join in the feting of Kossuth) the cause of supporting his family “in hunger would suffer” (.)

800px-kossuth_104th_rsd_jehThis makes as much sense as any other explanation really; though I must say the few pages I scanned from Parker’s two volume biography of Melville contains a great deal of information about Sarah Morewood, which might merit further investigation. Zeroing in on the matter at hand though, Kossuth was revered around the world, including a statue in New York City.

I was intrigued to again find myself face to face with Austro-Hungarian history, as I was before when I was reading a lot about Adolph Loos. Stranger still though, was to find myself enthralled by stories about hats. Apparently, the statue as erected leaves out what Parker feels is the most salient characteristic of Kossuth:

After Kossuth’s departure, Americans, already manifesting a short national memory, turned their attention elsewhere, although for a while people remembered Kossuth whenever they saw an ostrich plume on a man’s hat. The fad he created outlived his cause.

Indeed, there is, as it turns out, a Kossuth hat. A bit of research groups it in a peculiar group of soft felt hats that culminate in the sort of rough-rider hats popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, a popular military headgear in both the U.S. and Australia.

Stephen Beszedits questions the connections between Hungary and the hat though, claiming that the Kossuth hat was the creation of a New York City haberdasher, John N. Genin. He claims that it’s an adaptation of another fad, the Jenny Lind hat, modified with the addition of a feather. However, Kossuth’s revolutionary credibility, and scientific justification, was quickly attached to the headgear, even if they felt the feather was silly.

Buchanan’s Journal of Man a medical journal published in 1851 reported:

The Kossuth Hat.—The Common and Kossuth Hat are thus described in the Scientific American:

“The common silk hats have what are termed felt bodies. These are made of felted wool, are soft and pliable, and allow the gas that passes from the head to escape freely. This is the Kossuth hat. To make it a common silk hat, this felt body is saturated with lac varnish, and a covering of silk plush is ironed on to it, and smoothed to shine like a mirror. This hat, then, the common sober hat, is then hard as sheet iron and quite stiff; it greatly resembles a little pot, and in warm weather it most effectually prevents the evaporation of the pate. It causes headache, makes the hair to decay early in principle: oldish people of a sedate turn, although they would prefer the Kossuth hat, do not like to adopt it just yet, from a prudential fear of becoming conspicuous. This is our feeling exactly upon the subject—we like the black felt ‘Kossuth hat,’ barring the little feather, (that may do well for a military man,) and we hope to see it come into such general use as will warrant us in doffing the hard shelled silk head kettle. There was never more ungraceful head gear than that of the common hat.”

I truly love the image of the conventional hat as a “hard shelled silk head kettle.” It seems no wonder that both the Austrian laden and the Kossuth hat were more attractive to military men who didn’t want to bake their pates. That aside, there is no question that Kossuth had an impact in New York and beyond, with or without his hat. I noted from the Wikipedia page on Lajos Kossuth that there was a street named after him in Utica, NY (about an hour from where I live) so I wanted to figure out why. Looking at a history of Utica from 1900, I found this:

In this year, (1851) the great singer, Jenny Lind, visited Utica and gave a concert in the Bleecker Street Baptist Church.

The following year, Louis Kossuth, the illustrious Hungarian patriot, was received by a committee of citizens (June 1, 1852), and a public meeting was held at the Museum, which stood on Genesee Street between Elizabeth and Bleecker.

There yet remain in Utica a few of the notes, “good for one dollar each, if presented one year after the attainment of Independence by Hungary,” mementos of the patriot fund raised during this American visit.

The location in Utica now looks like this, according to Google:


I’ve driven through here many times. The historian, writing in 1900, is not nearly so dismissive of the Hungarian patriot as Parker, Melville’s biographer. Parker claims that that Kossuth was soon forgotten, as the poets moved on to consider the problems of the unification of Italy. Hungary, like the Greek battle for independence that so obsessed Byron, faded from the cultural consciousness.

In the shower this morning, I suddenly thought to myself that the flood of Italian immigrants to America would have been just a bit after this; I wondered about the lyric in Yankee Doodle about “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” might have been somehow related. I was wrong, as Wikipedia points out that a Macaroni is a completely different sort of head gear from a much earlier time.



28906339014_fd25b9065b_oI went to Kinney Drugs yesterday to get my biannual supply of Williams shaving soap, and as usual, everyone rushed the front and there was a line. The cashier called for help, and I stood about third in line behind an old man with a shopping cart. I didn’t look too hard at what was in the cart, but I noticed the man’s cap. It was covered in embrodiery and patches, proclaiming him as a Navy veteran of two wars, WWII and Korea. I suspect there aren’t that many of those left.

As the second cashier went to work and all those behind me rushed to her, the vet offered to let me go ahead of him. I said, “that’s okay I’m in no hurry” (I never am, these days).

“Where did you find those!” he said, pointing at the three packages of shaving soap in my hand. I misheard the question, and though he was commenting on my somewhat unusual choice and rambled off something about the fact that my father used to use it… He stopped me and said, “no, where in the store do I find those?”

I had taken the entire stock of the drugstore, so I quickly offered him one of boxes I was holding. He said that he used it all the time, and he was heading off to Florida and knew he’d have trouble finding it there, which is true. Not many drug stores stock it these days. The cashier got to him, and rang up his items, which came to six dollars or so, and he quickly paid with a credit card. I noticed that he was wearing hearing aids in both ears, but it was me who misheard him rather than the other way around.

He was just about to leave the line when the cashier pointed to the cart, and he said, “oh, I almost forgot” handing over a few bags of empty plastic bottles for recycling. She painstakingly tallied them up, and he commented that it would be nice if the drugstore had a redemption machine so the line wouldn’t get tied up, ever apologetic for taking too much time.

In fact, he started to walk away as the cashier exclaimed, “Stan, don’t forget your money!”

He said “Just put it in there” gesturing at the charity collection box on the counter. Looking at one of the women who had just finished up in the other line, Stan said “Wait a second, I want to talk to you.” It dawned on me that Stan was a part of the fabric of this drug store, everyone knew him but me it seemed. It choked me up to think that a life filled with service is long, and worthwhile.

During my trip to Maine earlier in the summer, I suddenly started to understand the difference between the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. New England is the land of voyagers, people who travel and yet always seem to return home. I started to think of generations that have gone to sea, and returned to the hard scrabble bits of land. Running into the Navy man here was a bit unusual; in New England, it’s the historical norm.

I’ve often lamented that New York is filled with provincial people who seldom look further than their neighborhood, let alone saw much reason to leave it. New England just isn’t like that; people leave, but unlike the Midwestern streams of migration, they don’t stay where they travel. They try, desperately sometimes, to get back.

I began to understand Jack Kerouac returning to Lowell to drink himself to death better, and the popularity of seafaring narratives. That’s when I decided that this year I was going to try to read Melville again. I’ve made it through Typee with great enjoyment, and stopped to read a biography, a couple of doctoral dissertations and a handful of articles before pressing on to Omoo.

I still don’t have great affection for the whale, but I’m beginning to at least understand the voyager spirit.


Fish Stories

29805711892_e83833cabe_kI must confess that I’ve not been able to read Moby Dick in the decades since I first started trying. I make it part way, and then just sink to the bottom of the endless whaling descriptions. Jim Levernier, a member of my Master’s committee and incredibly generous professor of American Literature, swore that I would really love it. I’ve been trying every since.

This week, though, I managed to finish Typee— Melville’s first book, and his only best-seller. In sort of celebration at this triumph, and of fall in general, we drove north to Clayton, New York to visit the Antique Boat Museum, where I landed the shot of the fiberglass fish model in the bottom of a canoe. I’d like to dig into some thoughts on that book, which isn’t really a novel, and isn’t really an autobiography although it is billed as the latter and usually taken as the former. It’s an embellished and researched recollection of his time in the Marquesa islands in the South Pacific. While in Clayton, I overhead a different sort of fish story that I’d like to relate here, a recollection if you will.

After visiting the boat museum, we were strolling down the main drag and ducking into a few shops. There was one with assorted dishes and crockery that looked interesting. The featured exhibit was a huge collection of blue ceramic dishes in celebration of America’s bicentennial. It won’t be long until those are antiques. A talkative woman behind the counter was spinning a yarn to a couple at the counter completing a purchase, and I paused to examine an 8″ earth tone stoneware casserole that was quite attractive. As I looked it over, I heard a story.

She was calling the roll of several long-time families and residents of the Clayton area, looking for a glint of recognition from the customers, and chanced to mention her cottage in Bermuda where she winters. “Not just everyone can own property in Bermuda, you know. It’s an interesting story how we came to own it, you know.”

Her husband, a Clayton boy, dropped out of high school because he had no interest in education and knew what he wanted to be— a fisherman. He connected up with a family friend who fished out of Pompano Beach, Florida, and started to work down there right away. He fished off the coast of Bermuda a lot, so they’d often go ashore there. He came to find out that there was a parcel of land available near his favorite watering hole, so after much wrangling and red-tape he finally got it cleared through the government to allow him to purchase the land, where over successive seasons he built a cabin. They’ve had it to this day.

The casserole, like my memory of the story, was filled with hairline cracks. I’m afraid that though it was affordably priced, would not have been serviceable, and would best be left as a show piece. The shop had some fine crocks, which though they might be nice to have for future use, we had no immediate need. Krista informed me that they were priced as collectors pieces, and we could do better. So we went next door to our primary destination, River Rat Cheese.


We returned to the car, parked in front of an auto parts store,  with our bounty and drove away. Just before we got on the freeway, we passed a distillery where I had to make a final still life of our little road trip. I remember fondly the day that Jim Levernier regaled our class with the story of the memorial Hannah Duston Jim Beam bottle. There’s nothing quite as all-american as liquor and tall tales.


Krista told me after we got home that there were fish traps in the back of the store which I hadn’t noticed. Aren’t there always?

Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.

From Thomas Jefferson to Henry Knox, 1 June 1795

Have you become a farmer? Is it not pleasanter than to be shut up within 4. walls and delving eternally with the pen? I am become the most ardent farmer in the state. I live on my horse from morning to night almost. Intervals are filled up with attentions to a nailery I carry on. I rarely look into a book, and more rarely take up a pen. I have proscribed newspapers, not taking a single one, nor scarcely ever looking into one. My next reformation will be to allow neither pen, ink, nor paper to be kept on the farm. When I have accomplished this I shall be in a fair way of indemnifying myself for the drudgery in which I have passed my life. If you are half as much delighted with the farm as I am, you bless your stars at your riddance from public cares.

Thomas Jefferson