In Moby-Dick, Melville writes, “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”
Recently I opened up a 130-year old bottle of whale oil and used the oil to light a lamp. I filmed a short video of the process which you can watch below, or at YouTube.
Over the past few years, I have made several attempts to film the River Fleet as it passes under a storm grate on Saffron Hill. You can see one of these attempts in an earlier blog post about the subterranean waterway. The Fleet is one of London’s “lost” rivers, a once-important tributary of the Thames that was covered over and incorporated into the sewer system in the 1800s.
My most recent attempt has proven successful, yielding clear footage. You can watch the video at YouTube, or below.
In the 1860s, Thomas Hardy was a young architect employed to oversee the removal of graves from St Pancras Old Church in the London Borough of Camden. This project was undertaken to make room for the tracks of the Midland Railway. The future author of Far from the Madding Crowd stacked several dozens of tombstones around the base of a young ash tree which subsequently grew up around them, partially absorbing some into its root system.
Today, the Camden New Journalreports that the historic Hardy Tree has fallen:
Camden Council had warned in the summer that the tree had been weakened by a heavy storm and would almost certainly fall at some stage. It had been fenced off for some time.
In a statement in July, a Town Hall spokesperson said: “We are looking at ways to commemorate this tree, and its story, when it does eventually fall. The council recognises the importance of the veteran Hardy Tree, both for our local communities and nationally, which is why we’ve taken measures over the last eight years to manage this stage of its lifecycle, keeping it safe for visitors.”
I imagine that any commemoration of the tree must necessarily include the preservation of the headstones in situ. Photographer Simon Lamrock has posted images of the aftermath on Twitter.
This week: lunch at Keen’s Chop House in Manhattan. Keen’s is the last remnant of the old New York theater district, which was located around Herald Square in the nineteenth century, before moving to Times Square in the twentieth. With the recent closure of Delmonico’s and 21, Keen’s is among the last remnants of Old New York altogether.
The ceilings are covered with clay pipes. Each belonged to a regular customer, and was kept on site, to be brought out after a meal.
The walls are covered with theatrical memorabilia: posters and programs dating back to the restaurant’s founding in 1885. The collection includes many delightful pieces, and one most terrible and awe-inspiring.
Upstairs in the Lincoln Room is the play bill that the President held in his hand at Ford’s Theater on the night he was assassinated. Stained with the great man’s blood, it is framed on the wall amidst portraits and a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address.
The Washington Star of November 16, 1875 reported the following remarks by Walt Whitman at the public reburial of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore:
For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe’s writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities. Non-complying with these requirements, Poe’s genius has yet conquer’d a special recognition for itself, and I too have come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him. Even my own objections draw me to him at last, and those very points, with his sad fate, will doubtless always make him dearer to young and fervid minds.
The quote offers a nice insight into Whitman’s own philosophy. He spoke extemporaneously, having declined to make a formal speech. In conclusion, he evoked a vision of Poe:
In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg’d ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seem’d one of those superb little schooner yachts I had often seen lying anchor’d, rocking so jauntily, in the waters around New York, or up Long Island sound—now flying uncontroll’d with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems—themselves lurid dreams.
Elaborating on his remarks in The Critic, Whitman wondered what to make of the “lush and the weird” influences that had “taken such extraordinary possession of Nineteenth Century verse-lovers”.
Seven photographs depicting the home of Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, taken in 1887 by Frederick Hollyer, will be auctioned at Christie’s later this month. The artist and his family moved into The Grange, an 18th century house in West Kensington, London, twenty year earlier. Views include the exterior, drawing room, dining room; garden studio, and daughter Margaret’s bedroom. The lot, which is being sold by descendants, is estimated between one and two thousand pounds.
On his second tour of the United States in the late 1860s, Charles Dickens took rooms at the Parker House in Boston. This hotel was his headquarters for five months between 1867 and 1868, during which time he traveled extensively among other cities. Next door at the Tremont Temple he gave the first American reading of A Christmas Carol—from memory—together with the trial scene from Pickwick, a perennial favorite with audiences.
The Parker House was torn down and rebuilt in stages during the 1920s, with the present building completed in 1927. Two artifacts related to Dickens and his residency can still be found on site. The first is a mirror in which he rehearsed. On stage he would seem to transform into the various characters from his books, not only in voice, but in body and mannerism.
If you find yourself at the Parker House, you will see his mirror on the mezzanine floor, to the left of the elevator bank.
The second artifact is the very door to the suite of rooms that he occupied, with the numbers 138 and 139 affixed. This was salvaged during the demolition of the original building and stands in a small gallery downstairs from the lobby.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two excellent paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in its collection. I have been in Boston this week and paid a visit to the MFA, as I always do on such trips.
The highlight for any admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites is Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata. This work marked a transition in the artist’s career, away from the narrative Medieval paintings of his youth and toward the sensuous female portraits of his mature period. The title comes from a line in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is written on the reverse of the canvas:
Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna.
‘The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its good fortune: rather, it renews itself just as the moon does.’
Bocca baciata means, “The mouth that his been kissed,” or “the kissed mouth.”
The model was Fanny Cornforth, who lived with Rossetti at the time. She also sat for the the second painting in the collection: Belcolore, or Girl with Rose, from 1863. It is a fitting companion piece as the subject is likewise drawn from the Decameron. The character of Monna Belcolore is a married woman who is courted by her village priest in one of the stories within the story.
I am appalled that educational institutions send classes of students and school children on the exploitative serial killer tours which display autopsy photographs of women in the street, indulging in ghoulish humour at the expense of these victims.
Instead, I am offering visitors the opportunity to meet a member of the local community and learn something of the infinite variety of life that has evolved in London’s first suburb over two millennia. For the past two years, I have been developing and road-testing THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS which I plan to launch this spring.
A donation of £100 or more includes two complimentary tickets.
It is five months since the death of James Fenimore Cooper, an evening in late winter. The island of Manhattan glows softly against the darkness. Some four-and-a-half thousand street lamps are blazing between the East River and the Hudson. Crowds in their multitude assemble outside Metropolitan Hall on Broadway opposite fashionable Bond Street. The great avenue is always busy with people. From the Battery to Union Square, Broadway is a carnival of shops, hotels, theaters, grand homes, and restaurants. A British tourist around this time likened the congestion of people here to all the traffic of the Strand and Cheapside in London squeezed onto Oxford Street.
Metropolitan Hall is a jewel of the avenue. The imposing theater is the largest in America. Only the opera houses of Milan, London, and Havana are larger. It anchors an entertainment district that spans south to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and north to the Astor Place Opera House. Tonight the traffic of Broadway, still a two-way street, seems to converge upon the theater.
People arrive by horse-drawn carriages. They arrive on foot. The night is cold, coming off of a balmy day. Temperatures hang just above freezing. By morning the city will be blanketed in fog. The Hall is illuminated, inside and out, by modern gas lamps. The people now filtering in are bathed by warm light. They enter a vast space of brightness and ornament; they greet one another as they take seats. This is, an early biographer of Cooper would later write, “the most cultivated audience the city could boast.”
A number of famous men take seats upon the stage: Daniel Webster, the former senator from Massachusetts and sitting secretary of state; Washington Irving, the great essayist and author; Ambrose Kingsland, mayor of New York; and William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Post. At eight o’clock, Irving steps forward to address the crowd. He says only a few words, praising “the genius of one” who is entitled “to the love, respect, and admiration of every American.” He is speaking of Cooper.
The event is a public memorial for the late author of The Last of the Mohicans. It is, on the surface, unremarkable that such an event should be held. James Fenimore Cooper was America’s first novelist and one of its first celebrities. Over the course of a prolific career he created an enduring national mythology. Yet there is a deeper significance to this gathering.
Irving introduces Daniel Webster, who steps forward. The great orator praises Cooper for his “literary productions, taste, talent, and genius.” The audience applauds when he says that Cooper’s writings “were patriotic—American throughout.” Letters are read from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, honoring Cooper.
The man is to be remade in marble—figuratively, through these accolades—and, perhaps, literally, as the proceeds of the evening will go toward the commission of a statue. All of this is natural, of course. But the man of flesh and blood and passion does not yield so easily to the transformation. There is a hint of controversy. In Melville’s letter, the author of Moby Dick writes of Cooper, “It always much pained me, that for any reason, in his latter years, his fame…should have apparently received a slight, temporary clouding, from some very paltry accidents, incident more or less to the general career of letters.”
William Cullen Bryant takes the podium. He was a personal friend and speaks at length about Cooper’s life. During the course of his address he names the controversy to which Melville had alluded. “Scarce any thing in Cooper’s life was so remarkable,” Bryant says, “as his contest with the newspaper press.”
Cooper had become embroiled in the politics of the Jacksonian period. Through a series of mutual provocations and misunderstandings, Cooper, a Jackson Democrat, embarked on a long, bitter, public war of words against the newspaper editors aligned with the rival Whig party. The field of battle advanced from the printed page to the courtroom. Bryant paints a flattering portrait of Cooper’s conduct and outcome in the affair: he “behaved liberally toward his antagonists,” while “vindicating himself to his readers,” and chastening the press into “docility” and “good manners.” In fact, Cooper lost much to the controversy. At the time of his death he had only just begun to repair a career that had been brought almost to ruins.
It is significant that Washington Irving and Daniel Webster are involved in the proceedings. Indeed, Irving is chairman of the memorial committee. Notwithstanding their national prominence the involvement of these two men is counter-intuitive. Cooper had treated Irving poorly in life, rebuffing his friendship and insulting him to mutual friends. It was a private matter, tangential to Cooper’s larger public battles, but well known within their literary circle. Although Cooper and Webster had no history, Webster was, is, and always shall be the most celebrated figure associated with the Whig party.
Some critics take issue with these speakers. Some find the selection of Webster unsuitable, dismissing his eulogy as commonplace or without substance. But the audience seems, by their applause, to understand the extraordinary gesture being made: Cooper is now reconciled with his country. The controversies of his life are put to rest, the wounds healed. Let there be no question of his genius or his patriotism.
The man begins to fade from memory. His books alone are left to posterity. Cooper’s vision of America was romantic and ambiguous, focused on the meeting point of wild places (forest, sea) and hard, persevering men. His greatest creation, Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman featured in his most enduring work, became a symbol of the American spirit. Natty, like his author, chafes against the limits of American life. Over the course of five novels Natty serves the cause of civIlization while retreating from its encroachment. His final bitter victory is to die with the frontier rather than submit himself to human law or join the company of his fellow men.
Cooper was at once a champion and critic of American society. While abroad in Europe he defended his country against foreign opinion with crusading zeal. At home he was the devil’s own advocate toward American democracy and culture. He opposed the great men of his day. Yet here they were, at Metropolitan Hall, to honor him. These contradictions cannot be untangled without losing some truth about the man and his age.
What do we learn by studying Cooper? According to Daniel Webster, “we may read the nation’s history in his life.” Let us go back then to the beginning. The life of James Fenimore Cooper and the history of the United States begin, together, in a different, younger land.