Monday, July 26, 2010


Erin McKean took on verbification in last Sunday's Boston Globe.[1] We friend and unfriend, we Google, we TiVo, we Photoshop, we party! Verbing comes naturally; so much so that about a fifth of our verbs were originally nouns.[2] Shakespeare did it much and well.[3] It can humorize language and the subject itself is a source of humor, as Bill Watterson knew well.[4]

It's not long since McKean's colleague, Sam Allis, vented his prejudices on the subject. He says he likes "sext," but not "caveat" or "impact" and ends, lamely, with the obvious: it's all a matter of personal likes and dislikes.[5] Some people may cringe on hearing "we have to decision this." Others detest "I'm going to gift him this" or "I'm going to re-gift this hideous clock we got as a wedding present." But many converted nouns enliven the language and eliminate wordy constructions. Why shouldn't we "text" our friends when the alternative is "sending a text message" to them?

You can verb names as Xander shows us: "Does anybody else feel like they've been Keyser Söze'd?"[6] The politics of confirmation hearings has given us "Borked" and (with less success) "Lewinskyed." And speaking of her, the use of passive-voice confessions is, we all know, Clintonizing ("mistakes were made").

Some verbifications only work poetically; you can't see using them in ordinary speech. For example, when Cleopatra explains why suicide is better than being paraded through Rome like a trophy she complains that "mechanic slaves with greasy aprons...shall uplift us to the view...and I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness i' the posture of a whore."[7]

I would have thought a most extreme example of impractical verbing to have been Heidegger's verbing of the word thing. He uses the German word bedingt to mean bethinged and talks about the things in a work of art thinging the observer. He says that things present in works of art can gather meaning into themselves by a process he calls thinging of things. In a passage of masterful obscurity he tells the reader "by thinging, things carry out world.... Thinging, things are things. Thinging, they gesture &mdash gestate — world."[8]

It turns out, however, that thinging isn't only an arcane philosophic term used by a weird ex-Nazi. It's "an ambiguous verb used to replace a verb that you can't come up with at the moment," as in "Hey mom. Yeah, just got back from, um, thinging my friends" or "Is Kayla dating that guy now? I thought they were just friends..." "No, they aren't dating, they are just thinging now."[9]


Some sources:

Conversion (linguistics) article in wikipedia

Languaging at Its Best

The Modern Practice of Making Certain Nouns into Verbs on Volokh Conspiracy

Heidegger the Shaman

The Thinging of the Thing: The Ethic of Conditionality in Heidegger's Later Work

Da kine on wikipedia

Thing theory on wikipedia



[1] Verbed!,
Not every noun wants to stay that way, by Erin McKean, in The Word, on, July 25, 2010

[2] In his book, The Language Instinct (Morrow, 1994), he says, "Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns. Considering just the human body, you can head a committee, scalp the missionary, eye a babe, stomach someone's complaints, and so on -- virtually every body part can be verbed." (Quoted from Grammar Puss on the Harvard web site.)

[3] Shakespearean examples include "I'll unhair thy head." "The thunder would not peace at my bidding". "He ploughed her, and she cropped." "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels." "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle."

[4] If I find that I'm violating copyright in reproducing this image, I'll promptly remove it.

[5] Allis writes: "I’m saddened to report 'unfriend' was named Word of the Year in 2009 by the New Oxford American Dictionary. ... Let’s not forget former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who famously used 'caveat' as a verb at a Senate hearing in 1980. This prompted New York Times word guru William Safire to define such usage as 'a new linguistic form called haigravation.' The first Marquess of Argyll reportedly used 'caveat' as a verb — 'But I would caveat this' — in his short address before he was executed for treason in 1661. Does that matter a whit to you?"
-- War of words, The English language is constantly changing, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it, by Sam Allis, Boston Globe, May 24, 2010

[6] "The Puppet Show," Buffy the Vampire Slayer, May 5, 1997. Xander verbifies names quite often. The BuffyGuide explains this one: "In the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects, Keyser Söze was the name of a legendary master criminal whose name was on the lips of everyone who'd witnessed one of his crimes, but who the police couldn't even begin to find. At the end of the movie, it's revealed that he was right under everyone's nose the entire time."

[7] Scene 2 in Act 5 of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:
Nay, ’tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.
-- Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2.
[8] The quotes come from Heidegger's essay Language which analyzes Georg Trakl's poem, A Winter Evening. Here's the poem:
“Ein Winterabend,” von George Trakl

Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fällt,
Lang die Abendglocke läutet,
Vielen ist der Tisch bereitet
Und das Haus ist wohlbestellt.

Mancher auf der Wanderschaft
Kommt ans Tor auf dunklen Pfaden.
Golden blüht der Baum der Gnaden
Aus der Erde kühlem Saft.

Wanderer tritt still herein;
Schmerz versteinert die Schwelle.
Da erglänzt in reiner Helle
Auf dem Tische Brot und Wein.

“A Winter Evening,” by George Trakl
Literal translation by Ted Hayes

When the snow falls on the window,
The Vesper bell tolls long,
The table is readied for many,
And the house is well ordered.

Many on their wanderings
Come to the door on dark paths.
Golden blooms the Tree of Graces
From the Earth’s cool sap.

Wanderer steps quietly herein,
Pain turns the Threshold to Stone.
There shines in pure brightness
On the table bread and wine.

“A Winter Evening,” translated by Albert Hofstadter

Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.

From Limina.Log:
[9] (urban dictionary)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

a re-creation of the living world

Berenice Abbott said the whole essence of the photographic art was realism. She rebelled against sentimental pictorialists who imitated the salon art of the Victorian Age and trained herself to take photographs that had technical rather than painterly artistry. She aimed for an image that gave exact documentation to the space which opened to the camera's view in one instant of time. For her, the photographer's job was to choose what the camera saw in that instant. She said, "A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term – selectivity." She said "photographers spend too much time in the darkroom, with the result that creative camera work is seriously interfered with. The stale vogue of drowning in technique and ignoring content adds to the pestilence and has become, for many, part of today’s general hysteria."

She also said: "Today the challenge to photographers is great because we are living in a momentous period. History is pushing us to the brink of a realistic age as never before. I believe there is no more creative medium than photography to recreate the living world of our time."*

Despite this emphasis on subject matter, Abbott had a painterly eye. She knew that the greatest photographs were much more than simply interesting documents. She had a genius for capturing scenes of great artistic beauty and knew how to paint with light. As these examples show, she was one of the great artists of light and dark, of intense blacks and whites and of the halftones between.

{May 22, 1936 - Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn, Yuban Warehouse. Four-story brick warehouse with arched windows and doors, some of which are open, partially hiding the Yuban Coffee advertisement painted on it. Caption: "Located in the part of Brooklyn that is now called DUMBO, the Empire Stores warehouse once housed the Yuban Coffee Company, importers of coffee from South America. The structure was part of a once-bustling waterfront that had already experienced steep declines by the 1930s. Abbott photographed the building as part of her Changing New York series, only a few years before Yuban vacated the premises in 1939. While much has changed in the surrounding area, the Empire Stores warehouse sits very much as it did in the 1930s, despite 70 years of disuse. Today the structure is surrounded by some of Brooklyn’s most important cultural institutions—St. Ann’s Warehouse, Galapagos Art Space, powerHouse books—but as of yet no one has come up with a plan to repurpose the historic structure. The building is now part of The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Endangered Buildings Initiative. Source: the fansinaflashbulb blog}

{May 14, 1936. Facade, 14 West 12th Street, Manhattan. Boys in sailor hats play with toy guns under fanciful wrought iron porch front of clapboard house with shuttered windows; girl sits on railing. Source: The New York Public Library's photostream on flickr}

{August 12, 1938. City Vista, West Street, looking east, Manhattan. Men and trucks in foreground, Hudson Terminal and other buildings in the haze beyond. Source: The New York Public Library's photostream on flickr}



* These quotes come from "Photography at the Crossroads" (1951) by Berenice Abbott republished in The Education of a Photographer, Vol 10, edited by Charles Traub, Steven Heller, and Adam B. Bell (Allworth Communications, Inc., 2006)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Spen King

I noticed an obit the other day reporting that the designer of the Range Rover had died "of injuries sustained in a collision between his bicycle and a van." Although the death has been widely reported, its cause has remained vague. Reporters have contented themselves with repeating the passive-voice phrase I've just quoted and near variants: they say he died of "injuries that occurred during a cycling accident" or "after suffering complications following a cycling accident." None say how the crash occurred or who caused it. As Tom Vanderbilt and many bike bloggers tell us, reporters almost always describe crashes involving bikes and motor vehicles as if they simply happened of their own accord, without anyone bringing them about.

Still, about this particular crash there proved to be even fewer hard facts than usual. After spending a bit too much time on the search, at last I think I've got something. On June 9 the local paper reported that a man had been struck on the head and mortally injured in a collision with a van at an intersection in King's home town. The victim was unconscious when taken to the local hospital and soon after died. Although the reporter was unable to identify him, the description, location, and timing make it almost certain that the dead man was King.[1]

A guy named John Riley, writing to the discussion list called BentRider Online, adds this: "Apparently he [King] was riding a bike because an eye surgery precluded driving. Had a head-on collision with a van, but I can't find out any more about it." Riley then gives this quote: "The accident was a head-on between him on his bike (no helmet) and a delivery van last Tuesday, not far from his home. He had ridden to the ATM to get cash to pay his housekeeper. He cannot drive because of a detached retina operation a couple of weeks ago."[2]

King was in pretty good shape and quite active for an 85-year-old. An acquaintance of his said "If you're wondering why a man of 85 would be jumping on a bicycle, well then you didn't know Spen. He was a very fit, inquisitive, energetic engineer who refused to let the years slow him down.[3] Still, he had been forced to stop driving after an operation for a detached retina and one's reflexes at 85 are quite a bit slower than those of a younger man. It seems reasonable to conclude that his disabilities may, directly or indirectly, have brought about the crash, but, still, it would be good to know whether the driver of the van was speeding, turning a corner unsafely, using a mobile phone, or what.

If it seems ironic that the designer of the prototype of all SUVs was victim of a collision with a delivery van, it's really not, or not very much anyway. King didn't design the Land Rover as the glitzy monster of urban boulevards and suburban side streets. For him, it was a working vehicle for people who owned estates. Almost all the obits quote him as saying that vehicles like the Range Rover he created were "never intended as a status symbol but later incarnations of my design seem to be intended for that purpose." Some accounts say he called such status seekers "stupid."

Eventually, he came to regret having brought a gas-guzzler into the world, saying, in 2004, "I find it distressing that that the popularity of four-by-fours has had such a noticeable correlative effect on environmental damage."[4]

There is some irony, however, in the story of his death. It emerges in that fact that he had campaigned strenuously for improved forward driver vision. He pointed to numerous studies showing that pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists were at risk due to over-wide windshield posts and other obstructions of drivers' vision. One of the obits points out:
The danger was brought home to him when he stopped to let some pedestrians over a crossing. "I thought they were all clear; then, as I moved off, I found some more had followed behind them. They were hidden behind the screen pillar, and I had to jam the brakes on again." Other potential danger spots were junctions, roundabouts and right-hand bends. "Of course, if the driver moves his head he can see round the pillar. However, my observations and experience make me think drivers very often don't do this."
-- Safe Speed, SMIDSY (Sorry Mate, I Didn't See You)
Far from envisioning the celeb-piloted Rodeo Drive SUVs,[5] in designing the Range Rover he simply wished to provide some creature comforts to the gloriously rugged Rover.[6] If you've seen Stephen Frears' movie, The Queen, you'll probably recall the sequence where Queen Elizabeth gets stuck while driving her Rover at Balmoral. Her use of the car is the one King had in mind when he designed it.

{King with his Range Rover; source: Guardian}

{Queen Elizabeth driving her Range Rover; as you can see this is by Tim Graham on Getty Images}

This map shows about where the van crashed into King.

View Cross Ln, New St, Price Rd in a larger map

{Range Rover prototype, 1970; source: Ann Lockley's blog}


See also:

Charles Spencer King, wikipedia article

Father Of The Range Rover Dies At Age 85

Charles S. King, Range Rover Designer, Dies at 85, obit in the NY Times

Article by Spen King, The following is an extract of an article which appeared in: The Electronic Telegraph Tuesday 20 June 1995

Range Rover Creator Charles Spencer "Spen" King Dead at 85

father of Range Rover dies following bike accident

Range Rover Legend, Spen King, Dies after Bicycle Accident

First Range Rover designer dies

Charles Spencer King obituary in the Guardian

Charles Spencer King, British engineer who helped create Range Rover, dies at 85, obit in the Washington Post

Charles Spencer 'Spen' King (1925-2010) on the Classic and Performance Cars web site

Charles Spencer King, Creator of Range Rover, Dead at 85 on

Spen King

Obituary: Farewell to Spen King, the man who made the Range Rover

Creator of Range Rover dies



[1] The report is in the Leaminton Courier and sister papers for June 9th. Here it is in full:
AN 85-year-old cyclist was found unconscious by ambulance crews after suffering serious head injuries in a crash with a van in Cubbington. The collision happened in Cross Lane, at the junction with New Street and Price Road near Cubbington Primary School at 3.20pm on Tuesday. An ambulance, a rapid response vehicle, and Warwickshire and Northamptonshire air ambulance attended the scene. A West Midlands ambulance service spokesman said:
On arrival crews found a bicycle and a van that had been in a collision. The cyclist, a man believed to be 85 years old, suffered serious head injuries and is believed to have been unconscious before the ambulance crews' arrival. The man received emergency treatment at the scene and was transferred by land ambulance to University Hospital, Coventry. The ambulance was met by a doctor who anaesthetised the patient, before continuing en route to the hospital for further emergency treatment. The hospital had been alerted to the arrival and his serious injuries. The van driver was not injured.
Police are appealing for witnesses to the accident, which took place near the school. Anyone who witnessed the collision is asked to contact PC Wayne Knight at the Greys Mallory Traffic base on 01926 415415. -- Elderly cyclist injured in crash with van in Cubbington
[2] Oddly, the link he provides with the quote does not lead back to it:

[3] Range Rover Creator Charles Spencer "Spen" King Dead at 85, British Automotive Legend Dies After Tragic Bicycle Accident, by Bill Baker

[4] Charles Spencer King obituary

[5] I got this from
Celebrity is a state of existential otherness, a kind of hyper-leverage in the world such that in any situation the celebrity has more traction, more weight to throw around, more altitude, a bigger nut, the best seat in the house. Such an advantaged state can also describe life behind the wheel of the Range Rover. All of this, it seems to me, presents a branding problem for Range Rover, articulated by no less than the man who invented it, Charles Spencer King. Mr. King, who died June 26, came to loathe the popularity of "Chelsea tractors" with wealthy urbanites—and he was in good company: several European cities have taken steps to ban SUVs from city streets. "Sadly, the 4x4 has become an acceptable alternative to Mercedes or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver," several obituaries noted that Mr. King told the Daily Mail in 2004. "To use them for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all, is completely stupid."
-- Range Rover: Still King of the Hill

[6] The is the rugged rover of post-war Britain.

These images come from an article, Fit for a Queen, which appeared in Land Rover in 2008.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

more Berenice Abbott

Here is a second set of photos by Berenice Abbott. My blog post, New York in the '30s, contains the first. As before, all come from the 1930s and appear in chronological order.

{Huts and unemployed, West Houston and Mercer Street, Manhattan. October 25, 1935. Source: John McNab's photostream on flickr}

{Daily News Building, 42nd Street between Second and Third Avenues, Manhattan — looking toward East River from tall building, News Bldg., brownstones, the Con Edison plant and an apartment building. November 21, 1935. Source: wirednewyork.}

{Patchin Place, Manhattan. Men sit on steps in dead-end Patchin Place, bare trees in front of the house, gas lamp at end of block. March 20, 1936. Patchin Place lies off West 10th Street in the Village. Caption: "Built around 1850 as living quarters for the Basque waiters working at the nearby Brevoort Hotel, the 3-story houses didn’t have electricity or running water until the teens, about the time the waiters moved out and artists, actors, and writers moved in." Source: Summertime theater in Patchin Place on ephemeralnewyork}

{Nos. 1-3-5-7-9 Poplar Street. May 14, 1936. Caption from Museum of the City of New York: "On May 14, 1936, Abbott made eight photographs of houses in Brooklyn Heights. This view shows a row of pre-Civil War houses against the Manhattan skyline. At the end of Poplar Street is a holding tank for the adjacent Squibb pharmaceutical factory, a clear indication that these houses were too close to the industrial waterfront to be fashionable. In 1950, this stretch of Poplar Street was demolished for the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the pedestrian Promenade, which cantilevers over it." Source: Vintage Pictures}

{Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, Manhattan. Men window shop in store selling radios, elevated railroad station, Ninth Avenue line, right center, subway entrance visible. April 08, 1936. My source: John McNab's photostream}

{"El," Second and Third Avenue Lines, April 24, 1936. Caption: "In an image from Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, the El blocks out the sky, and the few people gathered on the streets below appear as menacing shadows. The scene is one of excitement and energy, but is also cold, dangerous, and uninviting." Source: The Elevated blog post on fansinaflashbulb}

{Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn, from the series Changing New York. May 22, 1936. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum}

{Travelling tin shop, Brooklyn. Tinker looks over his shoulder at camera while he ties box to wagon already loaded with pans, brushes, basins, etc. May 22, 1936. Source: NYPL's flickr set: Changing New York, 1935-1938. Caption from ephemeralnewyork: "Once the lifeblood of New York’s poorer neighborhoods, vendors like this traveling pots-and-pans salesman were a disappearing breed when Abbott took this photograph in 1936. The location of Abbott’s photograph is not specified, but the neighborhood resembles Talman and Jay Streets, which she photographed the same day." -- The Brooklyn pots-and-pans peddler}

{Henry Street. November 29, 1935. Caption from Museum of the City of New York: "Just east of New York's civic center lay some of the city's oldest slums. Abbott made the most of this stark juxtaposition, showing the Municipal Building and the Woolworth Building rising above the old-law tenements of Henry Street. Monuments to civic pride and private enterprise, both skyscrapers were built on the eve of World War I. The Henry Street Settlement and the Jacob Riis Settlement House lie just outside the area depicted in the photograph. Ironically, the ancient tenements of Henry Street remain exactly as they did in Abbott's day, accommodating the overflow from Chinatown of recent Asian immigrants. The Woolworth and Municipal Building towers still rise up over the tenements, but they were dwarfed by the twin towers of the World Trade Center, completed in the 1970s. My source: wiredinnewyork}

{Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway, Manhattan, July 16, 1936. Source: John McNab's photostream}

{Flat Iron Building, Madison Square. MAY 18, 1938. Caption: "Berenice Abbott photographed the Fuller building, nicknamed the Flatiron, from the top floor of a six-story commercial building nearby." Source:}

{Broadway to the Battery. May 4, 1938. Caption from the Museum of the City of New York: "In Broadway to the Battery, the foreground (right) is dominated by the Adams Building. At the foot of Broadway is Battery Park (left); rising from the waterfront on West Street is the Whitehall Building (right; see Battery, Foot of West Street); and in the distance is the Statue of Liberty. Abbott had anticipated the arrival of the ocean liner Ile de France in the composition. Source: flickr}


Additional sources:

About Changing New York by Julia Van Haaften for the New York Public Library, 1996

Berenice Abbott Works Online, article in artcyclopedia


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

beauty is bought by judgement of the eye

During summer vacations on the Maine coast I'd enjoy looking east over Blue Hill Bay, across Tinker Island to Mount Desert Island. It disturbed me, just a little, that my vantage often put a power line in my line of view.

These photos, from that vantage, show the view and the offending wire.

{Uploaded to flickr on June 8, 2009 by Hypothetical Destination}

{Uploaded to flickr on June 8, 2009 by Hypothetical Destination}

The coast at this point is very photogenic, as many photographs attest, including these four.

{Uploaded to flickr on August 17, 2008, by j0hng4lt}

{Uploaded to flickr on August 17, 2008, by j0hng4lt}

{Uploaded on May 24, 2010 by brotherM}

{I took this one, same weekend as the ones by "Hypothetical Destination" (who's my niece).}

This map shows the Bay. The arrow indicates the position of camera for the shots out across it.

However, this post is not really about that scenic wonderland. It's about learning to appreciate the "interference" of power lines, phone poles, TV antennas, and the like. These things, I've come to learn, have their own aesthetic appeal.

{This is “The Glow of the City,” 1929, by Australian-born artist Martin Lewis; caption: "That’s the Chanin Building, an Art Deco skyscraper on 42nd Street, the woman is gazing at dreamily." Source: wildnewyork on ephemeralnewyork}

This is from a set called Today's Japan by Osamu Kanemura.

This is from a set on flickr by konishiroku_.

{Uploaded to flickr on July 19, 2010, by konishiroku_}

This is Army Street, San Francisco, in 1947.

{source: uploaded to photobucket by tqnewspix; I saw it first on charlottinka's nothing new blog.}

This is 'Wires at dawn' from a set on flickr by PetterPhoto.

{Uploaded to flickr on November 26, 2009, by PetterPhoto}


The title of this post comes from Love's Labours Lost
Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues

Monday, July 19, 2010

a life that breathes its own breath

Niall Ferguson's The ascent of money: a financial history of the world (2008) is one of my current reads. It's "big history," a broad overview of currency and other (many other) financial instruments. I wish he'd given more than a quick a once-over to the era which fascinates me: the financial revolution (so-called) that evolved from Renaissance Italy, to Reformation Holland, and Restoration England in the early modern period. But I find it interesting and fun to read all the same. The work makes plain that one of my cherished day dreams — a society based on the anarchic principles held dear by George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin, and others — is pretty much an impossible one. So too, the deep-ingrained faith of communists and socialists in the elimination of the cash nexus as a dominant measure of value.

This came to mind when my morning cruise across a small slice of the internet brought up a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: "The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it."

I like to search out the origins of inspirational quotes; they're often not what they seem. This one is pretty much the genuine article. It turns out Thoreau didn't actually write those exact words. If you search the sentence, you will find thousands of repetitions of it in blogs and websites, but close to zero actual references back to the man's works.

What he said, in both his Journal and the book Walden, was this sentence fragment: "the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." It's not so pithy but its meaning is pretty much the same. Analyzing the differences would be an exercise, I believe, in pedantry.

Thoreau's argument in journal and book is much the same. It's the romantic notion that men lead dreary lives of toil which bring them no real satisfaction. They'd be happier if they could cast off the enslaving chains of obligation and live free. This is, of course, what he set out to do in removing himself to Walden Pond, but he never tells us how the world would run if everyone did the same (and he himself doesn't even try to live without receiving more material goods from well-wishers than he's able to exchange for them). I think we all have to agree that his experiment of life in the woods is like my Orwellian day dream: even with the best will in the world you must reluctantly conclude that it's a concept that doesn't scale up.

Here's some of the argument as developed in the Journal:
... Are we not reminded in our better moments that we have been needlessly husbanding somewhat, perchance our little God-derived capital, or title to capital, guarding it by methods we know? But the most diffuse prodigality a better wisdom teaches, — that we hold nothing. We are not what we were. By usurers' craft, by Jewish methods, we strive to retain and increase the divinity in us, when infinitely the greater part of divinity is out of us. ... [You must] roam far, grasp life and conquer it, learn much and live. ... Be unwise and daring. ... Men come home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines and is sickly because it breathes its own breath. Their shadows morning and evening reach farther than their daily steps. But [so much better to] come home from far, from ventures and perils, from enterprise and discovery and crusading, with faith. ...
And this from Walden:
... [Civilized men] have designs on us for our benefit, in making the life of a civilized people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and perfect that of the race. But I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage. ... While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. ... We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. ... Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins to-day, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer. In such a neighborhood as this, boards and shingles, lime and bricks, are cheaper and more easily obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient quantities, or even well-tempered clay or flat stones. I speak understandingly on this subject, for I have made myself acquainted with it both theoretically and practically. With a little more wit we might use these materials so as to become richer than the richest now are, and make our civilization a blessing. The civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage. But to make haste to my own experiment. ...

{you can find this poster all over the web}

{Thoreau in 1862, artist unknown; source: wikipedia}


Here is the full context of the quote from the Journal:
Though the race is not so degenerated but a man might possibly live in a cave to-day and keep himself warm by furs, yet, as caves and wild beasts are not plenty enough to accommodate all at the present day, it were certainly better to accept the advantages which the invention and industry of mankind offer. In thickly settled civilized communities, boards and shingles, lime and brick, are cheaper and more easily come by than suitable caves, or the whole logs, or bark in sufficient quantity, or even well-tempered clay or flat stones. A tolerable house for a rude and hardy race that lived much out of doors was once made here without any of these last materials. According to the testimony of the first settlers of Boston, an Indian wigwam was as comfortable in winter as an English house with all its wainscotting, and they had advanced so far as to regulate the effect of the wind by a mat suspended over the hole in the roof, which was moved by a string. Such a lodge was, in the first instance, constructed in a day or two and taken down and put up again in a few hours, and every family had one.

Thus, to try our civilization by a fair test, in the ruder states of society every family owns a shelter as good as the best, and sufficient for its ruder and simpler wants; but in modern civilized society, though the birds of the air have their nests, and woodchucks and foxes their holes, though each one is commonly the owner of his coat and hat though never so poor, yet not more than one man in a thousand owns a shelter, but the nine hundred and ninety-nine pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams and contributes to keep them poor as long as they live. But, answers one, by simply paying this annual tax the poorest man secures an abode which is a palace compared to the Indian's. An annual rent of from twenty to sixty or seventy dollars entitles him to the benefit of all the improvements of centuries, — Rumford fireplace, back plastering, Venetian blinds, copper pump, spring lock, etc., etc. But while civilization has been improving our houses, she has not equally improved the men who should occupy them. She has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. The mason who finishes the cornice of the palace returns at night, perchance, to a hut no better than a wigwam. If she claims to have made a real advance in the welfare of man, she must show how she has produced better dwellings without making them more costly. And the cost of a thing, it will be remembered, is the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. An average house costs perhaps from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and to earn — this sum will require from fifteen to twenty years of the day laborer's life, even if he is not incumbered with a family; so that he must spend more than half his life before a wigwam can be earned; and if we suppose he pays a rent instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?

When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, for instance, who are at least as well off as the other classes, what are they about? For the most part I find that they have been toiling ten, twenty, or thirty years to pay for their farms, and we may set down one half of that toil to the cost of their houses; and commonly they have not yet paid for them. This is the reason they are poor; and for similar reasons we are all poor in respect to a thousand savage comforts, though surrounded by luxuries.

But most men do not know what a house is, and the mass are actually poor all their days because they think they must have such an one as their neighbor's. As if one were to wear any sort of coat the tailor might cut out for him, or, gradually leaving off palm-leaf hat and cap of woodchuck-skin, should complain of hard times because he could not buy him a crown!

-- The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Journal, ed. by Bradford Torrey, 1837-1846, 1850-Nov. 3, 1861, Volume 7, edited by Bradford Torrey and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (Houghton Mifflin, 1906)
Here is the full context of the quote from Walden:
In the savage state every family owns a shelter as good as the best, and sufficient for its coarser and simpler wants; but I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter. In the large towns and cities, where civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. I do not mean to insist here on the disadvantage of hiring compared with owning, but it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it; nor can he, in the long run, any better afford to hire. But, answers one, by merely paying this tax the poor civilized man secures an abode which is a palace compared with the savage's. An annual rent of from twenty-five to a hundred dollars (these are the country rates) entitles him to the benefit of the improvements of centuries, spacious apartments, clean paint and paper, Rumford fireplace, back plastering, Venetian blinds, copper pump, spring lock, a commodious cellar, and many other things. But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man, — and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages, — it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. An average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer's life, even if he is not encumbered with a family, — estimating the pecuniary value of every man's labor at one dollar a day, for if some receive more, others receive less; — so that he must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam will be earned. If we suppose him to pay a rent instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?

It may be guessed that I reduce almost the whole advantage of holding this superfluous property as a fund in store against the future, so far as the individual is concerned, mainly to the defraying of funeral expenses. But perhaps a man is not required to bury himself. Nevertheless this points to an important distinction between the civilized man and the savage; and, no doubt, they have designs on us for our benefit, in making the life of a civilized people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and perfect that of the race. But I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage. What mean ye by saying that the poor ye have always with you, or that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?
" As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel."

"Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth it shall die."
When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms, which commonly they have inherited with encumbrances, or else bought with hired money, — and we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses, — but commonly they have not paid for them yet. It is true, the encumbrances sometimes outweigh the value of the farm, so that the farm itself becomes one great encumbrance, and still a man is found to inherit it, being well acquainted with it, as he says. On applying to the assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot at once name a dozen in the town who own their farms free and clear. If you would know the history of these homesteads, inquire at the bank where they are mortgaged. The man who has actually paid for his farm with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point to him. I doubt if there are three such men in Concord. What has been said of the merchants, that a very large majority, even ninety-seven in a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the farmers. With regard to the merchants, however, one of them says pertinently that a great part of their failures are not genuine pecuniary failures, but merely failures to fulfil their engagements, because it is inconvenient; that is, it is the moral character that breaks down. But this puts an infinitely worse face on the matter, and suggests, beside, that probably not even the other three succeed in saving their souls, but are perchance bankrupt in a worse sense than they who fail honestly. Bankruptcy and repudiation are the springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of famine. Yet the Middlesex Cattle Show goes off here with eclat annually, as if all the joints of the agricultural machine were suent.

-- The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Walden, Volume 2, edited by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn and Bradford Torrey (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1906)

It's irrelevant but (I think) interesting that a Google search of the Thoreau quote turns up a web page called Leatherman's Loop about a 10k trail race held each spring n Cross River, NY. I've previously written about the history of the Leatherman, and this page gives a good short account of the man and his doings: The Legend of The Leatherman.

That's interesting, but it's also interesting that the Thoreau quote does not actually appear on the web page. You have to look at page source to figure out that the person who put together the page used the quote as a meta title at one time (though no longer), why I could not say.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New York in the '30s

Berenice Abbott is famous for her photographs of New York City in the 1930s. In 1935 she was taken on as a photographer in the Federal Art Project and assigned to continue work she had already begun in a self-directed program called "Changing New York." Using a large-format Graflex camera she took a bit more than 300 photos over the next four years. All the negatives are now in collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The New York Public Library, which holds copies of the photos, has put 160 of them on flickr. The images are also in NYPL's Digital Gallery. Because Abbott was an FAP employee, all are in the public domain.

Here are some of the 160 that I like best. They're in chronological order and encompass most of a year from October, 1935, through August, 1936. The captions contain the title of the photo. In many cases there's also a description by an NYPL curator.

{Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan. October 03, 1935}

{Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan. October 24, 1935}

{Man descends steps of #2 Minetta street, doorways of each house are adorned with ionic columns; November 21, 1935}

{Fulton Street Dock, Manhattan skyline, Manhattan. Men walk on pier where sailing vessels are moored, skyline beyond. November 26, 1935}

{Henry Street, Manhattan. Snow remains in the shady parts of Henry Street which is lined with 6-7-story buildings, the Municipal and other buildings rise above end of st. November 29, 1935}

{Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan. Wagon and cars line narrow street lit by a street light, though skyscrapers above are still in sunlight. November 29, 1935}

{Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Low winter sun illuminates Seventh Avenue and the harbor brightly, buildings along avenue almost silhouettes. December 05, 1935}

{Ferry, West 23rd Street, Manhattan. Lackawanna and Hoboken ferries, with clock tower above, C.R.R. of N.J. ferry, left, 14th St. trolley and cars and wagons. December 23, 1935}

{'El' station, Sixth and Ninth Avenue Lines: downtown side, 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Manhattan. Men gather near stove, woman waits by door, turnstiles in foreground inside 'el' station with etched glass, carved wood details. February 06, 1936}

{Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan. Man takes pie out of Automat, stone counters and walls below metal and glass display. February 10, 1936}

{Columbus Circle, Manhattan. Looking Northwest from above the circle, statue of Columbus, B&O bus station topped with Coca-Cola sign, other signs, Central Park with snow. February 10, 1938}

{Pike and Henry Streets, Manhattan. Looking down Pike Street toward the Manhattan Bridge, street half in shadow, rubble in gutters, some traffic. March 06, 1936}

{Court of first model tenement house in New York, 72nd Street and First Avenue, Manhattan. Poles in courtyard support lines loaded with laundry, apartment houses beyond. March 16, 1936}

{A & P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.), 246 Third Avenue, Manhattan. Window display showing can goods, eggs, crackers, etc. and signs for sale items, ads with Kate Smith inviting you to try 2 different coffees. March 16, 1936}

{Manhattan Skyline: I. South Street and Jones Lane, Manhattan. Looking from pier toward Manhattan, tugboats moored left, Downtown Skyport, right, skyscrapers in the background. March 26, 1936}

{Fifth Avenue, Nos. 4, 6, 8, Manhattan. Three large row houses, including one of marble (#8) and traffic on Fifth Ave. and 8th St., and trolley tracks in 8th St. March 20, 1936}

{Theoline, Pier 11, East River, Manhattan. View from aft of ship looking toward lower Manhattan, men line pier to view ship. April 09, 1936}

{Willow and Poplar Street, looking toward Manhattan, Brooklyn. Laundry wagon, cars, along sloping street lined with rowhouses, skyline of Manhattan visible above buildings at end of the street. May 14, 1936}

{Talman Street, between Jay and Bridge street, Brooklyn. African American woman sits at street edge with two children, empty lots on either side of street, old 2 and 3 story clapboard houses further up. May 22, 1936}

{Jay Street, No. 115, Brooklyn. Three generations of African Americans on stoop of brick home with iron rails on steps. May 22, 1936}

{Herald Square, 34th and Broadway, Manhattan. Looking down on busy intersection, people crossing, buses, trucks, cabs, other autos, Macy's entrance just visible with union picket in front. July 16, 1936}

{Watuppa, from water front, Brooklyn, Manhattan. Looking broadside at the tugboat Watuppa, with the lower Manhattan (from the Municipal Bldg. south) skyline in the background. August 10, 1936}

{Tugboats, Pier 11, East River, Manhattan. Looking along beam of tugboat Bess and at bow of McAllister Bros. tugboat, other boats in background. August 12, 1936}

{Construction old and new, from Washington Street #37, Manhattan. Wash hangs from lines outside 6 story tenement which is dwarfed by large buildings around it. August 12, 1936}

{Reade Street, between West and Washington Streets, Manhattan. Looking into street where goods are stacked below awnings, trucks and wagons at curbs. 1935-1938}


Photo of Berenice Abbott by Man Ray


Some sources:

Berenice Abbott's Changing New York, 1935-1939, Museum of the City of New York; A Fantastic Passion for New York, by Bonnie Yochelson

Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars by Melissa A. McEuen (University Press of Kentucky, 2004)

Berenice Abbott, photographer: an independent vision by George Sullivan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)

Berenice Abbott article in wikipedia

Berenice Abbott Minneapolis Institute of Arts

About Berenice Abbott, NYPL

Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott, 1935-1938, NYPL

Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, Museum of the City of New York

Berenice Abbott, Getty Museum

NEW YORK CHANGING. Since 1997 Douglas Levere has been rephotographing Berenice Abbott's Changing New York, 1939.