For all the differences in the way they lived, their experiences, expectations, even life expectancy, the people of the past had more in common with “moderns” like us, than perhaps we appreciate. As part of my research into William Scoresby Jr.’s whaling voyages, and in an attempt to reach a workable understanding of early nineteenth century life, I’ve been reading Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, first published between 1834 and 1840., and first published together in 1862. I’ve been reading a battered, rebound copy of the 1862 edition, which I picked up for £1 a few months ago (we live in remarkable times). Anyway, De Quincey is an eccentric and opinionated writer, known for his racy style (for the time), and anecdotal digressions.
I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) as an undergraduate. De Quincey’s restlessness appealed to me then, but what I find fascinating now, in this later work, and in my middle age, is the way his sensibility grates against the modern world: how terrifying must the railways, and the growth of industrial towns, have been to a generation that grew up without them? In that respect, he reminds me of my own generation, with our pre-digital childhoods and hyper-connected adult lives. Here he is on the poet Wordsworth’s older brother, Richard:
… he had become a thriving solicitor, at one of the inns of court in London; and, if he died only moderately rich, and much below the experience of his acquaintance, in the final result of his laborious life, it was because he was moderate in his desires; and, in his later years, reverting to the pastoral region of his infancy and boyhood, chose rather to sit down by a hearth of his own amongst the Cumberland mountains, and wisely to woo the deities of domestic pleasures and health, than to chase after wealth in the feverish crowds of the capital.
Back in 2013, as part of my work in Continuing Education, I was involved in organising a marathon reading of Moby-Dick at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. Although the organising was complicated (all those chapters to read at the right time over three days in two venues) it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Melville’s challenging, troublesome book came alive in the voices of over 100 lovely volunteers. I’m quite familiar with Moby-Dick, but I heard a lightness and humour I hadn’t fully understood before.
Four years later and I’m at it again with another waterborne tale, Swallows and Amazons, in the Lake District. It won’t take three days this time (I calculate nine hours), but it will be outdoors, or at least in a small marquee, on the northern shore of Coniston Water near the boating centre. We begin at 9am on September 3rd, 2017, and we’ll read until around 6pm. There will be tea, and possibly cake. Many volunteers have already signed up, but it’s free to all, so if you want to get involved, let me know which chapter you want to read (or share reading) here: ifnotduffers.org/
In the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a key port in the “triangular trade” in which ships sailed from Britain to West Africa, collected a cargo of living humans, then crossed the Atlantic to the Americas to sell them on. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest families were involved in slave trading, or profited from slavery, including several who lived in Abercromby Square, now part of the University of Liverpool. The trade was made illegal in 1807, though of course slavery in the United States and the Caribbean continued for years afterwards.
But what the law says should happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes quite different. Back in 2014, while I was researching a short piece on Henry Howard Brownell, the American Civil War poet and abolitionist, I came across an interesting letter (reproduced below) that is suggestive, to me at least, of slave trading going on in Liverpool as late as 1825. It’s far from definitive–there is no actual mention of slaves, for obvious reasons–but it’s intriguing.
As an abolitionist, Brownell had an interesting background. His mother came from the DeWolf family of Rhode Island so he was a close relative of James DeWolf (sometimes written D’Wolf), a major ship owner, slave trader and privateer. Although based in the North East, the DeWolfs were slave owners in Cuba and the southern US states, and are known to have continued to transport and trade in slaves well into the nineteenth century, and to have used their influence to evade the law. They were immensely rich and often packed the courts with family members, and controlled the excise in Bristol, RI.
The letter itself is from a man called Martin (?) Bennett to John DeWolf (James’s brother I think), dated April 16 (?), 1825, and was written when the ship (owned by DeWolf) arrived in Liverpool with cotton from New Orleans. Apart from revealing the massive profit on cotton, it ends with the following:
“I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.”
There is no certainty in this of course, but word “them” and the bit about keeping them on the vessel under “particular care,” suggests something alive, which I doubt was sheep.
I’d be interested to know what others think. Hat tip to the Rhode Island Historical Society, which is where this came from.
It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so it seems appropriate that I should revisit Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, the book I published in 2008 about the Cain’s brewery in Liverpool. After the book was finished the brewery struggled on for a couple of years but has now closed. It is about to be transformed into a centre for independent retailers and an apartment block, but in the mean time it is host to the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. I was asked to produce an audio guide giving some historical background to the brewery, but tying it in to the Biennial’s themes:
Liverpool Biennial 2016 explores fictions, stories and histories, taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future. These journeys take the form of six ‘episodes’: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future and Flashback. They are sited in galleries, public spaces, unused buildings, through live performance and online. Many of the artists have made work for more than one episode, some works are repeated across different episodes, and some venues host more than one episode.
This is a fascinating talk about Melville’s novel in which Philip Hoare touches on his own interest in the book, on perceptions and representations of the whale, and how he came to be so connected with whales.
In the afternoon tide got the Ship opposite Mr Martines where we moored. I wished to proceed through the Bridge [in the entrance to Whitby harbour] but was overruled by the managing owners.
Mickey Spillane died yesterday, which I guess means this editorially challenged biographical essay I wrote needs updating now. I never really got along with Spillane’s writing–maybe I’m just not tough enough–but judging by the reaction to his death in the media, such as here (BBC), here (CNN), and here (The Guardian) and in the Washington Post, either I’m completely out of line or there are a lot of people along for the ride. I wish they could find more than a handful of quotations to use from his books. Anyway, news of his death is everywhere so there’s no point in me rattling on about it. The New York Times has an especially good piece. Get it before it goes behind the registration firewall. The Rap Sheet took a while to respond to the news and it shows in this excellent piece by J. Kingston Pierce, “Slippin’ Heaven a Mickey.”
Incidentally that BBC piece has a lovely quotation from Spillane himself: “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”
I’m not sure why that should be. It’s true that there seems to be an appetite for gore and grit among TV and film audiences that is absent among readers, but that doesn’t explain tough crime novels by writers such as Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane. Those novels have done a lot to mythologize twentieth century American urban life and have created an image of darkness, danger, and corruption. The classic Western on the other hand presents a frontier of around 1870 explained in terms of heroism, honest toil, and optimism. All the elements of the American myth in fact. The Salon article argues that it took four generations for the finest novels of the West to be written, from around the time of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964). Could it be I wonder that the move to realism is as much a reflection of America’s doubts about itself as it used to be–in the mid-twentieth century–about its confidence?
Here’s the opening of Willa Cather’s novel anyway, to show that whatever we’re doing with the Western now is a reclamation of what was possible a century ago. Hollywood has a lot to answer for:
“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves,headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain “elevator” at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought their wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars along the street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train in until night.”
--text from the Project Gutenberg edition.
June 16 is Bloomsday, named for the day on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set. 2006 is the 102nd anniversary of the date in the novel. It is a day for public readings, conferences, and festivals. And as in many previous years it will also be a day for debating the merits of allowing literary estates to fall into the hands of individuals. Stephen James Joyce, the novelist’s grandson is just one example of how this can go wrong. Stephen controls the publication of Joyce’s work; he has even admitted to destroying letters to Joyce and many scholars believe he has destroyed letters by Joyce himself. This article in the New Yorker gives some background to the whole sorry mess.
But after the many lawsuits Stephen has brought against scholars, actors, and even the Irish Government, 2006 looks like being the year for the backlash. Carol Schloss, and English professor at Stanford University is planning to sue the Joyce estate for the right to quote from the published works. She is going to be represented by Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Creative Commons projects, which is attempting to change the copyright environment for the benefit of everyone. Here’s his blog.