Sunday, July 17, 2016

A letter from Amos Tutuola

Twenty-four years ago, when I was a freshly-minted assistant professor, a colleague and I planned a book project to collect brief essays by writers around the world on the subject of language; it was to be titled "Without Any Rules: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular." In the end, we only received a small fraction of the hoped-for contributions, and the project remained incomplete. Some, though, were very kind and enthusiastic -- among these was the late Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, best known for The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He did indeed send the promised essay, and perhaps someday I'll find a home for it -- but in the meantime I'll always cherish our brief correspondence.

UPDATE: Mr. Tutuola's essay is being published in Transition 120, and the editors plan to use images of the original typescript!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The photographer, the madman

Many people today are familiar with the early photographic format known as the Ambrotype, but few are familiar with James Ambrose Cutting, the man who lent the process its most familiar name. Cutting was a man of many interests and pursuits, among them boating (he had a small personal yacht which he christened the Ambrotype) and natural history. Inspired by the work of the prominent scientist Louis Aggasiz, he partnered with Henry D. Butler to launch the Boston Aquarial Gardens on Bromfield Street in Boston, the first aquarium in the United States; Agassiz gave lectures there. Receipts, alas, did not quite keep up with expenses, and among the investors Cutting and Butler turned to was the showman P.T. Barnum, whose own American Museum in New York featured some marine exhibitions. As finances got tighter, Barnum put on the squeeze, eventually acquiring a controlling interest in the Aquarial Gardens, which were swiftly converted from a scientific establishment to a show-hall, featuring -- among other attractions -- a "Madame Lanista" who wrestled with snakes!

Cutting, disgusted with this turn of events, found a new partner and established the "New Boston Aquarial and Zoological Gardens" at the corner of Summer and Chauncy streets. Here, too though the need to draw a crowd led Cutting and Guay to seek out fresh attractions; one of their first was the Inuit couple who had lately served as Charles Francis Hall's guides in his search for the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, Ebierbing ("Joe") and Tookoolito ("Hannah"). Though popular, their appearance failed to generate the hoped-for revenue, and the new enterprise closed shortly afterwards. Distraught by the collapse of his venture, Cutting lost his mind, and was soon confined at an insane asylum near Worcester, Massachusetts; he died there in August of 1867. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The earliest portrait of the Virgin Mary?

Fordham University Theology professor Miachel Peppard has a bee in his bonnet -- and it's an interesting one. We have, as he points on in his recent opinion piece in the New York Times, very little representational art from the earliest era of Christianity. Among this small and precious store, the illustrated wall-panels from the ancient Syrian city of Dura (now Deir-es-Zor) loom large. Buried as a defensive fallback by occupying Roman troops around 250 A.D., the site offers a Pompeiian degree of preservation, the floors, walls, and objects of everyday life sealed up, the moment frozen in time. Among the items recovered there is a wall-panel from the baptistery of a substantial home, which includes in one corner a rough depiction of a woman at a well, identified by the Yale Art Gallery -- where it now resides -- as a depiction of the "Samaritan Woman" encountered by Jesus in the Gospel of John.

For some reason, this text was the subject of several recent sermons I've heard -- you can read the whole passage here, along with various commentaries here. Several points are key: The woman recognizes Jesus as a Jew, and he recognizes her as a Samaritan, by their clothing; Jesus compares water that the Samaritan woman is drawing with "living water," which one, having drunk, will never thirst again. Depictions of this scene are common in early Church iconography (all of it later, of course, than that in the Syrian baptistery).

Peppard thinks this might be the earliest "securely datable" image of the Virgin Mary; he points out that the Annunciation was said to have occurred when Mary had gone to fetch water from a well (a scene also shown, though less often, in early Church art).

But I'm not convinced. For one, it's in a baptistery -- surely a place where the references to "living water" would have special resonance. For two, even at this early date, I think Mary would have been shown with some sort of halo. The fact that the figure is shown alone, to my mind, doesn't shift the argument one way or the other, and as for invisible angels, I'm not convinced. In this early period, before the great conflicts over iconoclasm, it seems to me that anything and anyone important would be shown, at least in symbolic form -- in any case, there's neither Christ nor angel here. But still more convincing, to me, is that this woman is not wearing any kind of veil or head-covering, as a good Jewish woman of the era would; my understanding is that, among Samaritan women generally, such coverings were not commonly worn. She also seems to have bare feet -- it's hard to imagine an artist of this era drawing Mary in such a fashion! It's intriguing, certainly, but I don't think that this argument is compelling enough to declare this the earliest depiction of Mary -- though it may be one of the earliest of the Samaritan woman!

Monday, February 1, 2016

John Logie Baird in Tea Cards

The recent Google Doodle of John Logie Baird's Televisor doubtless raised a few eyebrows -- Baird? Television? Most people, especially in the United States, have never heard the name; most assume that TV was invented by RCA, or (if they're fans of the "lone inventor" school) Philo T. Farnsworth.

Those claims have their supporters, but there's really no question that Baird, a reclusive Scot who 'preferred to work alone' through much of his career, first demonstrated a working television system to members of the Royal Society in January of 1926.

At the time, he was working in a chilly garret on Frith Street in Soho; his "televisor" was a cobbled-together affair, making use of lenses made for bicycle-lamps, cardboard tubes, and old "Rich Mix" biscuit tins. The room was too small to accommodate more than a few people at a time, with the result that the august members of the Royal Society had to be escorted up the stairs in small groups, a few at a time, all still in their formal evening dress, and all a bit chilly.

Television's first subject -- a dummy head known affectionately as "Stookie Bill," was on display -- in one room in person, in another as a 30-line televised image. Baird then invited the skeprics to see each other via his apparatus, and lo! there they were. One participant, Sanger Shepherd (a pioneer of color photography), was particularly impressed, and was heard to exclaim "Baird has got it! The rest is merely a matter of £. s. d (pounds, shillings, and pence)."

Many years later, long after Baird's original mechanico-electric system had been supplanted by electronic television, these three "tea cards" -- included as premiums in boxes Brooke Bond and other brands of tea -- showed that, when it came to television, Mr. Baird was still 'first in the hearts of his countrymen.'

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Photo © Peter Hastings, All Rights Reserved
Alan Freed's original Moondog Coronation Ball, which was shut down a few minutes into the first set by the Cleveland Police on March 21st, 1952, is the stuff of Rock legend. Some historians, confusing later events in Freed's career after he moved to NYC and popularized "Rock 'n' Roll" among white teenage listeners, have claimed that the crowd that night was "mostly white." But in fact it was almost entirely black, though many surviving photographs are too small or blurry to confirm this. A few years ago, I was able to track down the man who took these original photos, the late Peter Hastings. At the time, he was a freelancer, though his services were later retained by the Cleveland Orchestra, where he was their  longtime official photographer. When I spoke with him on the phone, he recalled the evening as chaotic, and the light was so dim inside the Cleveland Arena that he used a long exposure; he was only able to get off a few shots before everything 'went crazy.' The image above is a digital scan of a new print, and any copyright in it is retained by him -- but I thought it worth sharing online, as clear images of that night are so rare. You can see the guys in their fedoras and porkpies, the gals in their dancing dresses, and what I believe to be the first (and only) act, Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, on stage. The dancers are moving too quickly for the slow exposure, and appear as blurs, or images connected by blurs -- this could be thought a flaw, but I think it underlines the kinetic, ephemeral nature of that evening, and evening that was about to come to a premature end only moments after this fleeting photograph was taken.