Friday, June 9, 2017

Man Messages

Hot on the trail of Levi Furbush -- who may or may not have been the same man as the union activist and regular correspondent in the Boston papers in the 1890's -- I stumbled upon James W. Elliott. When it comes to forgetting to remember, or remembering to forget, Mr. Elliott -- an avuncular advice-giver of the early twentieth century -- seems to have been something of a pioneer. He was known for his weekly pamphlets, which he dubbed "Man Messages," in which he sought to exhort the common man to avoid self-indulgence,  embrace gratitude, and employ his natural gifts. The exact angle from which Elliott's pamphlets came -- temperance? -- religious feeling? -- socialism -- is a bit unclear, but his gift for memorable phrases was a singular one. Who would have imagined that, way back in 1915, he would have coined the phrase "keep on keeping on"? His pamphlets today are notably obscure; they rarely appear in library catalogues or online scans, and the only hits I could find for his titles led to auctions on eBay. And so, for the modest sum of six dollars, I obtained a copy of The Song of Ingratitude, a 1914 leaflet in which a tale is told of one "Bill Williams," a totally average man who manages to miss the bus of his own life.

Each of these leaflets was emblazoned on the back with
Elliott's trademark -- though it's a bit unclear how he financed the production of these Man-messages, which were printed in letterpress and said to be "published weekly." It sounds a little bit like some early 20th-century version of EST or perhaps the "Rainbow Gatherings" where a 'talking stick' was employed to give the cue for men to speak. But whatever his motivations, the phrases he chose, which were echoed in many of these pamphlets, seem to me as though they may well be a source for Levi Furbush's poem, which uses nearly identical language.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Never forget to remember ...

Image courtesy Graduate Theological Union Library, Berkeley CA
Of course, the twenty-four-hour news cycle has long ago moved on, but call back -- if you can -- the kerfuffle over Donald Trump's awkwardly-chosen "Irish Proverb," recited by him on the occasion of the traditional St. Patrick's day visit by the Taoiseach (Prime minister) of Ireland, in this case Enda Kenny. The reaction from the plain people of Ireland was immediate and blunt: they'd never heard of it. A bit of poking about by journalists showed it had been included as an "Irish" saying in a number of manuals for speech-givers, which likely explained why the president's team had chosen it -- and then there was the Nigerian poet (now a banker) Albasheer Adam Alahassan, who'd published a version of it in a school journal back in the 1990's. How delightful the irony would have been, had this been true and Trump inadvertently quoted a Muslim poet? But alas, it was as well that Alhassan turned to banking as a career, for his little poem turned out to have been copied from other, still earlier sources. Mashable's Sasha Lekach dug deeper than most, tracing it back to a 1936 appearance in The International Stereotypers & Electrotypers Union Journal, where it was apparently attributed to Harold Keating. This was a blind alley, though; Keating was merely the author of the column, and the poem added as filler. Lekach also dug up a slightly earlier one in the Gazette and Daily, published in York, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1936.One of these sources apparently attributed it to one "Levi Furbush," and an appearance in a magazine named The Cheerful Letter.

This was a turn of ill luck, though, as The Cheerful Letter turns out to be a very obscure publication. Begun by a group of Unitarian women during the time of the Spanish-American war, its original work was to send individual "cheerful letters" to soldiers in hospital. By the early twentieth century, it had evolved into a modest periodical, appearing monthly, with regular columns and features. And yet, though published in Boston, no Boston library had more than a few scattered issues; even the archivist of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- once I tracked him down -- had to admit that he had no idea where one could find a copy. The WorldCat system, indeed, listed only three libraries with the periodical: Harvard Divinity (when contacted, it turned out they had only a handful of issues), the New York Public Library, and the Graduate Theological Union Library in Berkeley, California.

This week, I was very glad to hear from a librarian there that they indeed had a substantial run of The Cheerful Letter, and that they'd located the poem, attributed once again to Levi Furbush. There, nestled above an inspirational quote from J.P. Morgan, and above the newsletter's masthead, was the long-sought "Irish" saying that, for a day or two, had intrigued and amused the world -- and here, with the library's permission, I give it to you.

UPDATE (June 5 2017): It turns out that the poem's appearance in The Cheerful Letter is not the earliest known -- this issue actually dates to July of 1937. I'm working again to see whether there may by any other earlier instances than that in the Gazette and Daily

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What movie is playing in Robert Frank's "Drive-In, Detroit 1955"?

It's an iconic photo if there ever were one -- Robert Frank's "Drive-In, Detroit, 1955," one of the best-rememered of those in his 1958 book The Americans. A couple of weeks ago, my friend James Morrison -- who knows a thing or two about film -- posted a link to this photo, commenting that he recognized the Gratiot Drive-In, where he'd once been to a few movies (101 Dalmations, Funny Girl) as a kid. But what movie was that on the screen? As a reward, he offered a quarter.

This might be the most "textbook example" instance of my condition, after which this blog is named, that of epistemophilia -- the raging curiosity to find out some random fact that, though of no great importance by itself, turns out not to be easily answerable, even in this day and age of Google and Reddit (there did turn out to be question buried deep in a sub-Reddit on this very question -- which was not answered). How to proceed?

I began with Google Image search, which can often pair an image with a source, using only a clever search paradigm based on an analysis of the pixels. Unfortunately, with this iconic photo, all that did was lead me back to innumerable instances of the original Robert Frank photograph. I tried cropping the image, but the grainy detail produced nary a match. So what did I have to go on? A man in a plaid shirt, with a prominent hairline (Rock Hudson, some suggested), and another man in profile, also apparently in plaid, with what I first took to be a hand wrapped in a bandage. The second man looked a little like Anthony Quinn, I thought, so I started there, and with Rock Hudson -- who had been seen in plaid in 1955 (in All That Heaven Allows), but the film was not a match.

I next tried the IMdB's listing of the most popular films of 1955, working my way through more than 200 of them. I eliminated historical films, but checked for stills from every Western, and any film with an outdoor theme. Men in the 1950's, I soon learned, only wore plaid shirts when they were in the woods, although plaid overcoats were deemed acceptable for working-class blokes, such as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (no dice there either). Finally, I turned to, which has a reasonably easily-searched run of the Detroit Free Press. By searching the movie listings, I was able to see what was being shown every week at the Gratiot, then search for images or online copies of each film. Many of these were the same ones I'd already checked on the IMdB, but a few were different, and it was with one of these that I hit paydirt.

At 6:41 into The Looters
Abner Biberman's 1955 feature The Looters opens in the woods -- that place of log cabins, hot coffee, and plaid shirts all around. And, as fate would have it, the scene on the screen took place early on, as one mountaineer served coffee to another. What I had taken as a bandaged hand was a cup of coffee in motion, as the two men chatted over their plans. The film eventually takes a darker turn; when a plane crashes in the nearby mountains, the discovery of a large amount a cash on board deflects the moral compasses of the rescuers, who then become the "looters" of the title. The fellow I'd guessed was Rock Hudson turned out to be Ray Danton, a staple of 50's film; the other man was Rory Calhoun, a man who actually had spent some of his pre-acting career as a lumberjack. The listings in the Detroit Free Press show that the film was the second feature as of June 30th, 1955 -- pinning down, for what it's worth, the date of Robert Frank's photograph.

Never was a quarter harder earned.