30 September 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Seas

In the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson (center, seated) and The Family at his house Vailima, on the island of Upolu in Samoa. The skirted man on the right is fellow the Polynesian transplant and noted moocher Paul Gauguintoday best known for his innovative reforms of the Parisian stock exchange.

"The South Sea Islands," eighteenth-century wit Samuel Johnson once quipped during one of his famous "Quote-Off" garden parties, "are only fit, for Shyster joint-stock Company Speculators, and for the Scots." As always, the Good Doctor was at least 40 per cent. correct. Few Britons of Johnson's generation traveled to the far-flung climes of the South Seas, modern-day Polynesia. But, by the late nineteenth century, divers and sundry pale-and-wan-types were steamer-tramping their way to the newly-imperialized islands of the south Pacific. The mustachioed professional author and dyspeptic Robert Louis Stevenson was one such consumptive, a condition perhaps to blame on his adolescence in the miserable climes of Scotland. Finding San Francisco, his first escape, too clogged with polluted places of disrepute, like denim factories, Chinese laundromats, and tenderloin stands, Stevenson packed up his wife, Fanny, and their imaginary children in 1888 for a maritime journey to the sun-kissed Antipodes.

He left his consumptive condition in San Francisco: A contemporary hand-colored photograph of the house Stevenson and his family left behind in Monterrey, California. As you might be able to tell from the condition of the house, Stevenson's efforts at gold prospecting on the nearby American River were at least forty years late and several Pounds Sterling short.

Stevenson traveled to the Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawai'i before settling permanently in Samoa. He chronicled his experiences in several books and essays, churning out In the South Seas, A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa, and Polynesia on 40 Shillings a Fortnight, in addition to several short stories set in the South Pacific, during his six years there.

Stevenson's hand-drawn map of Samoa: Because he feared that steamship fumes would aggravate his distemper, Stevenson forced his family to travel from San Francisco to Samoa in an antiquated galleon, the Mentiroso, that still operated out of Manilla (pictured lower left).

R. L. hanging out with his favorite Polynesian monarch, King Kalakaua of Hawai'i, 1889: It is thought that a mutual respect for mustaches was the catalyst for their lasting friendship. In respect for an ancient Hawaiian custom, Stevenson never made direct eye contact with the native sovereign during their meetings.

For He's a Jolly Good Roger: A commemorative print sold in Edinburgh of Stevenson's welcome by the people of Samoa. Although this engraving is an accurate representation of the events, all participating are clothed inappropriately. The usually half-naked Samoan women seemingly have adopted modified togas, while RLS himself would have burned alive in that formal wool suit. But I realize that I am a Zealot for period clothing accuracy.

Stevenson paid four thousand dollars for a three-hundred-acre estate on an up-island plateau. Here, in 1890, he built his two-story and bi-veranded house, which he called Vailima, Samoan for "poorly informed real estate transaction." Great fans of his novels and short stories, the local Samoan chiefs called Stevenson "Tusitala, Teller of Tales," and the Scot enjoyed commissioning giant outrigger canoes from his neighbors.

A Samoan village, c. 1890: The hut-like building on the left is one of the first now-infamous confectionery factories in the islands, commissioned by Juliette Gordon Low for her new girls' paramilitary organization.

Robert and Fanny lived happily, if platonically, at Vailima for several years. Stevenson's health and his "chronic gauntness" never did fully recover, however, and he died at the end of 1894 at the age of forty-four. His chief-friends buried him on the top of Mt. Vaea, the peak behind Vailima. Today, on his tomb, there a the worn inscription that I think qualifies for Ten Best Literary Epitaphs of the Nineteenth Century:
Under the wide and starry sky Dig the grave and let me lie, Glad did I live and gladly die And I laid me down with a will. 
This be the verse you grave for me. Here he lies where he longed to be. Home is the sailor, home from the sea.And the hunter home from the hill.

Vailima: Now apparently property of the United States government (note the stars 'n' stripes).

22 September 2010

The Concord Boys

The Concord Boys: Not, surprisingly, an adolescent crime-fighting team travelling around in an old jalopy.

Welcome back to the Cabinet, friends, acquaintances, enemies, and unknowns. 

Perhaps you've been forced to read The Scarlett Letter in high school English. Maybe you've been subjected to that tired old advice, "Hitch your wagon to a star," even though you haven't seen any non-Anabaptists driving a wagon in fifty years! Or perchance you've pretentiously driven out to the woods (in your horseless carriage) to read from Walden in the hopes of gaining some white-liberal-guilt insight. I known I have!  Well, who were these Hawthornes, Emersons, and Thoreaus you're always hearing about? Why do these Puritan descendants bestride our American literary tradition like transcendental colossi? Well, if you're looking for answers, I'm afraid I can't help you. I merely write a pseudofactual web log for the entertainment of my loyal reader(s).

Massholes Gone Postal: All three Concordians (Concordese? Concordites?) eventually were immortalized on United States postage stamps. I'm thinking that, once again, Thoreau got the short end of the deal.

But I digress. All three of these gents lived in one small town outside of Boston, Mass., where grape vines grew wild in the streets. What are the odds? And they often lived in the same houses! My guess is that, because of town historic zoning laws, Concord only had three habitable dwellings (Emerson's house, the Old Manse, and Thoreau's Cabin) for much of the nineteenth century. But let us look more closely at these New England literary lights, the bane of high school students everywhere. They were all of good Massachusetts Yankee stock. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Nathaniel Ha(w)thorne (1804-1864), and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) were born in Boston, Salem, and Concord, respectively.

A Reminder of 19th-Century Standards of Personal Space: The assembled American nouveau-riche literati, including Emerson and Hawthorne, at the home of celebrated New Netherland author Diedrich "Washington Irving" Knickerbocker, c. 1855. Thoreau, ever the obstinate Luddite, refused to have himself engraved by what he called the "evil engraving partnership" of Nathaniel Currier and John Merritt Ives.

Emerson, the oldest and most famous in his lifetime, was an ordained Congregationalist minister, but the clergy didn't really pan out. It was he that coined the term "Transcendentalist," after a long night of hard drinking at the Wayside Inn with pal H. W. Longfellow. Emerson moved to Concord and took up residence with his family in a sprawling New England farmhouse. Thoreau (an estate handyman, like on Newhart!) lived there for a time, among other notables.  Strangely, Emerson and his succession of wives refused to do any of the housework for themselves (which was not that unusual in itself), but would not hire any servants to do so. They insisted on sharing their house with a married couple of "caretakers" that preserved each room in a pristine state. All this from a man whose most famous essay is called "Self-Reliance" -- the nerve!

My guess is that you are probably most familiar with Concord, Mass. as the birthplace of the
American pencil industry. Well, pencilophiles take heart! One of our Concord Boys was involved intimately in the graphite-trade. That's right, Thoreau's family owned the John Thoreau & Co. Dam-Powered Pencil Works. H.D.T. worked at factory for much of his adult life, churning out the firm's patented graphite-clay composite (which he invented) writing tools for the benefit of "quietly desperate" schoolchildren and carpenters in greater New England. Although often thought of as an environmentalist, Thoreau also accidently set fire, when hanging out with a friend, to three hundred acres of woods around Walden Pond, the timber equivalent of 2,300 lakeside cabins, or $64,687 (over $2 million today!). Well, maybe it wasn't such a big deal for nineteenth-century writers to set forest fires, as the case of Samuel and Orion Clemens demonstrates.

Hawthorne was a different kind of fellow altogether, although he lived for a short while at the infamous utopian Brook Farm experiment. He worked, for a period, at the Salem Customs House, inspiring his most famous work, A Complete Guide to the Rules, Regulations, and Required Forms of the Salem, Massachusetts Customs House. Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College, in Mainechusetts, and became lifelong friends and future no-name president Franklin "We Polked you in '45" Pierce and tavern proprietor H. W. Longfellow and was, in his words, "an idle student, negligent of college rules." He was great buddies with Emerson and Thoreau, but he preferred his study in his seven-gabled Manse to the Emersons' porch.

Cast for the Ages: In a morally questionable move by the overzealous Concord city council, the bodies of Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne were encased in marble after their deaths in what was arguably an elaboration on the Victorian enthusiasm for the death mask. Sadly, because he died from a pencil lathe accident, only Thoreau's upper torso and head were preserved.

Well, maybe you've learned a few inane facts about this triumvirate of Concordites. (I've settled on that.) Until next time, when we thankfully return to friendly confines of the early modern period, this is the Cabinet signing off.

21 September 2010

Buenos Aires, Underground

Standing room only on the Subte? Passengers riding the Buenos Aires Metro, 2006.

The Buenos Aires Metro subway system, called the Subte by Porteños, was the first underground metro system in the Southern Hemisphere. Opened in 1913, the B. A. Metro marked the city, and Argentina as a whole, as an up-and-coming world power. Okay, so the bottom fell out in a few years -- you know, economic collapse, fascism, the Madonna movie, desaperecidos, ex-Nazis, that kind of thing -- but, for a while there, Buenos Aires, the Paris of the Southern Cone, was the cock of the walk.

Ghost Train: Interior of a Metro car, 1915

Even after almost a century of operation, Buenos Aires is still the only city in Argentina with a subway system. I hear tell there's a plan for one in Cordoba, the country's second-largest city, but everyone's taking a siesta first to mull it over.

Old-timey-looking entrance to the A-line on Plaza Eleven.

The Buenos Aires Metro project was initially run by three different companies, which, I'm sure, didn't make riding the most convenient experience. It was nationalized in the 1930s but was privatized (under only one company) in 1994. Although it closes every night at 10:30, a trip on the Metro is cheaper than a bus ride, and way cheaper than any subway ride in the United States (costing around $.30 on average, after the economy collapsed about ten years ago). Fortunately, they are working on prepaid passes for the Subte, so one need not hoard one's peso coinage to purchase a boleta.

The Daily Grind: A Metro station in the '30s.

The Metro currently has six separate lines, and over one and a half million passengers ride daily. The most recent line, the Amarillo, was opened in 2007. Three more lines are planned for a city that now has a metropolitan population of over ten million. Fun fact!: The granddaddy of the Subte, the A-line, still uses the original subway cars, now almost a century old.

Favorite Tourist Destination: the National Congress Building, in 1910.

Una Hot Mess: Buenos Aires, c. 1890 (pre-Metro).

A Metro car decked out for a visit from an unknown Prince of Wales (probably that blackguard, the Duke of Windsor) to Buenos Aires

Current B.A. subway route map (actual size!)

So, next time you wake up in a drunken haze and find yourself on the mouth of the River Plate, roll on over to Buenos Aires, and patronize the Subte. It's cheap, historic, and, in lieu of cruising around in weird style on your personal Segway, better than tramping about.

19 September 2010

The Fantastic World of Ива́н Били́бин

"Tsarevich Ivan catches the Feather of the Firebird," 1899

Welcome to the Cabinet, comrades!  I have a tale of Old Mother Russia for you today! 

Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876 - 1942) was a Russian illustrator and designer that drew upon Slavic folklore in his work. He was born in St. Petersburg, the son of a doctor, and trained as a lawyer, but decided to study art in Munich, Germany and St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad. From 1902 to 1904, Bilibin traveled extensively in the northern Russian countryside, cementing his interest in Russian myths and legends. He wrote a study of the subject, Folk Arts of the Russian North, published in 1904. Bilibin also drew inspiration from Japanese prints by artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai (just look at your Great Wave mousepad).

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dandy, from 1901.

He became famous in Russia when he released his illustrations of Russian fairy tales, commissioned by that bastion of great art, the Department for the Production of State Documents, in 1899. As in the case of many Russian artists and writers, the 1917 Revolution did not agree with Bilibin. He lived for a time in Egypt, settling in the "Little Russia" section of gay Paris in 1925. To earn some francs, he lowered himself to tastefully decorating the mansions of the Parisian First Estate.

Bilibin, however, still longed for the embrace of Mother Russia (although he got Father Stalin instead). He returned to his homeland in 1936, becoming Professor of Graphic Art at the Leningrad Academy of Arts. Luckily for him, Bilibin arrived back in the U.S.S.R. just in time to catch the the Great Fatherland War, which began in 1939 (although Russians tend to leave out the two years when they were allies with a certain National Socialist state). Bilibin died during the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, which lasted 872 days and claimed the lives of over one million Soviet soldiers (1/3) and civilians (2/3).

So Bilibin's life had its ups and downs. Okay, maybe more downs, because he was Russian. But he produced some really beautiful and interesting illustrations of Russian folklore, which the Cabinet generously shares below. (By the way, here's an interesting recent article on Bibilin.)

"Vasilisa," from Vasilisa the Beautiful, 1909.

"The Red Horseman," from the same work.

"The Beautiful Black Horseman," from the same work.

Probably from Vasilisa the Beautiful.

Illustration to Alexander Pushkin's Ruslan and Lyudmila, 1917.

"St. Boris and Gleb," c. 1900.

"The Flying Mosquito," from The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, 1905.

"The Merchants Visit the Tsar Saltan," from the same work.

"The Island of Buyan," from the same work.

"Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Robber"

Design sketch for the the Palace of Dodona, from the Rimsky-Korsakov opera The Golden Cockerel, 1909.

"Tsar Dadon Stands before the Shemakha Queen," for The Golden Cockerel.

"Bogatyr Volga and Mikula Selaninovits," 1940.

If you've made it this far, you're either crazy about Russian folktales or have great admiration for your Humble Author. Either way, here's to another installment of the Cabinet!

18 September 2010

Faces of Old Samarkand

The Sherdor Madrasah, c. 1870 (by Vasily Vereshchagin)

The name Samarkand summons up images of the exotic Orient, the city of Marco Polo's Silk Road and and the capital of Timur the Lame. The city, in modern-day Uzbekistan, was founded in around 700 B.C.E. by the Persians, but Samarkand now has a population of over six hundred thousand. It has been conquered by Alexander the Great, Islamic warriors, the Mongols, and, finally, those Great-Gamers, the Russian Empire. Samarkand became part of Russian Turkestan in 1868. The city has several famous examples of medieval Islamic architecture, and is a great place to visit, except it's as hot as hell in the summer.

1903 map of Russian Turkestan - the province of Samarkand is on the center-right.

The photos below, most courtesy of that friend to blog-men and -women everywhere, Wikimedia Commons, capture the people and places of "Old Samarkand" at turn of the twentieth century. The majority were taken by the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (read more about him here and here) from 1905 to 1915. Surprisingly, they are in full (artificial) color, the result of a three-color process that I won't even try to explain.  So, enjoy!

Some people hanging out by a wall.

A (lost?) woman stands by a wooden door.

Jewish children with their rabbi-teacher.

Street view from the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-05).

A policeman on his beat. Man, people really loved to stand outside by buildings back then!

A fabricmonger. There is a framed page of the Koran above his stall.

A Tajik (the predominant ethnic group in Samarkand) standing in a woods outside of town. I'm not sure what that is behind him and to the left. Reed yoga mats, anyone?

A greengrocer just hanging out, selling some sort of pumpkin-watermelon hybrid. Maybe that stall roof is the same as those mats in the background of the last picture.

Taken by Leon Barszczewski for National Geographic, c. 1885

Two men trying to find some shade.

The Bibi-Hanim bazaar, taken before 1900. Nice ruins, but poor spelling.

A Russian rendering of the defense of Samarkand in 1868 (from 1872)

A late nineteenth-century painting by Gigo Gabashvili called Bazaar in Samarkand

Illustration for the Jules Verne novel Claudius Bombarnac of a Samarkand marketplace.

Ruins of the Gur Emir Mausoleum, c. 1870

The Ulug-bek Madrasah (named after a sixteenth-century ruler of Samarkand)

It is my most fervent wish that you have enjoyed our (mostly) photographic journey through fin de siecle Samarkand. As always, beware of overeager carpet-mongers in the bazaar!
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