Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Populuxe & Googie Architecture

Surfing in and out of local history sites for my hometown the other day, I came across some info on buildings, restaurants, and other establishments I remembered as a kid. This led to photos of their old "jet age" signs (1950s-60s) and a reference to a site on Googie architecture. And THAT reminded me of a book I bought many years ago for nostalgic browsing: Populuxe, by Thomas Hines; Alfred A. Knopf, NY (1986).

I love this stuff! It’s from the era I was born in and grew up in. Very nostalgic. Takes me back to my childhood. And now I know that style has a name. While Googie Architecture refers specifically to the design of buildings, Populuxe is all encompassing in its examination of early modern culture in the two decades immediately following World War II. From furniture to buildings to automobiles and television sets and appliances, Populuxe captures the essence of a style that came to define that era and is looked upon so favorably by aging baby boomers.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mark Twain saved American pornography

In free association, if you heard "Mark Twain," you would probably respond with Huckleberry Finn, a 19th century American literary masterpiece. You would not associate this giant of American letters with a masterpiece of erotica. But in An Unhurried View of Erotica, by Ralph Ginzburg; The Helmsman Press, NY (1958), the author offers his opinion that Mark Twain stepped up to the challenge of producing a fine piece of erotic literature that could stand up against the European benchmarks of the day. That book was titled 1601... Conversation as It Was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors.

In the Introduction to An Unhurried View of Erotica, Theodore Reik, a prominent psychoanalyst who trained as one of Freud's first students in Vienna, writes:
This little book deals with the universal interest the Anglo-Saxons had and have in all aspects of sex in a surprising manner. It shows the powerful undercurrent of pornography that runs faithfully with the great stream of literature. It follows the erotic trend that moves under the surface of literature from its beginning of the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book until the pornographic works of our time.
Reik writes further, from his psychoanalytic background, that this book shows which components of sexuality and which disavowed impulses strive for satisfaction and which appeal to the appetite of the average man (and woman). Woman seems a parenthetical afterthought. Although it was written in the 1950s, it's still a curious notion coming from a famed psychoanalyst. Or was it the editors that objected to assigning equal drives to women? Who was at the helm of the Helmsman Press at that time? A valuable contribution to the exploration of unconscious emotions makes this book an interesting read to the psychiatrist, psychologist, sociologist, and historian of civilization.

In one of Reik's concluding paragraphs, he notes:
The author justifiably includes the scatalogical interest in the area of erotica. The discoveries of psychoanalysis and analytic child-psychology leave no doubt that the functions of evacuation are not only biologically but also psychologically intimately connected with sexuality.

This is a good point to jump off the psychoanalytic ship and back onto Twain's riverboat humor, with references in a 1601 scene to flatulence, as well as fornication, during a fictitious meeting of Queen Elizabeth's inner circle in the year 1601 (hence the title of the book). The terms erotica and pornography get tossed around in An Unhurried View of Erotica with a pretty wide net to catch references such as these and assign them pornographic status. Today, where the nearly hardcore has become nearly mainstream, we would laugh at what passed for pornography back in the (Twain) day.

But Twain had written 1601 in between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, at a time when America's output of erotically-tinged material was sorely lacking in comparison to Europe's erotic masterpieces in morocco bindings, elegant papers, and fine illustrations. Written for the amusement of Twain's closest friend, Reverend Joseph Twichell (wonder what his sermons were like?), 1601 was later first published by another friend, John Hay, who later became Secretary of State. Hay had 4 copies printed in pamphlet form in 1880. If any of these still exist, I'd have to think they are among the rarest of Twain collectibles, if not the rarest.

The first hardcover printings did not come out for another two years. Yet another friend was involved, this one a Lieutenant C.E.S. Wood, who was in charge of the Academy's printing press. Lt. Wood published an elegant edition of 50 copies on handmade linen paper and distributed to dignitaries around the world. Even the Pope got a copy!

Subsequent U.S. editions to date of 1601's publication brought the total editions to 44. Around the world, many more editions flourished in places like Japan where it is still more popular there than in America. Twain's new found status as America's premier creator of fine erotica landed him some unusual invitations, which he gladly accepted during his celebrated trip abroad.

One was a chance to visit the secret treasure vaults of the Berlin Royal Library and browse the Kaiser's pornographic holdings. And another invitation was to address the Stomach Club in Paris, where his topic was "Some Remarks on the Science of Onanism." One wonders at the self-gratification Mr. Twain experienced having been invited to address that auspicious group... Regardless, American erotica would never be viewed the same by our friends overseas. All thanks to the witty whims of a former Mississippi River steamboat pilot.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Books become an artist's canvas

This has nothing to do about the interesting things we find among the leaves of used books, rather it has to do with the covers. In the photo above, Los Angeles artist, Mike Stilkey, has used the spines of stacks of used books to create portraits of the human condition befitting the worn canvas upon which they reside.

The Rice Gallery at Rice University in Houston recently exhibited Stilkey's work titled, When the Animals Rebel, through the summer. Stilkey is described as
a passionate collector of old records, cameras, and especially books, to which he is attracted, " … sometimes by the title, or more the look of it, the antiqueness of it, or the wear and tear of it. Sometimes there’s a weird illustration. I’ve got these books and I’ll never read them, but I want them for some reason and I’ve never known why.
Ah... Kindred spirit! But Stilkey's art paints a new image of the old phrase about judging a book by its cover.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Spinach Days

I recognized the title of this book when I saw it recently on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop: Spinach Days, by Robert Phillips, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (2000). A few of the poems in this volume have made their way to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, and I remembered liking them. So I pulled it from the shelf and had a look. A nice surprise--it was signed by Phillips. For six bucks, and it being a first printing, I decided to buy it. There is some fine writing here with memorable lines (including such intriguing titles as John Dillinger's Dick and The Man Who Fell in Love with his Cat), but the following lines from Houston Haiku provided me with the sharpest (pardon the pun) imagery in the entire volume:

Trying to love her
is just like licking honey
from the razor's edge.