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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

With a decade to go before the dawn of the 20th century and 400 years after Columbus set foot on American shores, the United States was at a crossroads. By 1890, the period of Westward expansion was over: the 1890 US census announced that the last lands of the frontier had been settled. Any farmers looking for new property were forced to head north into Canada, where homesteads were still available until 1914. For the majority of people, cities provided the only means for a living. American society began the shift from agrarianism to urbanization, with all the associated ills. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better off to retreat to the suburbs on the cusp of city borders, leaving the inner cities in squalor... A process reaching its apotheosis after the Second World War. At the same time, an economic depression struck in 1893 when railway companies shuttered due to over-servicing of the market, taking investment banks down with them and rippling throughout the economy. Nevertheless, immigrants continued to arrive in droves, to the tune of 13 million over the course of the decade.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his landmark "Frontier Thesis," outlining the theory that the American collective psyche was shaped and identified with the concept of the Western frontier. Turner argued that the process of expansion into new territories with their own natural and societal challenges required nascent Americans to abandon non-functional European institutions, including its aristocracies, churches, forms of government and hereditary entitlements. The movement West encouraged an ethos of individualism, self-reliance, and republican democracy, with consequent mistrust of the systemic authority of government and science, as well as an antipathy towards art and a commitment to the use of violence to resolve conflict. Americans found greater utility in ad hoc measures suited to the immediate environment, from vigilance committees to new religious movements. Until the admission of Utah as a State in 1896, the US government had been waging a protracted political struggle with the Mormon church, which had effectively established theocratic rule in the territory. It's been said that the United States has never seen a heresy it didn't like, and the frontier environment was ripe for the formation of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.

The closing of the frontier marked a major collective psychological crisis in America. One response was to retreat into a newly fashioned mythology about the settlement period: the invention of the "Wild West." Buffalo Bill Cody debuted his first "Wild West" show in 1883, the first cinematic Western - The Great Train Robbery - premiered in 1902, and in 1897, Charlie Russell moved off the ranch and into the artist's studio to chronicle the passing era. Another response was to engage in overseas expansion. 1893 also marked the year that American dissidents overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and began the process to usher it into US governance in 1898. The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 brought two new spheres of influence under the eagle's wing: the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico) and the Philippines (Guam, Philippine Islands). The latter lead to a war between American troops and Filipino freedom fighters that ended with the Philippines becoming an unincorporated American territory in 1902.

With a full-up nation and overseas aspirations, the United States came of age. No longer a frontier to be settled, many turned their attention to the question of what America was going to become and its readiness to ascend to the same echelon as the great European powers. That the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing should coincide with America's social and psychological upheaval was providential for the organizers of the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago. The committee was eager to apply the medium of the world's fair to the assertion of America's emergence into national maturity (or adolescence), creating a gleaming white beacon of American optimism and exceptionalism on the shores of Lake Michigan.


Thomas Moran, Chicago World's Fair.



Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad

Undoubtedly the most famous of Mark Twain's works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two novels show Twain at the peak of satirical and storytelling prowess, using an identical cast of characters to tell widely divergent stories.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, follows the life of the miscreant of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the shores of the mighty Mississippi River. In this otherwise sleepy town, the eponymous character gets into mischief and becomes embroiled in a murder plot. In the process, he comes to represent everything about rural life in America... The bygone age when children were allowed to explore, get dirty, hurt themselves, and run free on the wild outskirts of the village, fettered only by their own imaginations. This life, lived as recently as 30 years ago, seems to have dissipated under the weight of electronic devices and helicopter parents. To call it a "simpler time" would be a misnomer. Sawyer and his ladyfriend Becky Thatcher do find themselves chased through caverns by a murderer after all. It was a more fearless time, and thus seems more simple. Getting scuffed up was part of childhood. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in 1885. The Gilded Age romps of Sawyer, for as much murder and mayhem as they involved, were traded in for a sincere examination of life in the American South with all its harsh, squalid, unromantic realities. Quite early on, for instance, the reader is revolted by the horrible situation that the return of Huck's father puts him in. A barbaric man, he punishes the boy for "putting on airs" by being taught to read and proceeds to try and weasel Huck's trustfund (a legacy of the reward in the previous novel) as his "right" he is justly owed. No wonder Huck fakes his death and runs off with Jim, the escaped slave. As an unlearned, rural vagabond, Huck becomes Twain's "wild man" voice of satirical innocence.

Through the eyes of two social outsiders – Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores not only the Mississippi’s shoreline but the American zeitgeist in a manner that is still shockingly relevant today. Huck and Jim are left to navigate the eternally turbulent waters where morality, race, politics, religion, economics, slavery, and the lingering fallout of the Civil War intersect. In American literature and the American mind, geography and psychology blend together. Pursuit of the frontier drove Americans westward and skyward, hitching up Conestoga wagons and revving up Harley-Davidsons, and in doing so shaped who Americans are. The fundamental form of American literature is the road trip… The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and the first truly American novel is a trip on one of America’s first natural roads. Twain’s Mississippi is a geographic artery reaching into America’s metaphorical heart. Where it flows is sometimes quite ugly, and needs airing out. 

A further ten years later, Twain took a true flight of fancy with Tom Sawyer Abroad. Rather than reflecting on the realities of life in America, he instead wrote up a parody of Vernian Scientific Romances and dime novel Edisonades. The author takes Tom, Huck and Jim and throws them in with a mad inventor who takes them aloft in his dirigible. One can tell from this short novella and its follow-up Tom Sawyer, Detective that the gas had gone out of Sawyer and Finn for their author. Nevertheless, it does provide him with a few good moments of good-natured fun to poke at the genre.



Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wil Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain



Because of the media savvy of most citizens in the West, thanks to growing up, as we have, with a constant glut of cinematic cliches, it is often easy to accurately assume what a film is going to be like. If we are told, for example, that it is a children's film, then we will often rightly figure on something happy and trite and sugary in its sweetness, and just about as filling as candy. If we can see that it is done in a medium such as Claymation, we may jump to that assumption right away. Now and then, however, we may find our assumption to be altogether mistaken. Indeed, we may find what is ostensibly considered a children's movie that shocks us, not from any snide cynicism or brutality that has come to pass for kids' entertainment, but rather by its profound intelligence and sensitivity. Such is the case with the Claymation animated feature The Adventures of Mark Twain.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

A Florida Enchantment

Released in 1914 and based on an 1891 novel, A Florida Enchantment begins like any other high society silent film. The most notable thing about it for the first while, and a fondness throughout, is its on-location shooting in St. Augustine, Florida. For scholars of film, A Florida Enchantment is more notable as the first movie to ostensibly feature lesbianism and transgenderism.

First, the historical interest. As the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine was originally founded by the Spanish in 1565 to secure shipping between Spain and the Caribbean as well as lay claim to the region dubbed La Florida by Ponce de León. The famed Spanish explorer was reputed to have set foot on St. Augustine's shores himself in 1513, in his supposed search for the Fountain of Youth. The mighty Castillo de San Marcos was eventually built from local coquina stone (prehistoric clamshell and other fragments cemented together over time), which helped repel repeated attacks from the privateers employed by enemy nations. The fort and St. Augustine passed from the Spanish to the English in one treaty, then back to Spain in another treaty, and then to the United States.

With ownership of the city definitively settled, tourists could begin to arrive en masse. The most influential character in the city's late 19th century "Golden Age" was Henry Flagler. John D. Rockefeller's partner in the Standard Oil Company, Flagler visited the sleepy town on his second honeymoon and was taken with both its charm and its potential for tourism. He envisioned a winter retreat for New England socialites and poured money into three grand hotels: the Ponce de León, Alcazar, and Casa Monica (which Flagler purchased and renamed the Cordova). Today, the Casa Monica still serves as an hotel, but the Alcazar is now the Lightner Museum and the Ponce de León is part of Flagler College. The latter was completed in 1887 in luxurious Spanish Revival style, with electric lights supplied by Flagler's personal friend Thomas Edison (though legend has it that the staff had to flip the switches since guests were too afraid to). Places like the Castillo de San Marcos and the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park were major attractions, as they remain today. One of the highlights of A Florida Enchantment is catching those glimpses of those attractions, if you know what to look for.


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Paintings of Paris by Jean Béraud

Jeune femme traversant le boulevard

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1846 to an artistic family, Jean Béraud originally set about to study law when the occupation of Paris in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War forced him onto a different track. Discovering his love of painting, he first exhibited in the famed Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1872. Over the following decades, Béraud became known for detailed, glamorous, often humorous, scenes of Parisian life during the Belle Époque. His works remain today as a feast for the eyes of anyone fascinated with the turn of the previous century.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Jules Verne's The Hunt for the Meteor


Written in 1901 but published in 1908, The Hunt for the Meteor is one of Jules Verne's last, great, posthumous novels. Like many of those novels, the original French publication (and most subsequent English translations) was altered by Verne's son Michel, but nevertheless, what peeks through is a final novel reiterating the elder Verne's status as a first-class satirist.


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon



It is often said that Jules Verne wrote about technology while H.G. Wells wrote about people. Between the two originators of the Scientific Romance, the Briton is regarded as writing social, political and religious tracts veiled in thin scientific premises of Martian invasions, cruel vivisection, and crueler eugenic fantasies. Verne's domain was that of technology and discovery, writing carefully researched stories about the phenomena of science and industry.

Wherever this assessment stands in relation to Wells (he may have been the one to propagate it), it is not entirely accurate in regards to the elder Frenchman. He certainly did write about technology and industry, science and discovery, and did so excellently. That was not the limit of his genius, however. Verne's eye pierced not only into the future of technology, but also how technology affects and is affected by society.

One of Verne's earliest novels was of this sort... In fact, the largely accurate vision of metropolitan alienation presented by Paris in the Twentieth Century was so drear that publisher Jules Hetzel refused to release the book. It would not occupy store shelves until 1994. While Verne was dissuaded from further depressing and pessimistic work (at least until Hetzel died and Verne became a much older, more embittered man), he continued to inject insightful commentary into his stories of adventure. From the Earth to the Moon, written only two years after Paris in the Twentieth Century, is a perfect example of Verne's approach to the subject. What we find within its pages is not so much the story of a lunar expedition as a hysterical and biting satire of the American military-industrial complex.


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

All Aboard for the Moon on Simpson's Electric Gun

The following article appeared in the July 12, 1908 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper. Not unlike modern science journalism, a relatively modest discovery - W.S. Simpson's electric gun, capable of launching a projectile 300 miles - is inflated to world-shattering proportions.
"Men could abide on the moon for a time," says Professor Dodge. "In thick walled, airtight houses, and could walk out of doors in airtight divers’ suits. Scientists would find in the wastes a fresh field for exploration. Astronomers could plant their telescopes there, free from their most serious hindrance, the earth’s atmosphere. Tourists of the wealthy and adventurous class would not fail to visit the satellite, and it is probable there are veins of precious metals, beds of diamonds and an abundance of sulphur in a world of so highly volcanic a character."
The scanned image may be clicked on for a closer look.



Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Air Ship, a Musical Farce Comedy

Much like modern cinematic blockbusters, the theatrical stage of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras saw the same competition for bigger, grander, and more effects-laden productions to draw audiences. J.M. Gaites rose to the challenge, penning The Air Ship in 1899.



Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Señor Zorro, the Masked Avenger

The archetype of the avenging swashbuckler is a very old one. Ballads of Robin Hood go back to the 15th century, and there were certainly others before him... Characters of great daring and great romance who rob from the rich and give to the poor, and otherwise seek to right wrongs and fight injustice against which others are cowardly or impotent. The legacy of the swashbuckler has distilled into the modern superhero, the Captain Americas and Batmans who fight the fight that properly constituted authority cannot. Though the swashbuckler archetype is an old one, some of its most popular and well-known manifestations are not as old as some might think. The lineage of Batman - the dilettante whose secret identity is the mask - goes back at least to Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, the 1905 novel set in Revolutionary France. His more direct ancestor is Johnston McCulley's black-clad avenger of Alta California, Señor Zorro, who was created in 1919.