Sunday, February 4, 2024

Puffins, pipits and plovers

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the American ornithologist and painter of birds, Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Although there are no published books of his journals, Cornell University, which holds the Fuertes archive, has put online a journal kept by Fuertes while exploring the Alaskan coastline, though it is mostly a list of birds seen or shot at!

Fuertes was born in Ithaca, New York, on 4 February 1874. His father, from a Spanish Puerto Rican family, was a professor of civil engineering at Cornell University, while his mother was of Dutch ancestry. As a child, Louis became very interested in birds, being much influenced by Audubon’s Birds of America, and made his first painting of a bird aged 14; and, at 17, he became an Associate Member of the American Ornithologists’ Union. He studied architecture at Cornell University, but all his enthusiasm and aptitude was  focused on painting birds. While still an undergraduate, he was receiving commissions and having his work exhibited. After Cornell, he went to work with Abbott Handerson Thayer, a well-known American artist and naturalist.

In 1898, Fuertes made his first expedition, with Thayer and his son Gerald, to Florida, and the following year accompanied the railway magnate E. H. Harriman on his famous exploration of the Alaska coastline. In 1904, Fuertes married Margaret Sumner and they had two children. He travelled across much of the US and other countries, mostly in the Americas, always in pursuit of birds. A prolific artist, he produced illustrations abundantly, mostly for ornithological books, popular and scientific. He collaborated with Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, on many assignments. While on a collecting expedition together in Mexico, Fuertes discovered a species of oriole, which Chapman named Icterus fuertesi, commonly called Fuertes’s Oriole, after his friend.

According to an old version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fuertes work ‘is characterised by a fidelity to nature involving not only objective but subjective accuracy. His genius lay in the power to reproduce subtle, fleeting, and intangible qualities of birds that reflected their individuality to a remarkable degree, an ability as much the result of a highly sympathetic and very extensive knowledge of birds in their haunts as it was of technical skill.’ His most extensive work was a series of large plates illustrating The Birds of New York, published by the state and covering practically every species of eastern North America. He died in 1927. Biographical information can be found from Wikipedia, Cornell University’s Guide to the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Papers, or PBS.

Cornell’s guide to Fuertes’ papers mentions diaries and journals, but few, if any, have been published. In 1936, Doubleday, Doran & Co published Artist and Naturalist in Ethiopia, described as diaries kept on the Field Museum-Chicago Daily News Ethiopian Expedition, by Wilfred Hudson Osgood and Fuertes. It’s most likely, though, that Fuertes only provided the illustrations for this book. Otherwise, the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections has made freely available online diary entries written by Fuertes during Harriman’s Alaska expedition in 1899.

5 June 1899
This A.M. at Fort Wrangell, Alaska, got my first raven, & Townsend’s finch, also Stetler’s jay. Saw lutescent W., shot one, but couldn’t find it. Ridgway got a fine Oregon Junco, Fisher a red throated woodpecker, parus rufescens, & Lincoln’s finch. Heard in the forest, by Farragut bay, a hermit-like thrush song, but couldn’t find the author. The ravens made more noise even than usual. Hummers seen & heard by others of the party.

Townsend’s Sparrow in song. Its note is a typical passerella song. very clear and sweet, noticeable for the same deliberation with which the fox sparrow makes its notes. The bird was found on the sunny slope cleared of its bigger growth, facing the bay. Its appearance is somewhat thrush-like due to its heavily spotted breast and uniform brown back, though its attitudes are perfectly typical of its family.

Golden Crowned sparrows were singing at summit-White Pass. They were found in the scrub hemlock in the snow, and occasionally uttered their clear notes. The song was at once recognizable as zonotrichias, consisting of 8 notes, each perfectly distinct and true, and remarkable for the sweetness and purity of their tone: just the kind of a note one would like to find in the frosty air of the mt. tops. The attitudes and flight of the birds were exactly similar to those of the White Crowned, unless perhaps the occipital part of the crest was thrown out farther. Perhaps this appearance was due to the much darker coloration of the whole top of the head.

Mr. Ridgway got two Leucostictes (litoralis) on the R.R. track at the summit, and pipits were seen & taken. Between Juneau and Glacier bay, we saw Marbled Gull.

24 June 1899
Yesterday afternoon we were followed for hours by a large majestic bird that the various sharks aboard disagreed upon. Elliot thought he was a fulmar petrel -- while Fiske + Merriam thought it was a black-footed Albatross. Its wings were very flat -- a little down curved if anything Puffins were continually flying + little bunches from 5 to 20 or 30 would pass nearby at short intervals. They looked very curious, like parrots fore and guillemots aft. Some murrelets and one new kind of guillemots were seen; the latter white-breasted.

7 July 1899
Put off a party at Popof Island this A.M., July 7-99. and Fisher + I went ashore for about one hour, + got a pair of the big Unalaska Song Sparrow. This and the Kadiak form seen to take very kindly to the rocky shores, seldom being seen inland or in the uplands above the shore. Their song seems to preserve to a remarkable degree, its identity with that of the eastern form, tho’ the birds differ in almost every other respect.

12 July 1899
Fisher and I (many others) went ashore on the mainland at Port Clarence Bay, Alaska, and went up the stream where the ship was watering. First bird seen was a pipit (A. Pensilv. ) and soon after saw the yellow wagtail which we had found in Siberia. It turned out to be common, several specimens were obtained. Alice’s thrush was common, + obtained for the first time on the trip. Cole got a Mealy? red poll, and I found a nest with 5 eggs - both redpolls seemed common enough. About the finest sensation we had was a successful hunt after golden plover. I got 3 + F. two, all in more or less perfect summer plumage. The birds have the most beautiful calls + song. They sit at quite a distance from each other in the wet mossy hill meadows and call and answer back + forth. The calls can all be imitated by a full clear whistle, so that the birds answer quite eagerly - whip whee + a shorter note of the same notes, lower, are the common calls, but the song is a rich full warble, of a cadence - repeated - somewhat suggesting a blue-bird song done in R.B. Grosbeak quality.

Dr. F. + I, while separated by quite a distance, saw at the same time a long tailed Jaeger, sitting on a moss tuft way off on a distant hill; and unbeknownst to it and to us, he became the apex of a triangle , where F. + I were doomed to meet. Our sneak became interesting as we neared each other, + became aware of our position. The bird however, relieved us of our responsibility, + let us both out in a sportsmanlike manner by catching sight of me first, and rising with a scream which I took for alarm at first, but when he repeated it came squealing straight at me, I saw that it was defiance, and there was nothing to do but wait for him to get the right distance and shoot in self-defence. When I had come up to the beautiful bird, + was kneeling over it, Fisher’s voice came up the rise -- “let me take the other,” + I looked up to see the mate rising as he approach, at rt [angles] to the course of the first one. Nearer he came, + I itched as he passed over me at nearly 40 ft. I could see him eye me, + his squealing cries were so near that their quality seemed surprising -- very like big hawk’s cries. His long tail feathers oscillated + spread slightly at the tips with each wing stroke. He went right by me, straight on towards Dr. F. + when he got just right -- bang -- and with wings set in a V he came smoothly down into the grass, and we sat together in the mossy hillside and held the first long-tailed jaegers that either of us had ever seen to shoot at. The feet were black, like black rubber, and the rest of the legs light bird blue and the bill black with a “milky flesh color” interior.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 4 February 2014.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Fat alligators in Florida

Andrew Ellicott, one of the most important early surveyors in the United States, was born 270 years ago today. He helped survey borders with Canada and with the Spanish territories, worked on the boundaries of the District of Columbia, and completed the plan for Washington D.C. Unpublished diaries kept by Ellicott on some survey expeditions have been used by biographers, but there is one diary he published himself, concerning his work in ‘determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty in America’. It is full of well-observed notes on the land he’s passing through, its people, soils, rivers, minerals, and animals, not least the alligators.

Ellicott was born on 24 January 1754 in Buckingham Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the first child in what would be a large Quaker family. His father, a miller and clockmaker, together with his two brothers, purchased land on the Patapsco River and set up a new milling business there, founding the town of Ellicott’s Mills in 1772. Some three years later Andrew married Sarah Brown and they had nine children that survived childhood. He enlisted as a commissioned officer in the Elk Ridge Battalion of the Maryland militia during the American War of Independence, and rose to the rank of major.

After the war, Ellicott returned home to Ellicott’s Mills until he was appointed, in 1784, to the group tasked with extending the survey of the Mason-Dixon line (this had operated from 1763 tasked with resolving a border dispute between British colonies in Colonial America, but had been stalled since 1767). During the survey, he worked alongside the scientist David Rittenhouse and the educator and bishop James Madison. In 1785, the Ellicotts moved to Baltimore, where Andrew taught mathematics at the Academy of Baltimore. The following year he was elected to the legislature, and was called upon to survey and define the western border of Pennsylvania. This so-called Ellicott Line later became the principal meridian for the surveys of the Northwest Territory.

When Ellicott was subsequently appointed to lead other surveys in Pennsylvania, the family moved again in 1789 to Philadelphia. By recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, he was appointed by the new government under George Washington to survey the lands between Lake Erie and Pennsylvania to determine the border between Western New York and U.S. territory, resulting in the Erie Triangle. This survey, during which he also made the first topographical study of the Niagara River including the Niagara Falls, did much to enhance his reputation as a surveyor.

From 1791 to 1792, Ellicott surveyed the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, which would become the District of Columbia in 1801. His team placed forty boundary stones a mile or so apart, many of which remain today. At the same time, he worked on surveying the future city of Washington, a project that brought much conflict with the French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Further major projects followed for Ellicott, planning of the city of Erie, and working with the commission that was surveying the borders, negotiated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo, between the Spanish territories in Florida and the United States.

This latter work took four years, after which the John Adam’s government refused to pay Ellicott, and refused him access to the maps he had submitted, leaving him in serious financial trouble. It took until 1803 for the maps to be released to him, under Thomas Jefferson’s administration, which also offered Ellicott the post of Surveyor Journal. He turned it down, accepting instead a quieter life as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Land Office, and moving with his family to live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Also in 1803, Jefferson engaged Ellicott to teach Meriwether Lewis, who would later be one of the leaders of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (see White bear, drunk Indians).

After being fired by a new administration in Pennsylvania, Ellicott returned to private practice, and was hired to re-survey the border between Georgia and North Caroline. This job also ended acrimoniously, without his fees being paid, and the family moved to West Point where Ellicott worked as a professor of mathematics at the military academy. After one last significant survey, concerning the western border between Canada and the US in 1817, Ellicott died in 1820. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or from biographies freely available at Internet Archive, such as Andrew Ellicott - His Life and Letters by Catharine Van Cortlandt Mathews.

Ellicott was accustomed to keeping a diary on his survey expeditions, at least from the mid-1780s. Mathews says this: ‘Records of his earlier surveys were not kept, and it is not until ten years after his marriage that we have the first of those letters and diaries which tell the story of his life so simply and so unassumingly that the biographer cannot do better than to let them speak for him. They form a clear and fascinating picture of the men and manners, the country and the State of Andrew Ellicott’s day, while through even the briefest of them, shines out the character of the man himself, in all its simplicity, integrity, and kindliness. Between the lines of almost every scrap of manuscript he has left behind him, may be traced the quiet, sensible courage, the quick and keen observation of men and things, the tremendous capacity for hard work, and the complete indifference to the lures of wealth or fame, which seem to have been recognized by all who came in contact with him as the most characteristic qualities of the man.’

In her biography (published in 1908), Mathews quotes from various of Ellicott’s unpublished diaries. The only diary of Ellicott’s that appeared in his own lifetime was the one he kept in the late 1790s while surveying the border between the US and the Spanish territories. He was only able to publish this, finally, in 1803, when allowed access to the survey’s maps. The book, which is freely available at Internet Archive has an impressive title:

The Journal of Andrew Ellicott: late commissioner on behalf of the United States during part of the year 1796, the years 1797, 1798, 1799, and part of the year 1800: for determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty in America, containing occasional remarks on the situation, soil, rivers, natural productions, and diseases of the different countries on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Gulf of Mexico, with six maps comprehending the Ohio, the Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, the whole of West Florida, and part of East Florida; to which is added an appendix, containing all the astronomical observations made use of for determining the boundary on a large scale, likewise a great number of Thermometrical Observations made at different times and places.

Here are several extracts.

6 December 1797
‘Spent at work upon our boats. Squalls of snow all day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 28°.’

7 December 1797
‘Finished repairing our boats. Cloudy great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 18° to 26°.’

8 December 1797
‘Detained till evening by our commissary, who was employed in procuring provision. Set off about sun down.’

The town of Louis Ville stands a short distance above the rapids on the east side of the river. The situation is handsome, but said to be unhealthy. The town has improved but little for some years past. The rapids are occasioned by the water falling from one horizontal stratum of lime-stone, to another; in some places the fall is perpendicular, but the main body of the water when the river is low, runs along a channel of a tolerably regular slope, which has been through length of time worn in the rock. In the spring when the river is full, the rapids are scarcely perceptible, and boats descend without difficulty or danger. Thermometer rose from 22° to 29°.’

9 December 1797
‘Floated all night. Stopped in the morning to cook some victuals, and then proceeded on till sunset and encamped.  Thermometer rose from 27° to 35°, Water in the river 53°.’

10 December 1797
‘Left the shore at sunrise. About nine o’clock in the morning discovered a Kentucky boat fast upon a log, and upon examination found that it was deserted, and suspected that the crew were on shore in distress, which we soon found to be the case. The crew consisted of several men, women, and children, who left the boat two days before in a small canoe when they found their strength insufficient to get her off. They were without any shelter, to defend them from the inclemency of the weather, and it was then snowing very fast. We spent two hours in getting the boat off, and taking it to the shore, where we received the thanks of the unfortunate crew, and left them to pursue their journey.

Having a desire to determine the geographical position of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and the large store boat not being calculated for expedition, I left her with directions to follow with all possible despatch, and pushed on myself for the mouth of the river. Stopped at sun down, to give our men time to cook some victuals: set off at eight o’clock in the evening, and proceeded down the river against a strong head wind till almost midnight, when it became so violent that we had to put to shore. Snow great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 28°. Water in the river 33°.’

11 Decmber 1797
‘Left the shore at daylight, and worked against a strong head wind till sunset, then went on shore to dress some victuals. Cloudy great part of the day. Thermometer rose from 23° to 29°. Left the shore at eight o’clock in the evening, and worked all night against a strong head wind.’

15 December 1797
‘Much ice in the river. Stopped at an Indian camp, and procured some meat. Dined at the great cave. This cave may be considered as one of the greatest natural curiosities on the river, and I have constantly lamented that I could not spare time to make a drawing of it, and take its dimensions. It is situated on the west side of the river. The entrance is large and spacious, and remarkably uniform, the dome is elliptical, and the uniformity continues to its termination in the hill.

Stopped about sunset to take in some wood. Set off in half an hour and floated all night. Cloudy part of the day. Thermometer rose from 21° to 41°.’

16 December 1797
‘At eight o’clock in the morning, one of our boats unfortunately ran on the roots of a tree, which were under water, and bilged. We spent till near one o’clock in the afternoon in repairing her, and then proceeded down the river till about sunset and encamped. The weather that day was very pleasant. Thermometer rose from 35° to 51°. Passed Cumberland river at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.’

19 December 1797
‘Set up the clock, and prepared to make some astronomical observations for the purpose of determining the latitude and longitude of the confluence of those great, and important rivers: for those, and the thermometrical observations made at this place, see the Appendix.

The map of the Ohio river which accompanies this work, is laid down from the best materials I could procure, a number of the latitudes between Pittsburgh and the rapids, were taken by myself: from thence down to the Mississippi, the latest charts have been used, except in a few places which have been corrected by my friend Don Jon Joaquin de Ferrer, an ingenious Spanish astronomer. The map is divided into two parts, that it may not be too large to fold in a quarto volume, and at the same time of such a size, as to shew distinctly the errors that may hereafter be discovered, and serve as a basis for future corrections.

The Ohio river, is formed by the junction of the Allegany and Monongahela rivers, at Pittsburgh, which name it retains till it falls into the Mississippi. It may not be improper here to observe, that all the Indians residing on the Allegany, ever since my acquaintance with the western country, have called that branch, as well as the main river, the Ohio, and appeared to know it by no other name.

The Ohio is certainly one of the finest rivers within the United States, whether considered as to magnitude, the great extent of its course, or the outlet it affords to an immense and fertile country rapidly filling with inhabitants.

The bottom and sides of the river are stony, from Pittsburgh down to the low country, which is generally supposed to be about eight hundred miles. The strata of stone are horizontally disposed, and principally consist of either freestone, or limestone. This horizontal disposition of the strata of stone, is observable through a very large extent of the United States. I have traced it from Oswego, up Lakes Ontario and Erie, with all the waters falling into them, and through all the western parts of Pennsylvania, and down the Ohio, wherever hills or mountains are to be seen.

The flat, or bottom lands on the Ohio, are not surpassed by any in the United States for fertility; but in many places they are small, and inconsiderable; being limited by hills or mountains, on one side, and the river on the other. A large proportion of the hills, and mountains, are unfit for agricultural purposes, being either too steep, or faced with rocks. The hills and mountains on the east side of the river, generally increase in magnitude, till they unite with the great ridge, commonly called the Allegany: but on the west side they decrease, till the country becomes almost a dead level.

The country produces all the immediate necessaries, of life in abundance, and far beyond the present consumption of the inhabitants; the residue, with many other articles, such as hemp, cordage, hard-ware, some glass, whisky, apples, cider, and salted provisions, are annually carried down the river to New Orleans, where they find a ready market. Mines of pit coal (lithanthrax), are not only abundant, but inexhaustible from Pittsburgh many miles down the river.

The inhabitants of no part of the United States are so much interested in establishing manufactories, as of this. They possess the raw materials, and can export their produce with ease, but their imports are attended with difficulty, great risk, and expense. And so long as they receive neither bounties, nor uncommon prices for their articles of exportation, and depend upon the Atlantic states for their supplies of European manufactures, the balance of trade will constantly be against them, and draw off that money, which should be applied to the improvement of the country, and the payment of their taxes. To this source, may in some degree be traced, the character the inhabitants have too generally had bestowed upon them of insurgents, and disorganizers; to a few individuals these epithets may be applied, but not to the body of the people. In order to judge fairly on this question, it will be necessary to take into view the local situation of the inhabitants. In the Atlantic states every article however minute, if a necessary of life, will not only find a ready market, but command cash. On the Ohio, and its waters, almost the only article, which has heretofore found a ready market at home, and would command cash, was their own distilled spirits. The taxing of this article would therefore be but little different from taxing every article in the Atlantic states, which commanded cash. Such a tax as the latter, I am inclined to believe, would be collected with difficulty, and probably with the same propriety, give the same turbulent character to a great majority of the nation.

I am far from justifying any opposition by force, to the execution of laws constitutionally enacted, they must either expire, or be constitutionally repealed; a contrary proceeding must terminate in the destruction of all order, and regular government, and leave the nation in a state of nature: but at the same time, it is a duty incumbent on the legislature, to attend to the local situations of the several constituent, or component parts of the union, and not pass laws, which are feebly felt in one part, and be oppressive in another. That some turbulent persons are to be met with on our frontiers, every person possessed of understanding and reflection, must be sensible, will be the case so long as we have a frontier, and men are able to fly from justice, or their creditors; but there are few settlements so unfortunate as to merit a general bad character from this class of inhabitants.

The people who reside on the Ohio and its waters, are brave, enterprising, and warlike, which will generally be found the strongest characteristical marks of the inhabitants of all our new settlements. It arises from their situation; being constantly in danger from the Indians, they are habituated to alarms, and acts of bravery become a duty they owe to themselves, and to their friends. But this bravery, too frequently when not checked by education, and a correct mode of thinking, degenerates into ferocity.

Vessels proper for the West India trade, may be advantageously built on the Ohio, and taken with a cargo every annual rise of the waters down to New Orleans, or out to the islands. The experiment has already been made, and attended with success.

The climate on the Ohio, does not appear to be inferior to that of any part of the union. The inhabitants enjoy as much health, as they do on any of the large rivers in the Atlantic states. At Pittsburgh, and for a considerable distance down the river, bilious complaints are scarcely known; but they are frequent at Cincinnati, and still more so at Louisville near the rapids.’

7 February 1800
‘We began our observatory, and sent a party to examine whether there was any communication between the river and Okefonoke Swamp, which after our arrival at St. Mary’s to our surprise, we found doubtful. The same day a number of canoes were sent down to the vessel to bring up some of our instruments and other articles, we were under the necessity of leaving behind.

On the 12th the instruments and other articles arrived, and a course of observations was began as soon as the weather permitted. In the evening the party that was sent to explore the source of the river, or its communication with the Okefonoke Swamp returned; but without making any satisfactory discovery, and the day following another party was despatched on the same business.

This being the season that the Alligators, or American Crocodiles were beginning to crawl out of the mud and bask in the sun, it was a favourable time to take them, both on account of their torpid state, and to examine the truth of the report of their swallowing pine knots in the fall of the year to serve them, (on account of their difficult digestion,) during the term of their torpor, which is probably about three months. For this purpose two Alligators of about eight or nine feet in length were taken and opened, and in the stomach of each was found several pine and other knots, pieces of bark, and in one of them some charcoal; but exclusive of such indigestible matter, the stomachs of both were empty. So far the report appears to be founded in fact: but whether these substances were swallowed on account of their tedious digestion, and therefore proper during the time those animals lay in the mud, or to prevent a collapse of the coats of the stomach, or by accident owing to their voracious manner of devouring their food, is difficult to determine.

The Alligator has been so often, and so well described, and those descriptions so well known, that other attempts have become unnecessary. It may nevertheless be proper to remark, that so far as the human species are concerned, the Alligators appear much less dangerous, than has generally been supposed, particularly by those unacquainted with them. And I do not recollect meeting with but one well authenticated fact of any of the human species being injured by them in that country, (where they are very numerous,) and that was a negro near New Orleans, who while standing in the water sawing a piece of timber, had one of his legs dangerously wounded by one of them. My opinion on this subject is founded on my own experience. I have frequently been a witness to Indians, including men, women and children, bathing in rivers and ponds, where those animals are extremely numerous, without any apparent dread or caution: the same practice was also pursued by myself and people, without caution, and without injury.

Some of the Alligators we killed were very fat, and would doubtless have yielded a considerable quantity of oil, which is probably almost the only use that will ever be made of them; however their tails are frequently eaten by the Indians and negroes, and Mr. Bowles informed me that he thought them one of the greatest of delicacies.

The Alligators appear to abound plentifully in musk, the smell of which is sometimes perceptible to a considerable distance, when they are wounded or killed; but whether the musk is contained in a receptacle for that purpose, and secreted by a particular gland or glands, or generally diffused through the system appears somewhat uncertain: and I confess their appearance was so disagreeable and offensive to me, that I felt no inclination to undertake the dissection of one of them.

The second party which had been sent to ascertain the connexion (if any,) between the river St. Mary’s and the Okefonoke Swamp returned on the 17th, having discovered the communication, and the day following a traverse was began, to connect the observatory with that part of the Swamp from whence the water issued, in order to determine its true geographical position.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 24 January 2014.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Luminous shards

Edvard Munch, one of Norway’s most famous sons, and the painter of one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Scream, died 80 years ago today. His so-called ‘private journals’ were published a decade or so ago by the University of Wisconsin Press. The book's editor has described the text as full of ‘luminous shards’ but, nevertheless, this work is not a journal/diary but a book of poetry. 

Munch was born in 1863, in Loten, Norway, though the family soon moved to Oslo (then called Christiania and renamed to Kristiania in 1877). His childhood was much affected by the ill health of those around him: his mother died from tuberculosis when he was just five, and some years later his sister also died from the same disease; moreover his father, a doctor, suffered from mental illness. 

Munch enrolled in a technical college in 1879 to study engineering but soon left to take up painting. From 1881, he studied at the Royal School of Art and Design, where he was exposed to a bohemian lifestyle, a stark contrast to his Lutheran upbringing. In 1883, he took part in his first public exhibition. According to Wikipedia, a full-length portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, a notorious bohemian-about-town, earned some scathing criticism: ‘It is impressionism carried to the extreme. It is a travesty of art.’

During visits to Paris in the late 1880s, he was exposed to Post-Impressionism styles; and in the 1890s he involved himself with the Symbolist movement in Berlin, often spending his winters in the city. His most famous painting - The Scream - is said to encapsulate the existential angst and despair that were central to his oeuvre. Throughout his life, he faced numerous personal challenges, including alcoholism and, in 1908, a nervous breakdown, which led him to seek therapy and adopt a more balanced lifestyle. 

Munch’s later years were marked by increasing recognition and numerous exhibitions, particularly in Germany, where he had a significant impact on the development of German Expressionism. Although he had several relationships with women, none seems to have lasted more than a few years. He died on 23 January 1944, leaving more than 20,000 works to the City of Oslo. See Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the official Munch website for more information.

There are tantalising references (in biographies) to diaries kept by Munch, especially when he was younger - see, for example, Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies by Arne Eggum (available to view at Internet Archive). However, the only published diary/journal that I can find is The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth, as edited and translated by J. Gill Holland (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). This can be sampled at Googlebooks.

The blurb gives some information about the book’s text: ‘. . . Munch considered himself a writer as well as a painter. [In Paris and Berlin . . .] he evolved a highly personal style in paintings and works on paper. And in diaries that he kept for decades, he also experimented with reminiscence, fiction, prose portraits, philosophical speculations, and surrealism. [. . .] The journal entries in this volume span the period from the 1880s, when Munch was in his twenties, until the 1930s, reflecting the changes in his life and his work. [. . .] Though excerpts from these diaries have been previously published elsewhere, no translation has captured the real passion and poetry of Munch’s voice. This translation lets Munch speak for himself and evokes the primal passion of his diaries.’

And here is a helpful paragraph from Holland’s introduction: ‘What general claims can be made for these pages from Munch’s journals? It is clear that passages in the journals are imaginary. It should also be obvious that a range of moods and tones colors his entries. His journals were for decades a laboratory in which he recorded scenes, visions, stories, and meditations. I have not tried to follow any chronological order in organizing the sections. The entries are seldom dated; Munch’s memory often reached far back into the past. Perhaps these passages should be read not as biographical items strung along a time line but instead like William Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” magical moments to which the English poet returned for four decades but that were never published in his lifetime. Munch’s journal entries “can be appreciated as luminous shards picked from the mountain of colors lying outside the glasscutter’s workshop” ’.

That said, the work is better described as a collection of poetry than a journal, and has no dated entries. Here for example is one famous extract - describing how he came to paint The Scream

One evening I was walking
out on a hilly path
near Kristiania —
with two
comrades. It
was a time when life
had ripped my
soul open.
The sun was going down—had
dipped in flames below the horizon.
It was like
a flaming sword
of blood slicing through
the concave of heaven.
The sky was like
blood — sliced with
strips of fire
— the hills turned
deep blue
the fjord — cut in
cold blue, yellow, and
red colors —

The exploding
bloody red — on
the path and hand railing
—my friends turned
glaring yellow white—
—I felt
a great scream
— and I heard,
yes, a great
scream —
the colors in
nature — broke
the lines of nature
— the lines and colors
vibrated with motion
—these oscillations of life
brought not only
my eye into oscillations,
it brought also my
ears into oscillations —
so I actually heard
a scream—
I painted
the picture Scream then.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

What’s in My Journal

‘Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for Alaska.’
This is part of a poem by the American writer, William Stafford, born 110 years ago today. He is said to have kept a daily journal for 50 years, but the only published extracts available online show the journal to be more a collection of epigrams and political/philosophical thoughts than a personal diary. 

Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on 17 January 1914. During the Depression, his family moved around in search of work, and he contributed by doing odd jobs, often on farms. He studied at the University of Kansas, and was drafted into the armed forces in 1941. However, as a registered conscientious objector, he performed alternative service, forestry and soil conservation, until 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps. While working in California in 1944, he met and married Dorothy Hope Frantz, with whom he later had four children. He received an M.A. also from the University of Kansas in 1947. His thesis - the prose memoir Down In My Heart describing his experience in the forest service camps - was published in 1948.

After moving to Oregon, Stafford taught English at Lewis & Clark College. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He was already 48 when his first major collection of poetry was published, Traveling Through the Dark, which won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published 57 volumes of poetry. His poetry often explored themes of peace, mindfulness, and the human experience. He believed in the power of everyday moments and the importance of observing the world with a keen and empathetic eye. His work is said to be characterised by its clarity, simplicity, and a reverence for the ordinary. He died in 1993. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and the Poetry Foundation.

According to Wikipedia, Stafford kept a daily journal for 50 years. Although these journals do not appear to have been published in their own right some extracts can be found in Every War Has Two Losers edited by Kim Stafford and published by Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, in 2003. This can be borrowed digitally from Internet Archive.

‘In editing this unusual book,’ Kim Stafford says in his forward, ‘I have chosen in many instances to represent my fathers unpublished writing exactly as he penned it in the early morning, alone with his thoughts. The language is sometimes very compact, the thought line intuitive, and the effect both intimate and challenging. The poems are represented as he revised and published them, and most of the interviews he had a chance to review. Some of the Daily Writings, however, were never revised, and they live here with you in their native form. I invite you to read these as they were written: attentive, deliberate, in a spirit of welcome as thoughts come forth.’

Here are several extracts from Stafford’s journal as found in Every War Has Two Losers.

25 November 1970
‘When a war looms, the enemy emerges as wrong and a menace. How long before was it wrong and a menace? What was done then? Should more have been done earlier? Could it have been swayed earlier? Were the aggressive people now among those trying to sway earlier?’ 

1 December 1974
‘Divisions among groups bring forward aggressive leaders, whose function requires of them an emphasizing of positive qualities in their own group, a tolerance of distortion in regard to the “enemy,” a temporary using of means ordinarily frowned upon. War leaders are liars.’

11 October 1978
‘Living traditionally, the country life, we cultivate the ground. We know the seed will produce after its kind. Why then do we sow suspicion and hatred in some places? If we show goodwill, honesty, reliability, industry, thrift, cheer, will these tend to produce those qualities in others around us? And the contrary is true too?

But do we have enemies? Whence came their feelings toward us? Can a serenity view and understand?’

12 July 1981
‘You can’t help noticing these days that right hasn’t prevailed.’

12 September 1981
‘The wind you walk against but do not feel is ignorance. Your foolish face has happiness on one side, but the world pressed on the other.’

And, finally, here is a poem penned by Stafford in 1981

What’s in My Journal

‘Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.’

Saturday, January 6, 2024

I must forget how to write

I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.’ This is John Wieners, an American beat poet born 90 years ago today, writing in his diary aged but 24. He would go on to become part of the poetic renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s. His poetry, some said, brought with it a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experiences.

Wieners was born on 6 January 1934, in Milton, Massachusetts. He studied at Boston College between 1950 and 1954, and then at Black Mountain College under the poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. He worked for a while as a stage manager/actor for the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, and also began to edit the literary magazine Measure.

From 1958 to 1960 Wieners lived in San Francisco. He actively participated in the city’s so-called poetry renaissance, and published The Hotel Wentley Poems. He returned to Boston in 1960, where he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a time. In 1962-1963, he lived in New York with Herbert Huncke, another poet, but again returned to Boston where he published his second book of poems, Ace of Pentacles.

Wieners enrolled in the graduate programme at the University of Buffalo, where he became a teaching fellow. After another period of institutionalisation, he moved to live in Joy Street, Boston, where he would remain; and he became more active politically, particularly against war and in support of the gay movement. In 1975, he published Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike, subtitled Cinema decoupages; verses, abbreviated prose insights, but produced little else after.

Wieners gave one of his last readings in 1999, at the Guggenheim Museum, celebrating an exhibit by the painter Francesco Clemente - the two of them having published Broken Women together. Wieners died in 2002. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, and The Poetry Foundation has this assessment: ‘Wieners’ poetry combines candid accounts of sexual and drug-related experimentation with jazz-influenced improvisation, placing both in a lyrical structure. In [one interview], Wieners stated, “I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.” As Robert Creeley observed, “His poems had nothing else in mind but their own fact.” ’

In an obituary published by The Independent, John Ward summarised Wieners’ influence: ‘[He] was a key figure in the poetic renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s. In his work a new candour regarding sexual and drug-induced experience co-existed with both a jazz-related aesthetic of improvisation and a more traditional concern with lyric form.’

A few extracts from Wieners’ diaries were published while he was still alive, in 1996, by Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, under the title The Journal of John Wieners is to be called 707 Scott Street for Billie Holiday 1959. It starts with ‘Two Short Histories’ on ‘How This Book Came To Be’.  Lewis Warsh writes: ‘ln 1972, William Corbett and I visited John in his apartment at 44 Joy Street in Boston with the hope of getting poems from him for our new magazine (edited with Lee Harwood), The Boston Eagle. I remember John opening a trunk filled with ledger-sized journals with old-fashioned marble covers. “I’d love to read them someday,” I said, thinking out loud, but Wieners caught the genuine interest in my tone and presented one to me. [. . .]

When I was finished [transcribing] I had 77 manuscript pages, a book. On the inside cover of the ledger there was the title: 707 Scott Street, for Billie Holliday. I published a few pages of the journal in an issue of The World, the literary magazine of the Poetry Project (an issue devoted to autobiographical writing which I was guest-editing); then, for almost twenty years, the transcript of the journal disappeared. It was the interest of the poet Peter Gizzi who had heard that such a journal existed, that made me go searching for it. I never presented John with a finished copy of the transcript, though I do remember visiting him again and returning the original, not that it would have mattered (or so he led me to believe) whether I’d kept it or not.’

And in the other Short History, Fanny Howe writes: ‘In 707 Scott Street [Wieners] writes, “and if I cannot speak in poetry it is because poetry is reality to me, and not the poetry we read, but find revealed in the estates of being around us.” John’s poetry has always been the closest thing possible to a new form of speech, one that narrows the gap between longing and calling. These pages from the fifties live in that “estate” as much as his spoken words to others do now.

Estates of being exist as streets, seasons, people, songs and while the placement of his poetics could be cordoned off by a period in “the limbo of contemporary America that has passed - a poetics that predates post-modern rhetoric and the strange fixation with an Otherness that he would not recognise - his unembittered position as an “unknown” witness of the dispossessed is absolutely present across time.’

The Wikipedia entry on Wieners makes reference to three books, all published posthumously, which also contain extracts from his diaries. Kidnap Notes Next is a 2002 collection of poems and journal entries edited by Jim Dunn in 2002. A Book of Prophecies (2007, Bootstrap Press) contains a manuscript discovered in the Kent State University archive’s collection by poet Michael Carr. It was a journal written by Wieners in 1971, and opens with a poem titled 2007. Thirdly, in 2005, City Lights Books published Stars Seen in Person: selected journals. This can be digitally borrowed from Internet Archive.

Here are several entries from 707 Scott Street thanks to Green Integer (which evolved out of Sun & Moon Press and, for a while, made the book freely available online as a pdf).

8 March 1958
‘The sun shines. Miss Kids is across asleep on the couch. She wakes and says “I dreamt I just put on...” I cant hear the rest. She goes back to sleep. Dana is asleep in the bedroom beside this one where the sun fills three windows. Miss Kids’ dark glasses sound/crack on the floor.

I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.

Last night I dreamed Alan appeared in a hallway where I leaned against a lintel; there were open doors on all sides and he presented me with a doll, his doll, the country one whose dress he ironed 3000 miles away. He was smiling, a great smile and I still see his white teeth and the black beard on his face. She was dressed in black, the doll, and her long thick hair was tied back the way I had left it. He had put it on top of one of those innumerable chests he had around his house. And I take it as a sign that all is well, I am and he is, today with the doll handed between us, he wanted me to have what he named was his. It is only Miss Kids and Dana who have hangovers. I must not let them hang me up.

She awakes again and asks “Is it cloudy outside yet?” I say “No” and an automobile horn busts our ears and the Chinese kids overhead beat and stomp on the floor.

These days shall be my poems, these words what I leave behind as mine, my record up against time. It is all very sad that we have to fight it. Possibly I may come to love time and its taking of my days.

“It well may be, I do not think I would.”

Right now, it is very fine. The cable car track shuttles in right inside the street and they empty the mail-box. A motor-scooter or motorcycle guns its motor and what bright flesh runs on Leavenworth Street. The 80 bus stops. Miss Kids has the Mohawk blanket that we (Dana and I) bought in the Morgan Memorial up to her eyes and her hair, her yellow hair is all over the pillow and her shut eye-lids. The cable car conductor rings the bell twice. It also stops. Only man and time move. And the space we are given to inhabit, so fast it is thru our fingers.

I must learn how not to write. I must watch with my 5 senses.

“the 5 perfections that are the 5 hindrances” and I must nail down those who would, all that would hang me up.

The 80 bus going the other way, to Market Street, sounds its squashed beep, peculiar to San Francisco, where they are afraid any loud noise would start another earthquake. And yet we all go around screaming.

There is not enough sound in the air. Miss Kids and Dana have headaches from last night.

I must stop being wise. Miss Kids wakes and says “Is it late?”

“Almost two.”

“Another day ruined.” She stretches her long wax arms (paraffin) on the mohair couch. “I feel fine now, Kids.” The sun puts gold on her nose. “Kids, they’re after me.” I tell her “Kids, you look like a fucked Alice-in-Wonderland. And your hands are swollen,”

She looks at them. “Dana did it.” ’

18 June 1958
‘Miss Lollipop is full of pain this morning. Her wing bone in the back. Her legs are black and blue. She ran her hands over me showing me where the pain is. We sat up all night listening to jazz and then at dawn, rock and roll. Her history as far as I know it consists of 8 arrests, 4 husbands. Her father was chief of the narcotics bureau in Sacramento. She lives in the Broadway Hotel with an Armenian piano player. She bends her neck as one of her boys rubs his hands into her. She wears a black bra. She does not complain.

Miss Lollipop has one of the most rare diseases known to medical history. A form of low grade bacteria that causes her shape to change every day. One day pregnant and full of gas, the next shapely. As she puts it, “I’ve had a lot of trouble with my insides.” ’

26 July 1958
‘On the road again. America does not change. Nor do we, Olson says. We only reveal more of ourselves. Riding in the car with all the windows open. How can I rise to the events of our lives. I am a shrew and nagging bitch as my mother was. I am filled with doubt and too passive. I go where I am told. Anywhere. Take pleasure in doing what I am told. There is no comfort in Nature or God except for the weak. It is my fellow men that deliver me my life. Otherwise I wrap up in myself like an evening primrose in the sun. Nature is good for analogy. We think we learn lessons from her but she deserts us at the moment of action. That is why we remain savages. Underneath. And our civilization remains a jungle. Live it at night and see.

But traveling on the road to Sausalito, San Francisco then Big Sur, I see how much the earth still surrounds us. Willow Road juts out in my memory. Mission San Rafael Archangel. Redwood Highway. Where man is going now, who knows. The earth no longer need be his home. Maybe this means the end of the old world. And man, on the minutest of planets may and can range thru all of space. To the very frontiers, limits, barriers of outer worlds. Lucky Drive. End construction project. With what frightening speed we move ahead. This must be necessary: Paradise Drive. The children are quieting down now. The witch drives her old Chevrolet, her long black hair blowing out the window.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 January 2014.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

An anguish of suffering

‘On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home.’ This is George Gissing, a British novelist, a purveyor of unrepentant gloom according to some, who died 120 years ago today. As a young man he became disastrously involved with a prostitute, and, later, he married a woman who went mad. His diaries were published in 1978, and are said to shed light on his extraordinary life. However, Gissing’s gloomy novels are very much out of fashion at present, and the diaries have long been out of print.

Gissing was born in Wakefield in 1857, where his father was a chemist. Although apparently destined for a brilliant academic career, he failed to complete his education at Owens College, Manchester, because of a disastrous involvement with a prostitute, for whom he stole money. He was caught and imprisoned for a month. After his release, he went to the US for a year where he undertook literature and philosophy studies.

On returning to England in 1878, Gissing worked both as a tutor and a journalist while also writing and publishing novels such as Workers in the Dawn, The Unclassed, and Demos, which focused on the degrading effects of poverty. He was married twice, once to the prostitute and once to a servant girl, Edith Alice Underwood, but neither marriage brought him happiness. Edith gave him two children, but she was eventually certified insane.

In total, Gissing wrote over 20 novels (New Grub Street and The Odd Women being among the most well known), some of which, with a writer as the main character, were quite autobiographical. He also wrote more than a hundred short stories, literary criticism, essays, and many letters. Commentators say there is an unrepentant gloom about much of his writing. He travelled abroad several times; and, on one journey to Italy, was accompanied by H. G. Wells.

In the last decade of his life, Gissing became involved with Clara Collet. She helped take care of him and his two children, but was then disappointed when Gissing fell in love with a French woman, Gabrielle Fleury. Unable to get a divorce from Edith, he moved to France to live with Gabrielle. He died from emphysema - after catching a chill during a winter walk - aged only 46 on 28 December 1903. Further biographical information on Gissing can be found at Wikipedia, The George Rylands Library (University of Manchester), The Victorian Web, Victorian Secrets, and also in a 1948 article by George Orwell and reviews of a recent biography, George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany, in The Telegraph or The Guardian.

More than 70 years after Gissing’s death, in 1978, The Harvester Press Limited (UK) and Bucknell University Press (US) published London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England - The Diary of George Gissing as edited by Pierre Coustillas. At the time of publication, the publishers stated: ‘Very few major novelists have left personal diaries. Where these exist they are a record of great interest, to the student of society, of literature and to the psychologist. George Gissing’s diary is probably the only one covering the late-Victorian period that has so far remained unpublished.’

There is also this from the publishers: ‘Professor Pierre Coustillas, perhaps the best known of all Gissing scholars, has edited and introduced the diary and placed it in its general social and literary context while also relating it to Gissing’s life and work. The editorial apparatus, including a ‘Who’s Who’ in the diary throws light on several hundred people contemporary with Gissing, and on many events which played a significant part in the writer’s extraordinary life. Professor Coustillas relates the diary to the themes and spirit of Gissing’s work.’ The published diary can be freely borrowed digitally from Internet Archive (log-in required).

1 March 1888
‘Let me describe this room. It was the first floor back; so small that the bed left little room to move. She [his mother] took it unfurnished, for 2/9 a week; the furniture she brought was: the bed. one chair, a chest of drawers, and a broken deal table. On some shelves were a few plates, cups, etc. Over the mantelpiece hung several pictures, which she had preserved from old days. There were three engravings: a landscape, a piece by l.andseer, and a Madonna of Raphael. There was a portrait of Byron, and one of Tennyson. There was a photograph of myself, taken 12 years ago - to which, the landlady tells me, she attached special value, strangely enough. Then there were several cards with Biblical texts, and three cards such as are signed by those who “take the pledge” - all bearing date during the last six months.

On the door hung a poor miserable dress and a worn out ulster; under the bed was a pair of boots, linen she had none; the very covering of the bed had gone save one sheet and one blanket. I found a number of pawn tickets, showing that she had pledged these things during last summer - when it was warm, poor creature! All the money she received went in drink; she used to spend my weekly 15/- the first day or two that she had it. Her associates were women of so low a kind that even Mrs. Sherlock did not consider them respectable enough to visit her house.

I drew out the drawers. In one I found a little bit of butter and a crust of bread, - most pitiful sight my eyes ever looked upon. There was no other food anywhere. The other drawers contained a disorderly lot of papers: there I found all my letters, away back to the American time. In a cupboard were several heaps of dirty rags; at the bottom there had been coals, but none were left. Lying about here and there were medicine bottles, and hospital prescriptions.

She lay on the bed covered with a sheet. I looked long, long at her face, but could not recognize it. It is more than three years, I think, since I saw her, and she had changed horribly. Her teeth all remained, white and perfect as formerly.

I took away very few things, just a little parcel: my letters, my portrait, her rent-book, a certificate of life-assurance which had lapsed, a copy of my Father’s “Margaret” which she had preserved, and a little workbox, the only thing that contained traces of womanly occupation.

Came home to a bad, wretched night. In nothing am I to blame; I did my utmost; again and again I had her back to me. Fate was too strong. But as I stood beside that bed, I felt that my life henceforth had a firmer purpose. Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind. I feel that she will help me more in her death than she balked me during her life. Poor, poor thing!’

26 September 1891
‘Clouded. Read Robertson’s life. Letter from Lawrence & Bullen, the new publishers, saying that Roberts had told them that I am engaged on a 1-vol. story, and offering to publish it for me at 6/ -, giving me 1/- on each copy; also willing to pay £100 on account. Note from Roberts, who is near Corfe Castle. The Illustd London News of to-day, in an article called “London in Fiction”, has this passage: “In such a book no inconsiderable part would be played by the Temple, which has been the happy hunting ground of so many of our novelists, from Sir Walter Scott to Mr. George Gissing”. The mention is good, but I have never made use of the Temple.’

6 October 1891
‘Reply from Watt. Longman won’t make an offer; MS sent on to Bentley. Wrote answer, saying I couldn’t wait after October, but on second thoughts decided not to send it, as I still possess £27. From Willersey came a basket of fine pears, addressed to Edith. Last night a furious gale, with heavy rain, and rain all to-day. In evening got the first page of new novel written.’

24 January 1893
‘Dull, warm. Wrote 4pp. of story. On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home. Condemned for ever to associate with inferiors—and so crassly unintelligent. Never a word exchanged on anything but the paltry everyday life of the household. Never a word to me, from anyone, of understanding sympathy—or of encouragement. Few men, I am sure, have led so bitter a life.- Read half Bk III St Augustine, and some pages of [Cicero’s] “De Oratore”.’

7 February 1895
‘Terrible weather. Reports of 35° of frost from the Midlands. Worked well, though against terrible odds - hands frozen and feet like stones. Did 4pp. Got from lib. “Children of the Ghetto”[by Israel Zangwill]. Received Crabbe. Present of parkin from Mother. New servant seems satisfactory.’

9 February 1895
‘Frost harder than ever. Wrote only 1/2 p. Article of 2 cols, in Spectator to-day, an attack on me for my “perverse idealism”. Roberts writes to ask if he may write a critical article on me for the Fortnightly.’

9 August 1896
‘Nothing could be more difficult than my position as regards the boy Walter. All but every statement made to him he answers with a blunt contradiction; to all but every bidding he replies “I shan’t”. As I sit in the room, where the nurse-girl is present, he calls me all manner of abusive names. I said to him this afternoon, that, as it was too windy to go out, he had better rest an hour. “Not in your bedroom”, was his harsh reply. “I’ll rest in mother’s room, but not in yours.” And to-morrow, on some trifling provocation, he would make precisely the opposite reply. He knows there is no harmonv between his mother and me, and he begins to play upon the situation - carrying tales from one to the other, etc. The poor child is ill-tempered, untruthful, precociously insolent, surprisingly selfish. I can see that Wakefield may have a good influence, but only the merest beginnings show as yet. I should like to know how the really wise and strong father would act in this position. But no wise and strong man could have got into it. Talk of morals! What a terrible lesson is the existence of this child, born of a loveless and utterly unsuitable marriage.’

20 December 1898
‘Fine, frosty. Did 3pp. Eczema greatly better, George Whale advises me to send the sheriff a doctor’s certificate as excuse for non-attendance at Kingston. Wrote to Childcott for one. Reed circular from a Committee getting up fund for Harold Frederic’s widow and four legitimate children. As the youngest of these children is 10, and the eldest 20, I wrote to the Sec[retary, John Stokes,] asking whether anything is to be done to help the other family of young children, whose position is in every way much harder.’

10 December 1899
‘Have been up all night. A furious gale blowing. E. in long miserable pain; the Doctor has just given her chloroform, and says that the blackguard business draws to an end.

5.15. Went to the study door, and heard the cry of the child. Nurse, speedily coming down, tells me it is a boy. Wind howling savagely. So, the poor girl’s misery is over, and she has what she earnestly desired.

Sent notes to E.’s people in London, and one to Mother. Got through day without going to bed. Corrected some proofs. The wind, after lulling at mid-day, grew furious again towards night.

The baby has a very ugly dark patch over right eye. Don’t know the meaning of it.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 28 December 2013.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Beatrix and Benjamin

Beatrix Potter - author and illustrator of the much-loved Peter Rabbit books - died 80 years ago today. As a teenager and young woman, Potter kept a secret diary written in code. This was not deciphered and published until more than 20 years after her death, but it shows how (long before publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit) she was already writing to herself about her rabbit, Mr Benjamin Bunny - very much the star of her diary - in a style similar to that of the books she would publish later on.

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866, the only daughter in a cultured family with inherited wealth. She was educated at home, and spent much time painting, using specimens from the nearby Natural History Museum. The family regularly spent summer and early autumn in rented houses in the Lake District and Scotland. She kept rabbits and other animals as pets. Her parents entertained many guests, including Hardwicke Rawnsley who was to become one of the founders of the National Trust. He, in particular, encouraged her drawing.

Another friend, Frederick Warne, published, in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book which came about because of the illustrated letters Potter had been sending to a sick child. Other books - now famous around the world - followed, as did her engagement to Warne’s son Norman. However, Norman died tragically in 1905. That same year, Potter bought Hill Top Farm near Sawrey in the English Lake District, though she continued to be based in London. And then, in 1909, she bought Castle Farm over the road from Hill Top Farm (now a Potter museum).

Potter remained single until 1913, when she married William Heelis, a solicitor in Hawkshead. They moved to live at Castle Cottage, the renovated house at Castle Farm, and together, ran the farm; later they enlarged it with the help of an inheritance from Beatrix’s father (see Lancashire Life for more on Castle Cottage). Though all of the Peter Rabbit books had been published by this time, she continued to produce occasional books, some of them Peter Rabbit related, for her publisher, Frederick Warne.

In 1930, Potter purchased half of Monk Coniston, a romantic Gothic-style house, with the National Trust agreeing to purchase the other half. Potter, however, managed the whole estate and its many farms - with an increasing interest in conservation - for seven years, until the Trust was able to buy most of it back. Today, Monk Coniston is leased from the Trust for use as a hotel. When Potter died - on 22 December 1943 - she left several other farms and much land to the National Trust, together with some celebrated flocks of Herdwick sheep.

Further biographical information is readily available online at Wikipedia, the Beatrix Potter Society, Frederick Warne & Co’s Peter Rabbit website, the Visit Cumbria website, or the V&A which holds the extensive Linder (see below) archive of Potter work.

From the age of fifteen until her early 30s, Potter kept a detailed diary of her life written in a secret code. This code remained un-deciphered until the late 1950s, when Leslie Linder, an engineer and collector of Potter drawings, found the key and then worked painstakingly to decipher and transcribe the diaries. The Journal of Beatrix Potter - 1881 to 1897 was finally published by Frederick Warne in 1966.

A chapter towards the front of the book, written by Linder, describes the code in some detail, and how he cracked it. The chapter starts: ‘From about the age of fourteen until she was thirty, Beatrix Potter kept a Journal in her own privately-invented code-writing. It appears that even her closest friends knew nothing of this code-writing. She never spoke of it, and only one instance has come to light where it was mentioned. This was in a letter to her much-loved cousin [. . .] written five weeks before Beatrix Potter died, in which she described it as “apparently inspired by a united admiration for Boswell and Pepys”, continuing, “when I was young I already had the itch to write, without having any material to write about (the modern young author is not damped by such considerations). I used to write long-winded descriptions, hymns (!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand which I am now unable to read even with a magnifying glass.” ’

From January 1987, Linder explains, Potter put her journal aside. He concludes the chapter as follows: ‘From now onwards the keeping of a Journal appears to have been put aside as Beatrix Potter became more and more absorbed in the planning of her books. It is of interest to note, however, that in later years she sometimes wrote odd notes and even fragments of stories in code-writing, but it was never used again for the purpose of a Journal.’ Much of The Journal of Beatrix Potter can be read online freely at Googlebooks.

From July to October 1892, Potter stayed at Heath Park, Birnam, Perthshire
20 August 1892
‘Still somewhat disposed. After breakfast taking Mr. Benjamin Bunny to pasture at the edge of the cabbage bed with his leather dog-lead, I heard a rustling, and came a little wild rabbit to talk to him, it crept half across the cabbage bed and then sat up on its hind legs, apparently grunting. I replied, but the stupid Benjamin did nothing but stuff cabbage. The little animal evidently a female, and of a shabby appearance, nibbling, advanced to about three strap lengths on the other side of my rabbit, its face twitching with excitement and admiration for the beautiful Benjamin, who at length caught sight of it round a cabbage, and immediately bolted. He probably took it for Miss Hutton’s cat.’

21 August 1892
‘Went into the garden immediately after breakfast, but saw nothing of the wild rabbit except its tracks. Benjamin’s mind has at last comprehended gooseberries, he stands up and picks them off the bush, but has such a comical little mouth, it is a sort of bob cherry business.’

22 August 1892
‘Very hot. Went to Mrs. McIntosh’s to try and photograph Charlie Lumm’s fox at Calley, but with very little advantage except that I was touched with the kindness of Mrs. McIntosh. She let the pony stand in their stall, gave me a glass of milk, and tramped up the wood with me to the Under-keeper’s cottage.

The wood is very beautiful at the bottom of Craigie-barns, such tall Scotch firs, and the Game keeper’s cottage with its bright old-fashioned flowers and a row of bee hives. The fox proved a tyke, tearing round and round the tree, in the absence of Charlie Lumm, but as things turned out, it did not signify.

Coming down we passed Eel Stew, with high post railings where her Grace’s supply of eels are preserved, having been trapped in the Lochs. Her Grace will have two or three cooked for supper every evening almost, when she is at home, at which information I was much amazed.’

30 October 1892
‘When I was walking out Benjamin I saw Miss Hutton’s black cat jumping on something up the wood. I thought it was too far off to interfere, but as it seemed leisurely I went up in time to rescue a poor little rabbit, fast in a snare. The cat did not hurt it, but I had great difficulty in slackening the noose round its neck. I warmed it at the fire, relieved it from a number of fleas, and it came round. It was such a little poor creature compared to mine. They are regular vermin, but one cannot stand by to see a thing mauled about from one’s friendship for the race. Papa in his indignation pulled up the snare. I fancy our actions were much more illegal than Miss Hutton’s.

After dinner I was half amused, half shocked, to see her little niece Maggie hunting everywhere for the wire. I just had enough sense not to show the stranger to Benjamin Bounce, but the smell of its fur on my dress was quite enough to upset the ill-regulated passions of that excitable buck rabbit. Whether he thought I had a rival in my pocket, or like a Princess in a Fairy Tale was myself metamorphosed into a white rabbit I cannot say, but I had to lock him up.

Rabbits are creatures of warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent. It is this naturalness, one touch of nature, that I find so delightful in Mr. Benjamin Bunny, though I frankly admit his vulgarity. At one moment amiably sentimental to the verge of silliness, at the next, the upsetting of a jug or tea-cup which he immediately takes upon himself, will convert him into a demon, throwing himself on his back, scratching and spluttering. If I can lay hold of him without being bitten, within half a minute he is licking my hands as though nothing has happened.

He is an abject coward, but believes in bluster, could stare our old dog out of countenance, chase a cat that has turned tail. Benjamin once fell into an Aquarium head first, and sat in the water which he could not get out of, pretending to eat a piece of string. Nothing like putting a face upon circumstances.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 22 December 2013.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

This won’t break us

‘The day began with the barber telling me that, as of September 19, we will have to wear a badge bearing the word “Jew,” even six-year-old children. This won’t break us either, even though life will be made more difficult.’ This is from the diaries of Dr. Willy Cohn, born 135 years ago today, who was one of many thousands of Jews executed by the Nazis at Ninth Fort in Lithuania. According to the publisher, the diaries show how the process of marginalisation under the Nazis unfolded within the Breslau Jewish community and how difficult it was to understand precisely what was happening, even as people were harassed, beaten, and taken off to concentration camps.

Cohn was born on 12 December 1888 in Breslau, Poland (though then it was part of the German Empire) into a wealthy Jewish merchant family. He studied history at the universities of Breslau and Heidelberg and married Ella Proskauer in 1913. They would have two children, before divorcing in 1922. He served as a soldier on the Western Front during the war, and won an Iron Cross for bravery. After the war, he secured a position as teacher at Breslau’s Johannesgymnasium in 1919, remaining there until 1933. During this time, he wrote several books, including biographies of Karl Marx, Robert Owen and Friedrich Engels. He married Gertrud Rothmann in 1923 with whom he had three children.

After being forced into retirement for ‘political reasons’ in 1933, Cohn became a board member of the Jewish Museum in Breslau, and he lectured at the Jewish Theological Seminary also in Breslau. However, as the persecution of Jews in Germany grew worse, he and his family began to consider emigration. They visited Palestine in 1937, but there seemed no employment prospects especially for Cohn who was not healthy enough for physical labor. By the time they wanted to flee, at the start of the Second World War, it was too late - the Nazi regime had begun its reign of terror, Wikipedia explains, and no longer allowed emigration. The Cohns and two of their children were arrested in November 1941, and deported to German-occupied Lithuania. A few days later, they were shot in Ninth Fort, together with 2000 other Jews from Breslau and Vienna.

Cohn’s life story stands out and is now remembered because of the diaries he kept all his adult life. These were found (along with a 1,000-page memoir in Berlin) in 1945. Excerpts from the diaries, in the original German, were first published in 1975, as was the memoir in 1995. Then, in 2005, the diaries were published in a fully annotated version, as edited by Norbert Conrads. This latter edition was translated into English by Kenneth Kronenberg for publication as No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941 (Stanford University Press). 

From the publisher’s blurb: ‘With great immediacy, the diaries of Willy Cohn, a Jew and a Social Democrat, show how the process of marginalization under the Nazis unfolded within the vibrant Jewish community of Breslau - until that community was destroyed in 1941. Cohn documents how difficult it was to understand precisely what was happening, even as people were harassed, beaten, and taken off to concentration camps. He chronicles the efforts of the community to maintain some semblance of normal life at the same time as many made plans to emigrate or to get their children out.’

From the translator’s note: ‘Willy Cohn was a complex individual: an Orthodox Jew and a socialist; an ardent Zionist and a staunch German patriot; a democrat but an admirer of Nazi resolve and sometimes even policy; a realist and an idealist often not up to grappling effectively; generous to a fault but also occasionally petty and stubborn. These and other contradictions within his personality, and the wealth of detail that poured from his pen, give us a unique view of a disorienting and frightening time in Germany.’

Here are several extracts.

17 December 1938
‘The first evening of Hanukkah. This morning I worked on my box of manuscripts and threw a few things out. This is the time of year when it makes sense to burn things. Delved into decades well before mv birth, when my father built his beautiful store with iron determination! Life smiled on us German Jews back then.

Went to synagogue, Shabbat afternoon service; first day of Hanukkah. The men’s section was very full, and we all proudly sang the old song of the Maccabees, which has been heard for more than two thousand years and will hopefully be heard for another two thousand. I firmly believe in the future of our people, and in its healthy inner life force. The Jews who pray in our synagogue, and who returned from the Buchenwald camp, all said the Birkat Hagomel, the prayer of deliverance.

Spoke with Tischler, the classifieds representative, and he told me that the Famlienblatt has been liquidated, that Schatzky sold it. How many Jewish livelihoods are now finished as a result; there will be no renewal of Jewish intellectual life in Germany now that all of the major sources of income have been blocked.

Celebrated Hanukkah in the evening with all three daughters. Trudi held Tamara in her arms. It is my most fervent hope that my family will celebrate this day next year in Erez Israel, in freedom. Whether I can still accomplish that, with all the efforts needed to get ready! Tamara will be five months old day after tomorrow! Susannchen knows all of the verses of “Ma’oz Tzur.”

This morning I sent both of my big girls to see Mother. Ruth was able to get half a chicken, and we sent a bar of soap along as well. Unfortunately, I can’t do much; I’m short on money right now myself, and I don’t know how we are going to get through this. I don’t want to ask anyone, either. It is very difficult for a father when he is unable to do what he would like to do, but of course that is also happening to innumerable Jews right now. I think that few of us Jews wall escape this mouse trap. Sometimes, a person must push his thoughts aside and bear in mind all of the good things that he has!’

18 December 1938
‘I don’t think I have yet noted that Curt Proskauer returned home from Buchenwald. His health seems to have been badly affected by it. I called him yesterday.

I went to see Czollak to greet him after his return from Buchenwald. He was in bed because of a nail-bed infection; other than that, thank G’d, he did not look too bad. He is very impractical about his emigration plans. I will help him to the extent I can. Urbach, in Jerusalem, is treating him and Daniel very decently. We have to help each other through these times!’

19 December 1938
‘Unfortunately, Trudi has to make the rounds of the police this morning about Ruth’s passport. First the district station, and then headquarters. She doesn’t want me to do it. The matter of Ruth’s identity card seems to be going smoothly; she will pick up her passport tomorrow. I don’t expect any other problems either. I am always quite anxious whenever one of my children’s emigration approaches. But it is not helpful, and I just have to get through it. We must fight against every sort of failure.’

22 July 1939
‘Yesterday was a horrible day. Terrible upsets, with Trudi as well. Arrangements for additional payments to the Palestine Trust Office so that we can at least take Tamara with us. To the bank, where I spent an hour negotiating; then came Dr. Latte, whom we had selected as our foreign currency advisor. We found a possible way out, namely if we can use the boys’ money that was placed in blocked accounts, we may be able to take Susanne with us. I cannot even imagine separating from the child.

Regarding yesterday, I must add that I was summoned to the Gestapo in the morning in the context of a so-called “street action.” They wanted my families personal information to the extent that they are registered in Breslau, and then he asked, “When are you emigrating?” I told him that my son had applied for me. “How long could that take?” I replied, “A few months.” “You can go home now," he said. The whole matter took a few minutes.’

2 September 1939
‘Thank G'd, the first nightly blackout went without incident. Sat on the balcony. There was a nice breeze, and I could see the darkened city. Toward evening, Trudi returned from shopping with the news that the airport in Warsaw had been bombed, and that Pless, in Polish Upper Silesia, had apparently been leveled. In the morning we will hear what is true and what is not.

I didn’t attend synagogue in the evening, nor did we light the Kiddush candles. Lay awake in bed thinking about Wölfl. We are completely cut off, and our thoughts alone connect us. It is sometimes difficult to turn them off. Emotionally, in fact, I have lost all hope that our emigration to Palestine might succeed. One has to consider the loss of money that would make possible such a transfer. But it makes no sense tearing my hair out about that now; all I can do is live from hour to hour. At this moment, I have no idea how the other powers will respond to the German-Polish war.

From a Jewish perspective, I can say the following about the situation. The Aryan population is surely not well disposed to us, and if Germany suffers failure in Poland, we can almost certainly expect pogrom-like assaults. Today on the street for the first time I heard two older men make an anti-Semitic remark: “The Jews must get out.” It wasn’t aimed at me, but that makes it all the more characteristic.’

6 September 1941
‘Yesterday a lovely and quick letter from Wölfl dated August 20, full of warmth. He asks about each and every one of us; a boy on whom we may rely.’

7 September 1941
‘No newspaper to be had yesterday. Paper is in such short supply that newspapers are quietly sold out. A number of streetcar lines won’t be running in the morning as of this Sunday. There is a shortage of personnel! I think that Germany’s situation continues to be very unfavorable, even though the newspapers report victories each day.’

8 September 1941
‘The day began with the barber telling me that, as of September 19, we will have to wear a badge bearing the word “Jew,” even six-year-old children. This won’t break us either, even though life will be made more difficult. In spite of it all, we will have to try not to lose our nerve. All of these measures show how increasingly bad Germany’s situation is, and how the people’s rage is being vented on the most helpless part of the population! This trumps the Middle Ages! Each violation carries a fine of 500 marks or one month in jail! In addition, travel by Jews has been banned throughout the Reich, and the obligation to report to the Gestapo tightened.

Worked in the Cathedral Archive and did some excerpting for Germania Judaica! Nonetheless, these matters coursed around my mind! Director Engelbert told me that I may continue to work there despite the badge. He is a man of great character, far different from Walter, the archivist, and Mother Huberta. Mother Innocentia is also a person with a large spirit.

9 September 1941
‘Dictated a considerable piece of my memoirs yesterday afternoon; I have now written more than 1,000 pages. I also wrote a lengthy letter to Wölfl! Given current circumstances, it is hard to find the right words. I was exhausted by evening. I went for a walk, but I am very unnerved by the decree about the yellow badge! I read it this morning!’