Tuesday, October 30, 2007

WRITING LESSONS. A lesson in detail, from Frederick Lewis Allen's The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1990-1950:
The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage life were part of the universal American experience [in 1900]: the clop-clop of horses' hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of the brake being applied to ease the horse on a downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one's breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of a carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses' hoofs; the special male ordeal of getting out of the carriage and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing a horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornful glance.
This reminds me of the streetcar scene in Welles' film of The Magnificent Amberson, in which the men get out of the vehicle as it waits on a passenger, smoke and chat, and then give the car a push to help it on its way. But the bit about the horse's sneeze is new and startling to me. The hygenic details of simpler times can pull us sharply into the scene. (Allen also writes evocatively about spitoons.)

A lesson in synthesis of details, from Timothy J. Gilfoyle's A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York:
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, the opium dens of Chinatown facilitated and represented an ill-defined, inarticulate bohemian world. While this intercultural milieu fostered little intellectual debate, displayed less middle-class self-consciousness, and attracted fewer females compared with Greenwich Village bohemia after 1900, it nevertheless embodied a liminal space fostering an ethic of mutuality, hedonism, and fantasy. The bohemia George Appo confronted in these early opium dens at once conveyed an exotic and erotic "Orientalism" alongside a "rough," male underworld. In Gotham's opium dens pickpockets like Appo met their "genteel" Victorian counterparts. Respectable actors, actresses, artists, and "clubmen" fraternized with sneak thieves, confidence men, and prostitutes. Evoking an ambiance of Asian mystery, this hidden subculture was devoted to the pleasures of the pipe and the body. Opium smoking then gave birth to a distinct American bohemia.
This called to my mind a hundred years of fringe-dweller imagery -- beaded curtains, orgies, koans, Theosophy, incense, tribal body ornamentation, African masks, seances, and the guy who seems cool but steals your stash -- and reassembled it. I had some idea of the relationship of criminal life to bohemianism, thanks in large part to Luc Sante and my own experience, but Gilfoyle's elegant generalization gathered in what I knew and tied a nice bow on it.

Good writers can work either end of the telescope.

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