Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe[Permalink]
“Get out now,” John R. Stilgoe urges us at the start of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. “Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century.”
Stilgoe is not advocating an escape back to a simpler form of life or a time before electronics. Instead, Outside Lies Magic is a call for us to step outside … and pay attention. In particular, to pay attention to all the aspects of our environment that we quickly learn to take for granted, that thereby become invisible, particularly if we are accustomed to travel through this environment inside the cocoon of a car.
Stilgoe calls it “a straightforward guidebook to exploring.” By exploring, he means venturing into our ordinary landscapes at a slower pace–by foot or bicycle–and taking the time to notice: “to widen his or her angle of vision, to ste sideways and look at something seemingly familiar, to walk a few paces and see something utterly new.”
Stilgoe, a professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, is not exactly a neglected figure. His classes are among the most popular and best-regarded at Harvard, and he was the subject of a story on CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in 2009. Outside Lies Magic is still available in Kindle format, but it’s been out of print in paper form for the last decade.
Landscape–whether natural or man-made–is not meant to be interpreted, Stilgoe points out. It’s meant, in most cases, simply to serve some purpose, whether obvious or obscure. And since most of our voyages through our landscape are also purposeful, we tend to neglect anything not directly related to our purposes.
Exploring, for Stilgoe, starts with abandoning purpose. “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision….” This is not aimless wandering, however. Although the term doesn’t appear in the book, Outside Lies Magic is about mindfulness applied to the everyday world around us.
Stilgoe leads the reader through this world along a variety of paths, starting with “Lines”–literally, the electric, telephone and cable lines strung over our heads or lying buried beneath our streets and sidewalks. From these physical networks he then takes us into the virtual network of the U.S. mail system, tracing its evolution from post offices run out of general stores to the age of railroad post offices, during which service among major cities probably exceeded that of today, to the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). He goes on to reveal the past, present and possible future of railroad routes, many of which still run through our neighborhoods, whether active, abandoned, or transformed into bike and walking paths.
Outside Lies Magic is not a formal guidebook, however. Although Stilgoe does stick to a set theme in each chapter, he deliberately avoids becoming too purposeful in this guide to purposeless discovery. This is not a book you’d take in hand to help you navigate and interpret what you might encounter.
More than anything, it’s a prose poem. By that, I don’t mean that Stilgoe’s is a particularly poetic prose style. Instead, it’s full of passages that use patterns and rhythms akin to the poetic. Take, for example, this little ode to what lies beneath a freeway overpass:
Beneath the elevated interstate highway lie the lots to which dented tow trucks tow illegally parked cars, lots filled with piles of sand, great stacks of concrete lane barriers, heaps upon heaps of shattered asphalt and concrete and rusted reinforcing rod surrounded by derelict construction machines. Beneath the elevated highway stand disused construction-site trailers, long-parked trailer-truck trailers, dozens of buses with every window long smashed. Beneath the elevated highway march the four-foot-high piles of dirt and litter emptied in perfect rows from three-wheeled street-sweeping machines, piles awaiting pickup by loaders and dump trucks that seem never to arrive. Everywhere beneath elevated highways blossom makeshift dumps, great clutches of abandoned cars and burned-out cars, the former often occupied as homes by the homeless, the latter serving as unofficial Dumpsters and toilets. Beneath the elevated highway the exploring bicyclist finds the homes never visited by the United States Census, the clusters of cardboard cartons, sheet-metal boxes, construction-timber lean-tos, and automobile hoods that comprise the turn-of-the-millennium American jungle.
This could easily be re-formatted into a five-line work of free verse.
Stilgoe can find poetry even in such mundane things as a Motel 6 at night:
Out on the bypass, out by the interstate highway, the motel owns the night, its many lights shining down over both its parking lots, its handful of old-fashioned outdoor post and wall lanterns sparkling by its main entrance, its dozens or hundreds of smaller, single-bulb lights flicked on, one beside each room door.
Outside Lies Magic is also a small work of practical philosophy. Stilgoe argues passionately for the need for unstructured time, unstructured thoughts, unstructured experiences as a means to keep ourselves fully engaged with our world. Speaking with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes,” he observed of his Harvard students, “I think they’ve missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn’t in an organized activity, the child is a criminal.”
“But as far as I can understand,” he continued, “most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know.” His observation reminds me of something that appears in Jacques Hadamard’s The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (republished as The Mathematician’s Mind): “A problem . . . reveals itself suddenly when it is no longer investigated, probably because it is no longer investigated and when one only expects, for a short time, to rest and relax….”
“A person is more than separated mind and body,” Stilgoe writes at the conclusion of Outside Lies Magic,
… and the body exists as much to carry the mind as the mind exists to direct the body. Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows nothing in particular, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore. And almost always, that person starts to understand, to see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns unnoticed by journalists and other experts.
Exploring, finally, is a way of reclaiming one’s senses and encountering the world in a different way. “Whoever owns the real estate and its constituents,” Stilgoe writes, “the explorer owns the landscape.”
So what’s keeping you? Get out now.
Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe
New York: Walker and Company, 1998
June 15th, 2013
The Persians Are Coming, by Bruno Frank[Permalink]
The Persians Are Coming is a short novel set in Italy and on the French Riviera–something of an allegory about the death of liberalism and humanism and the rise of fascism. It starts with a German liberal politician taking leave of his favorite holiday spot in Italy–a place of classical beauty now being taken over by the blackshirts. Expecting to return to Germany and take a high office in a new government, he stops along the Riviera to meet a like-minded French politician, and the two have a dialogue about the possibility of redemption through the simple goodness of ordinary folk (c.f. 1984: “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles”).
In Marseilles on his way to Berlin, however, he finds his world unravelling with increasing speed. He sees newspapers announcing the collapse of his government and thinks he hears his name being whispered all around him. As the sun sets and the streets darken, his walk takes him from the modern streets into a nightmarish quarter full of Arabs, thieves, addicts and prostitutes. He leaves the light of the Marseilles founded by the ancient Greeks and descends into an Eastern world of sex, drugs and violence–violence that ultimately claims him. This final passage has more than a few reminders of Mann’s Death in Venice and the child sacrifice scene in The Magic Mountain.
Translated, coincidentally, by Mann’s regular English translator, the ham-fisted H. T. Lowe-Porter. But despite that, there is some elegance in the prose, and the story is profoundly sad, aside from the lurid ending. What’s interesting is that it was published in 1928, when Nazism was still just one of a number of competing ideologies, and yet Frank seems already to have conceded the defeat of liberal democracy.
The Persians are Coming, by Bruno Frank, translated from Politische Novelle by H. T. Lowe-Porter
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929
June 12th, 2013
Recommendations from Matthew Null Neill: Andre Malraux, Mark Costello, and Henry C. Kittredge[Permalink]
Matthew Null Neill, novelist and O. Henry Prize winner, wrote recently to suggest neglected works by three writers: Andre Malraux, Mark Costello, and Henry C. Kittredge:
- • André Malraux: Anti-Memoirs (1968)
- “This book has a wounded grandeur to it. One of those thick, Mailer-esque tomes that covers it all: lonely flights over the desert, lost cities and Khmer temples, the Spanish Civil War, a career as a left-wing minister to right-wring De Gaulle, life in the French Resistance, torture by the Nazis, de-colonialization up close and personal, and telling brushes with Nehru and Mao. A mandarin, swashbuckling life that, alas, we can no longer live. How accurate is this book? Well, it’s hard to tell, but that’s part of the ride. Sadly out of print. Yes, the dedication to ‘Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy’ comes off as a bit precious, but one must overlook it. Bonus: The translation is by the estimable Terrence Kilmartin.”
- • Mark Costello: The Murphy Stories (1973) and Middle Murphy (1993)
- “Two story collections, published obscurely by the University of Illinois Press. Against a gritty Midwestern backdrop of industrial slag and soybean fields, we follow the adventures of Murphy as he navigates two-bit academic jobs, alcoholism and adultery. Think of Bruno Schulz, if Bruno Schulz were the son of a Republican ward-heeler in Decatur, Illinois. Another wonderful, forgotten writer. His prose is endlessly digressive and self-mythologizing, with these wild boomerang sentences. A cult favorite, a writer’s writer, but his work is hard to track down. Best to begin with the first volume. I believe Costello’s still out there, up in years, and hope he graces us with a third volume.”
- • Henry C. Kittredge: Mooncussers of Cape Cod (1937)
- “I found it in the rare books section of a Cape Cod library. A colorful account of people who made a living by scavenging shipwrecks. The wreckers were thought to be unsavory by most, but Kittredge’s admiration bleeds though. Reminds me of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Thrilling, forgotten history.”
Matthew also recommends two novels by Bruce Chatwin, who has gained a solid place for his travel books (although this is too narrow a term for them), but whose novels, particularly On the Black Hill (1982) and The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), are also worth discovering.
June 9th, 2013
Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre[Permalink]
Joel Sayre’s 1933 satire of machine politics, Hizzoner the Mayor, opens with the sound of a pesky mosquito attacking the big toe of John Norris (Jolly John) Holtsapple, four times Mayor of the Greater City of Malta, as he awakens from another wild night of drinking with the boys. “Barrelled again,” he thinks, and swears to get back on the wagon until his election is over.
In Hizzoner the Mayor, Sayre–who went on to work as a writer on such classic films of the 1930s as Gunga Din–revels in cariacatures and wise cracks every bit as much as his subject does in booze and babes. The City of Malta is obviously a stand-in for New York City and Jolly John a cartoonish take on James John (“Gentleman Jimmy”) Walker, who charmed the proles, indulged in all his favorite vices, and openly condoned bootlegging and other rackets.
Like Gentleman Jimmy, Jolly John considers himself quite the ladies’ man:
“Ladies,” the Mayor resumed, “I’m deligh’ed see you. I’m always deligh’ed to see a lady. Thass me alla time. I doan care if she’s white or black, Democrat or Repub’ican. It ain’t the race with me, friends, it’s the lady. I doan care if she’s Protes’ant or Cath’lic, I doan care if she’s a Jew or Gentile, I doan care if she’s Chinaman or Jap, I doan care if she’s rich or poor, I doan care if she’s drunk or sober. Just so long she’s 100 per cent American and a lady.”
Like Walker, Jolly John is more of an entertainer than a politician. He’s more than happy to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, and even wrestle with Waldo, the Wrassling Bear, while leaving the business of running the city to the operators of the Malta Democratic Club and gangsters like Jerry Gozo. With Holtsapple’s help, Gozo manages to rack up a total of 241 arrests and only two convictions:
… a suspended sentence (when he was twelve years of age) for possessing burglar’s tools and thirty days in the County Jail for getting behind in his alimony (imposed by a woman magistrate in Family Court). The other charges, all unsubstantiated, had run the gamut from disorderly conduct (61 times) and horse-poisoning (17 times) through carrying concealed weapons (54 times) and violation of the Eighteenth Amendment (83 times) to kidnapping (10 times) and murder (11 times). The remaining items were distributed pretty evenly over such offenses as felonious assault, grand larceny, arson, extortion and public nuisance (playing a radio after 11 p.m.).
Unfortunately for both of them, Gozo is discovered dead that morning, sitting in a men’s room stall with the imprint of a horseshoe on his forehead. And over the course of the following weeks, other notorious Malta figures and Holtsapple supporters suffer the same fate.
At the same time, a crusading reformer, Phillip Dorsey, is organizing a campaign to unseat Jolly John. Hizzoner the Mayor is the tale of the battle between virtue and corruption. The themes of the infiltration of unions, manipulation of black voters, contract fraud, and abuse of city construction projects will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Caro’s classic, The Power Broker.
Sadly for Dorsey, however, Sayre’s heart is clearly on the side of the rogues. It’s hard to argue with his choice: the rogues are painted in brash, lurid colors and speak in pure Noo Yawk slang when the reformers dress and speak in proper Yankee grey. And the fun in Hizzoner the Mayor is all in the language:
What Al Smith christened “boloney pictures” the previous summer were posed for in profusion: the Mayor on one knee at the finals in the State-wide Marble Shooting Championship; Satchells in a Boy Scout hat being sworn as a Tenderfoot into Troop 16; the Mayor in the cab of the largest B. & O. engine at the Grand Union Depot with the far too small cap of the engineer on his great head; Satchells with his arm around the skinny shoulders of Micajah Hudgins, Malta’s oldest voter, who had first marched to the polls for William Henry Harrison. . . In every conceivable position the two were snapped: kissing babies, dandling gluey-mouthed children, laying wreathes, baking bread, tanning hides, throwing baseballs, kicking footballs, riding gang plows, shooting, swimming, waving at people. The Divine Cal himself had no more versatile a repertoire.
Both sides sent out their dirt-squirters, each carefully instructed never to squirt before more than one person at a time. The Mayor held a long conference over just what squirted on Satchells would do him the most harm. Mike Raffigan told him about Inge.
“Who is she?”
“She’s a massooze, John.”
“You know, she gives massadge to the society dames. Got a big jernt of her own on Federal
“Good Gawd,” said the Mayor, “do you want to elect the guy? Lay off that dame stuff or the people are li’ble to think it’s swell and vote for him!”
Hizzoner the Mayor was Sayre’s second novel. His first, Rackety Rax, was a similarly over-the-top satire, in this case of the intrusion of gambling interests in college sports–a topic that still comes up on a regular basis in the news. Rackety Rax gave Sayre his first screenwriting job, as he was hired by Fox to turn it into a 1932 film starring Victor McLagen. He published two more books in the 1940s: Persian Gulf Command (1945), a collection of his New Yorker articles on military operations in that region during the Second World War, and The House Without a Roof (1948), a novel about the experiences of an ordinary German family under Hitler. His daughter, Nora Sayre, was a writer and long-time film critic for The New York Times. He died in 1979.
Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre
New York: John Day Company, 1933
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