More from the exhibit on WWII propaganda currently up at the FDR Presidential Library.
Apart from the gorgeous imagery here, this is an incredible example of economy and power in storytelling. The narrative told is a complicated one: Don’t talk about what you’re working on for the war effort, because spies are listening, and if they learn about shipping or attacks in advance, they might relay those orders to Berlin, who would then attack, costing lives or resources. And don’t buy into the idea that just one person mentioning something isn’t important. What one person says or doesn’t say can cost or save lives.
Got all that?
Well, you could get the same from two words of headline copy plus nine words of optional copy and an image composed of two well-balanced elements.
Everything on this poster is doing work: the size of the hand, the movement from left to right, the use of color, the choice of civilian clothes for the figure, and the transformation of the newspaper into an accusatory pointing finger.
As a copywriter, I’m normally annoyed when clients or designers ask me to use fewer words. “But the words are doing all the *work*” I often think. The images are just there to grab people’s attention to get them to think.
With this little masterpiece from the golden age of print advertising, I’m inspired to think otherwise.
The Great God Pan, a short story by Arthur Machen about the intrusion into Edwardian London of a great evil, is one of the few genuinely disturbing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s disturbing in the way that a horror film can spook you, or even a personal trauma. The story sets on you only after you’ve finished it and are putting the pieces together.
I was heartened to see this appreciation of Machen over at The Paris Review. If you don’t have time to read Machen, but want to understand his importance to the modern literature of the uncanny (an ever more important mode of expression for our literary mainstream), then the piece is worth your time.
It’s not often these days that I get to write in places that aren’t my office, but today is one of them. Some deadlines converged unexpectedly and in order to meet them I need to be in a place where my co-workers can’t find me. Since my co-workers are in the habit of opening up the doors of conference rooms where I am working alone, in a corner, in the dark, with headphones on, that means fleeing the office entirely.
New York does many things poorly (square footage, being roach-free, public transit, politeness, smelling good, etc.) but one thing it does well is neat little street level cafés to work in, like Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, where I am alternately typing these words, and gazing out over my screen at the humanity loitering, ambling, stumbling, strutting, and zipping by. Venturing out into the world for my working day keeps me lively in a way that writing in my garret doesn’t.
And if you’re wondering what’s in the mug to the right of my computer, it’s a cup of Earl Gray, naturally.
Note the classic combo of red brick facade and black iron fire escape over my little window.
Salem, MA is not the tiny, forest-choked hamlet I’d always imagined. It’s a breezy harbor town of mazy streets lined with roomy mansions. Like Concord, MA there is a cosmopolitan feel that overlays the small town charm. The elegance and deep quiet of the place withstand the kitschy occultism of Essex Street and the downtown, which have been cashing in on the witch trials of 1692 for at least 150 years (more on that in a later post).
At the far end of town on some prime land overlooking the harbor is The House of the Seven Gables. The tour guides call it the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, but the signs and everybody else call it by the name that Hawthorne gave it, also the title of his great novel.
I’ll confess haven’t read the novel, but I have been on the tour, and here are seven things that surprised me.
1. The house did not have seven gables when Hawthorne saw it. He was having dinner with his cousin Susannah Ingersoll, lady of the house, when she mentioned that she remembered the place with seven gables in her youth. By the late 1840s, when she and Hawthorne met, her father Captain Ingersoll had long ago demolished three of the gables (triangular extensions of the roofline) to give the mansion a more streamlined modern feel. After learning of the house’s old appearance, Hawthorne raced to the attic to puzzle out where the gables had been. Today, because of the novel he wrote, the gables and the house have been restored.
2. The pine floorboards in the attic are no wider than 32-inches, because all trees that afforded any larger planks had to be shipped back to England by edict of the King, to form the hulls of ships in the Royal Navy.
3. At one point, three slaves lived in the attic. We know they lived in the attic because an inventory lists the slaves along with the other “property” that was stored there. The museum staff are looking through plantation records in Barbados, where they think the slaves may have been sold, to learn more about them, but for now they are only three names on a list.
4. The cent shop on the ground floor is not original to the house, but an early 20th-Century recreation of the one that appears in Hawthorne’s novel. Families built cent shops into their homes to sell what the industrious mothers and children of the house made by hand—baskets, dried herbs, tallow candles, etc. Both the Turners and the Ingersolls were too wealthy to need a cent shop, but one was added in the house’s restoration to satisfy the romantic expectations of museum goers.
5. Behind a panel in the dining room is a secret passage that leads to the attic. It’s a claustrophobic climb up two and a half stories through the undulating brick tube that used to be the chimney. Like the cent shop, it was built for charm over function.
6. Susannah Ingersoll, Hawthorne’s cousin and frequent entertainer, whom he nicknamed “The Duchess,” never married, likely because she didn’t want to be forced to hand over her family’s considerable fortune to her husband. So she went into business for herself and made an additional family fortune trading real estate in the Salem area.
7. Hawthorne’s childhood home is just across the garden, but it was originally down the street. It was moved to its current location in the 1950s to avoid being demolished. I like to think that it was in the kitchen near the massive brick fireplace that would’ve warmed the house 365-days a year, that Hawthorne heard and read the tales which first kindled his own genius. I started tapping the words of this post in the very same kitchen.
I’m heading to Concord later this autumn and maybe to Sleepy Hollow, too so more writer’s houses to come. And more on Salem later this week.
Me, with the House of Seven Gables. The new sections were added after a record string of storms last winter, which the 350-year old house withstood better than the 20th-Century visitors’ center.
It seems the only days I end up working at the Providence Athenaeum, where Poe and Lovecraft wrote, are days which could be the start of one of their stories. There is rain skittering over the skylights, the leaves brushing the windowpanes are just turning color, the sky is darkening, and it’s a too cold for the light jacket I brought. It’s cozy, but with a coming chill I’m not quite ready for.
H.P. Lovecraft bust in the Athenaeum, funded in part by Guillermo del Toro.
As somebody who has worked his entire professional life on small screens with inconstant tools, I read with envy this description from “Working Tools,” by Rudyard Kipling:
“Like most men who ply one trade in one place for any while, I always kept certain gadgets on my work table, which was ten feet long from North to South and badly congested. One was a long, lacquer, canoe-shaped pen-tray full of brushes and dead “fountains”; a wooden box held clips and bands; another, a tin one, pins; yet another, a bottle slider, kept all manner of unneeded essentials from emery-paper to small screw drivers; a paper weight, said to have been Warren Hastings’; a tiny, weighted fur-seal and a leather crocodile sat on some of the papers; an inky foot-rule and a Father of Penwipers which a much loved housemaid of ours presented yearly, made up the main-guard of these little fetishes … Left and right of the table were two big globes, on one of which a great airman had once outlined in white paint those air-routes to the East and Australia which were well in use before my death.”
I don’t know what Kipling means by the ominous “before my death,” but the rest of the passage has a delightfully antediluvian feel. It is a vision of a lost world where men could “ply one trade in one place for any while,” the opposite of the digital, big city working life in which we carry our tools with us everywhere as tablets and computers, and we are hurried from desk to desk even in our own offices in the course of a single day.
In my experience, creative types like rituals and privacy. There’s something of the private treehouse about the sort of environment I like to work in best. To transport me to another place, I need to be safe from interruption and sterility, and computers are safe from neither. People accuse me of being cranky or reactionary when I bemoan the endless treadmill of software updates, but to me they are the equivalent of somebody coming in and tidying up a working room without asking and with no warning. The creative part of the mind hates this. It is more like the mind of a child or a dog — it can’t play unless it has consistency and comfort to go back to; it likes its toys and its familiar places.