The Real Calamity Jane, Dante Day, and Louisiana’s Sublime Swampland
Good morning. “To me, there are only two kinds of writers,” Dorothy Parker once remarked, “those who write badly and those who write well.” Danny Heitman takes stock of her own work: “Half a century after her death, she’s remembered—to the degree she’s widely remembered at all—as a belle of the bon mot, the razor-tongued epigrammatist who held court with other intellectual gadflies of the 1920s at the Algonquin Round Table.”
In other news: Italy establishes “Dante Day” (or “Dantedì,” as they’re calling it): “‘Every year on March 25, the date that scholars recognize as the beginning of the journey into the afterlife of the Divine Comedy, Dantedì will be celebrated,’ said Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.”
Mary Toft and the end of enchantment: “In October 1726 some ‘strange, but well attested’ news emerged from Godalming near Guildford. An ‘eminent’ surgeon, a male midwife, had delivered a poor woman called Mary Toft not of a child but of rabbits – a number of them, over a period of several weeks. None of the rabbits, not even a ‘perfect’ one, survived their birth, but the surgeon bottled them up and declared his intention to present them as specimens to the Royal Society. A report in the British Gazeteer furnished readers with the woman’s explanation. Some months earlier she and other women working in a field had chased a rabbit and failed to catch it. She was pregnant at the time and suffered a miscarriage. Thereafter, she pined to eat rabbit and had been unable to avoid thinking of rabbits. The story was a sensation. It was not only the poor who believed a pregnant woman’s thoughts could affect the workings of her body – hence the arrival of the eminent surgeon at Toft’s bedside . . . More serious scientific men followed. Local people came in droves to stare. Excitement grew. King George I himself took an interest in the case. Could it be that something marvellous was about to be revealed?”
Philip Terzian reviews a new book on presidential writing and finds it wanting: “Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote is an interesting idea in theory that tends to fall short in practice. This is as much a history of books and publishing in America, of the evolution of popular taste in reading and bookselling (especially in the 19th century), as it is an account of our literary presidents. It is also more selective than comprehensive and, in certain instances, a little unfair.”
In The New York Review of Books, Zachary Fine surveys the paintings of Louisiana’s “sublime swampland”: “The recent exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, ‘Inventing Acadia: Painting and Place in Louisiana,’ is the first in nearly thirty years to attempt a survey of nineteenth-century Louisiana landscape painting, and the first ever to place the tradition within wider national and international currents of art.”
The real Calamity Jane was nothing like her legend: “She was the lover of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, avenged herself on his killer and bore his secret love-child. She rode as a female army scout and served with Custer. She saved a runaway stagecoach from a Cheyenne war party and rode it safely into Deadwood. She earned her nickname after hauling one General Egan to safety after he was unhorsed in an ambush. She was a crack shot, a nurse to the wounded, a bullwhacker and an elite Pony Express courier. Not one of these things is true. In fact, as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore pants, swore like a sailor and was drunk all the time.”
Essay of the Day:
In Airmail, Stuart Heritage writes about the difficulties facing posh British paint company Farrow & Ball:
“David Cameron is an Eton-educated former prime minister descended from William IV. My dad was a plumber. And yet, despite this enormous gulf in our upbringings, we can both sincerely claim to be middle-class. The old ways have become meaningless. Up is down and down is up. All our tried-and-true class signifiers mean nothing anymore. It’s even difficult to figure out class by the sound of someone’s voice now that the days of Received Pronunciation have been replaced by flat glottal stops. Prince William talks like a sedated 1980s yuppie, for instance. Queen Victoria would be appalled.
“With one possible exception. David Cameron’s writing shed is done up in Farrow & Ball paint, whereas mine is not. And this is extremely telling. In short, the only thing in the world left to demonstrate that David Cameron is better than I am is his choice of paint brand. This is the power of Farrow & Ball.
“In a world gone mad, Farrow & Ball endures. A 74-year-old company founded on an insistence of avoiding modernity at every turn, it produces a paint with a status like no other. Fanatics will justify the price—a gallon of All White costs $110 compared with about $20 for an identical amount of mass-market emulsion—by waxing lyrical about its deep levels of pigmentation and how it reacts to different types of light on differently facing walls at different times of day. If you’re a certain type of person, a home simply isn’t a home without Farrow & Ball.
“And yet trouble might still be on the horizon. FB Ammonite Ltd., Farrow & Ball’s parent company in the U.K., reportedly posted a $34 million loss last year, citing economic headwinds and that old catchall “continued uncertainty surrounding Brexit.” The bulk of the blame is being laid at the feet of D.I.Y. chain Homebase, which closed 43 branches after a botched takeover resulted in its sale to a corporate-restructuring firm for about $1.30. But still, tastes change. People move on. Farrow & Ball posted a similar loss the previous year, too. Might this be the end?”
Photos: South Carolina
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