Sunday, April 23, 2006

Show Me Some Image
In Some Antique Book (1)

William Shakespeare 1564-1616

Yesterday was the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth (2) and rather than write about his life, or his work, I went to a bookcase and pulled down four books that have been in my life since my teens. Some bear value and in some, the only value is held in the memory.

I've been trying to remember which of Shakespeare's plays I read first. I think it must have been Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar. When I was fourteen, I purchased a copy of four of his comedies in a used bookstore for pennies, and I broke one rule that's been fairly consistent in my lifetime: I don't write in books. Not even my name. I decided this time, however, to use the glossary in the back of the book and write the meaning of the words next to the appropriate passages, so I would have a better understanding of what was being said in the text. The ultimate goal, I think, was to be more conversant in the antiquated language and eventually dispose of the book.What happened was this. I was growing restless attending church and all of the other religious programs that my parents had me in. By the time I hit my teen years, my friends and I joined our peer group in the church where we all sat perched high over the congregation in the very last rows of the balcony. The last seats butted up against the stained glass window. There, we were free from adult supervision, and I would imagine none of us was paying attention to the service.Even that got to be too much for me, so I found a way of sliding out, once the service had begun. I would go down a back stairway and work my way outside. The only trick was to have a watch on me and to make sure I was back in time before things were winding up. I took to walking over to a nearby school and sitting on a bench under a covered entranceway, even on the coldest days, reading this book and making my notations. I haven't looked at this book in a few years, and it's eerie to see my fourteen-year old handwriting and remember how much I wanted to be free from people having control over my life.
At some point this boy who was two years younger than me wised up to what I was doing, and one time he sat down next to me in church and asked if I would take him with me. I agreed, with the stipulation he keep his mouth shut and never let on that we were doing this. We never got caught. He was a handsome little boy and very popular in his age group. I had no previous contact with him, really, but then you know how it is at that age. A two year age gap might as well be twenty. He did, however, live two doors down from a friend of mine, so we had a casual acquaintanceship, and of such things are friendships born. Once he started going along on these escapes, the reading ended, and we would walk and talk about things on our mind. That stands out, too, and thinking about it in retrospect, it seems rather odd. We never had frivilous conversations. I have a definite memory of him really pouring his dreams out to me, which seems so strange now. Age difference. Gender difference. Strangers. Yet that's how it went.

"I think I thought I saw you try"

During the time I was playing church hooky, I was also having terrible fights with my parents, my mother in particular, about the fact that I didn't want to attend church anymore. Ultimately, within a year, I did stop attending, but it was a very difficult period in my life. My parents had active, multiple roles in the church, and it was not easy on them having this rebellious daughter who wasn't showing up in a very social setting around people who had known me since I was a baby. Despite the fights, the rebellion, the sneaking out, I still attended Sunday school, and I did all of my lessons for my classes. We met united, girls and boys, at the beginning of the school, and at it's closing, but the lessons were broken down into boys with male teachers and girls with female teachers. I liked the old-fashioned woman who taught us, and our lessons consisted of being given Bible passages to study, then writing short answers or essays in terms of what we made of them. Looking back, it strikes me as odd that I didn't just slack off in doing this, but I fulfilled the lessons each week, and I enjoyed the discussion in the classes.

We had a sister church, so I got to know teens in that church quite well. One Sunday in late spring my friend Jeannie, visiting from her church, was attending our Sunday school, and the Superintendent made a surprise announcement. There were going to be awards made to the boy and girl who had done the best job in studying the Bible during the past year. The boy's name was called, and it was someone you would have totally expected. A quiet boy. A studious boy. A deeply religious boy. (3) Then they called the winning girl's name. It was me. In a very quiet chapel, my friend Jeannie yelled out incredulously, "YOU have GOT to be kidding!" There was some tittering following that, as I got up to accept my award, which was a mustard seed bracelet (4).

When I returned to my seat, Jeannie was explaining away her shock. No need, really. I understood completely. I was the first girl to wear stockings and heels in our age group. I was the girl who climbed out onto the roof from Jeannie's bedroom window where, hidden by a tree, we would look through the leaves and the sky and talk about boys and our future. Her "kidding" comment meant only that it should have been Marguerite or Mary Ellen, the girls heading straight for the nunnery. Certainly not me.

A book of Shakespeare's sonnets made it's way into my possession when my mother's best friend pulled it from her bookcase, sat down and wrote a sweet inscription, because she knew that I loved Shakespeare. I've since purchased a more noble copy of his poems, but this one remains, solely because of the giver and its message.

"No amount of political freedom will satisfy the hungry masses" ~ Lenin

It's nothing more than a cheap imprint, with garish illustrations, but I can't imagine disposing of it. I always thought the drawings were vaguely "Russian Revolution," and the antithesis of Elizabethan, because of the blaring red, white and black graphic minimalist style. (5).
"When sometimes lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;"

When I graduated high school, another one of my mother's friends, an older woman, gave me a book that had been in her possession for some time. I wish I knew how she came to own it, but I don't.

It's a copy of Twelfth Night, and it belonged to Mary Packard who went to Warren High School (6) in 1913, the year that the book was published. The only real value this book would have now is it's age. In another six years, it will be 100 years old.

Domestic Science Class, 1913

The true fascination in this volume, for me, is that Mary has written on almost every page: popular sayings of her day, gossip with her girfriends, and silly poems. Mary's friend Kate also wrote in this book, and on one page it says, "Are you going to the recital tomorrow night?" "Yes I am. Kenny asked me this morn." There is also, "Ain't got nothin', Never had nothin', Don't want nothin', 'Cept you!," and "You're my style, kid. You've got such a talkin' way wit you." Throughout the book, again and again, appears "Just a loving glance. Give our love a chance," which obviously was some popular lyric or saying of the time.


She also has written out a lot of phrases with the word "devil," in them like, "Oh! You little devil," or "Cutest little devil," "Would you like to be the devil's wife?," or "Dancing at the devil's ball." Mary wrote a little poem toward the back of the book which reads, "That's the cutest little devil you've ever saw, and she has the biggest little crow, which she stuffs with coconut balls, until she almost falls," signed "The Devil." (7) Those Iowans certainly had a fascination with this. It half makes you wonder if they were out there in the corn fields studying crop circles.

High School, 1913

Mary's friend Kate wrote out a poem which is now black ink faded to brown which reads, "The whale swallowed Jonah, Jonah began to scratch, The whale threw Jonah in a sweet potato patch. "Eat 'taters, Jonah." The word "kid" shows up a lot, as well. "Cutest kid," "Row your own boat kid," "Roll away, kid and spit it out," and to sum it up with these two crazy kids, they've written "If you want to see some dancing, go to the Devil's Ball. But mind you don't get a fall."--"The Kid."


Mary is gone. The woman who gave me the book is gone. I wish some day when I am gone that somehow this book would again make it's way into the hands of a high school girl. An improbability, I know, but a thought. On the very last page, Mary Packard has written a list of thirteen commandments. She also misspelled the word and had to add in an extra "m."

The Thirteen Commandments


1) Those who sit on tacks will surely rise.
2) Try anything once.
3) Look neither to your right or left, but straight ahead of you when you are walking down the street.
4) Always leave your manners at home in your pockets.
5) Never try to get out of anything by beating around the bush.
6) When in cold drink stands, don't wink at the boys you see there.
7) Carry an intelligent look about you, where 'ere you go.
8) Never act like a fool.
9) Wash your feet daily.
10) Never try to row somebody's else's boat.
11) Don't be anyone's flunky.
12) Pick up your feet when you walk.
13) Don't go walking before you get out of bed.

The last book I pulled down from the bookcase was a book I bought in an antiquarian shop when I was about 18 or 19 years old. It was a hot summer day and early in the morning, and it was everything a used bookstore should be: musty, books dripping off shelves, a cat, and narrow aisles with dim lighting. The book was tucked into a shelf full of "lesser worth" items, and the first thing to catch my eye was the beautifully marbled cover.

The book was missing it's lining on the spine, but the interior pages were solid, though faded. Called Shakspere's Works, it includes the plays of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. The real shocker came when I opened the book. There, on the opposing title page, was a copperplate quality photograph of Edwin Booth as Hamlet. John Wilkes Booth's more famous brother. Equally eerie, the book was published in 1867, two years after Lincoln's assassination.

John, Edwin and Junius Booth
The Booths were a family of actors, starting with father, Junius. Junius fled a wife and children in England and came to America with his mistress, and then he proceeded to produce a family with her. Edwin was always considered the most gifted actor of the family, far more well known than brother John, and it's a testament to his popularity, that audiences continued to see him in plays, following his brother's actions. You can see how the copy of his photograph has faded onto the rice paper covering it to protect it, so you get the ghostly repeat image of Hamlet, so to speak: another ghost in a play full of ghosts.

"Alas, poor ghost!" ~~ Hamlet

In later years, Edwin formed The Players Club (8) in New York in 1888, and it still stands to this day at 16 Gramercy Park. Inside the club is a famous portrait of Edwin Booth, painted by John Singer Sargent. In 1893, Edwin died at the club, and he is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Player or Playaz?

I have many other works of Shakespeare, varying in value. I've purchased his books while I was in other countries. I currently have several books about him on my "must read' list including Hamlet's Purgatory and Sex and Society in Shakespeare's London. I suppose I'll always be reading Shakespeare, or about Shakespeare, throughout my life. It's been 442 years since Shakespeare was born. I don't know why, but last night I couldn't shake the idea that he would be a rapper if he were alive today. Instead of an Elizabethan Glossary, I'd be going online and hitting the Urban Dictionary. (9).



Footnotes:

(1) Don't you just love it? I've footnoted my blog title. It's from Shakespeare's Sonnet LIX:

"Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same,
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise."

(2) William Shakespeare was born in April of 1564. There is no specific date of birth because at that time the only date of importance was the date of baptism, though infants often were baptized when they were three days old. Shakespeare's baptismal date was April 26, 1564.

(3) The sad thing is this boy died about two or three years later of leukemia, and the family had more tragedy in the wings. There were four children total: three boys and a girl. The boy who won the prize died first at age 16, his other brother next in line to him in age died in his early twenties, then his sister died a year or two later. The only surviving child is currently running a mission school in New Guinea.

(4) From the King James Version of the Bible: Mark 4: 30-32

"And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the earth, is less than all seeds that be in the earth: but when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it."

(5) Lenin created the first truly modern propaganda machine, and its most colorful, dramatic and original form was the poster. The colors most frequently used were red, black and white. Although posters were produced in Russia before the Revolution, they were overshadowed by the remarkable propaganda posters of the Soviets.

(6) There is a Warren High School in Lacona, Iowa. This may be the school, because the woman who gave me the book was originally from Iowa. Then again, Mary Packard may have gone to a Warren High School long since pulled down and the lot currently sporting a Wal-Mart.

(7) I checked up on this. Irving Berlin wrote a song on January 8, 1913 called "At the Devil's Ball." The lyrics are:

(First Verse)
I had a dream last night
That filled me full of fright
I dreamt that I was with the Devil below
In his great big fiery hall
Where the Devil was giving a ball
I checked my coat and hat
And started gazing at
The merry crowd that came to witness the show
And I must confess to you
There were many there I knew

(Chorus)
At the Devil's Ball
At the Devil's Ball
I saw the cute Missus Devil, so pretty and fat
Dress'd in a beautiful fireman's hat
Ephraham the Leader Man, who led the band last fall
He play'd the music at the Devil's Ball
In the Devil's hall

(Second Verse)
The Devil's Pa and Ma
Were standing at the bar
Conversing with the little fellow who first
Put the pain in champagne wine
He was pouring it out in a stein
I bought a round of ice
For ev'rybody twice
It wasn't long before I ordered a fan
And before the break of dawn
I put my overcoat in pawn

(8) No relation to http://playazball.com/

(9) http://www.urbandictionary.com

25 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Books are objects that our memories cling to, and no amount of electronic writing will be able to replace that. That said, this is a terrific blog entry. It's like a stroll through your private museum. Anthony (not Mark.)

6:44 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

I loved this post! Nothing brings me back like a book.

I enjoy watching Shakespeare very much, but the books that have molded me have been either sentimental or completely devoid of any feeling at all. (Think Little Women and Gone With The Wind).

I love that you sneaked out of church meetings to read. I was obliged to sit there and day dream something rampid. I would have much rather been outside.

2:19 AM  
Blogger cuff said...

Beautiful work (but check footnote 5 -- looks like it's doubled) and so full of little ideas to cling to.

Your Sunday school sounds much more intense than mine. I can't remember a single theological discussion or the presence of a Bible in any class. The only thing I remember is around the Elementary level when we made little Biblical figures out of clothespins and scraps of cloth.

As for books, I don't consider it read unless I've marked it up, excepting books read solely as popcorn and first editions. In fact, used to carry around a ruler and a pen to underline passages (back in the old days highlighters faded too easily).

11:13 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Anthony: The whole issue of electronics writing and archiving is of interest to me. I've been thinking about writing a piece on it down the road.

Janet: I still have my childhood copy of Little Women and blogged about it last year when I was having a conversation with a friend. I also had my drifting off day dreams as well. The hooky playing didn't show up until the end of my attending.

Cuff: Not doubled, but certainly redundant thinking on my part. Unfortunately, I was trying to do a last edit on the piece while Blogger.com was having it's "issues" yesterday. I had to correct something several times over, and it never would cement and take until much later. The church did encourage serious Bible study from about 4th grade on. Earlier than that it was usually just rote memorization of Bible verses. I was definitely not one of those college students armed with yellow highlighters. To this day, I don't write in books, so the fact that I did this one time seems rather unique and odd to me. I'm just grateful the three of you have even read what I wrote. This piece seems to have laid a huge egg.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No doubt readers, Dear Cube, are intimidated by your beautifully illustrated waltz through Shakespeare, books, catachetesis and childhood, and great actors.

I wonder if there are any recordings of Booth? I have no doubt his style of acting was far different from the natural style used now, but wouldn't it be interesting to hear him doing Hamlet?

Your thoughts on writing in books reminds me of the works of Helene Hanff (84 Charing Cross Road, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street). She created her own curriculum when her college money ran out in the Depression and sought out used books, many with inky scribblings. Then came 84 Charing Cross Road's selections.

On the other hand, buying used textbooks from decent students had some benefit in college and law school: some useful notes from a previous travellor in the wilderness of everything from English literature to property.

grince

12:43 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Grince: I think it's more a matter of seeing the length of the piece and thinking, "Wtf...I don't have time to read that."

1:10 PM  
Blogger cuff said...

Cube, you have to have patience...maybe people aren't prepared for the increased frequency of your posting.

I could also comment on a few other connections, like the fact that O'Neill references Booth in Long Day's Journey Into Night, when James Tyrone recalls with bitterness how he (Tyrone) betrayed his own talent...

Edwin Booth's Shakespeare acting was the top of his day, I think perhaps more broadly known and perhaps more significant than Jason Robards's O'Neill acting.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Cuff: You had no way of knowing this, but about two weeks ago, I went on a real O'Neill binge. I reread Long Day's Journey Into Night, watched a few DVD versions of it, (did not like Jack Lemmon's version,) read three biographys and two books written by academics about the plays. Overdose, I know. I had seen something on PBS American Masters (I think,) which triggered me off onto that path again. O'Neill's father would have been a contemporary of Booth's, and it is well known (I think,) that his father felt he never reached his full potential as an actor because he sold out for money by performing Monte Cristo for all of those years. In one of the biography's I read, O'Neill's father was cited as loving to quote that Edwin Booth had said that O'Neill, had performed a part better than he ever could. Funny how all of these things tie together, isn't it?

1:31 PM  
Blogger VP of Dior said...

stockings and heels???! you she-devil ;)

and i think i'm going to adopt, "You're my style, kid."

i love Shakespeare. i had a wonderful drama teacher in middle school. my first intro to Shakesy was playing Helena in a class reading of A Midsummer's Night Dream. and of course the boy reading another part liked me but i didn't like him, so it made the whole thing very fitting.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

He has no mustache so at first glance I would say he's no Playa.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Jamy said...

I read the whole thing, but I had to do it in parts. Great work, as always.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Momentary Academic said...

Writing marginalia in books is something that should be encouraged. One learns so much from reading the words that others have written in a text--whether or not there is direct relevence.

Wonderful post.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Complacent Chase said...

Wow! I just loved this post! Your writing is exquisite! Great stories. Thank you.

5:10 PM  
Blogger KOB said...

I never skipped church, not for an abundance of faith but for a failure of ingenuity. Skipping class was a speciality, insane, sometimes involving hanging out in the woods with friends. In the winter. In Connecticut. And before Global Warming. So I admire your beautiful rebellion and your writing of it as well. Of the books you write about there is in a cellar, in a box that has not been disturbed for many years, books from school that I carried around, one in particular, that became so worn I had to tape the cover over, Nietzsche's "Will to Power;" barely understood, but it pumped my adolescent adrenaline and its call for a "revaluation of all values" made great sense to my fellow supermen freezing in the woods. We were at war, like today. Your writing makes me recall things I haven't thought about in years.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

VP: You should know by now that I love all of that girlie stuff, so yes stockings and heels. I'm amazed my mother went along with this stuff, but then she was a glamour puss herself.

Phil: Agreed. Also, too much of a wimp to run with The Playaz.

Jamy: Thanks for sticking with it. I need to do some serious re-thinking about what I want to do with this blog.

Momentary: It's funny. I like reading other's comments, but I don't want to write in books.

Chase: Thank you Miss Chase. Still lovin' that Josephine Baker avatar.

KOB: Writing this piece made me think about things I hadn't considered for some time, mainly to do with my early teen years.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Siryn said...

Superlative, Cube.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Megarita said...

Magnificent! I love the marginalia commentary -- there's a wonderful poem by Billy Collins about writing in books that this reminds me of a bit. (wow bad sytax). I love your edition of the sonnets. Those prints looks like insane woodcuts! You're a marvelous reader, Cube. Thanks for sharing this.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Jamy said...

Recently, I re-read a book that belonged to my mother in college. She had written in the margins. Because I got to read her comments as I went along, it was like we were reading it together.

I vote for more writing in books.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Siryn: Thankyouverymuch. I enjoy reading your blog, as well.

Meg: Good catch, as always.

Marginalia--Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

10:28 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

What a wonderful spiritual upbringing you fashioned for yourself. Wow, I salute you, Cube.

Mary Packard's thirteen commandments are fabulous still. Thank you so much for sharing them, for sharing such a wonderful autobiographical sketch, written in the margins of the Bard's birthday.

This should be in the New Yorker, including of course, the pics.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Reya: Thanks. I've taken flak for this piece: too many pictures, too long, people just want quick glance things they can view at work, etc., etc., etc. I liked Mary Packard's commandments, as well. My favorite was about not winking at boys at the "cold drinks stand."

11:33 AM  
Blogger beachgirl said...

That was such an AMAZING POST! Due to my adult ADD, it takes a lot to hold my attention and to say the least, this post had me glued to my seat and taking in every word.

My niece is about to graduate from high school and I am not sure she would appreciate such a precious book, and I loved the 13 commandments..

It's funny, b/c I resisited church as well as a child but as I have gotten older I have found my way back to the church and am very involved with many church activities.. activities that I really enjoy! Just very odd I guess..

You are an amazing writer!!

2:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I identified with a lot of your commentary about growing up in a super-religious family. (I was not always Jewish, spending my first 25 years as a Presbyterian.) Unfortunately I wasn't as clever as you were in coming up with ways to escape. You probably learned a lot more from your reading in the stairwell than you would have from the sermons that were being delivered on those Sundays.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Blue Dog Art said...

Playing hooky from church--I had the sitting with my friends thing down, but never actually thought to skip out on the service.

Brilliant!

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Travis said...

I'm still loving this post. And oh how I can relate...

Last December, my Mom retired as the secretary of the Baptist Church I grew up in. She pulled 30+ years there. Better belive she made me and my little brother go to pretty much everything.

Some years ago, members of the church started referring to her as "the boss" and it stuck. None of the subsequent preachers they had there ever really got used to that...

Of course the English major in me was loving the Shakespeare as well.

Very, VERY nicely done, Miss Cube!

9:58 PM  

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