Category Archives: Featured

Erotica and Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin c. 1920s
(Wikimedia Commons)

“It is one thing to include eroticism in a novel or story and quite another to focus one’s whole attention on it.” — Anaïs Nin

Romance novels are the guilty pleasures of many women and, the Bookish Miss suspects, a few men. In fact, according to one report, the number of those novels being read is going up thanks to e-readers like Kindle and Nook.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this, mind you. Several scholars and writers, Eloisa James in particular, have made excellent arguments as to why romance novels remain not only popular but important — and those points are excellently made. However, it is one thing to read stories that encompass the erotic in and of itself (whether or not actual sexual acts are involved), and another to read something where the entire plot hinges on, or is designed to facilitate, erotic acts.

Anaïs Nin knew this. Much of her erotica reflects her subtle manipulation of what the reader expects, giving pieces of the story but not the whole, because her purpose was to create an atmosphere in which any character could operate. This is what titillates the reader of erotica — the peek into the life of a character who, in some respects, could be anyone. Thus the reader becomes the voyeur, subsumed in a maze conflicting feelings that ends with a certain vicarious form of emotional release.

Nin specialized in stories that deal in some way with the sexual awakening of a woman. Men do appear in these stories, even as the narrator in a few cases, but ultimately the limelight rests on a female character. In The Woman on the Dunes, for example, a sexually frustrated man finds release with a nameless stranger — but her recollection of an erotic experience in the past dwarfs the immediate encounter. Time and again, it is the story of women and their relationships with other women and men that predominate; the atmosphere and point of view are usually so well developed that few readers miss the lack of a well-defined male character.

Nin’s characters also run the gamut of female sexuality and experience. From the violently confused Lina in Lina, to the frigid Dorothy in Two Sisters, who finds pleasure only when it does not harm her sister, to the careless and promiscuous whore Bijou in The Queen, Nin’s female characters embody their sexuality even when trying to reject it. And perhaps that is one of Nin’s messages — even more important than the implied belief that only women can truly know women, Nin shows that these women can never dismiss their sexuality because it is rooted in their bodies.

Some academics and feminists find the idea of female sexuality being rooted in physicality troubling; others, liberating. So what does that mean for the reader?

For some, nothing, they enjoy the story and go on with life without contemplating why it resonates. Others take away the idea that sexuality is natural no matter who your partner may be, that problems happen and innocence irrevocably passes away to become a bittersweet memory.

On the other hand, because Nin’s characters are often shown as being mired in their bodies, as objects of sexual attraction, some take away the idea that she objectifies women. That said, the very depth granted to her female characters, and denied the male characters, would in a sense appear to objectify the men. Because it is usually a man who awakens a woman’s sexual and erotic feelings in Nin’s stories, readers could walk away assuming that men are ones with the power to do so.

However, turning this idea on its head is the way Nin’s female characters relate to men later on. The heroine of A Model, who first experiences erotic pleasure with a girlfriend while still in early adolescence, is sexually awakened by three men she later regards as “children” — which would oppose the idea that men have some sort of (unspoken) power. Men may awaken women, and may be considered adequate lovers, but a constant undercurrent throughout Nin’s stories is that men never fully understand a woman’s sexual and erotic needs once she becomes aware of her own desire.

Perhaps Nin meant to reaffirm the mystique of woman, while at the same time giving women a sense of personal superiority — that they are something that men can never really know.

For me personally, none of these things really come to mind. As I read the tales she wove, I’m struck by the depth of emotion and feeling that she conveys in so little space. Her work is sensuous in the full meaning of the word; she is not only erotic but tactile, you feel as if you are present in the story. Nin’s stories do more than tell the tale, they make the reader feel the sand beneath a character’s feet, smell the incense, see the wind blowing through the trees, taste the sweet wine and hear the sounds of an ecstatic lover.

This, then, is what makes Nin’s erotica singularly erotic. Despite her brevity she does not skimp on the details — and her stories are all the more intense for it.

60 second book review: “Borderlands”

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is, perhaps obviously, about borders — of language, culture, sexuality, gender, class, spirituality, race, belief, religion, history, literature, family, ethics and morality. In other words, lots of fun stuff. This book is incredibly relevant to the way we live in the new millennium, not just with respect to race, class and culture, but to sex, gender and belief as well. Investors and analysts and politicians talk a lot about globalization and the global economy, but what they seem to ignore is that we are many people with many beliefs. We are not so much a global society as a border society, and those borders are not limited to the physical and geographical. Anzaldúa realizes this; in fact, I would say that Borderlands/La Frontera, while about living along the U.S./Mexico border, is about everything but that. It’s about what happens when cultures and beliefs collide, when capitalism and racism combine to disenfranchise those the dominant race considers Other. It’s also explains how even among the Other one can be even more Other, to the extent of seeming monstrous.

“The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains … nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” she writes. We constantly live with divided loyalties, just as we may live with multiple oppressions, and Anzaldúa knows this. Her entire point is to exult in these borders — because it is when we are conscious of these borders that we connect with other people.

Even her language bears this out; she writes mainly in English (the language of the dominant group, the language she learned from childhood that was “correct”), but adds bits in Castilian, Tex-Mex and Nahuatl. This has the effect of marginalizing readers, making them feel Other, but more than that it allows Anzaldúa to rejoice in the way her world has many borders. It that allows her to claim — whether with “permission” or not — pieces of each culture. By doing so, by embracing and exulting in the smoky, hazy, ambiguous borders, she is creating culture and religion and belief and gender and sex … and inviting us to do the same.

[Bookish Note: 60 second reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are so called because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really. Oh, and just to be safe, no one sent me this book, it was bought with my own hard-earned cash.]

Archaeology’s Ultimate Purpose

Recreated row house in Jamestown

The rise in popularity of the History Channel and other similar programs on other channels and networks recently led Bookish Miss to pondering how important the fine details are to the general populace’s understanding of history.

While watching a program on ancient Pompeii, I was nodding along to everything being said; then the narrator stopped and I frowned. But, I thought, what about … ? They didn’t talk about …

The devil is in the details, right?

Well, not always, I was reminded. This led me to my bookshelf, specifically to Stephen Bertman’s Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology — which is not, at first glance, a scholarly book. Even at second glance, its place on any reading list likely appears dubious at best; it is, after all, a compilation of several short sketches about people. In fact, Bertman devotes most of his work to concisely and succinctly reconstructing and understanding the lives of ancient and not-so-ancient people. Accordingly, since the book is about the individual lives of people, there is not much by way of technical details, extensive descriptions of artifacts or discussions relating a particular item to a particular site, feature, zone or level.

Like most of those popular history programs, that’s not the point. The best example of Bertman’s intent is in the final chapter, “Portrait of Pocahontas.” He begins by recalling the myth, then delves into history to detail the ships that sailed for what would become Virginia, including information on their passengers and cargo. There is also discussion regarding the English in Jamestown; he writes “between best of friends and worst of enemies lies the story of Jamestown and the Native Americans … a story written in village campfires long cold and the embers of cottage timbers set ablaze.”

Archaeology is invaluable; some records do remain from this time and the years that followed, but material remains are a viable and much needed resource because they allow us to see a bigger picture. Accordingly, Bertman details the various items recovered and places them in the context in which they are of the most importance — what the final accumulation tells us about their lives.

One of Bertman’s examples is the colonists’ fear of both the known and unknown. He explains this by discussing the sheer volume of weapons uncovered, including crossbows, cutlasses, rapiers and other swords, caltrop (a metal object with four sharp points) as well as muskets, pistols, bullet molds, bandoliers (to hold gunpowder) and grapeshot for a cannon. Other artifacts are also discussed, including how their interpretation illustrates how these people lived from day to day.

For most scholars who skipped or dismissed Bertman’s prologue, introduction, conclusion and epilogue, the most obvious problem with this book is its lack of contextual detail with respect to the artifacts. He does not seek to investigate a certain site or perform a particular test on any given artifact in order to understand a minute part of a culture, but rather he draws on the work of several archaeologists and other scholars to put together a picture of how our antecedents may have lived. Indeed, he is very plain in the beginning and the end — his book was written to be an easily accessible look at the broader swath of history, made fuller by archaeology, and he refuses to allow technical details to weigh down his words. He does provide endnotes, however, for that exact purpose.

However, it is important to the larger discussion about the value of archaeology, history and the use of material culture. What Bertman did nearly 25 years ago is precisely what those history shows aim to do today. Outreach archaeology, public history — it all boils down to collecting information, analyzing it, making the appropriate connections and disseminating it to the public in a palatable format.

This is important and those “buts” don’t always matter. If we don’t do it, someone else (Disney anyone?) will.

Bertman’s own words put it best:

“It is easy for modern archaeologists, surrounded by so many quantitative techniques, to be dazzled into forgetting their qualitative mission. Their purpose is and always should be a fundamentally human one: to discover and narrate with honesty and compassion the story of lives once lived. The archaeologist’s duty is to keep faith with the ghosts, to serve as a medium for those who no longer have voices of their own.”

Bertman currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University in Missouri.

Bertman, Stephen. Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology. Tarcher/St.Martin’s Press, 1986.

The Changing Face of an American Tenement

[The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells the stories of immigrants who lived in 97 Orchard Street, a tenement built in 1863 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. However, it is also fascinating to study because of what it can teach us about building forms — how they are constructed by societies, and how they construct the people who live within them. This is a short attempt to place 97 Orchard Street within a historical perspective; it is not exhaustive. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the museum.]

97 Orchard Street, front facade
97 Orchard Street, front facade

On 17 October 1874, Nathalie Gumpertz’s life altered dramatically – her husband of ten years, Julius, never returned from work and she was left to fend for herself and her children. It was an all too common story, however, and the Jewish widow eventually entered the dressmaking trade to provide for her family.1 Nathalie Gumpertz’s story resonates through the ages not so much for its unfortunate typicality – by all rights it should be lost to the ages, buried under similar and worse tales – but because she and her children were residents of 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Built in 1863 by Lukas Glockner, the tenement house that provided cheap housing to new immigrants between 1863 and 1935 is now The Lower East Side Tenement Museum; its curators and interpreters have resurrected the lives of five families who lived in the building during the course of its seventy-two year occupancy, Gumpertz’s among them.2 However, at the time it was built it was only one of several tenements with minimal exterior embellishment built to house multiple working-class families. Practically anathema to the result of the United States, multifamily housing had become a necessity in New York City due to the massive flood of immigrants entering the country during and after the 1840s and because land was quickly becoming scarce. What land was available was often expensive, so it became practical to build upward reaching buildings and not sprawling monstrosities. And although still considered an ambiguous choice for those concerned with upholding or building a middle-class identity, for the working-class (which accounted for approximately sixty-two percent of New York’s postbellum population) the tenement offered inexpensive accommodations for those who could only dream of owning a home. 3 As such, 97 Orchard Street and the urban tenement in general are an architectural and socio-cultural type that must be examined in the appropriate contexts in order to better understand the changing nature of the multifamily American home in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cultural Constructions that Construct Culture: The Class, Gender and Ethnic Implications of 97 Orchard Street

Buildings are the products of human culture; conversely, the same buildings also create, recreate and reinforce human cultural values.4 A given society constructs houses, for example, that will support its ideas and structuring of family life and, in turn, the houses then reflect and mould the values of the children raised within its walls. The ‘home values’ (family privacy, identity and morality) of nineteenth century native-born Americans revolved primarily around the concept of private homes and home ownership, but the increasingly crowded urban centres such as New York forced these people to make allowances even as they clung to the deeply held ideal. That middle-class apartment buildings blurred the lines between the middle and working classes indicates that multifamily housing such as tenements were considered lower class, and that was indeed the case.5 What, then, made them so?

One answer embodies the idea that buildings are cultural constructions that construct culture. When the middle-class began to accept the need for apartments, they insisted that the units adhere to middle-class values by nature of their construction. The apartment building itself should reflect a particular style (it is worth mentioning that the middle-class angst over multifamily housing coincided with a period of architectural eclecticism) and the units were to replicate, as much as possible, the physical spaces of private homes.6 The tenement units in use at the time did not meet middle-class requirements for reinforcing middle-class status and values; historically, much of working-class housing was indeed substandard in terms of amenities, conveniences and space-per-person, but few had viable alternatives. However, the allocation and organisation of space was an important factor in determining differences in class values. 97 Orchard Street had four units per floor, two at the front and two along the back, each with three rooms: a front room, a kitchen and a back room/bedroom.7 While far from the Anglo-Saxon middle-class ideal that promoted a formal front parlour, dining room, kitchen and bedrooms – all of which existed as an environment separate from that of the working/economic world – the tenement units did reinforce some working-class immigrant values. Many immigrants were from rural areas and thus used to sleeping several people to a room (and a bed), and Irish, Italian and Jewish women frequently did laundry and assisted with family businesses from adjoining quarters. The kitchen was not only a place where food was prepared but a room for eating, family gatherings, sewing, reading/homework and other assorted chores. This reinforced the cultural values about home, community and gender roles that they brought to the United States from their native lands. For them, the layout of tenement units was not only acceptable but also normal.8

The sharp distinction between private and public spaces within the home was an obsession with the Anglo-Saxon middle-class but of lesser importance to the working-class, especially the immigrant working-class who had a different set of home values. Native-born Americans of the middle-class saw the home as a refuge from the world, a separate sphere where women were protected from the horrors of the working world; working-class immigrants, especially women from Southern Europe, viewed the homes as a part of a community. As such, what the middle-class perceived as a lack of privacy in tenements like 97 Orchard Street was seen by its tenants as an important part of community socialisation. The passages between units thus served much the same purpose as alleys, allowing occupants to reconstruct the social and cultural worlds with which they were familiar.9 Kinship and networks were forged through a shared use of space where contact was necessary, so the tenement became the village and the alley the common fields. Tenement units were thus as important to working-class immigrant cultural values as the rigidly defined private home was to native-born Americans.10 Both were constructed by a particular culture’s ideas about class, work, family and gender and served to reinforce that culture’s ideas.

Uniquely American? The Tenement Building as a House Type

House types are distinctly different from house styles – type refers to a basic form and design while style often relates to exterior details such as pitch and shape of the roof and the presence (or lack) of decorative moulding and other elements such as arches or turrets. Types and subtypes are relatively fixed in form, subject to change by cultural processes but at a very slow rate and then only very cautiously.11 The I-house and shotgun are both house types but whereas the I-house is clearly the descendant of the English hall-and-parlour type, the shotgun is considered uniquely American because it is a variation on an impermanent West African housing type that could have only occurred in the United States.12 Built by slaves and free blacks and defined as being one room wide and three or more rooms deep, possibly with a side hall, and a front facing gable, it has been considered the first true piece of American architecture.13

97 Orchard Street, front facade, 1870
97 Orchard Street, front facade, 1870

However, the tenement building is also an American variation on an imported idea and falls within the parameters cited above. Multifamily housing was and remains common among all classes in large European cities such as Paris, but the home values of nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon Americans posited the single family residence as the ideal, thus relegating multifamily housing to the working-class. These early “tenements” were not buildings erected especially for working-class families but were in actuality ad hoc multifamily housing created out of formerly private homes that were sold or abandoned when the previous occupants moved.14 Tenements, buildings erected with the express intent of housing multiple families on each floor, did not begin to emerge until after the influx of immigrants during/after the 1840s. And while certainly based on the urban European tradition of multiple family dwellings that housed many classes of people at different levels, the tenement building in America was constructed to house only one class of person – the working-class.15 Thus, like the shotgun house, the tenement building is a uniquely American idea in that it was built on imported roots for a specific section of society.

Unlike the Parisian Buildings or “French flats” and later middle-class apartment houses, tenements such as 97 Orchard Street were constructed with less thought to privacy and modern living and more emphasis on economy for tenants and quick and high returns for owners/landlords. Calvert Vaux’s proposed four floor building design for “French flats” included not only enclosed split-level units with ceilings nine to twelve feet high, it also included an intricately (if still restrained) detailed Italianate exterior.16 97 Orchard Street, however, while also containing Italianate elements such as arches over the front windows and a projecting cornice, was a much more simple building. Built for a total cost of eight-thousand dollars in 1863 by Lukas Glockner, himself an immigrant, the building was intended as a tenement for immigrant families who needed cheap accommodations. That in doing so he earned approximately a twenty-percent return on his investment was also an incentive. However, while the three room units were small with good ventilation only in the front room, Glockner papered the walls of the units and often provided carpet and the occasional wall-painting to entice prospective tenants into leasing and to provide them with at least the semblance of comfort.17 These were mere contrivances, though; it was the construction of the building as a tenement, with the emphasis on its form as opposed to its style, that made it acceptable only to working-class families.

The “Cultural Weathering” of 97 Orchard Street

Natalie Gumpertz
Natalie Gumpertz

“Cultural weathering” is the term used to explain the changes in a particular place over time, whether those changes are physical, material or socio-cultural.18 As previously discussed, buildings are social and cultural constructions; however, the context and meaning of buildings can and do change over time. That change is called “cultural weathering” and reflects not only the physical changes to the structure but also the uses and meanings given to it and to the interior floor plan by its inhabitants. Tenements, as vernacular architecture, are a response to the localised needs of those who live in the region or borough; as such, it would be strange if the uses of the units did not change with the occupants.19 One of the first notable instances of “cultural weathering” at 97 Orchard Street occurred when Nathalie Gumpertz began her dressmaking business. The unit in which she resided with her children was no longer simply a place to live once she bought a sewing machine on credit and began filling orders, it was where she conducted her business and made a living.20 Thus the unit took on a new meaning to her and to those around her; in choosing to work out of her home, Gumpertz redefined her environment – its sense of place and its home values – for both herself and her children as well as for her neighbours.

In 1935, the tenement at 97 Orchard Street was shuttered and the last of its tenants ejected when the landlord could not comply with the new regulations (requiring plumbing and proper ventilation be added to each unit) instituted by the newly formed New York City Housing Authority.21 This marked an obvious and very distinct shift in the life of the building; the structure erected to provide cheap housing for working-class families no longer did so (although it very likely had squatters at some point along the way). The building sat vacant, exposed to the ravages of time and the elements until it was chosen as the site of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and this last shift is perhaps the most radical. Although its curators and specialists have worked to restore the building and some of its units to a particular moment in time, its new incarnation as a museum is the antithesis of its original purpose. Though the structure itself is still a specific type, a tenement, it no longer functions in that capacity and as it plays a new role in the community it must therefore be evaluated through a new lens. While the builder and designer imbue their creation with meaning, it is the people who occupy the space that define its purpose.22 The museum, while interpreting the building’s past, does not house people nor are its day-to-day occupants and visitors necessarily members of an immigrant working-class. As such, the value and meaning of 97 Orchard Street has changed even if the structure has not. It is a place that has been weathered by culture as well as by time, and continues to evolve as each generation leaves its mark.

Lukas Glocker’s investment was lucrative during his lifetime and continues to be so today. While not always the most convenient or sanitary place to live, the tenement at 97 Orchard Street was home to over seven thousand people during its original period of habitation.23 As a museum it interprets the life of the structure and its former tenants to the public, and in so doing explores the values and ideals that surrounded the concept of multifamily housing the late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York even as it adds another layer of meaning to the old brick building.

1 Lower East Side Tenement Museum, “The Gumpertz Family” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/vt_gumpstory.html> (19 March 2004).

2 Tenement Museum, “Introduction” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/index_virtual.html> (19 March 2004).

3 Cromley, Elizabeth Collins. Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) 2.

4 Heath, Kingston William, The Patina of Place: The Cultural Weathering of a New England Industrial Landscape (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001) 185.

5 Cromely, Alone Together, 2-3.

6 Cromely, Alone Together, 4.

7 Tenement Museum, <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/index_virtual.html> (19 March 2004).

8 Cohen, Lizabeth A, “Embellishing a Life of Labor: An Interpretation of the Material Culture of American Working-Class Homes, 1885-1915” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 268-269.

9 Cohen, “Embellishing,” 269; see also, Borchert, James, “Alley Landscapes of Washington” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 284-285.

10 Borchert, “Alley Landscapes,” 286.

11 Vlach, John Michael, “The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986) 62.

12 Vlach, “Shotgun House,” 70-73.

13 Vlach, “Shotgun House,” 58-59.

14 Cromley, Alone Together, 12-14.

15 Tenement Museum, “Early Tenements,” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/vt_hrearlyten.html> (19 March 2004).

16 Cromley, Alone Together, 28-29.

17 Tenement Museum, “Early Tenements,” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/vt_hrearlyten.html> (19 March 2004).

18 Heath, Patina of Place, xxii-xxiii.

19 Heath, Patina of Place, 181-185.

20 Tenement Museum, “Dressmakers,” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/vt_gumpdress.html> (19 March 2004).

21 Tenement Museum, “Shuttering the Tenements,” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/vt_baldend.html> (19 March 2004).

22 Heath, Patina of Place, 185.

23 Tenement Museum, “Introduction,” <http://www.tenement.org/Virtual_Tour/index_virtual.html> (19 March 2004).

the best of times, the worst of times

The Franklinsville Manufacturing Company burns.

Dickens got it right, didn’t he?

Things get better, then they get worse; we take one step forward and two steps back.  Or is that two steps forward and one step back?  Either way, it’s an ongoing battle and looking away, even for a moment, is dangerous.

Historic preservation is like that.  Every time I think we’re doing well, that things are moving forward and the public at large is beginning to understand why we do what we do, something comes up and throws me into a tailspin.  This time it was two somethings.

The first came on 2 September (2010) when the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company burned.  It was originally built in 1838, is listed on the National Register and was designated a Randolph County historic landmark in 2009.  Franklinville Fire Chief Kyle Dixon said at the time it was believed to be arson because there was no power to the structure.  Thankfully the Picker House, Picker House Annex and Opening Room were saved; they’re part of Phase I of the restoration plan.

Still, it’s a loss — to the Randolph Heritage Conservancy, which owns the mill and has been raising money to restore it, to the family of the people who once worked there (the mill ceased manufacturing in the 1970s) and to the people of Randolph County.  A part of our heritage was lost that morning to someone else’s carelessness.

The second came from partway across the country, from Waukesha, Wisconsin.  The local Landmarks Commission and local YMCA are battling over the fate of 1929 Tudor Revival gas station.  Yes, you read that part correctly; once upon a time, gas stations were often built to mimic the residences in the neighborhood (a practice that, in my opinion, should never have gone out of style).  While certainly less tragic, it hit me hard — not because I have any connections to the place or champion early 20th century gas stations, but because I thought we as a society had come further than that.  I thought we were learning to compromise.

Obviously not.