Archive for January, 2017

buried treasure: epistolatory

5 January 2017

Break in the book summaries for an actual handwritten letter from 65 years ago, found in the attic last year. They don’t write ’em like this anymore. I have H’s full name, but not T’s.

Jan 14 51

Dear T…,

Your royal Christmas present arrived a few days ahead of time and I didn’t have to rattle it to make sure it was what I’d hoped it was. Thanks ever so much, T—! I’m lingering it out for the whole month.

I got knocked over on the 5th with a touch of pneu. which wasn’t too bad, but all these fancy drugs they shot me full of have left me feeling rather sour since. I’m hoping to get in town tomorrow for a short session and be on my way again.


buried treasure: campfire girls

4 January 2017

Julianne DeVries. (1933) The Campfire Girls Flying Around the World. Cleveland: World Syndicate Publication.

In 1972 my mother’s family sent us a box of children’s books that had belonged to her and her niece Molly, among them four or five from the 1930s Campfire Girls series. These are in the mold of the Famous Five: a gang of children who perform heroic feats and are celebrated for them, in one volume even being invited to Mrs. Roosevelt’s White House. The series is similar to New Girl books in its project of writing heroines relatively unhobbled by gender, and resembles Nancy Drew in the wholesome setting of Glendale with its malt shops and roadsters.

The Campfire Girls offered broader scope for identification than other girls’ books of the period, where diversity typically manifested as one blonde, one pale-skinned brunette, and one redhead, all with Anglo-Saxon names. Here there were five: Alice (shy spice), a police sergeant’s daughter which comes in handy when the girls are solving mysteries: Lenore (sporty spice), Anita (neutral spice), Dolores (Spanish spice, but not Latina spice, as her father was born in Barcelona), and Mabel (fat jolly prankster spice and the only one with a real personality). In loco parentis is their “pretty, young” leader Mrs. Evans (old spice).

This book sees the members of the Wa-Wan-Da Camp called by the national organization, run by Miss Hannah Rosenfeld in New York (kosher spice, we are led to infer), to take a glamorous, expenses-paid trip around the world, instructing local organizers on how to build the movement.

But what was the movement? Camp Fire Girls was a hippie alternative to Girl Scouts, founded during the Progressive era by environmentalist health experts in Maine who were enamored of Native American culture. The groups “emphasized camping, outdoor activities, and preparing women for work outside the home.”  OF COURSE exporting a girls’ scouting club built on faux American Indian symbolism and Red Pioneer neckerchiefs is going to save the world in 1933.

buried treasure: schlesinger’s 1930s

2 January 2017

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (2000) A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Though I don’t have time to finish this 530-page first volume of memoirs by the historian and Kennedy advisor, it is good enough to save for later. Schlesinger is a great summarizer of his times and their texts and communities, at least the elite communities. The paean to the years in the Yard that is obligatory for all Harvard men is divided into “Harvard College: What I Did,” “Harvard College: What I Enjoyed,” and “Harvard College: What I Learned.” The first of these chapters begins with the following technical description (108-112), which I have cut for length and palatability; although keen to distance himself from contemporary attitudes to “Negroes” and Jews, Schlesinger is less modern on gender and sexual orientation.

Let me recall superficialities of life in the Thirties. Daily routines were more complicated then. When we went to bed at night, we had to wind our watches; the battery-powered watch was still to come. When we dressed in the morning, some began by putting on BVDs, a form of one-piece underwear now extinct; the more advanced turned to shorts and undershirts, though, after seeing Clark Gable in It Happened One Night in 1934 most of us discarded the undershirt …

When we bought a suit, two pairs of pants came with the jacket and vest. After putting on pants (no khakis or jeans), we had to button our flies; the zipper did not appear till the late Thirties … Garters still held up socks, and we had to lace our shoes; the loafer or moccasin was not yet acceptable …

When we wanted sandwiches, we had to use a knife to slice the bread; sliced bread was still in the future. When we went outdoors, we put on hats – gray felt in winter, soft panama in summer. Hatless John Kennedy killed the hat craze in 1960, much to the chagrin of his powerful supporter in New York, Alex Rose, the head of the Hatters Union and boss of the Liberal party. On cold days in the year 2000 I wear a cap; in the Thirties the cap was strictly a proletarian taste …


buried treasure

1 January 2017


One of my vacation tasks is to sort through the junk in my parents’ attic, which is dominated by books accumulated from years of library book sales for as little as a dollar a box. Old books as such became a near-worthless commodity in late 20th century America, well ahead of the Internet, and more space for books had of course been one of the attractions of the house. Once we had an attic and could no longer see the whole collection, stockpiling and duplication were inevitable.

Categories we are very long on include British political and military biographies (my mother’s favorites), books with science in the title (my father), foreign language (me), essays and journalism (again me), philosophy (especially existentialism, I don’t know why – possibly my brother was a secret Sartre fan), architecture (my brother), sociology, murder mysteries, scifi, Judaica, Australiana, poetry, drama, art and museum catalogs, modern and ancient classics, humor, printing and typography, machine and electronics manuals, one-volume encyclopedias and textbooks of all kinds. In other words, most of the interesting categories that show up at bulk book sales for Friends of the Library in any Massachusetts town. I was fortunate to grow up bathed in books and even if most of them were not the right books or the right books for me, some of them were.

Every day that I visit the public library where we got most of these books, I have deposited a few volumes to be recycled in their future sales, beginning with the duplicate and triplicate copies of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Demetrios, Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, and Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd, the pedantic musings of Edwin Newman and William Safire, and proceeding through lesser-loved singletons such as the two-volume life of the Earl of Sandwich, which will never be read by any family member still living. (more…)