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Posts Tagged ‘history’

16 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Walt Whitman, Bohemian Dandy: The Story of America’s First Gay Bar and Its Creative Coterie

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“A failed romance. A restless sense of longing… These are raw ingredients that get mulled, weighed, processed — and ultimately transformed into art.”

Beneath 647 Broadway in Manhattan, now occupied by a Soho shoe boutique, was once Pfaff’s famous saloon, both a literal basement and a figurative cultural underground. Pfaff’s, pronounced fafs, was the favorite hangout of New York’s Bohemian artists and was later anointed as America’s first gay bar. Its token denizen was none other than Walt Whitman, for whom the Pfaff’s coterie became the fertile personal micro-culture that fueled the lifelong rewriting of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, which he had self-published three years before he arrived at Pfaff’s. In his old age, Whitman lamented to his biographer: “Pfaff’s ‘Bohemia’ was never reported, and more the sorrow.”

In Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (public library), writer Justin Martin sets out to mend that sorrow and assuage his own lament that “history is not a meritocracy,” shedding light on the untold story of the Pfaff’s set and its ample reverberations through the last 150 years of creative culture.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself.' Click image for more.

But what made Pfaff’s invaluable to Whitman wasn’t only that it provided an extraordinary creative environment and much-needed support for the aspiring writer, as his grand ambitions to become the era’s greatest poet were deflated by an initial critical reception of derision and dismissal when Leaves of Grass was first published. The saloon was also a safe haven for him to explore his identity as a queer man in mid-19th-century America — a place whose patronage consisted of “assorted rebels and societal outliers, including plenty of gay men.” Whitman, as Martin describes him, was somewhat of an endearing dandy:

When he started frequenting the saloon, Whitman was thirty-nine years old. He stood roughly six feet, tall for the era, but weighed less than two hundred pounds. He wasn’t yet the beefy, shaggy poet of legend. His hair was cut short, a salt-and-pepper mix of brown and gray. His beard was trimmed. Only later would he put on weight, the wages of stress and illness and advancing age. Only later would he grow his hair long and let his beard go thick and bushy.

But he was already an eccentric dresser. Whitman favored workingmen’s garb, such as his wideawake, a type of broad-brimmed felt sombrero. He liked to wear it well back on his head, tilted at a rakish angle. His trousers were always tucked into cowhide boots. He wore rough-hewn shirts of unbleached linen, open at the collar, revealing a shock of chest hair. Whitman had a rosy complexion, almost baby-like, and quite incongruous for a big man. Because he was meticulous about hygiene, he always smelled of soap and cologne. His manner of dress often struck people as more like a costume. Or maybe it was a kind of armor, protecting the vulnerable man underneath.

Walt Whitman c. 1852 (Photograph courtesy of the Walt Whitman Archives)

Indeed, Whitman’s shell was decidedly deliberate — both in his personal and literary styles. Martin finds a similar stylistic “costume” in Whitman’s use of language:

As a poet, Whitman is celebrated for language that moves — soaring, swooping, singing — but his manner of speaking offered such a contrast: slow . . . deliberate . . . earthbound. He pronounced “poems” as “pomes,” drawling it out, his eyelids drooping. That was another of his characteristics—those drooping eyelids, which lent a kind of impassivity to many of his facial expressions.

It wasn’t as if his mind were slow; clearly, it was quite the opposite, but maybe all the connections and contradictions lighting up his synapses were best worked out on the page. At any rate, he steered clear of the “rubbing and drubbing,” as he called those infamous verbal battles. “My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on — to see, talk little, absorb,” he would recall. “I never was a great discusser, anyway — never.”

But perhaps what most mesmerized Whitman’s gaze at Pfaff’s, a place full of “quick, quirk, and queer conceit” per one patron’s account, was the undeniable sense of having found his tribe. Of course, as Martin points out, the actual term gay meant “lighthearted” and “cheerful” in the 1850s, and the word homosexual was still three decades from entering the popular lexicon. So while the saloon wasn’t a “gay bar” in the linguistic sense, it very much was semantically — it had two separate rooms to cater to its diverse clientele, one of which was occupied by a standby circle of gay men.

In that regard, rather than calling it a “semi-gay bar,” Martin proposes “semi-adhesive” — “adhesiveness” being a term from phrenology, that popular 19th-century pseudoscience that enchanted Whitman at least as much as it did George Eliot. Symbolized by two women embracing, “adhesiveness” — as opposed to “amativeness,” romantic love between a man and a woman — connotes, as Martin explains, a “capacity for intense and meaningful same-sex relationships.”

When Whitman first began visiting Pfaff’s, Martin writes, he was in an “adhesive,” serious relationship with a young man named Fred Vaughan, nearly two decades the poet’s junior. The two lived together on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn and would often sit at the same table in Pfaff’s larger room. Vaughan was among the first people Whitman showed his coveted, now-famous letter of encouragement from Emerson.

Their romance, however, met its end shortly after the two started frequenting Pfaff’s. Martin considers the likeliest reason — a heartbreaking notion that makes one appreciate anew today’s triumph of equality in the dignity of love:

Vaughan had reached an age when he was expected to find a proper mate, that is, a woman.

Vaughan ended up getting married and settled into a rather conventional life. He worked a series of jobs such as insurance salesman and elevator operator and with his wife raised four sons. He also became a terrible alcoholic. In the early 1870s, after roughly a decade of silence, Vaughan reconnected with Whitman, writing him several letters, one of which includes the following heart-rending passage: “I never stole, robbed, cheated, nor defrauded any person out of anything, and yet I feel that I have not been honest to myself — my family nor my friends.” In the letters, Vaughan never spells out the source of his anguish. Perhaps it was the result of living in a state that felt unnatural to him. One letter includes, “My love my Walt is with you always.”

Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle, a streetcar conductor Whitman met in 1865, embarking upon a decades-long romance that lasted until the poet's death in 1892. (Photograph courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection)

Pfaff’s offered Whitman a stage for exploring other romantic possibilities. He began spending more time in the company of young men, whom he called “my darlings and gossips” and “my darling, dearest boys.” Martin reflects on the relationship between language and identity:

It’s striking how different Whitman’s manner was with this group of men. One can scarcely imagine him using words such as darling or gossip at the long table in that vaulted room. As everyone does, Whitman revealed different sides of himself to different kinds of people. The two sections of Pfaff’s appear to have served separate social needs for Whitman — as a poet and as a gay man.

This integration was precisely what rendered Pfaff’s so instrumental in Whitman’s evolution as an artist — more than a mere playground for desire, the saloon became a laboratory for exorcising the emotional excess central to all great art. Martin captures this beautifully:

A failed romance. A restless sense of longing. As it’s always been, these are raw ingredients that get mulled, weighed, processed — and ultimately transformed into art.

Rebel Souls is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, exploring the blossoming of Whitman’s literary legacy, the tantalizing group of artists, writers, and performers who populated Pfaff’s and influenced one another, and how they made their way West to meet Mark Twain’s Bohemians of Silicon Valley. Complement it with Allen Crawford’s exquisite, obsessive word-by-word illustrations for Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Whitman’s own raunchy ode to New York.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

100 Ideas That Changed the Web

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From the mouse to the GIF, by way of the long tail and technology’s forgotten female pioneers.

In his now-iconic 1945 essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush considered the problem of organizing humanity’s knowledge, which he poetically termed “the common record,” in an intelligent way amidst an era of information overload. It was a challenge first addressed a decade earlier by a Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet, whose global knowledge network called the Mundaneum sparked the dawn of the modern information age. But it wasn’t until 1999 that Tim Berners-Lee, who had invented the World Wide Web and launched the first webpage on August 6, 1991, coined the concept of the Semantic Web — a seminal stride toward cultivating wisdom in the age of information, bringing full-circle Otlet’s vision for an intelligent global network of organizing human knowledge. Much like Johannes Gutenberg, who combined a number of existing technologies to invent his revolutionary press, Berners-Lee was simply bringing together disjointed technologies — electronic documents, hypertext, markup, the internet — to create a new paradigm that changed our world at least as much as Gutenberg’s invention. But how, exactly, did we get there?

The 98 landmark technologies and ideas that bridged Otlet’s vision with Berners-Lee’s world-changing web are what digital archeologist Jim Boulton chronicles in 100 Ideas that Changed the Web (public library) — the latest installment in a fantastic series of cultural histories by British indie powerhouse Laurence King, including 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas that Changed Film, 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas that Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas that Changed Art.

IDEA #1: THE MUNDANEUM

In 1936, six decades before the birth of the web as we know it, a Belgian bibliophile named Paul Otlet envisioned an electronic telescope which would transmit any document to a screen anywhere in the world. His primarily female volunteers manually classified some 17 million documents -- a system that became known as the Index Card Internet.

The hundred ideas range from revolutionary concepts, like the personal computer (#9), open source (#28), and peer-to-peer networks (#62), to technologies so rudimentary and ubiquitous that we forget they were once mere “ideas” in a world without them, like graphical user interface (#5), search (#26), email (#51), and the internet itself (#10), to cultural phenomena like the bulletin board systems (#12) that geeks used to connect with one another 30 years before Facebook or online dating (#78), which we still approach with an ambivalent blend of skepticism, eagerness and, on very rare occasions, absolute ingenuity. Boulton’s point, however, is to illustrate how even the most humble among them — like, say, the dear old GIF (#18) — served as combinatorial building blocks that contributed to the web as we know, use, and love it.

IDEA #5: GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE

Inspired by Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart's live demonstration of his vision for the future of computing, the oNLine System (NLS), at the 1968 Joint Computer Conference became known as the 'Mother of All Demos.' It was the very first implementation of a GUI. Unlike many of his peers, Engelbart was interested not in making computers smarter but in how computers could make humans smarter.

Tucked into the various chapters are factlets that reveal delightful and often surprising details about elements of digital communication we’ve come to take for granted. For instance, the section on the emoticon (#19) — which made its debut in 1881 and is also among the 100 diagrams that changed the world — Boulton explains that telegraph operators used early examples of type-based sentiment: “73” meant “best regards” and “88” love and kisses.

He writes in the introduction:

Exploring the history of the Web is not just a nostalgic trip into our recent digital past but an exploration of the very way we think and communicate. Our thought processes are non-linear and erratic but the way we make sense of things and express ourselves is linear. Pioneers like Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Theodor Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Tim Berners-Lee questioned this conviction. Their legacy is the World Wide Web. A place that breaks down national and cultural borders. A place that blurs the boundaries between generating and exchanging ideas. A place that toppled regimes and created new economic models. A place that has radically changed the way we work, play, shop, socialize and otherwise participate in society. But above all, a place that is for everyone.

The internet, which predates the web by decades, has somewhat unlikely beginnings. (Boulton makes a lucid, charmingly indignant distinction between the two: “The terms “World Wide Web” and “internet” are often used interchangeably, which is plain wrong. The internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks. It is the infrastructure that carries email, instant messaging, Voiceover, IP, network games, file transfer and, of course, the Web.”) In the quest to win the Space Race during the Cold War, the U.S. government established ARPA — the Advanced Research Projects Agency — with grand ambitions, including the creation of an Intergalactic Computer Network. On October 29, 1969, researchers combined ARPA’s three major computing projects — a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack, a computer time-sharing concept, and an operating system — to successfully connect computers between three different universities, creating the world’s first packet-switching network. Known as ARPANET, it was a manifestation of the vision for an Intergalactic Computer Network, which is essentially what we know as the internet.

IDEA #6: THE MOUSE

The first computer mouse, created in 1963, in the hands of its inventor, Douglas Engelbart. The mouse, with its ability to click on specific parts of a document, was the device that made hypertext possible. Without hypertext, there would be no links, and without links, no web. Despite the enormous innovation in computing over the past half-century, the design of the computer mouse has remained practically unchanged. (Photograph: LIFE Magazine)

IDEA #10: THE INTERNET

The location of every IP address on the internet, as visualized by the Opte Project.

Even though the first successful packet-switching network was established in 1969, different such networks around the world operated by different rules and thus could not communicate with one another. In the 1970s, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf set out to establish a common protocol, which became known as Transfer Control Protocol / Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP. After a successful test was conducted between networks in the U.S., U.K. and Norway in 1977, all packet-switching networks were given a deadline of January 1, 1983, to migrate to the new protocol. Boulton cites Vint Cerf, father of the internet:

When the day came, the main emotion was relief. There were no grand celebrations — I can’t even find a photograph. Yet, with hindsight, it’s obvious it was a momentous occasion. On that day, the operational internet was born.

IDEA #27: WIFI

Hedy Lamarr, inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio, the technology that underpins wifi.

One of the book’s most heartening touches is Boulton’s effort to shed light on the web’s little-known female pioneers, from Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, who was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, starred in cinema’s first on-screen orgasm, and also invented the technology that laid the groundwork for bluetooth and wifi, to the very first photo uploaded to the web thanks to an all-girl science rock band from CERN, no less.

IDEA #45: METADATA

Henriette Avram, creator of the first digital metadata in 1970, the MARC standards (Machine-Readable Cataloging standards) at the Library of Congress. Much like the Dewey Decimal System revolutionized library science by introducing a card-catalog method for organizing books, metadata helps organize digital content by capturing details about it such as who created it, when it was created, its subject matter, and more.

Not all ideas are technologies — many are higher-order concepts that describe cultural phenomena and social dynamics. Among them is the notion of “the long tail,” a term from statistics that Chris Anderson popularized as a lens on business and creative culture in his excellent 2006 book of the same title. (I, of course, am partial — Brain Pickings is made possible entirely by the “long tail” of patrons like you.)

IDEA #73: THE LONG TAIL

Boulton writes: 'The long tail is what happens when everything is available to everyone. Given enough choice and enough customers, obscure products tailored to our individual needs are more desirable than mass-market blockbusters.'

IDEA #68: INFOGRAPHICS

Infographic from 'Information Is Beautiful' by David McCandless.

Fittingly, in the section on infographics (#68), Boulton traces the evolution of this visual communication genre from Otto Neurath’s invention of pictograms in the 1930s to the impact of data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte to the work of information designers like David McCandless, concisely nailing the peril and promise of this singular form of visual literacy, which requires the mastery of a special language to both create and consume intelligently:

The rise of the social web and our reluctance to read long documents has propelled the work of information designers like Neurath, Tufte and McCandless to the fore. It is boom time for infographics. Alongside other bite-sized shareable content such as photos of kittens and GIF animations, infographics have become a staple part of our media diet… Done badly, you get Chartjunk. Done well, they make data meaningful and entertaining. Sometimes even beautiful.

IDEA #18: GRAPHICS INTERCHANGE FORMAT

'Dancing Girl' by legendary GIF artist Chuck Pointer.

And, of course, what history of the web could be complete without everyone’s favorite Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF (#18)? Boulton offers a brief history surprisingly illuminating even for us smug, GIF-slinging moderns:

It’s 20 years old. It supports only 256 colors. It’s unsuitable for photographs. It has no sound capability. It’s inferior to the PNG. Yet the GIF is still hanging in there. Why has it proved so tenacious? Because it can move.

CompuServe introduced the GIF format in the pre-Web days of 1987. It was released as a free and open specification for sharing color images across the network.

[...]

The GIF really took off in 1993 with the release of Mosaic, the first graphical browser. Mosaic introduced the <img> tag, which supported two formats — GIF and a black-and-white format called XMB. Mosaic became Netscape and, as it grew, the GIF grew with it… In 1996, Netscape 2.0 was released. It supported GIF animations — multiple frames shown in succession. The Web went crazy.

But perhaps the most poignant section is also the most conceptual — the notion of “digital fragility” (#41). Boulton captures it elegantly:

Printed in 1455, 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible exist, yet not one copy of a website made a little over 20 years ago survives.

[...]

Digital content is so easy to duplicate that copies are not valued. Worse, the original version is also often considered disposable. Combine this with the rapid obsolescence of digital storage formats, and it is easy to see why many experts describe the early years of the Web as a digital dark age.

[...]

The last 20 years have seen the birth and rise of the Web at an astronomical pace. We have witnessed the birth of the Information Age, equal in magnitude to the transition to the modern world from the Middle Ages. We have a responsibility to expose this artistic, commercial and social digital history — the building blocks of modern culture — to future generations, an audience who will be unable to imagine a world without the Web.

Until we discover the digital equivalent of acid-free paper, bits and bytes remain extremely fragile.

IDEA #8: XANADU

Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines,' an exploration of the creative potential of computer networks, not only predicted the home-computer revolution long before it happened but also served as a clarion call for ordinary people to appropriate computers for their own use, rather than being passive bystanders witnessing a government technology.

But the story of the web is an optimistic one — and, more importantly, one that is still being written. Not coincidentally, the final idea in the book is the Semantic Web (#100) — the concept that, so far, offers the greatest promise of helping us transmute information into wisdom, which is increasingly the defining challenge of our age. As Boulton puts it, “Knowledge is information in context.”

The term, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from Tim Berners-Lee himself:

I have a dream for the Web … in which computers … become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web,” which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade,bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines.

The main value of the Semantic Web, however, is that it extracts meaningful relationships and connections from large sets of information, which brings us all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s ideal of “establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” and that it helps discern a context for isolated bits of information, which is the foundation of knowledge and the very thing Paul Otlet pursued in his vision of the Mundaneum. The web, it seems, is coming full-circle.

100 Ideas that Changed the Web is wonderfully illuminating in its entirety. Complement it with Clive Thompson on how the web is changing the way we think for the better and a close look at just how revolutionary and influential Otlet’s Mundaneum was.

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Incomparable Things Said Incomparably Well: Emerson’s Extraordinary Letter of Appreciation to Young Walt Whitman

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“I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.”

One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator. But there is something particularly magical and generous about an established cultural icon taking a moment to send a note of appreciation to an emerging talent who one day becomes a celebrated icon in turn — infinitely heartening gestures like Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot. But perhaps the most exquisite one of all took place between two of the greatest literary legends our world has ever known.

On July 4, 1855, Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass — the monumental tome, inspired by an 1844 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled The Poet, that would one day establish him as America’s greatest poet. But despite Whitman’s massive expectations for the book, sales were paltry and the few reviews that rolled in were unfavorable.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself.' Click image for more.

Everything changed on July 21 that year when Whitman received an extraordinary letter of praise from none other than Emerson himself, who was not only the muse for the volume but also, by that point, America’s most significant literary tastemaker. The missive, found in the formidable but enchanting volume The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library), is nothing short of spectacular — both in its beauty of language and its generosity of spirit:

Dear Sir,

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.

R.W. Emerson

But, after all, can one expect anything less of modern history’s greatest champion of friendship?

For another masterwork of generosity in the gift of appreciation, see Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron — the man who helped Buk quit his soul-sucking job to become a full-time writer.

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