Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The iAmerican – A Baedeker Guide

I mentioned in a recent blog entry about the happenstance of discovery of a new bookshop in Skibbereen, Co. Cork called The Time Travellers Bookshop. Having spent an hour perusing the shelves and making one purchase, Ernest Hemmingway’s Men Without Women for my father, I was about to leave when the owner, a German, asked me what type of books I might be looking for in particular. My book-buying forays in general are fairly catholic in outcome. Sometimes it is a title, sometimes an author, sometimes it is a tactile impulse generated by running my index finger along a book’s spine, sometimes it is the design, sometimes I have no idea why I bought a particular book. But a constant, particularly in shops that deal in antique books, are Baedekers guides.

The printing company behind Baedekers was founded in Koblenz by Karl Baedeker in 1827 and produced its first guide in the English language – on the Rhine – in 1861. Some of the first editions are quite collectable and in my own small collection of old guide books (Baedekers, Muirheads, Cooks, Guide Bleu) I have a first English edition (not unfortunately in its original cover) of Syria and Palestine (1876) and a particular favourite, an only edition of the Handbook to the Mediterranean (1911). I am always on the lookout for more …at a reasonable price of course!

I told the German bookseller of my interest in Baedekers and this suddenly sparked a flurry of activity.
‘I have just come in …somewhere if I find it, a United States, a second edition. Do you have one of those?’
‘No,’ I replied.
‘It is special,’ he continued, while searching random boxes. ‘The provenance is interesting.’
And expensive, I thought, but perhaps not as expensive as the 1904 3rd edition if it had the 9pp supplement celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

Eventually we found the book with difficulty. Its sienna-coloured cover, different from the normal red, had camouflaged its position. On opening the front the provenance was plain to see. This particular guide had once belonged to Arthur Meier Schlesinger (1885-1967), the very able American social historian – before he added Sr to his name in deference to his famous son Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, John F Kennedy’s advisor and historiographer – and Harvard professor. We agreed on a price and happy with the purchase I brought it away to a new home.

Later I had a chance to study Schlesinger’s library identifying-sticker more. It contained everything that Schlesinger believed had become the American dream – or illusion – the ascent of the city. His very specific commissioned design documents in the foreground the arrival of immigrants into rural America, the availability of education, the subsequent movement uphill in wagon trains not to the empty wilderness of romantic western notions but to a small town, then further upwards to an industrial town and finally at the apex into the embodiment of all that he believed America to truly be, the city.

In a Presidential address to the American Historical Association in December 1940 Schlesinger introduced his speech by giving a visitor’s composite appraisal of the American character. He stated that

The attributes most frequently noted are a belief in the universal obligation to work; the urge to move about; a high standard of comfort for the average man; faith in progress; the eternal pursuit of material gain; an absence of permanent class barriers; the neglect of abstract thinking and of the aesthetic side of life; boastfulness; a deference for women; the blight of spoiled children; the general restlessness and hurry of life, always illustrated by the practice of fast eating; and certain miscellaneous traits such as overheated houses, the habit of spitting, and the passion for rocking chairs and ice water.

In two later astute observations he noted that the American love of cars and hyper-mobility had resulted in ‘The pursuit of happiness’ being ‘transformed into the happiness of pursuit” and that ‘the passion for associational activity’ had become ‘a sovereign principle of life.’

It was the city that continued to fascinate him however. The city was where as he put it, ‘the ancient (rural) prejudice against “useless” accomplishments could not long withstand the compelling opportunities offered’. This construct was as Graeco-Roman a revival as you could possibly imagine, save perhaps for the accelerated pace it occurred at in America.

And this is where I believe Schlesinger Sr, rather than his son, becomes the prophet of the iAmerican generation. The i standing for both the iPodded and iPadded individual and  collective imperium. The iAmerica of now where citizens and government would rather expose their lives, their Facebooked lives, to the television intrusion of Judge Judy rather than expose themselves to the censure of the International Criminal Court. Where the ‘passion for associational activity’ has created in the iAmerican character a fault line of amoral fraternities, biker-gangs, internet paedophile rings, messianic end-of-world groups, terrorist cells, CIA torture squads, and businesses all founded on ‘a profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond its power to accomplish’ added to a Rumsfeldian ‘hyperbolic’ rationalisation.

All is not lost however. In a small hand-written note left within the book, identifying the Baedeker guidebook for his collection, Schlesinger had written on the reverse the names of restaurants in New Orleans: Moreau, Mme Venn’s, Flêcher, Victors. I was glad it was  New Orleans, the least iAmerican city I have visited.

Further Info: http://www.historians.org/info/aha_history/amschlesinger.htm

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