The Decoration of Houses.

February 16, 2013

Lifted from February’s Architectural Digest:

Hundreds of interior design books are published every year, from nitty-gritty how-to guides to lavish volumes that are the publishing world’s answer to lifetime achievement awards. But they all owe their existence to a pioneering guide that was all the rage in 1897: The Decoration of Houses, written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.

Wharton, at the time, was a 30-something Manhattan society matron with a keen interest in architecture and interior design, rather than the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist she would become. Codman was a blue-blooded architect, one year her junior, with whom Wharton and her husband were remodeling a summer place in Newport, Rhode Island. Poor taste and vulgarity of all kinds reigned in that New England resort town, thanks to an influx of Vanderbilts and other newly moneyed clans anxious to put their lucre to conspicuous use, so much so that Wharton and Codman decided to write a book about how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness. It would, they hoped, lead its readers out of what Wharton called (pace the Vanderbilts) a “Thermopylae of bad taste” and into an aesthetic Promised Land.

Today, however, not many people read the 198–page book. But last week I was delighted to participate in a panel discussion about it at the New York School of Interior Design. The talk was sponsored by The Mount, a historic house museum in Lenox, Massachusetts, that was once Wharton’s country residence and, like the book, was another Wharton-Codman collaboration, at least at first. (The persnickety pair’s relationship eventually proved combustible, so the architect ended up losing the job to a less-volatile competitor.) Architectural historian, University of Virginia professor, and Wharton expert Richard Guy Wilson was the moderator, and my co-panelists were the interior designer Charlotte Moss and writer/decorator Pauline C. Metcalf.

The subject of the talk was whether The Decoration of Houses, now nearly 120 years old, still had any relevancy in the Age of IKEA. The general conclusion was a qualified “yes.” Wharton and Codman’s book does have drawbacks, we all agreed. Its tone can be superior and schoolmarmish. Its photographs are black-and-white, which many people today cannot abide in a book about interior design. Its examples of good taste are invariably the ballrooms, antechambers, staircases, and other grandiose spaces in European palaces and villas—not exactly what today’s average homeowner finds particularly inspirational. Perhaps most damning, The Decoration of Houses is devoid of how-to projects and idiotproof color schemes. So why do Moss, Metcalf, Wilson, and I revere this relic of late-Victorian days? (Which, it was quickly pointed out, is still in print.) Well, because practicality and common sense are never out of fashion.

The Decoration of Houses is like the King James Version of the Bible. Thousands of interior design books have come and gone since, but most, I would argue, merely repackage Wharton and Codman’s lessons in brighter colors and snappier prose. Today we all know, to a degree, that pleasingly proportioned rooms inspire, almost magically, a sense of calm. That it is best, when on a budget, to invest in comfortable chairs and sofas rather than flashy knickknacks. That we should build and decorate houses based on our individual needs rather than popular trends. (Not for nothing was Wharton born a Jones, a New York society family whose indulgences, architectural and otherwise, reportedly led to the coining of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

Such advice, and so much more in Wharton and Codman’s pages, seems so basic, so obvious. But it wasn’t in 1897, when many wealthy individuals, the target of the barbed arrow that is The Decoration of Houses, were doing all they could to build opulent houses glittering enough to do justice to the Gilded Age. Wharton and Codman wanted to educate the rich, to challenge them to build beautiful, practical, and pleasing residences whose details, from meaningful moldings to efficient floor plans to well-made, well-mannered furniture, would trickle down into every neighborhood in America in one form or another.

They were, of course, being irrationally optimistic—our time is as plagued with domestic horrors as was the 1890s. That said, sound advice has timeless value, which is why the book’s commandments, suggestions, and observations remain insightful and inspiring, whether your taste is ancien régime or ultramodern. After all, as Wharton and Codman wrote in their introduction, “Architecture and decoration, having wandered since 1800 in a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism, can be set right only by a close study of the best models.” Who would disagree with that?

F. Scott Yourself.

October 9, 2012

Recently having embarked on a re-reading of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, your editorial staff presents here, for your own authorial ease, a do-it-yourself Fitzgerald story maker. Simply make your selections from the options available, mix an old-fashioned, and watch while your very own gossamer beauty, her hair and skin and eyes aflame with the fire of youth and debutante society, takes shape in Fitzgerald-ian (-ish?) verse.

Thomas McClane Blackrock III was a young man from A) Minnesota, B) Manhattan or C) Andover, looking forward to A) summer in the Hamptons, B) an ocean voyage abroad or C) drinks with A) prep school classmates, B) a horsey uncle or C) a youthful fling at the Knickerbocker Club, when he set off down 42nd Street in the marvelous, blustery winter of 19 A) 21, B) 21 or C) 21.

At A) 15, B) 19 or C) 28 years of age, he had just recently been A) admitted to, B) rejected from or C) asked to leave Princeton, on account of A) a series of events in which a man of modest means but intellectual ability and morality is thrust into the world of the wealthy and shocked to find it cruel and hollow, B) a series of events in which a man of modest means but intellectual ability and morality is thrust into the world of the wealthy and shocked to find it cruel and hollow or C) a series of events in which a man of modest means but intellectual ability and morality is thrust into the world of the wealthy and shocked to find it cruel and hollow.

As young Blackrock turned a corner, he was struck by the sight of a girl, no – an angel! stepping from the door of a limousine onto the curb. Swirls of virginal snow played about her ankles, and she was followed out of the vehicle’s cabin by A) a strapping young banker, B) an elderly and proper matron or C) an air of invincible youth, made merry by the glittering delicacies of life and champagne, in front of which the banality of bookish notions of love wither for want of truth. He cocked his hat and lit his pipe.

After colloquial dialogue, Blackrock and the girl A) elope, only to return at her father’s threat to cut off her allowance, at which time she leaves Blackrock heartbroken, cynical and mystified by the very different world of the rich, B) strike up a casual affair that becomes steadily more serious, till it comes to the attention of her father, at which time she leaves Blackrock heartbroken, cynical and mystified by the very different world of the rich or C) ride horses along the beach together, bathed lazily in the starlit incandescence of the moon and waves and love and all things young and fruitful both.

When A) war broke out, B) Blackrock was called to Princeton for pre-season football or C) a more suitable society match was organized for the girl, they parted ways and slipped from one another’s hearts like ships loosed from their moorings in the night, slipping soundlessly away in the cold, black water. At least, thought Blackrock, upon the moment of their parting, we each have plenty of cigarettes.

Get A Good Pen.

October 3, 2012

From the Wall Street Journal, where it was published by Mark Helprin on September 28, 2012:

Should you be insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane, here are some suggestions.

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel. And although once you find a pen you like you’ll probably stick with it the way an addict sticks with heroin, it can be anything from a Mont Blanc to a Bic. The same for paper. There are beautiful, smooth, heavy papers, but great works have been written on ration cards, legal pads and the kind of cheap paper they sell in developing countries—grayish white, almost furry, with flecks of brown and black that probably came from lizards and bats that jumped into the paper makers’ vats.

Your most important tools will be your honesty, labor, courage, practice, luck and utter concentration. Inspiration can be magnificent. Handel wrote his “Messiah” cooped up in his room for two weeks. No one saw him, and his meals were allegedly slipped under the door. (Either it was a very strange door or he survived on fruit leather and matzah.) Then again, Voltaire—”On Sunday I was seized by inspiration”—wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat, a play that made his audiences weep not from emotion but because they had to sit through it.

More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, “I thought of nothing else.” Your drafts should be many. Some people (unspecified of course) even go, at times, to 12. This is but one of the differences between modern books that are flipped out like burgers and older ones that are roasted like beef. With the exceptions of those passages where it appears that God has commandeered the pen for the sake of perfection, the initial drafts should look like the Rosetta Stone and be so slashed and worked over with lines, directions and corrections that no one but the author can read them.

This gives rise to the fear that if you are run over by a bus before the work is set in type either it will go to the grave with you or require an army of scholars to decode it. Though they may be paid to unravel Donald Trump’s memoirs, they are less likely to be there for you.

Still, don’t hurry. Live dangerously. People love to look at the rough and scarred original manuscripts in the display cases of the New York Public Library or in facsimile editions. It’s not just because it brings them to the kind of authenticity one cannot help but treasure but because they know that if there is, indeed, magic, it is here to be seen, in worn pages that glow with concentration, genius and love.

Vidal Re-visited.

August 3, 2012

An earlier post this week (below) dealt sufficiently with the passing of Gore Vidal. That done, this one will be brief.

During their lives, Mr. Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. engaged in a running cultural debate that sometimes spilled the banks of civility and swirled into litigation. Each represented an opposite swathe of politics, though each represented his swathe in similarly patrician tones and wordy verse. As years went by, the contention was reduced from roiling boil to gentle simmer – at least, it was for Mr. Buckley. He left their enmity in the 1970s.

Mr. Vidal did not: having outlived his old adversary, he wrote on the occasion of Mr. Buckley’s death “RIP WFB – In Hell.” Not only hateful, but terribly un-literary for a man who paid his bills by writing.

Mr. Vidal’s inability to let by-gones be by-gones might have owed, at the end, to his own historical inadequacy: he was always a gnattering cultural and political critic, but never a mover in his own right.

On the other hand, Mr. Buckley launched an intellectual journal that exists still, and which propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House; the nascent conservatism he fostered gave rise to David Brooks, George Will and more. He hosted a political talk show, Firing Line, for three decades. He was awarded a Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Busch. He did not observe politics; he helped shape it. And when he died, it was an event. Newspapers and print media carried Mr. Buckley’s picture for weeks. A memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan; Henry Kissinger spoke.

Mr. Vidal, conversely, left America decades before his death to live on the Amalfi coast. When he died, most people hadn’t thought of him in years. No sitting president called his family to offer condolences. No relative’s best-selling memoir about his exploits was written. His obituarial star burned brightly for 24 hours, then sputtered and went black.

But somewhere aboard a sailboat high above, Mr. Buckley may have noticed his old rival’s departure from the stage, and politely dipped his sails. He could afford to be gracious; in the battle for relevancy, he had won by a landslide.

Gore Vidal Dies, Will Likely Write Memoir About It

August 1, 2012

Yesterday evening, Gore Vidal, the man thereafter described by USA Today in its remembrance of him as a “celebrated author,” died. It is understandable that news media might, out of respect for the dead, recklessly bestow laurels like “celebrated.” “Tolerated” might have been more accurate. “Suffered,” more still.

Mr. Vidal was born at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father was an early instructor in aviation. His mother was an actress and socialite, two vocations which became one in her late son: Mr. Vidal acted the public intellectual for the sake of social climbing. For a man possessed of such disdain for the social order as that which he professed, Mr. Vidal made a handsome living for many years on his connections, including the Auchincloss blood he shared with Jacqueline Kennedy.

Though he once swore to avoid writing about himself, the oath was discarded in favor of self-promotion and financial interests: Palimpsest, a 1995 memoir, was followed in 2006 with Point to Point Navigation, another memoir. How many memoirs does one man need? One more, apparently: between those two, he interspersed the humbly-titled Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal.

It was enough to support a home in the Hollywood Hills, where Mr. Vidal was in residence at the time of his death.

Throughout a career in which he pridefully fancied himself a man of belles lettres, he built the majority of whatever name recognition he still possessed at death on smarm, snobbery and effetely effected intellectualism. His was a grand claim – Mr. Vidal saw himself as co-equal with (or, more likely, superior to) the likes of public intellectuals Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Norman Podheretz, Noam Chomskey and the remainder of that celestium.

In either respect, he was entirely incorrect. His was not an incisive, illuminating or productive wit; it was bitter, caustic and devoid of elegance. The man was, intellectually and personally, petty and small. The late essayist Christopher Hitchens, once a promoter of Mr. Vidal’s interests, had recently, before his own death, bemoaned the fact that his later writing sufered from an “utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity.”

If there is one lasting contribution Mr. Vidal made to American culture (which, like any self-respecting artistic egotist, he abandoned for European soil), it was his 1968 televised appearance with Mr. Buckley, whom he repeatedly called a crypto-Nazi, prompting the second most well-known retort in the history of television from Mr. Buckley: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.”

(The most well-known retort in the history of television being Senator Loyn Bensten’s famous line: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)

The New York Times reported today that Mr. Vidal considered himself an Augustan figure, the last of a breed of writers and jocular, urbane men of letters. That paper is likely correct in describing Mr. Vidal as the last of the breed; the real shame is that the breed had to end on such a low note as Gore Vidal.

Revisionist Literature

January 8, 2011

The New York Times ran this editorial in its issue of January 5, 2011; the piece is reprinted here in its entirety:

Next month, you will be able to buy the single-volume New South Edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” edited by Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery. It differs from other editions of those books because Mr. Gribben has turned the word “nigger” — as used by Tom and Huck — into “slave.” Mr. Gribben has also changed “Injun” to Indian.

Mr. Gribben says he wants to make these American classics readable again — for young readers and for anyone who is hurt by the use of an epithet that would have been ubiquitous in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s, which is when both books are set. He says he discovered how much Twain’s language offended readers when he began giving talks about “Tom Sawyer” all across Alabama in 2009. He has also acknowledged that what he calls “textual purists” will be horrified by his sanitized versions of the two classics.

We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.

When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.

Editor’s Note: It is with a concerned eye that we surveil Professor Gribben lest he, fearful the Holocaust prove too offensive to ethnic groups of which he is not a member, begin denying that also. Those who ignore history…

WSJ Seeking WFB

January 8, 2011

Columbia University professor of humanities Mark Lilla has, in the Wall Street Journal, a thoughtful and articulate examination of the decline of intellectual conservatism… all the more thoughtful because of his admitted liberalism. That handicap aside, Professor Lilla does a very good job summing up the waning of the conservative thinking class – William F. Buckley, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Brookhiser, Norman Podhoretz – and its replacement with idiots – Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, etc. The quality of national debate, Professor Lilla writes, has suffered accordingly and so have Americans, liberal and conservative alike.  

William F. Buckley, Jr. & dog.