Monday, October 5, 2015

Waldo and the fake antiques

     I am still stuck in Concord, Mass., even though we have made it to Rhode Island. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house troubled me – a lot. I have never seen such an impeccable collection of fake antiques.
     I knelt on the floor examining cabinets, the undersides of chairs, hinges and knobs with considerable fascination. Short of taking the books off the shelves to check the dates of editions, I could not confirm my suspicion that a sizeable proportion of the books were twentieth-century editions. The thing is I have always associated Emerson with ‘real’, ‘natural’, ‘philosophical purity’. I know the works of E.M. Forster really well. Forster idealizes Emerson for his spontaneity and freedom of spirit. I also associate Emerson with Thoreau and the movement to recover connectedness to the land and the environment in a time of rapid industrial change. Why would a man like that fill his home with fake mass-produced objects?
     They were, admittedly, well-chosen fakes. The furniture aped the styles of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, but most of them (I think) were dated from the Edwardian period or the 1940s with the thick, treacle lacquer that is used to hide cheaper woods. The likely explanation is the family, who still own and run the Emerson House. They must have cleared the place and re-filled it for public consumption. The well-placed Emerson walking sticks and his country walking hat felt like sad sops to authenticity, although it would probably take a seasoned eye to notice. The house itself – the plaster, mortar and ceiling molding, looked painfully original and free of later interference.
     When the guide pointedly showed Rosie and me to the door, it was clearly time to leave. We had strayed off the beaten track of questions. We were not the only ones however. A Japanese Professor of American Literature at the University of Tokyo was also part of the tour. On more than one occasion my eyes met his in a look reserved for scrupulous boffins. I would have liked to have lunch with him and discuss the place in considerable detail but he eluded us in Concord.
     I left town troubled.
     The Slater Mill was fresh air. The machinary has been preserved with care-filled love. Our guides (especially the historian from Peru) were marvelous. They actually seemed to enjoy my questions about Factory Acts, collective bargaining and Richard Arkwright’s patents.
     I finished Howard Zinn before we left Boston. Mark Noll’s Christians in the American Revolution is a welcome change. Zinn managed to mention the Church, faith, Christianity and Religion less than ten times in a 500-page book on the history of America. This is, of course, a remarkable feat of historiography but it is good to hear about Calvinism, the Puritans and religious identity in Noll.
     I also finished Henry James’ The Bostonians. I didn’t like it, nor would I recommend it. I have read The Children Act by Ian McEwan since then and I am now embarked on The Hotel New Hampshire for further local style. It is a strong reading diet and combined with the many new places I have seen it is more than occupying my mind.
     I include a picture here for my family. I grew up in a Queen Anne house (and lived in a second one outside Oxford with Paul and the girls) – this is what an ordinary Newport house looked like in exactly the same time period! Rather different isn’t it?

     Newport completely wowed me. I have never been anywhere with such sustained historic architecture from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. It was simply magnificent. Even the decadent mansions of the Gilded Age had a truthfulness about them that once again enchanted

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