For me (so far), blogging is a remarkably easy, even effortless activity; every post comes from 1) a walk or a drive; 2) a glance at the calendar; 3) reading–either for pleasure or class preparation; 4) looking at art-again, either for pleasure or class prep; and 5) stumbling around the web. Since I do all of these things daily blog posts naturally follow, without much consternation. But there is one more source of inspiration that is a bit less immediate: my digital folders of things (images, articles, news items) that catch my interest but are so singular that they don’t really call to mind some larger topical theme–even one sufficient for a fleeting post. Most of these items have no context, but if you keep collecting them, patterns emerge.
A good case in point is my rather bulging (if digital files could, in fact, bulge) file which I have labeled “Fading Salem”. In this file are a number of items and articles from national periodicals about how far Salem has fallen from the glorious heights of its commercial ascendency at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These items all date from the period 1850-1914: the end date does not refer to the beginning of World War I (as it would for the rest of the world) but rather to the Great Salem Fire. There are references to crime and poverty, general malaise (one item is even titled “Dull Salem”) and the faded grandeur of “old Salem”. As the century turns, there is definitely an emphasis on the latter: rather than looking at Salem as in decline, a succession of observers note how well-preserved it is, and how it serves as a bastion of tradition in a rapidly-changing world. There is one article that captures this transition perfectly, written and illustrated by a Canadian-born artist named Charles Henry White and published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in June of 1908. White (1878-1918) traveled around the country sketching and writing little impressions of a host of American cities for Harper’s in the first decade of the twentieth century; before he came to Salem he had produced articles on New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Charleston, Richmond, New Orleans, Boston and Philadelphia, and his view of Washington D.C., “Queer Folk at the Capital”, came a year after his “Salem” article. Just before the war broke out, he was off to Europe, where he eventually died in 1918 at age 40.
White starts out with the traditional late-nineteenth century impression of Salem: As you center Derby Street on your way to the Custom House, where, in more prosperous times, the main current of the commercial life of the city ebbed and flowed, making the streets ring with the cheerful din of business activity, and reach the deserted quays, you feel not unlike a stranger who has wandered into an abandoned theater and walks alone across the stage, picking his way gingerly through the tattered scenery, long after generations of actors who made the place echo with their laughter have departed.
Frankly, his writing is a little dramatic for me but I do like his accompanying illustrations.
C.H. White, “Deserted Quays once Redolent with Foreign Spices”, 1908.
As he strolls around town, it does not take long for White to discover a more charming Salem. Just a step away from the rotting wharves, he finds himself continually stumbling across eloquent reminders of past splendor in the numerous old mansions of former Salem merchants, still marshalled in broken line, looking seaward, with their graceful porticos tufted with ivy, fluttering in the clear sunlight……and he goes on and on: the streets, spanned by titanic elms, become cathedral naves; and through the lofty arch of whispering foliage steal at infrequent intervals into the cool depths below shafts of limpid sunlight, sifting across the splendid rows of Colonial mansions….and I could go on and on quoting him, but you get the general idea. And again, I think his etchings are more eloquent.
C.H. White, views of Chestnut and Essex Streets, Salem, 1908.
Fortunately few of the stately mansions that White alludes to throughout his piece were swept away by the fire a few years later; but much later in the century the “titanic elms” were of course decimated by Dutch Elm Disease. So there is an aura of bittersweetness when one reads his words with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what was on the horizon for those trees, for Salem, for the world, and for White himself in five short years.
C.H. White, “Lower Salem” and “An Old Corner”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, June, 1908.
February 20th, 2013 at 8:33 am
Lovely, Donna~ thanks!
February 20th, 2013 at 9:09 am
I picture you ding hours of research, Indiana Jones’in it through old attics and basements to get the material for your posts.
February 20th, 2013 at 9:46 am
Well, I’m really glad it LOOKS that way to you, Mark!
February 20th, 2013 at 10:00 am
It’s interesting how articles describing the decay of old New England and sentimentalizing it at the same time were common the latter part of the 19th century. I see a similar transition in my work in the attitude toward Shakers.
February 20th, 2013 at 12:10 pm
Oh Brian, I’d love to see some of your work! My great, great grandfather Henry Calver sold all of his (considerable) possessions in England and came over to the Mt. Lebanon colony. We have the auction notice as well as many of the things he made over here.
February 20th, 2013 at 12:23 pm
That is easily within the bounds of possibility, as I live just down the commuter rail in Cambridge. I will contact you via your faculty email.
February 20th, 2013 at 12:55 pm
Thanks, Brian. I’ll be in touch.
February 20th, 2013 at 10:27 am
I love reading old histories of local cities. I’m from Sacramento, so we do not have quite the same amount of history as Salem, but it is always nice to see what your city was like 100 or more years ago.
February 20th, 2013 at 9:54 pm
While it’s sometimes sad to note the heights from which some of the great New England towns have fallen, at least they are remarkable records such as those left by Charles Henry White and others for us to look back on wistfully. Thanks for highlighting his beautiful illustrations.
February 21st, 2013 at 5:27 am
I agree with you about his writing, but the etching more than makes up for his verbosity! I particularly like the last one , tree of course! Salem looks extremely attractive, lucky you!
February 21st, 2013 at 7:01 am
Well, this was 100 years ago, but it still has its charms!