Arts History Update for early January 2017

4 Jan

Arts History Update for early January 2017 by David Cummins

We on the high plains are at a distance from the sea or ocean coast to the west, east and south of our nation, and from the Great Lakes region on the north. Those places have estuaries, places where the flowing water or rivers, creeks, etc. are no longer quite rivers, and yet they are not waters in the sea or immense lake itself. There is a place in between, the estuaries, and they teem with life. Near our urban centers some estuaries are post-industrial wastelands, and contain an eerie haunted vestment of their former exceptionally busy and thriving economic life. Detritus are reminders e.g. when we see a series of pylons thrusting upward but holding up nothing. “That was a part of what, and what did it do?”

In an island nation such as England all flowing waters meander to the sea, and canals were dug and are maintained to connect many of those flowing waters. The canals are a project tended by the Inland Waterways Association. Here is a map See

Rachel Lichtenstein, Estuary: Out From London to the Sea (Hamish Hamilton 2016) $12.45 hardcover is a fascinating book. An immersive intimate journey into the world of the Thames Estuary and the people who spend their lives there. The Thames Estuary is one of the world’s great deltas, providing passage in and out of London for millennia. It is silted up with the memories and artifacts of past voyages. It is the habitat for an astonishing range of wildlife. And for the people who live and work on the estuary, it is a way of life unlike any other – one most would not trade for anything despite its dangers. Rachel Lichtenstein traveled the length and breadth of the estuary many times and in many vessels, from hardy tug boats to stately pleasure cruisers to an inflatable dinghy. And during these crossing she has gathered an extraordinary chorus of voices: mud-larkers and fishermen, radio pirates and champion racers, the men who risk their lives out on the water and the women who wait on the shore. From the acclaimed author of Brick Lane and Rodinsky’s Room, Estuary is a thoughtful and intimate portrait of a profoundly British place. With a clear eye and a sharp ear Rachel Lichtenstein captures the essence of a community and an environment, examining how each has shaped and continues to shape the other.

There is a huge cargo port project under way in Thames Estuary today near Tilbury Docks [north side of Thames opposite Gravesend in Kent on the south side], to construct another usage point in the estuary. The Hoo Peninsula immediately east of Gravesend is England’s largest nature reserve and is in the estuary only 30 miles east of central London. Rochester [southeast of Gravesend] is an ancient city Rochester on the River Medway that runs into the River Thames at the Hoo Peninsula, astride the M2 Highway. Continue east from Rochester on M2 to Canterbury and the University of Kent T.S. Eliot College where I stayed.

Lichtenstein grew up at Southend-on-Sea in Essex where the mouth of the Thames River opens into the North Sea. That is on the north side of the river mouth. I have been to Margate in Kent on the south side of the river mouth and looked outward and inward. She could see the remote World War II era sea forts across the sands, and the treacherous muddy reaches that could strand a cockleboat for hours during slack tides. Cockles (bivalves) are small edible saltwater clams. Fishermen would get in their boats and harvest cockles while the tide is out and hasten to shore to clean and prepare them for a London market. Her book is mostly about the social human history in the estuary area. There are a lot of “former” people in her book whose profession is now eccentricity. Former tug boat captains, former barge operators and tenders, former shipping employees, former fishermen, etc.


Warburg Institute within the School of Advanced Study, University of London is located at Woburn Square, Bloomsbury in central London a legacy of the Warburg Library of Cultural Science founded by Aby Warburg in Hamburg Germany in 1900 as Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. It lasted there throughout his life ending in 1929 but the rise of Naziism forced it to decamp to London England in 1933 where in 1944 it became a part of the University of London. Warburg thought that images and most especially art images stand at the very center of historical study rather than being illustrative of ideas. He was entranced by the symbolism in art masterpieces.

A biography of Aby Warburg 1866-1929 is by Ernst H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (Warburg Institute 1970) (2nd Edition 1986)

Uwe Fleckner & Peter Mack, The afterlife of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg : the emigration and the early years of the Warburg Institute in London (Walter de Gruyter Co. 2015) 250 pages $56


Happy New Year

Speaking of the happy new year, I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty … So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded.

Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man. I asked [the influential microbiologist] Paul de Kruif once if he would like to cure all disease and he said yes. Then I suggested that the man he loved and wanted to cure was a product of all his filth and disease and meanness, his hunger and cruelty. Cure those and you would have not man but an entirely new species you wouldn’t recognize and probably wouldn’t like.” John Steinbeck 1902-1968


Before Erma Bombeck …. there was Betty MacDonald 1907-1958, author of The Egg and I (Lippincott Co. 1945), The Plague and I (1948 tuberculosis was then referred to as the white plague), The Piggle-Wiggle Series (1947 first book in series of children’s books), Anyone Can Do Anything (1950) and Onions in the Stew (1955). May I tell her story? It’s a Pacific Northwest story and I remember as a kid in Seattle listening to my parents talk about Betty MacDonald at the dining room table. I had no idea what they were talking about, at the time.


Elizabeth “Betsy” Bard was born in Boulder Colorado on March 26, 1907 and died Betty Bard MacDonald in Seattle Washington 1958. Her father was a mining engineer and took the family to Placerville Idaho 17 miles east of Horseshoe Bend Idaho in Boise County north of Boise [Placerville is today a ghost town, a former mining town] in 1910, to Montana later, and to Seattle Washington in 1918 postwar first to the Capitol Hill area and then to north of the University of Washington area by 1922. She had three sisters and one brother. She went to school at St Nicholas School on Capitol Hill at 712 Broadway NE , to Lincoln High School 4400 Interlake Avenue North [between Lake Washington and Lake Union], and she graduated from Roosevelt High School [also my alma mater at 1410 NE 66th Street] in 1924.


Three years later in 1927 at age 20 she married Robert Heskett age 32 and they lived across Puget Sound on the Olympic Peninsula in Jefferson County near the unincorporated community of Center in the Chimacum Valley south of Port Townsend Washington.1 Heskett was a chicken farmer but both incompetent and lazy, and he beat Betty so four years and two daughters later, in 1931, Betty left with their daughters and returned to Seattle moving back into the Bard family home and divorced. Betty worked at a variety of low-paying and difficult jobs as a single mother supporting her daughters in the Depression era. It was a hard knocks life. In 1937-1938 she had tuberculosis and spent nine months as a patient in Firland Sanitarium [prior to the advent of penicillin] [site of former Sanitarium is in city of Shoreline Washington today but then it was Richmond Highlands 12 miles north of Seattle when founded in 1911]. During World War II she met and married Donald MacDonald and moved into his Vashon Island beach home from which they both commuted by ferry into Seattle to work their day jobs.


While living happily with her second husband she began to write what she knew, her hard knocks life with and after her first husband, but she fictionalized it and made it sound idyllic, bucolic and humorous. The chicken farmer in the Chimacum Valley was fictionalized as competent and resourceful and there was much back country humor with characters such as Maw and Paw Kettle. Upon publication in 1945 immediately after the war ended, The Egg and I was an instant success and in 1947 a movie was made starring Claudette Colbert in the role of the fictionalized Betty and Fred McMurray as the fictionalized Robert. There would be many Maw and Paw Kettle stories and movies. The Plague and I was a fictionalized account of her time at Firland Sanitarium. Onions in the Stew was a fictionalized account of her life on Vashon Island. Now financially independent in the 1950s, she and husband Donald MacDonald purchased property and built a home in Carmel Valley California moving into it in 1956 but Betty was visiting back in Seattle in 1958 when she died of ovarian cancer, not treatable in those days.


Thats’ the story of humorous make do, made up stories of rural life in Washington State, by an Erma Bombeck style writer putting a hugely or over-the-top positive spin on her hard knocks life just before and during the Depression and early WWII years. My parents did not know her personally but many Seattleites knew of her after The Egg and I was published and became a national bestseller and movie.


Why does all this come to mind? Recent publications are Paula Becker, Looking For Betty MacDonald: the egg, the plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I (University of Washington Press 2016) 232 pages is in your bookstore $30 hardcover $16 e-book; see also Anne Wellman, BETTY: The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of The Egg and I (CreateSpace 2016) $10.25. Piggle-Wiggle books are in the Lubbock Public Library. The Egg and I is in Texas Tech Library CT275.M43 A3.










1 Today on 51 West Egg ad I Road in Chimicum is a half million dollar home built in 2007


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