There’s a small section of Cape Ann Massachusetts that the locals refer to as Dogtown but was once known as the Common Settlement. It was originally settled by farmers who enjoyed it’s distance from the sea as a buffer against pirates but had trouble planting due to its poor terrain. After the war of 1812, when fear of pirates was absent, many people moved away from Common Settlement in search of better land. After many families left the settlement it became reduced to abandoned houses and widows who didn’t see any reason to move. Many of the widows who stayed in the settlement would keep a dog for company but after the dogs started mating they soon outnumbered the people and Common Settlement became Dogtown. But there is more to the story of Dogtown than that.
As the dogs began outnumbering people, and after many of the widows died, they turned feral and intimidating. The abandoned houses of soon became a safe haven for vagabonds and other itinerants. Thomazine Younger, also known as “Queen of the witches,” was one of the last Dogtown citizens. Younger would curse the oxen that passed the settlement unless paid a toll by the driver. In 1830 the last person found in Dogtown, Cornelius Finson, was half dead lying in a cellar-hole. He was removed and taken to a poor-house where he died. A place once thought to be a haven was now one to be avoided at all costs. The story of Dogtown is the story of degradation; or, at least it was until the Great Depression when Dogtown found a way to rise up and redeem itself. Enter Roger Babson.
Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Genesis 3:19
Human combustion, especially but not limited to the spontaneous variety, has always been a subject of deep fascination for me. Both the idea of it, and the fact that learned folks such as scientists and scholars actually believed in it is mind boggling. What’s even more compelling is that back when it was a “reality” that people could just burst into flame the temperance movement said that they figured out why. According to them people were bursting into flame because they simply drank too much. Enter Thomas Trotter a young medical student who in 1804 writes his dissertation on the subject De Ebrietate ejusque effectibus in corpus humanum, or in English, An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical on Drunkenness, and Its Effects on the Human Body.
Despite the fact that Trotter’s dissertation concerns people exploding from consuming too much
booze I expected that actually reading it would be pretty boring. For some reason I just can’t imagine medical dissertations from the 1800’s as pleasurable reading. Luckily, I found the majority of it to be a breeze. One passage I especially enjoyed was trotter describing the symptoms of drunkenness:
When I’m doing research for this blog my starting point is always Wikipedia. It’s the only site that intuitively eggs me on. Every article link I click on makes me feel like I’m reading my way towards something great. It’s like a thought crescendo. And when the music swells and you you finally reach that one article; it’s a fantastic moment. Last Friday I reached that point when I came across the article for Hawley Crippen and discovered one of the most bizarre [possible] murder stories I’ve ever heard. But since, in theory, this is a blog about books lets begin at the literary interpretation of Mr. Crippen’s crime in Arthur Machen’s 1927 story “The Islington Mystery.”
What I found particularly interesting about “The Islington Mystery” is how Machen begins his story. Plenty of horror stories, in an attempt to gain plausibility, begin with a foreword telling the audience that everything that follows is “true” but Machen takes it a bit farther. Machen not only mentions the Crippen case by name but talks about how much of sensation it was and how it’s constant coverage overshadowed what Machen felt to be more interesting crimes. In doing this he cheekily equates murder to an art form and gossip hounds to an audience who more often pass up “quality” for fanfare.
This week I’ve decided to use my two blogs on this site, Bibliophilia and Lucas’ Film Corner, to discuss the issue of irony in popular culture. Each post will be a sort-of response to Christy Wampole’s article How to live without Irony where I examine a piece of culture that seems ironic or plays with the idea of irony. If you have not read the article yet I’d recommend doing so before moving on to my response.
The most frequent question author David Rees gets asked about his new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants, is “is this a joke?” I should also mention that along with writing a book on the subject, pencil sharpening is something David Rees does for a living. On Rees’ website www.ArtisinalPencilShaprening.com he offers his services as an expert sharpener. For a scant fifteen dollars (US) Rees will sharpen a pencil of your choice, ship it to you in a special container to preserve the sharpness, and enclose with it an autographed certificate of sharpness. So, the question again is “Is this a joke?”
Since the prevalence of the Dummies series of books satirical and ironic self-help or how-to books have been a common staple of humorous writing. Popular titles of the past and present include How to be Black, How to Live with a Huge Penis, and Lose Weight! Get Laid! Find God!: The All-in-One Life Planner. Some of these titles are written as one long joke and others are written as a criticism of this particular genre of writing yet I don’t believe that How to Sharpen Pencils really fits in either category. Rees’ book transcends the normal trappings of joke writing due to the fact that it’s largely not a joke.