Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christmas 1921: Fred & Myrtle's Scrapbook

For Christmas in 1921, Myrtle Eckert of Skykomish, Washington, wanted to give her eldest son Fred something special. Born in 1896 or 1897, Fred was in his early 20s and would be getting married soon and perhaps moving away from home. He was from a working family. Myrtle worked in town as a maid and housekeeper. Fred's father George was a nightwatchman for the railroad. Skykomish was the Western terminus of a 7.8 mile-long tunnel beneath Stevens Pass, and every train had to stop there to switch from a steam to electric engine or back again; there was thus a lot of railroad work to be had. Fred and his brother Vern found work in the region's other major industry, however: timber. In 1921, Fred was likely working at the local shingle mill, and Vern (born in 1899) was running the donkey at the mill pond.

Neither George nor Myrtle finished high school, nor did Fred for that matter, though what they lacked in official education they more than made up for in life experience. Myrtle, for example, was born in Wisconsin in the early 1870s and had first come West, to Idaho, by covered wagon; her house there had a dirt floor, and she'd tell stories later in life of how she'd look up from her day's work to find Indians staring in at her through the house's Isinglass windows. She was accompanied to Idaho—which had become a state in 1890—by her first husband Fred Farnham, who was accidentally poisoned to death a few years later when a doctor gave him iodine to drink instead of cough syrup. George was Myrtle's second husband and father to both her boys, though Fred, her oldest, was likely named after her first husband and likely occupied a special place in her heart because of that.

Probably because of their lack of edu- cation — George, for example, could write only his name— reading and writing held a special place in the family. Fred's nephew Roy, now in his 70s and a retired journalist living in Oregon, remembers "there was great emphasis put on published and written things," and so, when Myrtle wanted to give something special to Fred on Christmas in 1921, she made him a poetry scrapbook, pasting each clipping (so Roy reports) into the album with a homemade paste made from flour and water.

At 5" high, 7" wide, and a half-inch thick, the album is an eminently portable one— perfect for a young man potentially on the move. The inside cover carries a color gift tag with a picture of a candle and poinsettia flowers accompanied by the message "A Merry Christmas." Beneath that message, Myrtle has handwritten her own: "To Fred / From Mother / 1921." Just over fifty clippings follow, all of which impart some sort of life lesson about the value of persistence, work, thrift, honesty and—of course—maintaining a close relationship to mom. "God Bless My Mother!" reads in part:

A little child with flaxen hair,
And sunlit eyes so sweet and fair,
Who kneels when twilight darkens all,
And from those loving lips there fall
The accents of this simple prayer:
"God bless—God bless my mother!"

Myrtle had a particular affection, it appears, for the poet Berton Braley, who is responsible for nearly a third of the poems in the album. Part of Braley's appeal might have been that, like Myrtle, Braley was born in Wisconsin and subsequently went west—to work for newspapers in Montana. He'd eventually go East, however, and to New York, where he'd work as a journalist and a writer for Life Magazine, McGraw-Hill, Funk and Wagnalls, and Collier's. If you want to know more about Braley—he wrote tons of poetry not just for newspapers but for postcards, envelopes, calendars, ink blotters, posters, lithographs and even this blog's favorite advertising campaign, Burma-Shave—check out the Berton Braley Cyber Museum.

Like Edgar Guest (pictured with ping-pong paddle to the left), Anne Campbell, Helen Welshimer and others, Braley is part of a generation or two of poets whose work was regularly syndicated. Myrtle apparently found his poems in the Everett Herald, Seattle Times, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer where they were sometimes accompanied by drawings or cartoons and calligraphic titles (see the image of "Cleared" below). While Braley is not at all averse to dispensing swell life lessons like the following from "The Good Fellow Route"—

It's brilliant with lights and with laughter and song,
But the song and the laughter don't last very long,
And under the lights in their pitiless glare
Stand Sorrow and Ruin and Woe and Despair;
Blithe friends and companions you'll meet, beyond doubt,
If you journey through life by the Good Fellow Route!

—he doesn't sit still as a writer. In "Cleared," for example (another poem Myrtle included in the collection and pictured to the left), he responds to the 1914 court decision clearing Ownership of any responsibility in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. That poem begins:

"Cleared!" By the word of judge and jury,
Beating in vain at the bolted door,
And the long-drawn wail of the mothers crying,
Shall haunt their memory evermore.
The prison bonds may never bind them,
They walk, free men, in the open air,
But wherever they go their past shall find them,
And haunt them and mock them everywhere.

Myrtle's inclusion of "Cleared" is full of significance and mystery for "Poetry & Popular Culture." If the poem was written and published shortly after the 1914 court decision, did Myrtle cut it out at that point and save it another 7 years before pasting it inside the scrapbook for Fred? It's entirely possible she did. If she didn't, though, then may we assume that the poem was reprinted out West long after the East coast event it was written to address had passed? If that's the case, we're left to think about what gives Braley's "occasional" poem its serious legs, a strange ability (in the words aesthetic critics like) to "stand the test of time." No doubt, some of the poem's longevity would have had to do with the moral lesson that the factory fire and court case allows Braley to express: that justice and guilt are not contained within and distributed by courtrooms alone. In the working-class context of Skykomish—no stranger, probably, to Wobbly agitation—the friction between ownership and labor at the center of the court decision would have signified more broadly as well; the event, in this case, becomes a metaphor and even rallying point for laborers everywhere.

In either scenario—if Myrtle saved the poem for 7 years before finding a home for it in the scrapbook, or if Braley's poem had a staying power and cross-continental appeal that we don't typically associate with "occasional" poems—the situation of "Cleared" in the gift that Myrtle made for Fred in 1921 demonstrates how complex things can get when it comes to the world of popular poetry. Not only are working-class readers more sophisticated and socially involved than they've been given credit for being in histories of 20th century literature, but the authors of the poems they read are sophisticated and socially involved as well—a statement uttered with some frequency around the "Poetry & Popular Culture" office, but one which is worth restating nonetheless.

Our gratitude goes out to Roy Webster for taking the time to share some of his family's history with Poetry & Popular Culture for this posting.