Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Putting the Ale in Salem

From noon to 10 pm this coming Saturday, September 25th, Gilgamesh Brewing and Wandering Aengus Cider Works will be hosting Salem's first Beer & Cider Festival at the Mission Mill Museum located at 1313 Mill Street, just a hop (ahem), skip and a jump from the campus of Willamette University. The P&PC Office is excited. Sure, we took a field trip to the 24th annual Oregon Brewers Festival this past July where we sampled our fair share of the more than 80 craft beers that were on tap in that well-established, world-renowned frothy juggernaut of a fest. But there's something particularly special about Salem's startup, and not just because it's taking place, somewhat audaciously, in the shadow of Portland's hipster paradise and in a capital city that gets short shrift in all the guidebooks. Maybe—just maybe—it also has to do with a certain poetic element that's been in the Salem beer mix, along with all those locally-grown hops, going on for nigh 100 years.

Take the acrostic pictured to the left, for example: a May, 1911 advertisement issued by the Salem Brewery Association, which came across our desktops via a mysteriously anonymous blogging friend (and purveyor of the fascinating and arcane) over at Capital Taps. It's a clever bit of acrostic puffery in which the vertically-oriented phrase "Salem Beer" becomes the grammatical subject of virtually every line even as its component letters begin those lines. That is, the letters in "Salem Beer" are being put to three separate uses: as (ahem) the capital beginning each line, as the aggregate subject of each statement about beer's healing powers, and as a sort of bold-faced neon light for "Salem Beer" that signifies independent of the poem as it's printed vertically down the page. This is how an acrostic is supposed to work, right? It's a poetic form that exploits the tendencies of language to serve multiple purposes simultaneously and, in revealing embedded texts and encoded messages, encourages us to read against the page's grain if not between the lines.

Once licensed to read this way, readers will find the "Salem Beer" ad to be an unex- pectedly rich verbal habitat. For example, who can mistake that the first word one comes to when reading down the page is the "Sale" going on in "Salem"—a perfectly appropriate description of the result that the ad seeks to effect? In fact, the very alcoholic bevvie which is the subject of the local market transaction—ale—is itself embedded in the city's name, so that by the time the "M" in Salem finally comes around, the Salem Brewery Association has more or less encapsulated its core message in five letters: it's a sale on ale in Salem. Mind you, this sort of creative play in which meanings melt—or should it be malt?—into one another isn't unique to this ad. A more recent local movement to "Keep Salem Lame" has more or less read the city's name in the same way but to different results; just as the Brewery Association saw its product inherent in Oregon's capital, so some locals see the city's true identity there as well.

What we like even more about this ad, however, is the homonym for "ale"—that is, "ail"—which the acrostic poem itself takes up as the very problem for which Salem Beer is a purported remedy. Once we begin reading horizontally through the acrostic—with the grain—we come upon the healing powers that Salem Beer supposedly has: it invigorates, lends strength to the weak and wearied physique, is a cure for the nervous ills of life, restores people to full strength, etc. In short, Ale is the cure for what Ails you. It might strike some as a crazy claim for the Brewery Association to make, but in an age when alcohol was the primary ingredient in most patent medicines and snake oil cures, the mythical healing powers of alcohol were well embedded in the cultural psyche, not just in the word "Salem."

There's at least one more, likely uncon- scious, effect that the Brewery Associ- ation's acrostic would have had on its 1911 audience, however. As Leon Jackson reminds us in his awesome study The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America (2008), acrostics were a popular "if juvenile, form of courtship poetry" in the antebellum U.S. It's no surprise, for example, that the 19th century advertising trade card pictured here—showing a dashing lad wooing his beloved by handing her a packet of B.T. Babbitt's soap—contains an acrostic on back (see below) constructed via the name of the company's flagship product "BT Babbitts Soap." That acrostic, titled "The Man" and extolling the virtues of the esteemed Mr. B.T. Babbitt himself, begins:

B right golden day, that ever gave
T he world a man who cared to save
B etimes the toil of womankind;
A man with an ingenious mind,
B estows a real gift to us,
B ecause experience proves it thus.

Capitalizing on the cultural association of acrostic poetry with courtship— an association that the illustration on the card is designed to trigger—Babbitt's Soap effectively casts the producer-consumer relationship as a romantic one and the act of shopping as a lovemaking endeavor more broadly. It may seem a stretch to say that the Salem Brewery Association is following in Babbitt's acrostic footsteps by sexing up the prospective buyer of Salem beer. But in its promise of "restor[ing] man to fulness of strength and activity," doesn't this beer ad sound a bit too much like a male sexual enhancement product to dismiss the notion out of hand?

Mind you, we here in the P&PC Office aren't saying that this weekend's beer festival promises anything of the sort. We're going simply for the "wholesome beverage" and "good fellowship." Why don't we all continue the conversation there?