Thursday, November 24, 2011

Breaking P&PC News for Thanksgiving 2011: Edgar Guest Meets Chrysler

As you're watching today's Lions-Packers game, keep an eye out for the latest video ad (find your preview below) from the Portland-based advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy—the folks who created the engaging, if problematic, pairings of Levi's and Walt Whitman, Levi's and Charles Bukowski, and Nike and Maya Angelou. In their newest project, W+K bring together Chrysler and longtime Detroit-based newspaper poet Edgar Guest (a P&PC fave), all set to a Muddy Waters soundtrack.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Economic Lessons of "The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'"

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) wrote "The Deacon's Masterpiece, or The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'" in 1858. Around 1876, the noted Philadelphia carriage builders, D.M. Lane & Son, reprinted the poem inside a small cardboard pamphlet (pictured here) advertising their company's "Large Stock of Light and Heavy Carriages, of the Newest Designs and Finest Finish"—coaches, coupes, rockaways, bretts, phaetons, buggies, drags, and Jenny Lind carriages including the 1876 Centennial Road and Speed Wagon featured on front.

Holmes (pictured here) was nationally known, of course; a physician-professor at Harvard, writer of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table essays that first ran in The Atlantic Monthly, and author of "Old Ironsides," he was one of the six Fireside Poets whose picture graced the hearths of homes around the country. D.M. Lane & Son was no slouch either, as it turns out. If people were setting Holmes's picture on the mantle, then it was likely that many of them sat themselves in vehicles made or designed by the Lane establishment.

After the death of his father "Captain" Lane—who had started out as a blacksmith, had led a group of one hundred men to fight in the Civil War, and who died suddenly in 1882—son Millard (ahem) took the company's reigns and presided over a period of rapid innovation and expansion in carriage construction and design. In 1893, Millard was appointed President of the Carriage Builders' National Association, praised for his progressive attitude and business methods as well as the company's "splendid factory and spacious ware-rooms." "Mr. Lane is a man," Carriage Monthly wrote, "of fine personal appearance, with a measure of dignity in his bearing that does not interfere with his frank and genial manners." Hub magazine agreed. "He is an energetic, painstaking business man, to whom work is a pleasure ... In social life he is equally popular, and his fitness and ability have led to his connection with various local organizations."

Millard would helm the family business until his own death in 1901—the same year that Mr. Ransom Olds opened his first assembly line plant to speed up and streamline the manufacture of the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, the first mass-produced automobile in history. Of course, the carriage industry did not disappear overnight—it would take another ten or fifteen years for Henry Ford to fully refine and harness the potential of the assembly line—but the transition was a remarkably fast one nonetheless. By 1914, cars were coming off of Ford's assembly line so quickly that the painting process caused a bottleneck (only black paint would dry fast enough to keep pace with manufacturing), and the cost of a single automobile dropped to almost half of what it was six or seven years earlier. According to Wiki, by 1914 it was taking only 93 minutes to assemble a car at Ford's factories, and an assembly line worker could purchase a Model T with four months' pay.

In retrospect, then, can we read in Millard's death and the "end of the wonderful one-hoss shay" the fate of D.M. Lane's carriage business writ large—indeed, not just the fate of the particular industry that the Lanes helped to drive, but in relation to every boom-and-bust cycle since? Here are the poem's final two stanzas, in which the parson's carriage—a prescient metaphor for what happens when one puts too much trust in the modern economy's claims to flawlessness and permanence—"went to pieces all at once":

The parson was working his Sunday text—
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the—Moses—was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
—First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill—
And then the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half-past nine by the meet'n'-house clock—
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!

What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once—
All at once and nothing first—
Just as bubbles do when they burst.—
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is Logic. That's all I say.

It is fairly common for today's literary critics to imagine the Fireside Poets, including Holmes, to be voices of convention who were intellectually and poetically disabled by their nostalgia for a rural, religiocentric America and intense suspicion of the pace, technological invention, and changing values of modern life. "Ultimately," John Timberman Newcomb explains in Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity, for example, "their refusal to accept the idea that poetry should, or could, grapple with the sources and effects of modern emotional dispossession not only damaged their own reputations, but seriously undermined poetry's place in American life." We here at P&PC aren't going to claim that the Fireside Poets weren't invested in pre-modern values and lifestyles, but maybe—as the bursting bubble that dispossesses the parson of his carriage in "The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'" suggests—they weren't entirely blind to the character of modernity, either, nor did they refuse to have their poetry engage or analyze its dynamics. Holmes's parson, after all, is not unlike many homeowners in today's America—surprised at "the hour of the Earthquake shock" to find himself out in the cold and sitting on a rock. One can only hope he had paid off his carriage before that bubble burst.