The Flapper Journalist

“‘I shall not write about restaurants… because I haven’t been to any and am tired about writing about eating anyway. I shall write about drinking, because it is high time that somebody approached the subject in a specific, constructive way.’” -Lois Long (Zeitz, 101)

    Newly employed at The New Yorker, Lois Long was engaged in penning an anonymous column on an emerging New York nightlife. Being the 1920s, this nightlife was uniquely situated to contend with the constraints of prohibition. As such, a considerable theme explored, explicitly and implicitly, revolved around the shifting notions of respectability and the undermining of larger cultural paradigms. With a unique deftness, Long was able to navigate these institutions and humorously examine the ways in which shifting notions within society about women’s roles and their visibility within public spaces operated. Long signed this column ‘Lipstick’, bringing the same tongue-in-cheek exposition of glamour that was at once a critique as well as a celebration of a society in flux. Due to the fact that the column was anonymous, Long further accentuated the allure, anonymity, and illusion of the era of which she was a part, one that was moving with increasing rapidity and fervor. She thus became a kind of embodiment of the era’s ethos. As such, she set herself up to be both participant and critic. As noted by Joshua Zeitz in his treatment on the subject, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, “Long also used her column to flaunt the drinking habits and adventures of young women like herself who no longer felt bound by Victorian notions of feminine propriety. What reader could forget the week she stayed out until dawn, realized that her copy was due at The New Yorker by noon, rushed to the office still decked out in a backless evening dress, ‘threw up a few times’ in the bathroom, and still managed to bang out her column before the deadline?” (100).

     Long’s next assignment was to write a column on “Feminine Fashions”. Bringing the same pointed and acerbic wit to the subject that she had brought to her portrayal of New York nightlife, Long re-imagined what was possible within these clearly gendered confines. A fashion column, thought of pejoratively as the realm of women, didn’t deter Long, who refused to let that limiting framework dictate the way in which she treated her subject matter. Once again, the column became an comprehensively witty assessment of the social and cultural constructions of the day, undermining the niceties of conventional culture and representation. Speaking “On College Clothes”, Long stated “Custom has established the right of every generation to shock the one proceeding it, if possible, but this is not always as easy as it looks. The plight of the current college girl, attempting to startle parents who survived the Scott Fitzgerald era, is a case in point, and pitiable indeed. In recent years, the young things have been trying to assert themselves by running around in attire resembling that of underprivileged serfs under the Hapsburgs, but their elders have taken it all with discouraging calm, and present indications are that the whole act has therefore lost its savor” (554). Within her column, Long not only sought to describe the styles of the day in painstaking detail, but was often found commenting on what she believed to be the strengths and weaknesses of the fashion establishment and it’s treatment and expectation of it’s customers. Furthermore, Long brought a humorous understanding of human and societal dynamics to her discussions of fashion and culture which, as clearly outlined in the passage above, imbue her work with a unique personality and style.

 

Long, Lois. “On College Clothes.” The 40s: The Story of a Decade: The New Yorker, edited by Henry Finder with Giles Harvey, Modern Library, 2014, 554-555.

Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. Crown Publishers, 2006.

Subverting American Mythology in Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

     Discovering an affecting work of art that you have neither heard of nor seen before is a decidedly unique experience. In a climate where everything is reproduced in order to maximize its cultural mark, it is rare to be able to appreciate something merely for what you see in front of you and what it evokes. It is unique in an era where commentary and opinion, academic and layman alike, are omnipresent and representations of art within our larger culture have become so ubiquitous (i.e., impressionist umbrellas or Mona Lisa refrigerator magnets) as to strip their referents of any meaning. These artifacts, as innocuous as they are, often denote and dictate the worth of a piece on a larger cultural scale and make it difficult for the viewer to analyze and relate to a piece of art just as they see it before them. As such, it seems rare, and therefore rewarding, to find a work or a series that is both new and evocative to the viewer. Works such as this often have few reference points within the cultural discourse and thus less expectation or dictates surrounding their worth or prominence. With these absent, it seems as though one can have a more personalized relation to and experience with the art. For me, stumbling upon an installation of Robert Frank’s photographic series, The Americans, at the Portland Art Museum, was one such experience.

    In his series, Frank explored the composition of American society. Frank’s photographs are grainy representations of loneliness and isolation manifest whose emotional resonance lends itself to an overall questioning of the fabric of American culture and social mores. Frank set out, having been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, to document American life in the 1950s. Among his subjects are those events and establishments that were staples of American life: lunch counters, political rallies, parades, casinos, and bars. These images abut photographs of desolate highway and empty landscapes. The collected photographs were later published in book form alongside an introduction from the grandfather of American road-trip mythology himself, Jack Kerouac. To Kerouac, Frank’s endeavor is rife with a kind of freedom that can come only from wanderings such as these, from explorations of the American landscape, as seen and experienced in all its idiosyncrasies. Kerouac’s stream-of-conscious introduction imbues the accompanying photographs with a kind of peripatetic dynamism that appears to go hand-in-hand, as does Kerouac’s writing, with a denial of the status quo. But Frank’s photographs, I believe, move a step farther than Kerouac’s denial. Frank not only opposes the status quo, he interrogates it. In many of his compositions, modern existence appears to be synonymous with an overwhelming loneliness and isolation. Many of his compositions are peopled with figures who fail to show any contact with, relation to, or intimacy with one another. In other photographs, figures are only shown partially, their existence only made manifest through a pair of feet resting atop a desk or their faces (an external signifier of identity) obscured by some larger object. Additionally, there are compositions from which figures are wholly absent, but in their departure, they have left a kind of disarray or empty chaos. The stark contrast between the lights and darks amplify this sense of despondency and isolation and seem to further emphasize the harsh realities of daily American life.

    As subjects, Frank sets out to examine and critique the dichotomies of city and rural life, the fraught and complex relationship of American society to race, and the vast schism between poverty and wealth. In so documenting these things, Frank appears to be subtly railing against what are established social and cultural mores. Furthermore, it could be said that Frank is exploring the very nature of isolation and its effects on the psyche, further alluding to a kind of relation between it and a uniquely American sense of individualization and superficiality. There is a vacuousness with which the subjects stare out at the viewer that borders, at times, on despondency and further attests to and supports this notion of the profound isolation of the individual at this particular time and place. Furthermore, there is a kind of tense claustrophobia that pervades many of the images in which figures appear to be pushing against the edges of the frame. In The Americans, Robert Frank offers an atmospheric, evocative, and critical look at what is often a romanticized past. Through his assessment of the social and cultural landscape of 1950s America, he appears to undermine those very social paradigms that appear the most stultifying or damnable. I believe works such as Frank’s The Americans could even possibly serve us, as viewers in the twenty-first century, in evaluating and challenging a divisiveness and destabilization that appears to be so pervasive within American society that at times it even seems an inherent part of it.

Nellie Bly

    I have to admit that whenever I begin to think of newspaper reportage, my mind dwells on filmed depictions of a raucous, fast-paced, and aggressive vocation. Images that exist mainly in old Hollywood films of the 1930s, ‘40s, and 50s (His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, and While the City Sleeps usually come to mind). Although this content was often merely a backdrop from which to express more completely realized romantic or comedic themes, these characterizations have endured and with them the romanticization of the newspaper-man or woman, a fast-talking, no-nonsense journalist with ingenuity and resourcefulness, who is dedicated to capturing the essence of a story, even if that involves a modicum of embellishment and financial inducement. These accounts grasp at an image ingrained within our culture and through which I was fueled to seek out accounts about and by journalists of the past that take on various issues, such as war, suffrage, the labor movement, and various other political and social issues. I was struck by Nellie Bly for numerous reasons, one of which being her desire to distinguish herself within the fiercely male dominated sphere of journalism in a very male dominated era (later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). This desire can be seen to manifest itself in various feats of physical and mental endurance that Bly embarked upon which attest to what the body is able to tolerate, specifically the female body, and specifically Bly. Bly was asserted her capability in various daring feats that differentiated her from the men on her own terms. In such a fashion, Bly published “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days” and “Into the Madhouse”. With the former, Bly wrote a series of articles as she set out to circumnavigate the globe in less time than it took in Jules Verne’s famous Around the World in Eighty Days. In the latter, Bly had herself admitted anonymously to the mental institution on Blackwell’s Island for a piece of investigative journalism that revealed the mistreatment rampant in mental institutions during the period. Additionally, Bly wrote numerous articles that detailed the female experience in late nineteenth century America and the desire for political and social equity.

    Nellie Bly began her foray into journalism in the 1880s with this in mind. Her first piece was a letter in vehement denunciation of an advice columnist who assured an anxious male reader that a woman’s only proper occupation was a domestic one. Bly, much as she would come to do throughout her career, challenged the subjugation of women to dominant cultural notions, including the cult of femininity (a kind of social indoctrination in the early 1800s by which feminine and masculine spheres of interest, society, and acceptability were first delineated). Bly went on to engage in the kinds of daring journalistic pursuits mentioned above, as well as focusing on issues such as women in politics and interviewing Susan B. Anthony, one of the foremost leaders of the Suffrage movement.

    Further challenging conceptions of what women were capable of, Bly became a World War I correspondent. From the Austrian front, Bly detailed her experiences of trench warfare and its barbarity, as well as the horrors of wartime hospitals. She condemned rulers who would resort to such measures and saw the whole affair as a violent and futile one. She held strong anti-war sentiments and it manifested in her evocative writing.

    Bly’s trip around the world caused a newspaper sensation and was partially conceived with that in mind. Public support was enormous and can be seen as a signal that her endeavor was an inspiration, an example of extreme physical endurance showcasing what the body is capable of. Indicated by the raucous crowds that met her and are described in detail on the last leg of her journey through the United States and into New York, she herself epitomized a kind of tenacity. She inspired and as such the public was able to live vicariously through her and even, possibly, find motivation for their own personal adventures. She was the adventurer so revered in American mythology and as she had no escort or assistant, rare for a woman in that period, she was a symbol of female independence, accomplishment, and daring.