Archive for September, 2013


“Where the scent of wild roses turns the milk to cream…”

What hath the Renaissance faire to do with psychedelic rock? The vogue for “world music”? The frilly shirts of Jimi Hendrix? The rise of craft breweries? The House Un-American Activities Committee? Before reading Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, I hadn’t thought to ask—but Rachel Lee Rubin’s book is a useful reminder that pseudo-medieval pursuits are sometimes more about the present than they are about the past.

Rubin starts with the basics: how the first faire grew out of a children’s commedia dell’arte troupe organized at a California youth center by teacher Phyllis Patterson. In May 1963, Patterson and others organized the first “Renaissance Pleasure Faire and May Market” as a fundraiser for left-wing Pacifica Radio, drawing more than 3,000 revelers to a North Hollywood ranch. Associated with hippies and drugs by local detractors, the event quickly outgrew Pacifica. It spawned its first imitators in Minnesota and Texas in the early 1970s; more than 200 Ren fests of varying sizes now thrive across the United States.

So how did a countercultural crafts-and-music romp evolve into a nationwide subculture overseen, in some cases, by a large entertainment corporation? Well Met doesn’t chart the growth and commercialization of the Ren faire. Instead, Rubin has two goals: to explain “the ways in which various forms of cultural expression ‘tried out’ first at the faire became recognizable staples of American social and cultural life,” and to restore the Renaissance faire to a central place in the history of the counterculture. Once I got past my initial disappointment that the book wasn’t a history, I was won over by Rubin’s argument for the importance of the Renaissance faire to the culture of the 1960s and 1970s—and its long-overlooked ubiquity.

Her evidence is legion: how the Los Angeles Free Press began as the Ren faire newspaper; how Americans, who now consume beer from nearly 2,500 craft breweries, first sampled ale at the faire; how fashion choices and even the typefaces on psychedelic album art recall early faire fliers; how the faire anticipated renewed markets for handmade crafts and set precedents for large outdoor rock concerts; how occasional faire-goer Michael Jackson mimicked the moves and style of faire mime Robert Shields; how the Flying Karamazov Brothers, the Firesign Theater, and Penn and Teller all got their start at Ren faires; and how the faire coincided with a Middle Eastern cabaret boom in California that helped build an audience for international music. Rubin even suggests that the Ren faire helped revive interest in the klezmer. Who knew?

Although Well Met is packed with wonderful “aha!” moments, the book does wander. Sometimes, disorganization drives Rubin to interesting places, as when she asks black faire-goers and plus-sized women about their experiences, or when she randomly chats up knights and wenches about the faire as a gay-friendly environment, a refuge for misfits, and an escapist haven where costumes deliberately obscure real-world class signals. At the same time, there’s way too much detail about the history of a couple of psychedelic bands, and a chapter about Ren fests in fiction feels like a conference paper brought in to serve as padding. It’s particularly jarring when patches of academic jargon turn up in such an accessible and pleasantly written book, as when Rubin muses on “the ways in which the faire has enabled (perhaps paradoxical) strategies of resistance to the very forces of corporatism and cultural centrism that have inexorably resituated it in the American expressive landscape.” Surely there’s a less turgid way to say that.

Well Met also frustrated me with the tantalizing questions it doesn’t ask. Rubin mentions conservative critics of those first California Ren faires, but she provides almost no information about or firsthand commentary from them. Why not? Did neighbors’ complaints about traffic, drugs, and crime have no validity? Picking though pseudonymous rants on message boards and blogs, Rubin devotes one chapter, shorter than the others, to “Hating the Faire.” She catalogs all the usual gripes about Ren faires, pointing out that accusations of nerdish celibacy exist alongside the contrary complaint that faires are over-sexualized. But are there no valid criticisms of Ren-faire culture beyond the ones Rubin handily swats down? Are the only disillusioned folk the wistful souls who wish the faire were as spontaneous and uncommercial as it was in the ’60s? Are there credible witnesses to the dark side of faire life? What does it mean that so many faire-goers told Rubin they’re “working class,” and can we trust their self-reporting? Rubin sometimes seems so charmed by Ren-faire subculture that it delights the cold spirit of scholarly inquiry right out of her.

Of course, I’m in danger of faulting Rubin for the book she didn’t write, when she’s clear about the purpose for the one she did. Perceptive and engaging, Well Met proves something the rest of us shouldn’t have missed: that the Ren faire isn’t an isolated cultural strand but a subculture that’s more interwoven with the rest of American life than even many faire-goers appreciate.

Well Met also answers, mirabile visu, a question that’s long nagged me: Why the heck aren’t they called “medieval faires”? According to Rubin, co-founder Phyllis Patterson did pitch the first faire to Pacifica Radio as a medieval-style open-air festival, but “[a] lawyer on KPFK’s board reportedly objected on the grounds that human rights in medieval Europe were so few, so Patterson swiftly suggested calling it a ‘Renaissance Faire.'” I appreciate Rubin digging this nugget out of a book of historic photos; even if Well Met doesn’t answer all of my questions, it does answer several I hadn’t known to ask—a rare feat for a cultural-studies book from an academic press, and well worth a hearty huzzah.

“We’re just fol-low-ing ancient his-to-ry…”

Every so often, I stumble onto some relic of American medievalism that seems charming but inconsequential—until a bit of digging brings out something more.

Behold: “I dreamed I was a medieval maiden in my Maidenform bra,” an ad that ran in magazines in 1959 and 1960. (Click here to see it larger.) The ad is based on the late-15th-century “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries designed in Paris, woven in Flanders, and now on display at the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny. Five of the tapestries are devoted to the senses; a sixth tapestry has been variously interpreted.

Maidenform’s “I Dreamed…” campaign, which began in 1949 and ran for 20 years, was apparently so successful that it’s still studied in business schools. The other ads weren’t medievally themed, but they all showed a shirtless woman in some professional or historical setting. The “medieval maiden” ad stands out, though, for its fidelity to its source.

Place the ad and the tapestry side by side and you can see how little got removed (other than the maiden’s blouse).

The heraldic symbols on the banner (and on the unicorn’s little Thundershirt-shield) are intact, even though they’re meaningless now. The grimacing lion is gone; modern people might have have been distracted by him or found him comical. The woman no longer holds the unicorn’s horn but caresses it near its mouth. She’s also been decked out in a hat on loan, I would guess, from the neighborhood gnome.

Maidenform was determined to portray not just some fantasy scene, but a real and very specific medieval work. Why?

For one thing, the decade leading up to this ad was florid with chivalry, at least at the movies: Rogues of Sherwood Forest, Ivanhoe, Richard and the Crusaders, Knights of the Round Table, Prince Valiant, Lady Godiva, The Court Jester, Saint Joan, The Vikings, and at least two TV versions of A Connecticut Yankee. (With The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman cast a pall over these Technicolor revels, but he was an anomaly.) It’s no wonder that a couple years later, the press was quick to cast John F. Kennedy’s candidacy and presidency in terms of fair ladies and storybook heroes—even if there’d be no “Camelot” talk until after his assassination.

But maybe the Maidenform maiden is more of a high-culture dream. At the end of the 1950s, tapestries were big news: A decade earlier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had hosted a show about French tapestries from 1375 to the present, and in 1958 and 1959 the Cloisters made two major tapestry acquisitions. In 1959, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired several tapestries about the exploits of Constantine, while the Brooklyn Museum showed off Norwegian tapestries from the 16th through 18th centuries.

(…and curiously, the New York Times reported in May 1958 that sculptor Elbert Weinberg had installed a terra-cotta lady-and-unicorn in the lobby of 405 Park Avenue.)

In 1959, American medievalism was enjoying a sort of historicist autumn. Renaissance fairs were a few years off and Tolkienesque fantasy had yet to go mainstream, so when people thought of the Middle Ages, they imagined the tidy past they enjoyed in movies—and, apparently, in magazine ads.  It took me only a few minutes to find several advertisements from 1958 to 1960 that make the Middle Ages look as pleasant as it did in the movies of the time.

Plymouth Gin evoked jousting to invite Americans to join an international band of drinkers, pharma giant Parke-Davis paid tribute to hospitals in 12th-century France, Chivas Regal reveled in Scottish heritage, and the Grant Pulley and Hardware Corporation, makers of sliding doors, assumed you would know what a “portcullis” was. The medieval people in these ads—knights, nurses, architects—set precedents, and served as examples.

When Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram considered American medievalism in the 1970s, he saw more than folly. “What might sometimes appear to a European as slightly comical is nevertheless an expression of astonishing vitality,” he wrote. “And what many a dry pedant might dismiss as low-brow is in reality a kind of learning experience on a level different from that to which most Europeans are accustomed.” Interweaving high and not-so-high culture, the Maidenform ad shows the mass appeal of America’s medieval dream, even if nobody’s heeding the small print: “The past was never quite this perfect!”

“And still I hear that sharp tongue talking…”

When I skulk through used bookstores, I scan the spines for books by John Hollander, whose death on August 18 at the age of 83 was overshadowed by the passing of another fine poet whose work sits nearby on the shelves. Hollander got a nice obit in the New York Times, but he deserves a more appreciative sendoff—and many new readers. “[A]s far as endings are concerned,” he once wrote, “One does not begin feasting at dawn, but at sundown.”

Hollander published two dozen collections of his own verse, but far more books with his name on their covers attest to his calling as a sort of poetry evangelist. In addition to the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, he edited collections of poems for children, garden poems, war poems, and countless more. Spend five bucks on, and a long plane ride with with, Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize and you’ll have a sturdier acquaintance with well-known poems than most tuition-soaked English majors.

Last week, one of Hollander’s friends called him “the great explainer,” and that’s his exact role in Rhyme’s Reason, a short, chatty book that takes readers on a tour of common poetic forms and techniques. Hollander was no mere docent; to demonstrate most forms, he provided his own poems. Check out the first few lines from his “Ghazal on Ghazals,” which uses and explains the Persian form:

 For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s the second line only will rhyme at the end.

On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

Hollander’s ghazal, a favorite of mine, is typical not only of his unfashionable championing of form but also the great fun he has with it. His 1983 book Powers of Thirteen contains 169 poems, each one consisting of 13 unrhymed 13-syllable lines. Types of Shape collects 35 carmina figurata, poems typed out in shapes—a cat, an arrow, the state of New York—to bolster or complement the words.

Some people assume that a love of form is an inherently conservative impulse, but Hollander harumphed. “I don’t know why some people have an ideology about form—’open,’ ‘closed,’ whatever,” he told the Paris Review in 1985; in the introduction to Rhyme’s Reason, he deems everyone else skittish and unadventurous:

In former times, the region of verse was like an inviting, safe municipal park, in which one could play and wander at will. Today, only a narrow border of that park is frequently used (and vandalized), out of fear that there is safety only in that crowded strip—even as the users’ grandparents would cling to walks that went by statues—and out of ignorance of landscape. The beauties of the rest of that park are there, unexplored save by some scholars and often abandoned even by them.

I am old enough to have grown up in the park, and to map a region one loves is a way of caressing it.

Hollander appears to have had a undramatic life, which is perhaps why one critic dubbed him “a virtuoso without a subject matter,” but the poet found it silly to separate the two:

Great poems are all fables about life. There are two popular and radically antagonistic views in the world today about what the best literature does. One is that literature is only about itself. The other view is that literature is all about life, and that the more directly it transcribes experience the better it is. These are two views I find equally implausible. I think one of the things about poetry (and certain great fiction would be included in this) is that the whole notion of “aboutness” is peculiar. One of the ways literature is about life is by way of being about itself. Or, to put it better, literature gets to be about life genuinely by taking very great regard of how much it is about itself.

Plenty of goofy writers declare that they “love language,” but Hollander was the real deal:

Let’s put it this way: I don’t take laudanum. I take pains. Actually, what summons up vision and voice from wherever they ordinarily hide is the dangerous charm, the potent magic of language itself. Language and its structures—the alchemy of syntax, the temples and sacred precincts of verse. Solving puzzles of construction that I’ve propounded for myself. Discovering secret doorways and hidden surprising staircases in formal rooms that had been lived in for centuries. Those are what lead to unfoldings for me.

I’ll keep expanding my Hollander collection; whether lucid or murky, each new book is a surprise. How could one poet possess such range, articulate so many voices? The first page of Powers of Thirteen suggests an answer, and a worthy epitaph:

This is neither the time nor the place for singing of
Great persons, wide places, noble things—high times, in short;
[ . . . ]
I do what I am told, and tell what is done to me,
Making but one promise safely hedged in the Poets’
Paradox: I shall say “what was never said before.”