This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,639) on Friday, January 3, 2020.
A new year and a new decade. Lots of opportunities to do lots of good things.
No resolutions from me. I will continue on my quest to find the interesting and important things and try to separate the “signals” from the “noise,” as they say.
I wish you the best in whatever quest you find yourself. Read a good book, look at an interesting piece of art, and don’t forget to stay in touch.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,646 subscribers and had a 30.2 percent open rate; 7 people unsubscribed.
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Rose O’Neill, creator of the Kewpie doll and the richest illustrator of her time
In 1887 when she was 13, Rose O’Neill entered a drawing contest sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald. Her entry was by far the best submission, and she was declared the winner.
But there was a problem. Some of the editors did not believe that the drawing was original. It was too good, and they thought she had copied it.
To resolve the dilemma, they asked her to come to Omaha and execute a drawing in their presence. She did so, and they were convinced. This girl had talent.
Did she ever. While she was a teenager, she continued her drawing, and her illustrations were published by newspapers in the area. When she turned 19, she headed for New York, portfolio in hand, and soon landed some choice illustration assignments from the likes of Truth, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. In 1894, when she was just 24 years old, she began a cartoon strip for Truth magazine called “The Old Subscriber Calls.” It was the first cartoon strip in America written and drawn by a woman.
Rose was invited to join the staff of Puck in 1896, and from then to 1901, she was the only woman staffer there. In addition to her work with the magazine, she picked up independent commissions and was well-known and much sought after during these years. By 1907, she had been married and divorced twice but was making it quite nicely on her own. She had also published and illustrated a novel, The Loves of Edwy.
Two years later she started what was to become her greatest success and something that would make her the richest illustrator in a world filled with people such as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and J.C. Leyendecker. She developed a small cartoon character she called a Kewpie, an ever-so-cute infant character modeled after the attendants of Cupid. The character was a small, rounded figure with a top-knot of hair. O’Neill began drawing cartoons with these characters, first for the Ladies Home Journal in 1909 and later for Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Home Companion. The cartoons were highly popular.
Three years later, O’Neill teamed up with a German porcelain manufacturer to produce the first Kewpie doll. These were also popular but fragile. Later, they were made from a softer composite material that rendered them less destructible, and they became one of the first toys to be mass-marketed to the American public. That, in turn, made O’Neill fantastically wealthy.
Despite her wealth, O’Neill continued her work as an illustrator, designing and illustrating ads for Jell-O, Eastman Kodak, and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. She bought several homes, including one on Washington Square in New York City. Her beauty, bohemian lifestyle, and flamboyance provided the inspiration for the musical and song “Rose of Washington Square.” She also used her illustration talents to advance the cause of women’s suffrage in New York and elsewhere.
O’Neill also continued to develop as an artist, traveling to Europe and studying sculpture with Auguste Rodin.
Her lavish spending and the Depression depleted O’Neill’s fortune, and she spent her last years in her last remaining home in the Ozarks of Missouri. There she died in 1944.
Middle illustration: The Kewpies comic strip
Bottom illustration: A suffrage poster using the Kewpie characters
Gretchen McCullough on the ‘new way’ of writing
The reason we once found speech easier for imparting emotions isn’t an inherent property of sound waves and voice boxes. Rather, it’s that we’re more used to employing a broad range of styles in face-to-face communication. An expansive palette of possibilities lets us convey nuanced meta-messages like solidarity (by converging toward someone else’s linguistic style at a given moment) and double meaning (by noticing when what someone is saying doesn’t match with how they say it). Source: Opinion | We Learned to Write the Way We Talk – The New York Times
Along the way, she manages to dismiss the standard rules of English usage and those who would teach and enforce them.
A formal, disembodied style does have a place in the pantheon of linguistic genres. But the problem with this tradition is that it’s a jealous god — rather than say, “Here is a style that’s useful sometimes,” it says, “Here is the only correct way to write, and any variation from it is Bad and Wrong.”
The rules of English usage have developed over a long period of time, and they are not to be dismissed as lightly as she seems to want to do. There are many good reasons for these rules, even though some are ossified. Chief among those reasons, to my mind, is the discipline it takes to use them.
Breaking rules is one thing. Knowing that you’re breaking them, and knowing why, is a far different thing.
In any event, if you are interested in the development of the language, you should read this article, but I would warn you not to be so taken in by the author’s enthusiasm that you miss the implications of what she is saying.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Writing: It started with the Sumerians
The earliest writing that is anything close to what we do today comes from the Sumerians, the ancient civilization that occupied the Tigris and Euphrates valley (now Iraq and Iran) more than 3,000 years ago.
Paper and ink, as we know it, were nonexistent then in that part of the world. Instead, the Sumerians made soft clay tablets and used some kind of pointed instrument to impress upon these tablets a set of symbols they had developed to represent the information and ideas they wanted to record. These tablets hardened into permanent records, and we in the twenty-first century have been the lucky inheritors of a few thousand of them – enough to know a little about what the Sumerians were like.
Archeologists have figured out enough about Sumerian writing to translate the first story we have in writing, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story – the journeys of a legendary hero of the time – has drawn the widest attention to the writing of the Sumerians and is even considered to be in the realm of literature.
But much of the writing of Sumerians has nothing to do with literature. Many of the tablets we possess are simply recordings of the everyday concerns of the Sumerians. They contain information about what was grown and stored, how buildings should be constructed, and a variety of other mundane concerns.
These early writers went to great pains to record this information. Preparing and writing on a clay tablet was undoubtedly much more difficult than firing up a computer or grabbing a pen and a sheet of paper. Yet these ancients wrote with care and precision. They tried to get it right. They tried to get down good information that they could refer to and that others could use.
They did this not because they thought that distant civilizations such as ours would be reading their work 3,000 years after it was produced. Rather, they went to the trouble to write things down because it was important to them at the time, and it was important that they pass on information to their contemporaries and immediate successors. These ancient authors certainly believed that what they were doing was beneficial to them and to their society. They approached the job of writing with a serious purpose in mind.
So should we.
Why do we know anything about Sumerian writing at all? A lot of the credit goes to a 19th-century English aristocrat named Austen Henry Layard, whose amateur interest in archaeology and Mesopotamia led him to the astounding discovery of Ashurbinopal’s Library in the late 1840s.
More on Layard and the ancient library next week.
Despite the complaints of many, journalism is structured to tell the “bad” news rather than the “good” news. That’s when it works best — when it points out the flaws and evils in our society.
But the bad news, when piled on top one after one, can be depressing.
That’s the feeling I had when I read through LitHub.com’s 20 best works of non-fiction for the decade just ended.
The . . . books were finally chosen after much debate (and multiple meetings) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. Source: The 20 Best Works of Nonfiction of the Decade | Literary Hub
These are all undoubtedly excellent books — the LitHub editors are no slouches when it comes to picking good books. I have even read a couple and intend to read some of the others.
But the plethora of problems they cover gives one pause: racism, immigration, environmental collapse, political disunity and subterfuge, illness, greed, murder on an individual and mass scale, witchcraft and mob violence, etc. You get the picture.
So, here’s the disclaimer. It’s a good list and one you should read. But be prepared, because it isn’t comforting. At least we have a new decade to work on these problems.
Elizabeth F.: Thank you,
- For the always enlightening and entertaining to read your thoughts and what has attracted your attention. Thanks for that!
- The comments and ideas of your readers and their reactions to the newsletter and the insights offered are prime.
- I wish you, Jim, this newsletter and its readers a prosperous and blessed New Year.
Eric S.: As an avid reader of Vietnam War stories, I was amused by the CrimeReads’ assertion that the war hasn’t produced as much good fiction as WW II did. My first thought: so what? But even if that is so, (I’m wary of such comparisons), I draw your attention to only a few great novels about Vietnam: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.
And 40-plus years after it ended, ‘Nam continues to inspire good writers. One example: The Pulitzer was awarded to Viet Thang Nguyen in 2016 for The Sympathizer.
In my view, the jury is still out on which war produced the best fiction even if the list of Vietnam novels is shorter than its predecessor. It’s about quality and not quantity. Just ask Leo Tolstoy.
Vince V.: Your grand caricatures and this week’s watercolor of Sullivan’s in downtown Maryville brought to mind a question asked by my first (and last) art instructor more than 50 years ago. He asked each student in the class if they were more interested in painting buildings or people. I replied that I would like to paint the one I found more interesting. He said that was the correct answer. Then he and I both soon discovered I couldn’t draw or paint either one and so I needed to concentrate on writing about them.
Keith G.: I’m obviously not going to change the number of books written about the Vietnam war, but I wonder whether you have read a book by Nicholas Proffitt. He wrote Gardens of Stone, which they also made into a great film with the same title. The book is unusual in that it is set mainly in Arlington, the Gardens of Stone of the title.
Finally . . .
Best quote of the week:
An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc. Henri Matisse, artist (1869-1954)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Candice Millard finds her real story, the demise of the death penalty, and Vietnam in fiction: newsletter, December 27, 2019
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