Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From Excluded to Exclusive -- Frederic Morton's Rothschilds

I guess that my strongest feeling regarding the Rothschilds coming into this book was the MX-80 Sound song, from the late 1970s, called "Natty Rothschild." The song is in the lovely MX-80 Sound tradition of absurd, kind of poetic, almost spoken-word type lyrics. It's all about the kind of absurdly rich and lifestyle of the Rothschilds, from the embittered view of a post-punk rock band.

Morton's representation of the Rothschilds also gives a portrait of rather lavish, sometimes absurdly lavish, lifestyles. Certain members of the Rothschilds, for instance, owned their own circuses, funded their own private symphonies, or received entire schools as sweet-sixteen birthday presents. Morton even gives an episode of an entire private train being sent after one Rothschild, to give him a change of clothes for a royal dinner.

Of course, the Rothschilds, being a rather exclusive group of people controlling a large amount of wealth all across the world, provide fodder for all kinds of conspiracy theorists' imaginations. And, since I find conspiracy theory as interesting as the next guy does, I've lately wanted to know more about the Rothschilds.

Also, over the past two or so years, I've become more and more interested in the lives of the legends of business and finance. These people have done as much or more as politicians and generals to shape history. But a lot of times, I've thought of these people as "just" business people. The Rothschilds weren't on the top of my list -- for some reason I was more interested in the Americans.

But one day I found Frederic Morton's 1961 history of The Rothschilds at my favorite New York City bookstore, the Housing Works Used Bookstore Cafe. I brought it home with me. And I tried to read it once, after I'd finished my reading of Moll Flanders. I got about fifty pages through it and had to stop. It's not too terribly well written.

But, for some reason I decided again, after having finished Dickens' American Notes, that I would really try to read The Rothschilds. So I started it yesterday and found the same kind of difficulty. But this time I just pressed through the difficulty.

The story of the Rothschilds is very interesting. But, as it was really hard for me to understand, I think I'd like to spend all my effort in this post on a summary of the history, as I understood it from Morton's book.

The story starts with Mayer Amschel Rothschild. He was living, I think, in Hanover, being put through school to become a Rabbi, in Hanover. But his parents, who lived in Frankfort, died. And so, around 1764, Rothschild had to stop his studies. He could have gone to work with a counting-house in Hanover. But he decided to go back to Frankfort.

In Frankfort, Rothschild had to live on the Judenstrasse, or Jew-Street. He, like all the other Jews in Frankfort, experienced all kinds of racial bigotry. But Rothschild got started working for himself. His scholarly attitude enabled him to get an edge in collecting and creating portfolios of old coins. Rothschild eventually began to peddle his coins to wealthier people.

Eventually, through his coin-selling business, Rothschild formed a relationship with the Frankfurter Prince William at Hesse. By 1769, Rothschild was given a Factorship by Prince William. Encouraged by this business, Rothschild expanded his business into a "Wechselstube," basically a currency-exchanging sort of bank.

Prince William, like his father, made a large amount of his money by conscripting, training, and then selling as soldiers, the young male subjects in his realm. Prince William's treasury official, a man named Carl Buderus, took a liking to Mayer Rothschild. He therefore convinced Prince William to give Rothschild some of his money-changing business. In 1785, Prince William's father died, and Prince William became Landgrave.

Rothschild also ran other businesses, such as a dry goods and second-hand goods shop. Rothshchild managed most of his banking affairs in a small, underground counting-house, which was actuallly composed of two secret rooms, the deeper of which held all of the contracts for the business Rothschild did with Landgrave William.

From this point, Morton discusses Rothschild's business strengths. One business strength is that Rothschild made a point of conducting business with some of the highest nobility in his region. The second is that, with Landgrave William, Rothschild gave very good rates on his services -- this made Carl Buderus trust Rothschild even more with Landgrave William's accounts.

The third business strength Morton gives is the fact that Rothschild had five sons, which became for him something like a financial army, as well as a reason to keep working at all: posterity.

By this point, Rothschild had been carrying on trades of goods with England. Rothschild would buy goods in England and sell them in Frankfurt. At the same time, Landgrave William was training soldiers in Frankfurt and selling them in England. Rothschild got the idea that his sons could act as a middle-man for Landgrave William's activities in England. Carl Buderus agreed to this idea. And this set Rothschild's sons in motion.

Then one of Landgrave William's uncles, the King of Denmark, got into financial troubles which could have bankrupted his nation. Landgrave William wanted to bail out Denmark. But he didn't want to be known as the person to have done it. Again, Rothschild was able to act as a middleman on the loan that was given to the King of Denmark.

In 1806, just as Rothschild and his sons were becoming the chief bankers for Landgrave William, Napoleon took over Frankfurt and sent Landgrave William into exile, in Denmark.

But Landgrave William's business operations were still operating all over Europe. The money William had made from selling conscripted soldiers had been invested in other areas. Landgrave William now wanted the money from those investments. And he needed somebody to go get it for him. Carl Buderus again chose to use Rothschild and his sons as managers for William's business activities.

But, at the same time, one of Rothschild's sons, Nathan, who lived in London, began trading contraband goods from England to the European continent. Napoleon had banned all sorts of goods, even in France. But Nathan had found some way to get them to the continent. And he was now selling them at "famine prices."

It took a while, but the Rothschilds were, also getting William's investment money back for him. But Mayer Rothschild asked Carl Buderus to convince William to let the Rothschilds use William's money for currency trading. William agreed to this. The money was given to Nathan, in London. Nathaniel was a gifted trader. And he multiplied William's money and made plenty of profits himself. However, William soon tired of this kind of investment and asked to be given what he'd gotten.

Now, however, Nathan Rothschild had developed quite a stable reputation among a number of other extremely influential people. When 800,000 pounds sterling in worth of gold went on sale in India, the Duke of Wellington assigned Nathan to get the gold for him. Nathan had already been of the same idea. The only problem was how to get the gold from India, through Napoleon, and into England.

Another one of Nathan's sons, Jacob, or "James," as he came to be known, was living in France. He helped Nathan by setting up a campaign of misinformation. He made it seem as if there were an inflow of gold arriving into France, which the English were trying to stop. By giving the details of this supposed inflow, he made it so that there was basically free access for the gold that was traveling from India to flow through and out of France, and in to England, where it reached Nathan and then the Duke of Wellington.

Nathan was also famous for a rather notorious trade he made, based on the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Everybody had their eyes glued to how Nathan was investing. He invested all his money one way. Everybody followed him. Prices became very cheap. Nathan bought everything he could at a cheap price. Then it was announced that Napoleon had been defeated. And everything that Nathan had bought skyrocketed. A ton of people lost entire fortunes by following Nathan's first move. But Nathan made a whole lot of money in his own follow-up moves.

After Napoleon's defeat, peace came back to Europe. The Rothschilds had been key financial agents during the War, due to their widespread reach, speed, and flexibility. But when peace came, the more refined gentlemen, more like courtiers than bankers, moved back into the scene, and edged out the Rothschilds.

But the Rothschilds found a way to edge their way right back into the financial world. France had issued about 610 million francs in loans, without using the Rothschilds. But the Rothschilds had made a lot of money during the War. They now bought up those bonds, all in secret. And, at the right moment, they began selling everything.

The bond prices were depressing so much, it threatened to cause a financial crisis in France. The Rothschilds revealed what they had done. The French banking world decided to let the Rothschilds have their place in the financial world again. And the Rothschilds brought everything back to a state of order.

At this point in the story, Morton gives character sketches of Mayer Rothschild's five sons. He first describes Nathan, the Rothschild son who operated out of London. But Morton described Nathan in kind of general terms, which sort of makes sense, since Nathan has, up to this point in the book, played a pretty big role already.

Morton then describes Jacob, or, as he was later known, "James," the Rothschild son who operated out of Paris. The most interesting thing, to me, about James, is that he was a friend for so many artists. He was friends with Heine, Rossini, Balzac, Delacroix, and others. But he was also very shrewd in working with the various parties that oversaw France during the tempestuous first half of the nineteenth century.

Salomon is the next son described. He operated out of Vienna. In Vienna, Salomon formed a strong relationship with Prince Metternich, as well as with Marie Louise Bonaparte, wife of the exiled Napoleon. With this influence, as well as through his own skill, Salomon was able to accumulate a number of real estate possessions, including the Vitkovitz coal and iron works.

Carl, the head of the Rothschild's Naples operations, is described next, in a vignette about meeting with the Pope, and being given his hand to kiss, instead of being required to kiss his foot.

Amschel, who ran his father's Frankfurt business, is described as being a bit like his father -- the courtier of the family, the one who would soften the hard edges of his other brothers. The character sketch of Amschel also ends with a nice, little sketch of Mayer Rothschild's wife, Gutele, the mother of the family, who lived to be ninety-six years old.

Morton next moves into a small description of the various ways that the Rothschilds controlled the flow of information in various parts of Europe, as well as manipulating people of political influence in Europe, through the second quarter of the nineteenth century, in order to avert the outbreak of large-scale war.

From this point, Morton describes some of the activities the Rothschild brothers carried out with railroads. Nathan, Morton says, was a bit too late to make money on the railroad boom in England. But he was able to alert Salomon in Vienna and James in Paris about the coming railroad booms there.

In Vienna, Salomon first encountered resistance against railroads through what we might think of as the "Not In My BackYard," or "NIMBY" mentality. Also, most people thought that travel by railroad was too fast. People seriously thought the speeds of the railroad would kill human beings.

While Salomon and Metternich were battling public opinion, another financial institution, Sina, was also working to build railway lines. Salomon was building lines in the North. Sina wanted to build lines in the South, and then beat Salomon out of the business through competition. But Metternich helped Salomon's northern railroad get royal approval, and, thus, more credibility than Sina's railroad. Sina attempted to attack the credibility of Salomon's railroad through quasi-scientific propaganda. But Salomon beat Sina at that game, too.

Morton then gives an interesting story of how one of the Rothschild workers in France, a man named Carpentier, with a few other people in the Rothschild office in France, managed to extort thirty-one million francs from the Rothschild office.

Morton continues the railroad story with James. James was also meeting a lot of resistance in France. People thought railroads were either extravagant and impractical, or outright dangerous. They felt that people were only putting up railroads to exploit the new mechanisms and make money. So James had to hire as many pro-railroad propaganda-spreaders as he could, to meet the resistance coming from the anti-railroad propaganda-spreaders.

One of the propaganda spreaders James hired was a Portugese man named Jacob Emile Pereire. Pereire served James pretty well. But Achille Fould, one of James' finance-world rivals, once the railroad controversy was over, won Pereire over to his own side. Achille Fould used Pereire to spearhead the Credit Mobiliere, an investment firm that would open itself up to the common people, allowing people to make investments of as low as one thousand francs.

The Credit Mobiliere became extremely popular, and Pereire went very actively into the finance world. He also worked his way into the world of the court. When Napoleon III fell in love with Eugenie de Montijo, a woman with few social credentials, the nobility of France was in a rage. James stood by Napoleon. And Napoleon eventually married Eugenie. But Pereire stood by the nobility. And, as a result, he got a lot more friends than James did.

It appeared that, because of this, Pereire, with his Credit Mobiliere funds, would be the chief banker of France. And, in fact, Pereire did win a number of really good deals, including power over the Austrian State Railways.

And now, in 1855, the aging Rothschild brothers were beginning to pass away. Nathan, Carl, Salomon, and Amchel all died in 1855. James was suddenly the only Rothschild brother left.

But the next generation of Rothschilds were ready to join in the fight against Pereire. Salomon's son Anselm started the fight. He took the Credit Mobiliere idea and started up a similar kind of institution, the Creditanstalt, in Vienna, effectively debilitating Pereire in Austria.

Then Nathan's son Lionel, in London, and James' son Alphonse, in France, both began fighting for railroad investments. They brought down a number of deals on Pereire's head. They also began using the old Nathan Rothschild bid of driving an investment price in one direction, then getting out of the investment, watching it move in the other direction, then re-collecting on it from that direction. All these moves eventually exhausted the solitary Pereire. His funds basically collapsed. And the Rothschilds were back in charge.

Morton now gives a bit more information on this generation of Rothschild brothers. He begins with Lionel, who, like his father, was instrumental in a lot of the great financial transactions that occurred in England. In 1847, Lionel raised eight million pounds for the British government in its efforts to aid the Irish during their famine. And in 1854, Lionel raised another sixteen million pounds for the British government, so that it could enter into the Crimean War.

Lionel became friends with British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. And, in 1875, when the Egyptian Khedive, overwhelmed with debts, put his shares of ownership of the Suez Canal up for sale, Disraeli worked with Lionel to secure those shares for Britain. Lionel eventually ended up, on very short notice, and against conventional British procedures, providing the British government with the 400 million pounds necessary to purchase the shares of the Suez Canal.

Even with all their wealth and influence, the Rothschilds still faced anti-Semitism. Lionel did his best to fight for equal treatment of Jewish people in Europe. But probably one of the greatest steps he took was getting himself into Parliament.

In these days, Jews were not allowed into Parliament. But Lionel, flouting convention, campaigned for election and got himself elected into the House of Commons in 1850. But the ceremony and oaths that Lionel had to go through were filled with Christian-oriented language. Lionel, being Jewish, couldn't agree to the oaths -- they went against his religion. So it was determined that he couldn't sit in Parliament.

For eight years, Lionel fought for the right of Jews to take a different oath from Christians, so that they could sit in Parliament. Finally, Lionel won this right for the Jews. And he sat in Parliament for eleven years.

Lionel later tried to get into the House of Lords. But, in this case, Queen Victoria was the sole determinant regarding Lionel's acceptance. And Queen Victoria was too steeped in convention to allow the rules to change for Lionel. Nevertheless, Lionel's son, Nathaniel Mayer, did get into the House of Lords, in 1885.

Morton then moves on to character sketches of the other Rothschild brothers. Natty Rothschild -- I guess he'd be the Natty Rothschild of MX-80 Sound's song -- also ran for parliament. He gave a lot to charities, and he did a lot for Jewish causes. But he seems to have been a bit of an imposing character.

Leo was a bit more easygoing. He raised horses and competed in Derbies. His house was incredibly extravagant. But he was a very approachable and helping kind of person.

Alfred was an interesting character. He had his own private symphony. And he'd hold what he called "adoration dinners," where greatly admired young women were invited as the sole female dinner guests. At these dinners, the solitary women would be wooed by three or four wealthy, individual men. It seems like an ultra-elite version of the Dating Game.

James' son Alphonse was able to maintain the Paris business, as his father had, through the various changes in government in France. Also, when France was reeling under the effects of losing the Franco-Prussian War, Alphonse was able to raise the funds to provide France with the means of sustaining itself and rebuilding.

Edmond's great effort was to back the efforts of the Jewish people to establish colonies in Palestine. This was largely against the general sentiment of the rest of the Rothschilds, who weren't necessarily for the Zionist movement. Even Edmond didn't consider himself -- I'm pretty sure -- a Zionist. But he provided the movement with funds all through his life.

After discussing a few more elements of the Rothschilds' lives and business activities, Morton moves into a discussion of the Rothschilds' attempts to avert World War I. These entreaties from the Rothschilds were heeded by people of influence. But the momentum of the war was too strong, even for the Rothschilds. Rothschild men fought -- and died -- in the War.

After the War, Morton says, the Rothschilds, like the rest of the world, were changed. Morton paints a picture of the Rothschilds family values being shaken and shimmied away by the Jazz Age. More than anything else, it just seems like the young Rothschilds, following the War, didn't lose their values, but determined what the new, more fashionable ways were of being extravagant with their wealth.

Morton then follows Louis Rothschild, who was thirty years old at the end of the first World War, through the years of the Depression (as well as through an accident on the New York City subway station!) and into the years preceding the second World War. Louis was in charge of the Vienna operations for the Rothschilds during this time.

Louis Rothschild's story is the most dramatic of all, in my opinion. In 1937, Louis was arrested by the Gestapo. Louis was imprisoned for a ransom, which included the signing over of the Vitkovitz coal and iron works to the Nazis. But Louis would not accede to these terms, and he advised the rest of the Rothschilds not to comply. Besides, Vitkovitz -- on the surface, anyway -- no longer belonged to the Rothschilds. It had been ostensibly transferred into the hands of the British.

Louis went through a number of rather opulent trials with some of the Nazi elite, including Herman Goring and Heinrich Himmler. Goring and Himmler basically tried to bribe Rothschild into complying with the ransom demands. But Louis remained steadfast and was let out of custody of the Nazis.

Morton then discusses the achievements of some of the younger generation of Rothschilds in the second World War. Guy de Rothschilds and Philippe de Rotshschild had spectacular, unbelieveable careers with the French military. The splendid of Edmund Rothschild with the British military and of Victor, Lord Rothschild with the British (and the American?) military, are also described.

Another interesting story Morton gives is about the search, following the War, for the Rothschilds' stolen art. Hitler had pillaged a number of art collections. The Rothschilds' collections were, of course, among the larges. But, through the work of invetigator James J. Rorimer, the work was located.

Rorimer worked off of tips from Rose Valland, an art student in occupied France who had been recruited to appraise art for Hitler and had, consequently, heard Hitler's men discussing where they would hide this art. Rorimer went to one location and found a series of cipher-stamps which gave him clues as to the location of a large number of other hiding places for Hitler's collection of stolen art.

Morton then concludes the book with a discussion of the younger generation of Rothschilds. This includes Guy de Rothschild, who, at the time of Morton's writing, was running the de Rothschilds Freres bank in France, and maintaining its position as largest private bank in France. Morton gives a portrait of the lives of the Rothschilds in the 1960s, and of the role of women in the Rothschild family. Morton then ends the book with a description of how exclusive the Rothschild banking institutions remain, to this day. Only the most elite work with the Rothschilds.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Sensational Institutions -- Dickens' American Notes and the Brooklyn Museum

(NOTE: The quotes below are from the Project Gutenberg edition of American Notes, by Charles Dickens. A link to a rights-free download of American Notes is below.

Charles Dickens' American Notes)

Happy New Year, everybody. I hope you have a great year.

Over the New Year holiday, I read Charles Dickens' American Notes. During the daytime on New Year's Eve I went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It's near my neighborhood, and right now I'm not really comfortable with spending money on a subway pass to go to the different museums in Manhattan. On New Year's Eve night, I hung out with a friend of mine. We had some Indian food.

The exhibit I went to go see was called Hide/Seek. As far as I could tell from what I was reading of it, it was supposed to be an exploration of sexual identity in art in the 20th century. It seemed to me like it was supposed to be a really sexual kind of exhibit.

I don't think this was just my imagination. I'm pretty sure the exhibit tried to push itself as sensational. Even at the front doors to the exhibit room, there was a big sign saying that parents should really consider carefully before bringing their kids inside.

But the exhibit was hardly sexual at all. I kept waiting for something really strikingly sexual. I never found anything that was even overtly sexual or shocking.

There's another exhibit going on at the Brooklyn Museum right now. It's called Youth and Beauty. I wrote a post about that exhibit a couple weeks ago. I would say that the best things about the Hide/Seek exhibit, which is one floor below the Youth and Beauty exhibit, are like trickle-downs from the Youth and Beauty exhibit.

It seems to me that somebody in the museum must really be loving a few artists right now. Those artists would be Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Romaine Brooks, Florine Stettheimer, and Georgia O'Keefe. There are works by all these artists, I believe, in both exhibits. But, with the exception of Romaine Brooks' work, everything by these artists in the Youth and Beauty exhibit is far superior to everything by these artists in the Hide/Seek exhibit.

There are some interestingly sexual works, however. There's a nice drawing of a nude man by John Singer Sargent. It's very alluring. The man is posed in a dignified, but sleek and sexy position.

There are a few interesting works by George Bellows. One is a drawing of men at a shower-bath. There are men plunging into a swimming pool, standing outside the pool, laughing and joking with each other, or, in the far background, taking showers. Some of the men are very overtly sexual toward other men. Some are incredibly shy. Some are just enjoying themselves. But the overall mood is very unabashedly homoerotic.

There's also a painting by Bellows of boys bathing at the waterfront in New York City. This painting is beautiful in itself, just because of its color. But it is also very erotic. There are a lot of half naked or fully naked boys, laying on the waterfront, playing on docks, jumping in the water, or hanging around with each other. There are some clothed adults looking on.

The atmosphere of this painting is fun and erotic, while also being kind of dismal and dirty -- these are working class boys who aren't really welcome at the beaches, where more well-off people go to bathe. So they have to have their "fun at the beach" at the waterfront.

There is a photo of Djuna Barnes which I like a lot. But nothing about it is too terribly erotic. It's just Djuna Barnes sitting there. Nevertheless, Djuna Barnes is really cool. She was, I think, a lesbian, or bisexual. She was raised in a polygamous household. And she wrote a whole book of lesbian poetry in 1915.

She also made a statement that I really love about the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which comes to me from my reading of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. Barnes said that the secret of that story is that really, little girls like the idea of sleeping in bed with the big, bad wolf, while he's disguising himself as the innocent grandma. It's a dimension of sexuality most people don't see or admit they see.

Right next to the photo of Djuna Barnes is a lovely self-portrait by Romaine Brooks. It's almost all in black and white. There are just some tinges of red here and there. Romaine Brooks looks like some gangly character out of a Tim Burton movie.

Another work in the exhibit that I really liked was by a man named Paul Cadmus. This was a fantastical painting of the composer Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn is sitting in a park, composing music, at the top of a set of steps. The afternoon is approaching night. A semi-transparent moon hovers in the sky.

Down along the steps is the satyr Pan, his torso loosely wrapped in a red and black length of fabric that trains off behind him, back into the park, and up toward Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn is also accompanied by a white and iridescent-skinned fairy-boy, who is flying up over Hahn's seat. The fairy boy has poked his face down so that he can kiss Hahn.

Hahn is so moved by his kiss that he lifts his pen from his sheets of music. A couple sheets flow off into the wind, becoming iridescent, as if transformed into magic through the fairy-boy's powers.

This painting is nice. It's pretty skilfully done. And it's pretty imaginative. But what I like most of all about it is the looks on the characters' faces. Looking at Reynaldo Hahn's style of dress, I at first thought that the painting had been done in the late 1800s or early 1900s. But looking at the faces of the characters, I got the distinct impression that they could have been in an Andy Warhol movie. The painting was done in the early 1960s. So the characters could have been characters from an Andy Warhol movie.

I spent some time with a set of photos by a woman photographer. But I can't remember the photographer's name. The photos were all of drag kings. I feel like the community of women who like to dress as men is still looked down upon in the United States. But I like drag kings. I spent a while looking at these photos. But I guess I wasn't very moved by them. I can't remember very much about them.

There was a small section devoted to some of Andy Warhol's screen tests -- which was just kind of the epitome of how unimaginative this exhibit was. Out of all the sexual films by Andy Warhol, the choice went to the screen tests. The screen tests are awesome! But MoMA had them up a year ago, in a huge room, all to themselves. And that was incredible. Something else could have bee in this space.

Coming into this exhibit, I was hoping to god that I'd see some work by Nan Goldin. Thankfully, I did. There was one color photo of two transvestites, after the New York City Gay Pride Parade in 1991 or 1992, I think. They're both fabulously dressed -- one with a blue with and a silver, sleeveless top; the other with a wig of sexy, blonde ringlets, a white-mesh shirt, and a gold bra.

And there's another photo of one of Nan Goldin's transvestite roommates, in the 1970s, I think, sitting in a tanktop that's slinking off her shoulders, hunching forward, meditating over a cup of tea. That's one of my favorite photos in the world. So I was happy to see that.

But the best work of the entire exhibit is along the back wall. It's called "Felix, June 5, 1994." I can't remember who it's by. It takes up almost the entire back wall of the exhibit. It's one photo, enlarged to maybe five meters in width and three meters in height.

The photo shows a man lying in bed. The man is dead, but he has his eyes open. When I first saw the picture, I thought the man was alive. I figured -- because he was so thin and wasted away -- that he was in the final stages of AIDS. He's laying on a colorful pile of pillows, half-covered in a colorful quilt. He's wearing a nice, button-up shirt with circular, eye-dazzling, black and white designs. He's terribly emaciated.

It was a terribly disturbing, but very compelling photo.

But I suppose my favorite part of the day at the Brooklyn Museum was the installation by Moroccoan-French artist Mounir Fatmi, called "Maximum Sensation." This installation is of fifty-one skateboards. All the skateboards' tops are covered with segments of rugs which were, I believe, designed by Fatmi.

The segments are all very colorful. There are lovely greens -- emerald greens and bright pine greens. There are some incredible reds -- like rubies, just so red, it's like it's transparent. There are a few different shades of blue. Some very vivid blue. Some blue that's like snow or ice. And some of the rugs contrast the bright green with the vivid blue in a way that's just as cool and fresh as a snowy mountain.

Various designs repeat themselves. There are scenes of a building, maybe a mosque?, with a domed roof. There are scenes, I believe, of the Qa'aba. And I think there is one more kind of city scene. Then there are various abstract, rug-like designs that repeat themselves.

Also, the broader designs on the boards are often interrupted by various design motifs. One motif is a kind of crystal ball or bubble, that cuts a new scene into the background scene. Another is a set of chains that runs down one side of the scene. There are these beautiful, blue, eye-like flowers that occasionally act like bars across certain backgrounds. I called them "blue eyes." There are also golden flowers, kind of square shaped, which I called "orange suns." And I believe there were also smallish, pinkish flowers.

The designs were all really lovely.

So, over the past couple days, I've been reading Charles Dickens' American Notes. The book is an account of the six months Dickens and his wife spent traveling to and around America. The story basically follows Dickens from Boston, to New York, then to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, down to Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Baltimore.

From here, Dickens takes travels along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and journeys through Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and Columbus. He then visits the Niagara Falls and spends a bit of time in Canada, before heading back to New York, then taking a ship back to London.

The feeling I got from the book is that Dickens wanted to go to America to see the condition of the Southern states in America -- the states that, at that time, still allowed the enslavement of African Americans. But Dickens discovered, as he was heading down south, that he wasn't going to be able to see slavery as it really was. When Dickens discovered that he wasn't going to be able to get a real view of the conditions of the Southern states, Dickens decided to head west, instead, into some of the less developed areas of America. Dickens says:

"I had at first intended going South -- to Charleston. But when I came to consider the length of time which this journey would occupy, and the premature heat of the season, which even at Washington had been often very trying; and weighed moreover, in my own mind, the pain of living in the constant contemplation of slavery, against the more than doubtful chances of my ever seeing it, in the time I had to spare, stripped of the disguises in which it would certainly be dressed, and so adding any item to the host of facts already heaped together on the subject; I began to listen to old whipserings which had often been present to me at home in England, when I little thought of ever being here; and to dream again of cities growing up, like palaces in fairy tales, among the wilds and forests of the west."

This decision of Dickens' really marks the division between the first half and second half of the book. In the first half of the book, Dickens' aim seems to be to explore all the institutions he can. But these institutions mainly end up being mental hospitals and prisons. And I think Dickens was, really, so interested in describing how prisons were run in America, simply because he was so disappointed that he wasn't going to be able to criticize, from first-hand experience, the way that plantations were run in the cruel slavery conditions of the Southern states.

Nevertheless, Dickens devotes a whole chapter near the end of his book to his beliefs regarding slavery. I feel like this chapter is extremely important. It gives a very quick overview of the ideas held by people who, either half-heartedly or whole-heartedly, supported slavery. Dickens exposes the hypocrisy of these ideas.

But even more important than Dickens' exposure of the hypocrisy of these ideas is, I believe, a horrendous list of descriptions, printed in newspapers, of runaway slaves. These slaves were all to be recognized by marks of torture they'd received: knife-wounds, bullet-wounds, brandings, dismembermenents, whippings, and punched-out teeth! It's really terrible.

Another idea that Dickens discusses, though not in this specific chapter of the book, deals with the mental disfigurement of the African American slaves. He gives an idea of the effect of the slaves of the laws prohibiting even the basic education of slaves. It's a really bleak situation.

But Dickens makes another argument, which I think is just as important. Dickens argues that the moral effect of slavery -- of creating a social situation wherein human beings are not only allowed, but often required, to treat other human beings like nothing more than property animals -- leads to an overall situation of moral corruption and decay, even among members of the community who are not -- ostensibly, at least -- supposed to treat each other like property or animals.

In an earlier chapter of this book, Dickens gives a good portrait of the situation, as he saw it personally:

"In this district, as in all others where slavery sits brooding, (I have frequently heard this admitted, even by those who are its warmest advocates:) there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system. The barns and outhouses are mouldering away; the sheds are patched and half-roofless; the log cabins (built in Virginia with external chimneys made of clay or wood) are squalid in the last degree. There is no look of decent comfort anywhere. The miserable stations by the railway side; the great wild wood-yards, whence the engine is supplied with fuel; the negro children rolling on the ground before the cabin doors, with dogs and pigs; the biped beasts of burden slinking past: gloom and dejection are upon them all."

In the slavery chapter of the book, Dickens reasons why this atmosphere of moral dejection should prevail in states supporting slavery:

"Do we not know that the worst deformity and ugliness of slavery are at once the cause and effect of the reckless license taken by these freeborn outlaws? Do we not know that the man who has been born and bred among its wrongs; who has seen in his childhood husbands obliged at the word of command to flog their wives; women, indecently compelled to hold up their own garments that men might lay the heavier stripes upon their legs, driven and harried by brutal overseers in their time of travail, itself; who has read in youth, and seen his virgin sisters read, descriptions of runaway men and women, and their disfigured persons, which could not be published elsewhere, of so much stock upon a farm, or at a show of beasts: -- do we not know that that man, whenever his wrath is kindled up, will be a brutal savage?"

I believe that Dickens really wanted to see the conditions on the plantations, so that he could put his vehement disagreement with slavery into a much more powerful, first-hand kind of account. But, since he wasn't able to do that, I think he fell back onto the conditions of prisons in the United States.

However, I think that prison conditions are tied up, in America and in England, with slavery in the United States. As one can see from the book Moll Flanders, which I wrote a post about a few days ago, the plantation states in America were regarded, for a long time, by Britain, as states where prisoners were sent to work, as a punishment. When these British prisoners came to America, they themselves were slaves. They were even sold to plantation owners.

So I think that in Dickens' time, the Southern states were still associated in the British mind with the prisoners who had come to America as punishments for their crimes. Since Dickens wasn't able to see the treatment of the African American slaves, he might as well see the equivalent in his mind of slaves: prisoners in jails, like the prisoners who had been sent to these shores by England over the seventeenth and eighteent centuries.

Dickens visits a number of prisons -- but they're almost all in New England. There are a few prisons that Dickens actually approves of. But the prisons in the main, are run poorly. The two most ghastly prisons are The Tombs, in New York City, and the Eastern Penitentiary, in Philadelphia.

The Tombs is a horrid place, where wardens rule over all the prisoners, some convicted, some awaiting trial, and some acting only as witnesses!, with a severe degree of cruelty, never letting any of these dwellers out to walk, or even to see the sun.

The Eastern Penitentiary is a horrid place as well. But it has a much more sanitary atmosphere about it. It almost feels like an involuntary monastery. All the prisoners are sentenced to solitary confinement. Some of them eventually get work to do. But none of them is ever allowed to speak to other prisoners, to go outside, or to see anybody they knew -- including spouses and family members -- before they went to prison.

The result of this is that some of the prisoners go quite insane. Almost none of the prisoners are prepared for the shock that awaits them once they enter back into the wider world. And, Dickens notes, most of the really hardened criminals, who leave only to come right back, seem to be the least affected by the punishment; while the criminals who would have dealt much better with a more constructive, rehabilitative punishment, are basically shattered souls once they leave confinement.

However, Dickens' discussions of these institutions doesn't begin on such a negative note. When Dickens arrives in America, the first major city he visits is Boston. And almost the very first thing Dickens describes is the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Dickens spends, I believe, more time on this one institution than he does on any other portion of his tour through America. And he is very positively impressed by the favorable conditions of the place.

It definitely surprised me, while I read this passage of the book, to know that this kind of place existed in America, in 1842. At this institution, children who are blind, deaf, and dumb, are taught to communicate, even to practice handwriting. Being a rather sedentary, conventional mind, I've always figured that the first blind, deaf, and dumb person to have learned this method of communication was Helen Keller, at the end of the century. But here are children learning to communicate this way -- in the middle of the century!

Some of Dickens' descriptions of this institution are also quite remarkable:

"Good order, cleanliness, and comfort, pervaded every corner of the building. The various classes, who were gathered round their teachers, answered the questions put to them with readiness and intelligence, and in a spirit of cheerful contest for precedence which pleased me very much. Those who were at play, were gleesome and noisy as other children. More spiritual and affectionate friendships appeared to exist among them, than would be found among other young persons suffering under no deprivation; but this I expected and was prepared to find. It is a part of the great scheme of Heaven's merciful consideration for the afflicted."

Descriptions such as this are very reminiscent of Bruno Bettelheim's work with autistic children in Chicago, as exemplified best in his book A Home for the Heart. Again -- I thought that Bettelheim was really the one who pioneered this kind of work. I knew that John Dewey and Jane Addams (also Chicagoans, I believe) did work along these lines. But I thought that the person who really pioneered the concept of a therapeutic atmosphere was Bettelheim. But here we see a therapeutic atmosphere, right in Boston, in 1842!

Dickens gives some other impressive examples of institutions in Boston, such as the State Hospital asylum for mentally disturbed people, and the House of Industry, for impoverished people. He even gives some examples of prisons practising constructive and rehabilitative methods with their prisoners.

It feels like what Dickens is doing here is showing that America works as an experiment in social institutions, while also showing that, where its social institutions are corrupt, the moral, as well as the physical, situations are also corrupt. And I believe the reason that Dickens begins with the more exemplary institutions is because he wants to show that he is optimistic about the success of the American social experiment.

Another wonderful illustration of a positive experience Dickens had with American social institutions is the town of Lowell, Massachusetts. This is a young town, where women comprise a large percentage of the working population. The women don't just work -- they also write -- printing the journal the Lowell Offering, of their own efforts.

Dickens reflects that these two elements of these womens' lives would be quite shocking in England. But Dickens found nothing to be shocked or appalled by. In fact, conditions in Lowell were rather good.

"These girls, as I have said, were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls; and were not above clogs and pattens. Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing. They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden."

Dickens then describes the actual working conditions.

"The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of. Out of so large a number of females, many of whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in appearance: no doubt there were. But I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power."

It's really interesting to hear of such conditions in the middle of the nineteenth century in America. The only place I can think of that sounds similar to this town is the town of Pullman, which, I believe, was around in the late 1800s or early 1900s. But that town was built around male labor. And the whole experment didn't really turn out well, after all.

When one hears of positive stories of women working, before the present coupld of decades, one thinks of World War II, when all the men were at war, and the women had to work. Of course, the women did an incredible job. But they were forced right back out of work when the men all came back home.

And, of course, one always remembers the ghastly situations that led to the Triangle fire in New York City, which basically killed a whole building full of female workers.

So it was really surprising to me to hear of the town of Lowell.

But I think another reason that Dickens focuses so much on institutions in the first part of his book is that he has resolved, from the very beginning of his book not to talk about the character of any people of standing in the United States. He doesn't want to give any character sketches, apparently, because he doesn't want to offend anybody.

So, because Dickens voluntarily lops that entire aspect (one would assume it's a rather large portion) of his visit to America out of his trip, and since Dickens is a person so concerned with vital, human character, it only makes sense that Dickens would fall back onto the points of his visit in which he was given the freedom to represent characters, without having to worry about offending characters of any standing. These would all be inmates of one kind of institution or another -- at least in the first half of the book.

Once Dickens gets to D.C., he is a little freer in his description of characters. But he still keeps his description of characters rather broad. He describes people in a rather caricatured tone. And his biggest complaint about people -- a rather valid one -- is that they're always spitting tobacco all over the place.

But once Dickens really gets headed West, he opens up a bit more with descriptions of characters. I think this is because he's less worried about offending people in these smaller, newer, towns -- towns outside of New England.

But a lot of these descriptions, while often being engaging and humorous, often seem a bit more like caricatures than actual character descriptions. There's only one person in the whole book -- outside of the people in institutions, and the President of the United States -- and other than Dickens himself! -- who seems really, genuinely intelligent.

This is a man named Pitchlynn, chief of the Native American tribe of the Choctaw. Dickens meets Pitchlynn on a steamboat heading from Cincinnati to Louisville. The description of Pitchlynn is really wonderful:

"He spoke English perfectly well, though he had not begun to learn the language, he told me, until he was a young man grown. He had read many books; and Scott's poetry appeared to have left a strong impression on his mind: especially the opening of The Lady of the Lake, and the great battle scene in Marmion, in which, no doubt from the congeniality of the subjects to his own pursuits and tastes, he had great interest and delight. He appeared to understand correctly all he had read; and whatever fiction had enlisted his sympathy in its belief, had done so keenly and earnestly, I might almost say fiercely. He was dressed in our ordinary everyday costume, which hung about his fine figure loosely, and with indifferent grace. On my telling him that I regretted not to see him in his own attire, he threw up his right arm, for a moment, as though he were brandishing a heavy weapon, and answered, as he let it fall again, that his race were losign many things besides their dress, and would soon be seen upon the earth no more: but he wore it at home, he added proudly."

Dickens has painted himself into a corner by not talking about anybody of standing in America. And because of this -- other than in his interaction with Pitchlynn, Dickens seems to be, at least from an intellectual standpoint, an island unto himself in America. One hardly even ever hears of Dickens' wife, who, I'm pretty darn sure, did, after all, accompany Dickens everywhere!

Thankfully, however, Dickens does have a rather boisterous character of his own. And he adds a lot of his own personality to the accounts of his travels. Some of the portions of the book where Dickens gives his own character to the experiences are the most interesting.

One thing that I find really intriguing about the book is that there are just these times when Dickens gives over to pure imagination. There are times when Dickens reveals his imaginations as things that overwhelm him. He doesn't control his imaginations. They just flow from somwhere else, and come to him. One really great example of this is when Dickens talks about looking out over the sea in the late hours of the night on the sea-voyage from England to America:

"At first, to, and even when the hour, and all the objects it exalts, have come to be familiar, it is difficult, alone and thoughtful, to hold them to their proper shapes and forms. They change with the wandering fancy; assume the semblance of things left far away; put on the well-remembered aspect of favorite places dearly loved; and even people them with shadows. Streets, houses, rooms; figures so like their usual occupants, that they have startled me by their reality, which far exceeded, as it seemed to me, all power of mine to conjure up the absent; have, many and many a time, at such an hour, grown suddenly out of objects with whose real look, and use, and purpose, I was as well acquainted as with my own two hands."

In this passage, Dickens may be less in control of his imaginations because he is dozing off, in spite of himself. He's in a stagecoach, traveling from Columbus to Sandusky. The road is extremely rough, and one of the biggest obstacles in it is tree stumps. These tree stumps, however, late at night, as Dickens is half-dozing, take on all different kinds of appearances:

"These stumps of trees are a curious feature in American travelling. The varying illusions they present to the unaccustomed eye as it grows dark, are quite astonishing in their number and reality. Now there is a Grecian urn erected in the centre of a lonely field; now there is a woman weeping at a tomb; now a very common-place old gentleman in a white waistcoat, with a thumb thrust into each arm-hole of his coat; now a student poring on a book; now a crouching negro; now, a horse, a dog, a cannon, an armed man; a hunch-back throwing off his cloak and stepping forth into the night. They were often as entertaining to me as so many glasses in a magic lantern, and never took their shapes at my bidding, but seemed to force themselves on me, whether I would or no; and strange to say, I sometimes recognised in them counterparts of figures once familiar to me in pictures attached to childish books, forgotten long ago."

In another passage, when Dickens arrives in Philadelphia late at night, he's very tired, and he heads straight to his hotel, holding off any kind of tour of the city until the next day. But, looking out the window at a ghostly building, Dickens is stricken with an almost irresistible imagination, which turns out to have a little bit of precognition in it:

"Looking out of my chamber-window, before going to be, I saw, on the opposite side of the way, a hnadsome building of white marble, which had a mournful ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold. I attributed this to the sombre influence of the night, and on rising in the morning looked out again, expecting to see its steps and portico thronged with groups of people passing in and out. The door was still tight shut, however; the same cold cheerless air prevailed; and the building looked as if the marble statue of Don Guzman could alone have any business to transact within it gloomy walls. I hastened to inquire its name and purpose, and then my surprise vanished. It was the Tomb of many fortunes; the Great Catacomb of investment; the memorable United States Bank.

"The stoppage of this bank, with all its ruinous consequences, had cast (as I was told on every side) a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured. It certainly did seem rather dull and out of spirits."

But Dickens also has some fancies of his own, which are obviously under his control. But these are just as fantastic, if not more fantastic, than the uncontrolled fancies. My favorite one of these is when discusses one of the peculiarities of a train trip he took from Harrisburg to Pittsburg:

"It was amusing, too, when we had dined, and rattled down a steep pass, having no other moving power than the weight of carriages themselves, to see the engine released, long after us, come buzzing down alone, like a great insect, its back of green and gold so shining in the sun, that if it had spread a pair of wings and soared away, no one would have had occasion, as I fancied, for the least surprise. But it stopped short of us in a very business-like manner when we reached the canal: and, before we left the wharf, went panting up this hill again, with the passengers who had waited our arrival for the means of traversing the raod by which we had come."

Dickens is also good at picking out some of the fanciful events he sees around him. My absolute favorite is when Dickens is in Cincinnati. Of all the big towns other than Boston, I feel that Cincinnati is probably Dickens' favorite. Dickens says:

"Cincinnati is a beautiful city; cheerful, thriving, and animated. I have not often seen a place that commends itself so favourably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as this does: with its clean houses of red and white, its well-paved roads, and footways of bright tile. Nor does it become less prepossessing on a closer acquaintance. The streets are broad and airy, the shops extremely good, the private residences remarkable for their elegance and neatness."

But in Cincinnati, Dickens witnesses a Temperance Convention. One tradition in America, it seems, up through the end of the Prohibition Era, has been the promotion of moderate drinking of alcohol. In these days, there was such a movement behind the promotion of moderate drinking that, apparently, it could have its own convention, and even a parade!

Now, Dickens had spent some time on a steamboat before he'd gotten to Cincinnati. And it was a rather harrowing experience. Steamboats were known to blow up on a regular basis, and Dickens always had to keep in mind the possibility of his exploding on a steamboat. And now -- at this Temperance Convention -- Dickens gets to see an fantastical allegory of -- exploding steamboats!

"The chief feature of this part of the show was a huge allegorical device, borne among the ship-carpenters, on one side whereof the steamboat Alcohol was represented bursting her boiler and exploding with a great crash, while upon the other, the good ship Temperance sailed away with a fair wind, to the heart's content of the captain, crew, and passengers."

Dickens also has moments when his power of description combines with his power of fancy -- but when his power of description definitely has the upper hand, as fanciful as the description may seem. Probably the best example of this is Dickens' description of the Mississippi River:

"But what words shall describe the Mississippi, great father of rivers, who (praise be to Heaven) has no young children like him! An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the interstices of which a sedgy lazy foam works up, to float upon the water's top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool, like wounded snakes. The banks low, the trees dwarfish, the marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather very hot, mosquitoes penetrating into every crack and crevice of the boat, mud and slime on everything: nothing pleasant in its aspect, but the harmless lightning which flickers every night upon the dark horizon."

But Dickens' powers of fancy blend together with his powers of perceptive description and reflection, creating some really sublime moments, in certain passages relating Dickens' experience of Niagara Falls. Here is the passage about Dickens' arrival to the Falls:

"It was a miserable day; chilly and raw; a damp mist falling; and the trees in that northern region quite bare and wintry. Whenever the train halted, I listened for the roar; and was constantly straining my eyes in the direction where I knew the Falls must be, from seeing the river rolling on towards them; every moment expecting to behold the spray. Within a few minutes of our stopping, not before, I saw two great white clouds rising up slowly and majestically from the depths of the earth. That was all. At length we alighted: and then, for the first time, I heard the mighty rush of water, and felt the ground tremble underneath my feet."

And here is Dickens, right in the moment of perception and reflection:

"When we were seated in the little ferry-boat, and were crossing the swollen river immediately before both cataracts, I began to feel what it was: but I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. It was not until I came on the Table Rock, and looked -- Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water! -- that it came upon me in its full might and majesty.

"Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one -- instant and lasting -- of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. Peace of Mind, tranquility, calm recollections of the Dead, great thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness: nothing of gloom or terror. Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, for ever."