Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Well Honed Memory

the  reelacroy

the sharpest edges ever owned

            It’s somewhere around 1950, and I’m sprawled on the floor of my Uncle Wayne’s bizarre loft-bedroom in his homemade farmhouse in Baxter County, Arkansas.  Wayne himself is sort of crouched on his bed.  It’s dark, but I can make him out in the faint glow of the radio diode.  Now and again a flaring match briefly illuminates the whole weird room as he lights a homemade cigarette, its tube of reelacroy paper expertly glued with his spittle.  The radio’s volume is set very low so as to leave undisturbed the house’s many sleepers, and we listen intently.  What we are hearing is the play-by-play of a Saint Louis Cardinals’ game.  And there it is, the unmistakable rich slap of ash wood against taut leather, the signature sound of Stan-the-Man Musial hitting it long, long…

Stan the Man (note the smoothness of the chin)

            Musial featured no less prominently in the recorded advertisements played between innings.  There he sang the praises of Gillette shaving gear, and especially of Gillette Blue Blades®, “with the sharpest edges ever owned”.  He would apparently own no other.  And how fervently I, too, beardless child that I was, longed to own them.  Only much later, and then accidentally, did I come to realize that Stan’s word was not owned, but honed.  The word hone derives from OE hån, meaning a whetstone.  You don’t make razor blades sharp by owning them but by honing them.

            I should have known that even as a child, but the mind can cheerfully accommodate and rationalize almost any error.   That is no doubt why to this very day whenever I consult a certain of my favorite reference books—as I frequently do—I am likely to conjure up in my mind the pleasant whiff of loose Bull Durham tobacco and the crackle of an old radio.  For the three-volume reference to which I refer make up Hone’s Popular Works and Everlasting Calendar, consisting of the Year Book and two volumes of the Every-Day Book and Table-Book.  I bought up these treasures for a song early in my student years in England in the late 1950’s, when they were already more than 120 years old.  
William Hone

            William Hone (1780-1842), though no longer a household name, was one of the world’s most successful purveyors of household literature—what might be called coffee-table books that people actually read.  He was also an insufficiently appreciated hero in the continuing struggle for intellectual freedom.  We are so used in this country to talking about the iniquities of the “religious right” that we risk forgetting just how much of political liberty we owe to the “religious left”.  Hone came from a modest dissenting family.  He was self-educated, and in his formative years the only book his father would allow him to read was the Bible.  He became a printer and a bookseller, and spent much of his life in and out of bankruptcy and even the debtor-prison.

            He was the master of the trenchant political parody, often undertaken in collaboration with the genius radical artist George Cruikshank, most famous as the illustrator of Charles Dickens.  A famous series of pamphlets in 1817 were constructed in the form of parodies of several texts In the Anglican Prayer Book: the litany, the Athanasian Creed, and the catechism.  They were not making fun of these religious texts, of course, but drawing on their energies to make fun of a meretricious administration.  Nonetheless the Tory establishment pressed a prosecution for blasphemy, which eventuated in three separate trials—trials that now are regarded as milestones in the march of British liberty.  The deadly earnest of the government is suggested by the fact that the Lord Chief Justice (Ellenborough) personally presided at two of the trials.  Yet juries boldly acquitted Hone on all three charges, and he was carried from the court as a conquering hero on the shoulders of the Friends of Liberty.  The legal historian Baron Campbell later wrote in his Lives of The Chief Justices that “The popular opinion was that Lord Ellenborough was killed in Hone’s trial, and he certainly never held up his head in public after.”

Hone himself went on to achieve temporary sufficiency if not affluence with the eventual success of his domestic encyclopedias.  Don’t ask me what is in them.  Everything is in them.  His Every-Day Book has to be one of the most prolific and delightful literary phantasmagorias ever recorded in print.  Occasionally one has whiffs of his radical and republican sensibilities, but mainly it is just any damned thing that comes into his mind in relation to each of the 365 days of the year.

Should you turn to today’s pages, those for December 6th, you would learn first that this day is sacred to Saint Nicholas.  Hone then gathers various vaguely Nicolaian items and presents them in no particular order.  Some medieval English document, in its account of the church of Saint Nicholas in Jerusalem, tells us that “the gronde ys good for Norces that lake mylk for their children.”  It was on December 6th, Hone tells us, in the year 1826, that the Times newspaper revealed the grisly punishment, meted out in absentia in a Parisian court, to the naughty composer Nicholas Bochsa.  (He was to be sent to the galleys and branded with the letters TF, travail forcé.  But they never caught him and he went on writing operas and running off with people’s wives) We then have a gobbet of lore about the “boy bishop” (with its obvious Nicholas themes); but the main article concerns Henry Jenkins, who departed this life on December 6th, 1670, at the age of one hundred and sixty-nine.  Jenkins, otherwise obscure, was apparently the oldest human being since biblical times.  “Born when the Roman catholic religion was established, Jenkins saw the supremacy of the pope overturned; the dissolution of the monasteries, popery re-established, and at last protestant religion securely fixed on a rock of adamant.  In his time the invincible armada was destroyed; the republic of Holland was formed; three queens were beheaded, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Mary queen of Scots; a king of Spain was seated upon the throne of England; a king of Scotland was crowned king of England at Westminster, and his son and successor was beheaded before his own palace; lastly, the great fire in London happened in 1666, at the latter end of his wonderfully long life.”
He lived longer than men who were stronger
And was too old to live any longer.

Were he still around Mr. Hone would surely appreciate the fact that today’s newspaper, dated December 6th, notes the death in Atlanta of Besse Cooper, aged 116, and until yesterday the oldest living person in the world.


  1. Don't you think it interesting that many of those on the "religious right" today, i.e. the "Evangelicals" whose ancestors came from the borderlands of the Irish Sea, are descended from, and worship in Churches from, the British "religious left" to which you allude? Have their opinions changed, or have the goalposts moved?

  2. An acute observation. I think that there are at least two problems. (1) The terms “left” and “right”, which derive from the architectural layout of the building in which the French Revolutionary parliamentarians debated, are largely irrelevant to the actualities of the current American scene; and (2) there is no longer much of a serious conversation between political thinkers and theologians. One of the crucial books of intellectual modernity was Spinoza’s "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus". Try to imagine a book with a similar title today.