Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Last week’s essay concerning the vanishing jalopy didn’t attract any public comment, but I had a small blitz of personal email about it.  Only some of the messages concerned automobilia; the larger theme was cultural erasure or amnesia generally—things that used to be around, but seem to have disappeared, or that we have simply forgotten.  Most of these were material: 78rpm-records, blocks of ice delivered by guys with huge tongs, glass milk bottles, that sort of thing.  But whole tribes of human beings also vanished.  Two Jehova’s Witnesses came to my door last week.  They were the first in at least a decade, probably two or three decades, and the exception that reminded me of all the people who don’t come anymore, especially Fuller Brush salesmen.  If the term “Fuller Brush Man” is meaningless to you, it simply proves my point.

            One terrible impoverishment of American culture is the general disappearance of eccentricity.  Where have all the eccentrics gone?  The demise of my last two beloved aunts, who both died within the last decade, deprived me of my last vital familial connection to genuine eccentricity.  These two marvelous old ladies lived together for much of their long lives in a ramshackle farmhouse built by one of their brothers (and my uncles) following the directions in an old set of Audel building guides.  Although they were voracious readers of public library books, these volumes, along with a large Bible, some nineteenth-century Masonic and Freethinking stuff deriving from my grandfather, and what seemed to be the complete works of O. Henry, made up the core of their highly eclectic permanent home collection.

            Once when I was quite young and all their other, elder siblings were still around I picked up one of the soiled infidel tracts, a laudatory biography of Voltaire.  Among the many reasons the author found to admire the famous philosophe was that he had publicly ridiculed “the cult of the prepuce of Jesus Christ.”  With a large family group gathered around the dinner table, I asked my Aunt Mildred, now long gone, “What’s a prepuce?”  She turned bright red, but said only “Johnny!”  When years later I found out I was more struck by the erudition than the prudery.  I noticed that book still on the shelves in 2006, at the time of my Aunt Louise’s funeral.
Baxter County, Arkansas, 2004; Aunt Louise at the computer; in the background Aunt Edith, aet. 90
They generally dressed in what appeared to be the unsold items from a really scruffy yard sale.  Their eyes were so weakened that they seemed never to notice that there was about a quarter of an inch of dust on everything—everything but the Scrabble board, that is, which was in daily use.  Their hearing was also impaired, so that all communication, including that emanating from the television set, was at a level somewhere between a shout and a bellow.  I rather imagine a conversation between Hardy and Lord Nelson on the quarterdeck during a typhoon.  To cross their threshold really was to enter an alternate universe.             

            It was a delightful realm, of course.  For there is all the difference in the world between an authentic eccentric and the very strange people one sees in the subway.  An eccentric is not a weirdo, a wino, a sicko, or a psycho.  Eccentricity is not pathology, but self-confident and unaffected individuality developed to a remarkable degree.  It was from my Aunt Louise that I must have inherited the journalistic impulse.  For many years she published a column in the local newspaper.  It was aptly entitled “A Little Off Center”.

            The chief cause of the decline of wholesome eccentricity is not difficult to identify.  It is the general homogenization of culture.  The more we text and tweet and generally do our thing the more like everybody else’s thing it becomes.  The current paucity of eccentrics is a result of historical changes long underway.  The Golden Age of Eccentricity was probably the period between 1750 and 1900 or so.  Among the old books in my own library into which I dip from time to time is a wonderful volume by John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (London, 1875).  Since this is an anthology of English eccentrics, domestic animals naturally make frequent appearance.  We are all familiar with the little old lady who leaves everything to the cat; but all this pales in comparison with the habitual behavior of the Rev. Henry Egerton, the son of the Bishop of Durham, and the eighth Earl of Bridgewater.  

 The Earl of Bridgewater

            This learned and bibliophilic nobleman took up residence in Paris, where he became an expert collector of early French literature.  (The Egerton manuscripts in the British Library are today among its notable medieval collections.)   His lordship preferred canine to human company and was wont to give elaborate dinner parties for his numerous dogs, all of them sumptuously appareled and seated at his dinner table.  “If he be lent a book, he carries his politeness so far as to send it back, or rather have it conveyed home, in a carriage,” writes one contemporary observer.  “He gives orders that two of his most stately steeds be caparisoned under one of his chariots and the volume, reclining at ease in milord’s landau, arrives, attended by four footmen in costly livery at the door of its astonished owner.  His carriage is frequently to be seen filled with his dogs.”

 milord Egerton's dinner party