W J Turner's Miss America
About 15 years ago I built twelve feet of glass fronted bookshelves, floor to ceiling, in the back room. These unfortunately cover the only socket in the room, so I have to pull a handful of books out each time to plug and unplug lamps. The handful I pulled out yesterday included W J Turner's Miss America from 1930, sandwiched between The Razor's Edge and Reading English Silver Hallmarks. I don't ever remember seeing it before, which is a problem with libraries – one forgets what one has.
Today if someone wants to rant about something they blog it. This book is 169 septets about the daughter of an architect who, dismayed at how his skyscrapers last only twenty years before being replaced, travels to Europe and comes up against a kind of decadence that really depresses him. Meanwhile his daughter glimpses another kind of life, of freedom, gender ambiguity, equality, but returns to the US for a conventional marriage which ends in a Reno divorce.
Miss America is a long meditation on the gaucheness of all new world cultures compared to Europe. Turner was Australian and in the 20s and 30s was on the edge of the Bloomsbury group and Ottoline Morell's Garsington parties. They loved tall handsome colonials, especially those who wrote poetry. They were seen as a kind of curiosity – the same attitude they had to Mark Gertler, the painter who was beautiful, Jewish and from East London.
Here, the evanescence of the American city and its buildings means that in the US nothing need last, nothing is important enough for any kind of commitment. There is no longue durée. Strangely, this is not liberating at all, everything becomes measured and rote, fulfilling functional requirements only.
But Time to his employers was more real
To be amortized duly to a dime—
"In twenty years we pull the damn thing down
Two decades is too long for one old town!"
Those words 'the damn thing' sank into his brain,
What a description for each fair creation
With which he laboured to adorn his city!
Upon each site and prospect lay this stain—
Most durable of arts (life can be witty!)
To flourish so conspicuously in a nation
That builds for change and never for duration!
I live in a city which, like 1920s Philadelphia in the long poem, is in a continual process of tearing itself down in response to development pressure, to make room for the bigger and the newer. In theory this ought to give architects and their clients great scope for innovation and invention, but instead it seems to entrench a conservatism that is unwarranted. Turner was writing about this in 1930.