Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mr. Pooter Remembers the Fifth of November

To mark the day, Mr. Pooter's account of a firework party:

From, of course, George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, first published in Punch magazine, 1888-1889. Here's the original appearance of the entry above - from November 24, 1888. And because there's nothing, but nothing, more Pooterish than blogging, a couple of thoughts...

I'm not sure if I properly read Diary of a Nobody when young, but certain parts of the book were proverbial in our house - the blancmange, Cummings and Gowing - so Pooter's misadventures were familiar to me, though no less delightful for that. I was refreshing the acquaintanceship as part of my amorphous, ongoing reading explorations in mid to late nineteenth century British literature - not so much as an escape from years spent in an imagined America, but as a way of trying to better think through the Transatlantic dynamic at this point. And what was surprising to me was that, here as elsewhere in my recent reading adventures (Braddon, Ouida, others), I couldn't have escaped America even if I'd wanted to.

Because in ways that I hadn't remembered or known, Diary of a Nobody is a profoundly Transatlantic text, and expressive of a significant Transatlantic cultural moment. It's there in small moments, like Pooter's painting disaster: "I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over," he tells us, "resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East-End theatre." And it's there writ large in the character of Hardfur Huttle, who might embody a brash, rich, "progressive" American spirit that appears to be directly at odds with Pooter and all he holds dear, but who also acts a Yankee deus ex machina at the book's conclusion, his "rich American friend" providing the dollars that ultimately secure Pooter's suburban contentment (not to mention Pooter's dream-vision of himself as President in the White House). And it's there, too, in the character of Lupin, whose behaviour, mystifying to the older generation, also seems to be "American" in spirit: when Pooter and Carrie marvel at "How like Lupin!" Hardfur Huttle is, Pooter is "kept [...] awake half the night" with worry.

I'll return to the Braddon and Ouida examples sometime soon. In the meantime, it's interesting to note that, however tightly connected British and American cultures might have been, there were still things that were lost in translation (and, as a sidebar, it's been interesting as a reader to note just how different the British mise en scène feels to me at this point, returning home after all these years). When The New York Times reviewed Diary of a Nobody on December 19 1892, they were not amused by the "everyday joking" of their "cousins across the water":

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