Connections: An Experiment
As I sit and reflect on the life of Letitia Landon, her work, and its appearance in the gift books, it is the beginning of another holiday season, with every newspaper, product-oriented web site and all of the glossy magazine and other periodicals promoting many varieties of gifts, decorations, fashion, and food. All of this promotion toward one single day in December. Beyond the October to December bombardment of advertising and glitz, we now see similar marketing ploys prior to Valentines Day in February, Easter in the spring, and even Halloween in the fall. And, there are all of those Hallmark holidays that nobody knew about ten or twenty years ago. While researching the life and times of L.E.L. and her work, I read a lot about the increase in consumerism during the early 1800s, and I cant help but see the connections to our own consumer-driven economy. Today we are living a world that may be a direct result of what was taking root and beginning to grow in England in the 1800s.
The gift books of the early nineteenth century found a marketing niche with the women who were seeking a way to express their love for literature and art and to in a sense "show off" their bourgeois sensibilities and aesthetics. Is this any different from the consumerism we see today? Beyond the holiday season buying binges, we see "MacMansions" built in every suburb in America (and, I have noticed recently on BBC, England too), people who thrive on driving the newest, biggest, and best SUV at a huge cost financially and to the environment, and expensive (faux and otherwise) jewelry worn by young men and women in the inner city projects. Again, marketing experts have found this niche this flaw in our sensibilities which feeds on having what we see those in the class system just above ours owning. We are all trying to reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the first step is grabbing at what is just beyond our reach, or at least what we think we see that is just beyond our reach.
Just a few of the glitzy, glossy, glamorous magazines of today are Cosmopolitan, O, Martha Stewart Living, Glamour, Vogue, and even Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes and Garden. These magazines appeal to women of a certain age and demographic (determined, in my imagination, by one person sitting in a cubicle somewhere crunching numbers to determine which ad, runs on which page, in which magazine) and I believe they are designed to draw the attention of those who are not in an upper class demographic, rather they are designed to appeal to the middle class who want to pour over the magazines and dream of what could be, or what they cant have. This is a huge generalization, and speculation on my part, but the evidence could probably be found to support this, and Im not sure that marketing executives and magazine publishers would even deny this.
I have noticed in the last few years a backlash has occurred. People have become more sensitive to the notion of "living simply." A former advertising executive has started an organization called AdBusters that promotes "Buy Nothing Day" each year, the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year. All of this leads me to wonder whether there was a backlash of this sort in nineteenth century England. Were there people who intuitively reasoned that this new consumer-driven society could, in the long run, hurt rather than help people? From my research, I believe L.E.L. herself felt some guilt and remorse over her own desires to increase her income on the desires of women. I believe she also exaggerated what she wrote in some ways to emphasize that this "art" was not really aesthetically great, but merely a way for lower and middle class women to feel they were part of the upper class, if only in their desires.
This is not to imply that reading or subscribing to these magazines (or the gift books in the 1800s) is necessarily anti-feminist, or corrupting for women. Oppression is a lack of choices; being able to make the choice to purchase, read, and enjoy these publications is subverting oppression. If we, as women, can choose to do this, then perhaps this is a feminist statement. It took me a long time to come to this. A co-worker enjoys Harlequin romance novels, and she reads hundreds of them every year. For a long time I was (even though it is absolutely none of my business) why she read so much "fluff" when there was so much "good stuff" out there to read. But, finally it occurred to me that this woman was using the money she earns at her job, to purchase these books, which she thoroughly enjoys. She may, or may not, understand that the message the books send is a fantastical one, but she chooses to take time for herself to sit and read these novels. This is her chioce, and I, as a another woman who makes her own choices, has to respect the choice that my colleague is making, and remember that in another time, another place, and another society, she may not have been given that choice. This is her own feminist statement. Perhaps Landon was making her own feminist or subvesive statement in her poetry, or in her choice to publically publish the poetry which often examined feelings that clearly could not be examined in any other public format by a woman of her time and place.
Finally, one more connection that may be tenuous, but I noticed as I was pulling this all together. There is a lot of earlier commentary and criticism about L.E.L. and her "commodity poetry." Her works became a part of her mysterious and scandalous personality, and some critics argue that her work was commercially driven. Recently, author Stephen King addressed this in his speech at the 54th Annual National Book Awards presentation in New York City. King asked the literary audience to pay more attention to writers like him, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and others writers who are a huge commercial success, but who cannot find critical success. King asked, "What do you think? You get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?" and he asked for closure in the gap between "the so called popular fiction and the so called literary fiction" (CBC Art News).
I can see, again in my imagination, L.E.L. making a similar speech in her own time. However, 200 years later, are we re-reading and analyzing L.E.L. because she was a critical success? Or because of her historical standing as the most prolific and successful writer of the gift book craze? Or, because of the early feminist statement she made with her somewhat subversive eroticism? It may not be of any consolation to Stephen King that in 200 years his works will be looked at for their popularity and contribution to the popular culture, rather than their critical and aesthetic success.
All of this said, I have to admit that I subscribe to O magazine, as well as a few others. My worst personal vice (beyond my caffeine addiction, perhaps also a result of events of the eighteenth and nineteenth century England), is that I go to Wal Mart every Friday night to pick up my personal issue of People. I read, and even enjoy, King, Grisham, and the others. And, as soon as I finish this final exam, I will get in my car, go to the mall, and spend a lot of money on things that my friends, family, children and grandchildren dont need, but merely want. Although I do draw the line at the MacMansion and SUV, I am clearly immersed in the consumer culture and enjoy it, and yes, I feel the guilt.
Buy Nothing Day (every year, Friday after Thanksgiving)
Harlequin Romance Novel It's a CHOICE!
King, Grisham, Evanovich, and Roberts:Popular Fiction v. Literary Fiction
Some links for learning about Voluntary Simplicity and Sustainable Living:
Seventh Principle Project An Independent Affiliate Organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association "We affirm and promote . . . 7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Awakening Earth: Voluntary Simplicity - events, overview, and other resources
Natural Life: Voluntary Simplicity - how individuals can improve the quality of their lives and lessen their impact on the environment.
Exploring Voluntary Simplicity - resources for building the simple life.
Pierce Simplicity Study - includes books, newsletters, study circles, and other resources.
Living Lightly in Breadth and Depth - voluntary simplicity resources.
Simple Living - the journal of voluntary simplicity.
Countryside Magazine & Small Stock Journal - serving that branch of the Voluntary Simplicity movement seeking greater self-reliance (homesteading), with an emphasis on home food production.
Yes!, A Journal of Positive Futures - a quarterly journal of emerging movements for change, sustainable communities, environmental justice, voluntary simplicity, fair trade, and more.
Natural Life Magazine - news, resources and how-to about sustainable living, the environment, voluntary simplicity, personal and community self-reliance.