Monday, November 17, 2008

News and views

On Monday evening, January 13, 1840, the steamship Lexington went ablaze in Long Island Sound, on her usual run between New York and Stonington, Connecticut, where she connected with the Boston train. She carried 143 crew and passengers, and 150 bales of cotton. The fire soon raged out of control, the ship's three lifeboats foundered, and passengers and crew were forced to choose between fire and freezing water. One-hundred-and-thirty-nine people died. There were only four survivors.

A new lithographic firm in New York produced a wildly popular hand-colored print of the conflagration -- and so it was Currier and Ives became to 19th-century America what CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are to the country today.

In 1942 my mother acquired a newly published volume of Currier and Ives prints, presumably from the Book-of-the-Month Club, of which she was an avid member. I was six years old. No television in those days. That book of prints was almost as exciting to me as to 19th-century Americans.

Oh, sure, there was lots of boring stuff. Pictures of quaint New England villages. Scenes of hunting and fishing. Racehorses. A lot of sentimental claptrap. But exciting things too. Ship wrecks. Steamboat races. Whales smashing the boats of whalers. Pittsburgh and Chicago in flames. Gunships wreaking havoc on the Mississippi. The burning of New York's Crystal Palace. Brunel's Great Eastern. Roebling's Niagara Suspension Bridge. I must have spent a lot of time looking at these prints because they are still fresh in my memory.

The other day I went looking to see if that same volume is in the college library. Yes, two copies in fact. And the prints are just as I remembered them. What I hadn't remembered were the many prints of "niggas" and "Dark Town" meant to be humorous, even after a catastrophic war had been fought to end slavery. Early suffragettes garnered ridicule, as did "injuns" and drunken Irishmen.

The lithographic process pioneered in this country by Currier and Ives was cutting edge technology at the time. The prints the company produced helped several generations of Americans define themselves. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC surely play an equally significant role in defining the self-image of the current generation of Americans. I'm not sure that what we see and hear always appeals to "the better angels of our natures."