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October 10, 2011

What Sally Draper must have been reading: Virginia Lee Burton and Mad Men

Virginia Lee Burton’s father was an engineer, and her mother was an artist, which is probably a surprise to nobody familiar with her work. Burton’s early books (Choo Choo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow) are celebrations of man’s power to harness his environment with the use of technology, Burton’s vivid illustrations investing her fascinating machines with life and personality. Even 80 years after the publication of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, that steam shovel Mary-Anne appeals to young readers, and part of that timelessness is that Mary-Anne’s story of technological prowess (she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men in a week) was already about nostalgia even when the book was new. Burton’s work does not become dated, because within it she has acknowledged the passage of time. Mary-Anne was already the relic of a dying age, steam shovels being replaced by diesel-powered diggers, and Burton showed even as she glorified technology that progress did not necessarily lead to better.

But the pastoral age that Mike Mulligan… hearkens back to is a pretty curious one. Children have always loved this book because children are fascinated by machinery and learning how things work (Burton: “Children have an avid appetite for knowledge. They like to learn, provided that the subject matter is presented to them in an interesting way”), but for an adult-reader to understand Mary-Anne as the story’s heroine represents a significant departure from how we in the 21st century have come to understand our relationship to the environment. Mary-Anne who can level hills to make roads for automobiles to drive on, and dig holes to turn grassland into skyscrapers, and is powered by filthy coal– that Burton’s steam shovel continues to be a lovable storybook character is a testament to the enduring qualities of her book as a whole.

Mike Mulligan was published in 1939, and in 1942, Burton published her most celebrated book, The Little House, which won the Caldecott Award that year (whose ceremony, it is noted in Barbara Elleman’s fascinating biography Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, was attended by Lillian Smith, president of the Children’s Library Association and head of children’s services at the Toronto Public Library). And from these dates and these books’ acclaim, we can only assume that both found a place within the personal library of Sally Draper, who was born in 1955. Unlike her parents, Sally is rarely seen reading (until Season 4 when she’s spotted with a Nancy Drew), so the contents of her early library can only be inferred, but if the connections between Burton’s world and the Man Men universe are any indication, these books should be an essential part of any Mad Men reading list.

Part of the appeal of both Mike Mulligan and Mad Men is our own nostalgia, but the nostalgia already implicit within these works’ conception of modernity makes our own present ring doubly hollow. In both works, the Future is now, and the present is shining, but something essential has been irrevocably lost, and it has been too late to turn back forever now.

Modernity is symbolized by the city in Mad Men, and also in Burton’s work, no more so than in The Little House. In both works, the city is to be escaped from, its edges a pastoral idyll, though in both works, the city is creeping. In Mad Men, this is shown by suburban life’s failure to be protection enough from the vices and sordidness the city entails. Even in Arcadia (ie Ossining NY), there is infidelity, family violence, divorce, and women lock themselves in the house all day, drinking too much and smashing chairs up. The outside world is brought in every night by the dad in his hat coming home on the train, and by the television’s incessant blare.

The creeping is literalised in Burton’s The Little House, which sits contentedly on its hill as the sun goes up and down, and as the seasons change. And then the lights of the city began to seem closer, and roads appear (courtesy of that same steam shovel we know so well from Mike Mulligan, as Harriet is always delighted to point out). There are new houses, and then the buildings around the house grow higher, and a subway is dug underneath, and trams run back and forth, and eventually the house is left abandoned and unloved in the middle of an urban wasteland. (And in this book, indeed, Burton has presaged and synthesized the ideas of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs).

But the book’s conclusion is as curious as is Mary-Anne’s status as hero instead of villain. The story of The Little House is resolved when a great-great grandaughter of the man who’d built the house discovers the place in its derelict state, and decides to move it back out to the countryside. Traffic is halted as the house is lifted up from its foundations and placed on a truck, then driven down a big road, then a small road, and eventually the house is settled down on a little hill much like the one it once called home (before that first hill was levelled by a steam shovel). Same apple trees and flowers, and the house can see the sky again, the sunrise in the morning, the moon shining high at night. “The stars twinkled all around her…/ A new moon was coming up…/ It was Spring…/ and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.”

The first few times I read this book as an adult, I figured the moral had something to do with white flight, and the death and death of the American city. Until I realized that Burton hadn’t presaged Carson/Jacobs so much, and then I thought about the book in the context of its own time, and Mad Men’s. The story’s point, according to Elleman’s book, is that “the further away we get from nature and the simple way of life the less happy we are.” It is a story of the environment with man still at its centre, and with this notion of the city as a place to move away from is an understanding that the space “away out there” is infinite, inexhaustible. (See Kathryn Davis’s Hell and the spaces at the back of medicine cabinets for razor blade disposal in the mid 20th century house– that throwing something “away” was to make it disappear.)

In “The Gold Violin” (Mad Men, Season 2), the Drapers retreat further from urban/suburban life by partaking in a rare family outing, a picnic (although they get there in a brand new Cadillac, so modernity has certainly not been left behind). At the end of the picnic (which has involved smoking while horizontal and peeing behind trees), Betty Draper picks up the picnic blanket and shakes away accumulated rubbish, letting it fall down onto the grass where she’ll leave it.

As in Burton’s The Little House, the world away out there is still ours for the taking, to be used and made noble by our relationship to it.

August 25, 2011

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

I still haven’t watched the fourth season of Mad Men— I’d like to fix the world in order to have Mad Men perpetually before me. We recently rewatched Season 1 though, and got so much out of it– partly because we watched it first time around when Harriet was still so small, so concentration was limited, plus somehow we missed the pivotal “Babylon” episode, so no wonder I felt the narrative was a little out of sync. It’s an extraordinarily good show, no doubt about it now. Though I have feelings for Don Draper in a way that I haven’t harbored for any imaginary person since Dylan McKay in the early 1990s.

My Mad Men reading also continues– I’m still making my way through The Collected Stories of John Cheever. For literary illumination into Betty Draper, I had the pleasure of The Torontonians last winter. And I’ve just finished reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, which is a little bit Peggy Olson, a little bit Joan Holloway, not to mention a book that Don Draper himself was seen reading once in bed. (He looks at Betty. “This is fascinating.”)

The Best of Everything is the story of a group of women working at a publishing company in New York City during the early 1950s. Their lives are not especially intertwined, the narrative follows them separately, but they each begin in the same place, working in the typing pool. Smart, beautiful Caroline Bender has been recently jilted by her fiance and is looking for a way to direct her life without him– she has her sights on becoming an editor, but her boss Miss Farrow knows it and is determined to keep Caroline from succeeding (because there is only so much success for women to go around, of course.)

April Morrison is a gorgeous girl from Colorado with no such ambition. She just wants to fit in, and she does after a while. Once she figures out how to reject the advances of her lecherous boss, that is, and reinvents herself with a stylish haircut and new clothes paid for on her charge card. When she lands herself a rich boyfriend, she figures she’s got it made, and it takes her a long time (and an abortion) to realize that he’s been stringing her along. Ever the optimist, however, she starts sleeping with every other boy who comes along in home that one of them will fall in love and make her the wife she yearns to be.

Caroline’s roommate Gregg only lasts at the publishing company a short time. She’s an actress, and she has promise, and she also has a prized contact in David Wilder Savage, the theatre director who becomes her boyfriend. Or he’s kind of her boyfriend– when they show up at the same parties, he always brings her home, but she can never stay. She longs to sew curtains for his bare kitchen windows, and in spite of the openness, there’s always more going on in his life than she is privy to. Eventually, he puts her at a distance and that begins to make do some crazy things.

Then there’s Barbara Lemont, who’s divorced and relies on her job to support her little daughter. When someone finally falls in love with her, every single thing is right about him except that he is married. And there’s Brenda, who’s getting married, and Mary Agnes the office gossip, who is getting married too, and for those two, the job is a stop-gap. But then it never is entirely:  “It’s funny, she thought, that before she had ever had a job she had always thought of an office as a place where people came to work, but now it seemed as if it was a place where they also brought their private lives for everyone else to look at, paw over, comment on and enjoy.”

It’s all a bit of a soap opera, and the endings are too easy, but it all culminates into something more than that, and the book becomes utterly absorbing. Fascinating too that these are the women John Cheever’s characters leave behind when they take the train to Westchester at the end of the day, the kind of women that Betty Draper and Karen Whitney wonder about, when Betty and Karen are the women these women long to be. Almost. And it reminds me of the thing I keep forgetting whenever I think about 20th century history, which was that people were having sex in the 1950s, and willy-nilly to boot. That the more things change, the more they stay the same, and why do stories of beautiful people with terrible lives always seem so incredibly appealing?

January 18, 2011

The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young (and Betty Draper)

Phyllis Brett Young’s 1960book The Torontonians is not necessarily to be read as a stunning example of the novel form. The satire and irony have been rendered most unsubtle in the years since its first publication, so that The Torontonians reads more like Cyra McFadden’s The Serial than a remarkable work of literature. Remarkable, however, The Torontonians most certainly is when it is read for its feminist content and Toronto setting. It’s a fun read too, and in places very funny.

Published three years before Betty Friedan’s book, The Torontonians is The Feminine Mystique put to fiction, except that Young makes clear what most modern readers of The Feminine Mystique miss: the new woman problem is not so much with the domestic sphere itself, but rather with what consumerism has done to it. Women have never had it so good, except that their labour has been alienated from production via labour saving devices, which don’t actually save labour but just create more jobs to do. And then they’re expected to be fulfilled by the material goods that decorate their houses, and adorn their yards, and when they fail to be, nobody can imagine what could possibly have gone wrong. In its critique of consumer society, Young’s novel anticipates Atwood’s The Edible Woman.

The Torontonians also employs that setting so familiar from Atwood: the city of Toronto. London’s creeping here too, as Karen Whitney’s home on the city’s outskirts overnight becomes the centre of suburban Rowanwood (which was modelled on Leaside). One of the most enduring images of the novel is the Whitney’s buckweed lawn, which they’re forced to spend a summer painstakingly installing because they can’t afford to lay down sod but also realize their neighbours are running out of patience with their uncultivated grass. Rowanwood is the kind of neighbourhood in which a house with just one bathroom is frowned upon for dragging down the market value of the others.

In her novel, Young paints a picture of Toronto in the midst of transition, juxtaposing the suburbs against downtown where Karen had grown up in the Annex neighbourhood. She writes of a Toronto elite (“the Masseys and the masses”) who were all familiar through family connections, and attended the same private schools. But the city, howeer constant in its hum, is always changing. With some of her scenes set against pre-CN Tower aerial views, she shows that no one ever steps into the same city twice.

Young’s novel is a historical document, and deliberately so, as as the book’s introduction makes clear. She thought it was important that writers document the way people lived then, and so we get a story in which doctor and patient both smoke during an examination at the Medical Arts Building at Bloor and St. George. We read about a city in which the subway was new, New Canadians were usually Hungarian, downtown high rise apartments were novel (and an exotic dream for the bored housewives of Rowanwood). There is the Peyton Place-ish suburban sex too, and a very funny line about who’d do what in Loblaws, but Young shows restraint here. By the end of the book it is quite clear that her people are not caricatures, and the narrative rises above plot cliches.

(The Torontonians is also very, very Betty Draper, and is the first Mad Men-ish book of a few I will be reading in the next while. The others are The Collected Works of John Cheever, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. Any other suggestions?)

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