As mundane as the phrase everyday life may seem, it can be an extraordinary notion. Think about how the major players in the French salons during the ancien régime believed their everyday lives would be relevant after they were long gone because they were advancing human gracefulness and intelligence. They were certainly right, as they uttered some of the smartest repartee ever spoken and created historically significant philosophies we reference still.
Everyday Life as Literary Concept
My understanding of just how profoundly they succeeded has grown as I have made my way through Benedetta Craveri’s book The Age of Conversation, which surveys the great salons of France during the 1600s and 1700s. The narrative she wrote sets the scenes so stunningly that it almost feels as if I am personally involved in the evolution of language, literature and the arts they instigated. This has led me to ask why the activities in America’s historic drawing rooms never reached the refinement the French achieved, and why we have never been as elegant a society as theirs was.
What is it about America that leached much of the charm from our culture? I wondered as I read about Madame de Lambert’s salon in which she brought together the literati and socialites of the day. We’ve always been an inquisitive culture, but in such a scrappy way that lacks the sophistication of the French salonières. Why is that? And it isn’t just now; a look at our literary history, particularly during the last gasp of higher manners in this country, proves only a few Americans managed to bring a studied level of sophistication to their lives, and they were as much products of Europe as they were of our country.
The father of novelist Henry James, for instance, intentionally sent his sons to Europe to give them a “better sensuous education” than they could have received in the religious fervor that ruled during America’s early centuries. Edith Wharton cut and run as soon as she had the courage to do so, as did Natalie Barney (and a host of others). In case this sounds unpatriotic, I don’t mean it to be a put-down. It’s just that the observations inspired by Craveri’s book sent me down a rabbit hole I now have to work my way out of, the salon era being the bedrock upon which I find myself standing.
Moving up the terrain to the 1800s, it’s no different: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Baudelaire were publishing poetic masterpieces while America’s gestalt had produced the downtrodden Edgar Allan Poe. This is not a criticism of his work, which I greatly admire. It’s an observation of his everyday life as a newspaperman wanting so desperately to be respected as an author and poet while being denied this privilege until after his demise. As I climb further and we near the top of the burrow, the 1900s come into view. During this century, the media world Poe had resented would birth New Journalism in America, the movement holding sway in newspapers and magazines throughout the 1960s and 70s.
This group of writers is the closest I have to an identifiable heritage since I began my professional writing career as a weekly newspaper reporter for the North County News (NCN) in Yorktown, NY. That led to features for The New York Times and design writing for shelter publications. NCN folded in 2011 after I was long gone, suffering the fate of so many small publications after the real estate meltdown of 2009.
When I look back to those chaotic days as a staff reporter, I’m grateful to have had the experience because I was able to prove my writing chops beyond academia where I had been trying to strengthen them before I sold my soul to the newswire. My beat was Ossining, the home of Sing Sing prison, where I would cover community affairs and politics. I was pretty low even on the journalism totem pole at the time, my reportage a far cry from the accomplishments of the New Journalists that I longed to emulate (though I was the only one to blame because I lacked the courage to try). I was an even greater distance from the intelligentsia that blossomed under the House of Bourbon, so I soothed my ego by telling myself at least I was a working writer and this worked some of the time.
The Reportage of Everyday Life
Today is May Day, and in case the reference brings to mind heathen celebrations during its earliest days or maypoles fitted with brightly colored ribbons in Victorian times, my perspective changed during my years in NYC when I learned that the day provides Gotham’s workers the opportunity to march for their rights. Union Square is bedlam when the day rolls around so I would always try to steer clear of the area. The one year I didn’t have a choice when a meeting drew me to that part of town, I marveled at the spectacle that unfolded.
It was 2011 when I witnessed the parade from a nail salon where I had decided to have a Mani/Pedi, the glass-encased storefront the perfect spot to watch the parade as it poured down Broadway. As I enjoyed the tingle of the grainy mint exfoliant the aesthetician Saru was massaging into my calves, I realized I was the epitome of an overindulgent slacker. With the overworked and underpaid protesting a few feet away, I pulled a handful of reading materials from my bag in the hopes of distracting myself from my culpability, settling into the roomy chair with a printout of Tom Wolfe’s article “The Birth of ‘The New Journalism.’”
The Birth of New Journalism
My decision to read the piece, which was first published in New York Magazine in 1972, was motivated by my need to push myself beyond the rut I was suffering through after concentrating on travel writing and features for shelter publications for almost a decade. It turned out to be a serendipitous choice because I wasn’t even through the first paragraph when it hit me how perfect my salon situation was in the context of Wolfe’s article. The writers now known as new journalists, literary journalists or intimate journalists, depending upon who was writing about them, had made it their mission to focus their reportage around everyday life. Here I was having the opportunity to do the same.
My feelings of guilt turned to gratitude as I grabbed my pen to get the gist of my experience down on paper. What is more germane to “the everyday” than the frustrations of a sizeable chunk of New York’s workforce clogging one of the city’s most famous avenues? I asked myself as I filled page after page of my writers notebook. I scribbled as fast as I could to capture the flavor of the spectacle that began with a triad of cabs, their pyramid-shaped signs atop their roofs normally emblazoned with advertisements for Broadway shows, strip clubs or airline deals were taped over with white paper onto which “Immigration Reform” had been sketched in large, crude letters.
A guy with a bullhorn followed, his boisterous voice grating against the classical music being piped into the salon. Meant to soothe customers into forgetting the world at large, the digitized strains of the violins that normally worked to screen the noise of the streets was helpless against the din on this particular afternoon. I thanked the writing gods for my good fortune as the deliciously hot water of the whirlpool messaged my feet while the drips and drabs of people in the street turned into critical mass.
The glob of a crowd was preceded by a bank of photographers and videographers from various media outlets walking backwards as they snapped shots and recorded footage, glancing behind them every so often to confirm they weren’t about to trip over something on the roadbed. The management types and politicians being immortalized by them looked amused to be the center of attention, their smug expressions seeming to say “better to gloat quietly than to draw attention to our power lest we irritate our minions throbbing behind us as they brandish their banners like swords.”
A wave of policemen strolling along behind them was followed by the noisiest protestors up to that point. They were pounding their drums so frenetically the energy was reminiscent of scenes in films depicting warring battalions during the crusades. A fully outfitted band stomped by just behind them, their street music forceful and proud—the thronk of the dented tuba pulsing vibrations into the salon through its unpolished body, its surface blemished by the type of wear that made it seem as if it had a metal version of vitiligo.
Nonfiction Becomes as Respectable as the Novel
Finally, the worker-bees surged forward. I could tell this group was less powerful because their signs were smaller and their tiny flags were interspersed with only the occasional banner fastened to plain wooden frames. These were quite meager in comparison to the shining gold ones hoisted by the leading contingent. As Saru wrapped my legs in plastic sheaths and covered them in hot towels so the rich lotion she’d applied could soak deeper into my skin, Wolfe set the scene for his era of literary development, explaining that the path to New Journalism was similar to the novel’s humble beginnings in England during the 1850s.
Before each set of writers had transformed their disciplines into respectable literary classifications, he pointed out how the early novelists were considered by the establishment to be as lowly in class as he and his coterie of slick magazine journalists were a century later. “In both cases, we are watching the same process,” he wrote. “We are watching a group of writers coming along, working in a genre regarded as lower class, who discover the joys of detailed realism and its strange powers.”
Declaring that fiction and nonfiction were finally literary equals, he made me realize that I sit on the timeline of literature’s progression as the next iteration of the low bar—a blogger. This word is bandied about in elite literary circles as if it describes the bottom feeders of the writing world. After the newness of having the ability to publish my own work wore off, this fact used to make me cringe on the inside as I was identified as a member of the blogging community. I think this is why I have kept my journalism career alive even after it became the least financially viable segment of my career and why I have given up so many weekends to pull together manuscripts that help me retain my designation as an author.
The Layers of a Writing Life
As this piece began to take shape, my true feelings about where I find myself in my writing life surprised me. This is because I realize I’ve transformed my version of blogging into something I truly enjoy. When I write posts for myself, I am quite present—it’s just me telling the stories I want to tell. I do hope they will please readers or somehow provoke deeper thinking—a quest I feel stretches all the way back to the salon era of France—but I find I’m now writing for my own satisfaction.
Though I still often feel I was born in the wrong era, I see that I am the result of a natural progression. Not only am I a product of a stair-stepping onslaught of informality that has been taking place since the French Revolution, I’m a circumstance of my nationality, my upbringing and my era. The trajectory that extends forward from the ancien régime brought with it untold adjustments in dress and manners. As these became more casual, writing distanced itself from formalism, a tack that is becoming more pronounced everyday given we have sold out to the conversational online and a move toward artificial intelligence. Within these circumstances, even essays can feel stilted.
Writers like Robert Pirsig see this as a positive. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he wrote, “The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is. People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.”
Wolfe had his own description for what Pirsig deems God-talk. He wrote that he’d do anything to avoid it because it brought a hush to his voice that sounded to him like “a radio announcer at a tennis match.” I do see their point since the thing I enjoy about blogging is that I manage to lose this holier-than-thou tone. I would go so far as to say that blogging has taught me to achieve a relaxed way of relating—me (one person) simply talking to you, reader (one person). That said, I see essays as equally important to my work because they strengthen a different muscle and help me to tell more fully developed stories. And this goes 100-fold for the manuscripts I continue to hone.
Everyday life was different in 2011 and the decade and a half before when I was churning out the articles that fitted perfectly within the wells of many a slick magazine while simultaneously wishing I felt greater significance in what I was contributing to the history of my craft. It was a heady reminder as I read Wolfe’s article because he put into writing that he felt similarly frustrated: “There was a kind of Olympain club where the new golden boys met face-to-face every Sunday afternoon in New York, namely, the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street…Ah! There’s Jones! There’s Mailer! There’s Styron! There’s Baldwin! There’s Willingham! In the flesh—right here in this room. The scene was strictly for novelists, people who were writing novels, and people who were paying court to The Novel. There was no room for a journalist unless he was there in the role of would-be novelist or simple courtier of the great.”
Wolfe would go on to publish 14 books, novels of high standing like The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff among these, but he was still a feature writer in the pre-literary journalism days when he set the scene at the White Horse. “There was no such thing as a literary journalist working for popular magazines or newspapers. If a journalist aspired to literary status—then he had better have the sense and the courage to quit the popular press and try to get into the big league.” Along with other journalists who were ditching their paid gigs to bang out their first novels, he was realizing the writers “knocking their brains out as freelancers for popular magazines” were guaranteed to stay anonymous. This last declaration cut through me like a knife as I watched the throngs of humanity floating past, the end of my manicure moving me closer to the windows at the nail-drying station facing the street.
As the parade wound down, detectives sealed within their cruisers brought up the rear—the red, white and blue lights flashing from grilles, headlights and taillights coupled with the darkened windows signaled the cargo within them had serious power. Sirens wailed just as the last humans passed, their orange and yellow DayGlo vests shining brilliant in the early evening light. Saru tapped me on the shoulder to alert me that someone else needed my spot just as the cleaning crew showed up. I thanked the beautiful nougat-skinned girl as she flooded my pretty violet toenails with oil and slid my shoes onto my soft feet.
I struggled into my jacket as the workers began to sweep the aftermath of the merriment into piles and shovel it into plastic garbage cans they rolled forward on casters. The lights from the police cruisers turned the skin of these unluckiest of the day’s workers to a sickly shade of blue while much of mine glowed healthily after all the pampering I’d enjoyed. I wrestled my bag filled with magazines to my shoulder and walked out into the chilly air headed for the Q train.
On the subway on the way back to Brooklyn, I thought about how my move to New York City had been motivated by my desire to be a working writer and a published author. How would my life have changed if I’d had the guts to throw my hat in a bigger ring by vying for a staff job at The Paris Review, The New Yorker or The Atlantic? I wondered as the train trundled over the Manhattan Bridge. I’ll never know, of course, which makes me glad I have created my own corner of the writing world here where I can explore so many layers of everyday life in an almost infinite number of eras, my own nod to the literary legacies that were born within each of them as satisfying as anything I’ve ever written.
The Modern Salonière and Everyday Life as a Literary Concept © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by