Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.

Penman No. 284: A Passion for the Past

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Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018

 

 

DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.

That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.

But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces. I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.

About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.

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Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.

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Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.

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It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.

And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.

As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.

The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!

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Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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