As we are coming towards the end of the 19th Century, I present an overview of the music and history of 1898 and 1899 – minstrel shows, vaudeville, cakewalk, the horribly-named “coon songs” and an exciting new genre called “ragtime.”
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This time, coming towards the end of the 19th Century, we present an overview of the music and history of 1898 and 1899 – minstrel shows, vaudeville, cakewalk, the horribly-named “coon songs” and an exciting new genre called “ragtime.” This is a one-off solo show from James, as Sean is ill, expect lots of talking with occasional bits of something else, but it’s all good, really it is, honest.
It might not be the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time, but the J’Accuse letter resonates all the way to the dark heart of the 20th Century like nothing else. Antisemitism, inter-European rivalries, the politics of industrial hate – it stands as both a grim foretelling of these forces and an example of the moral and intellectual forces that would stand against them.
Zola is one of my favourite authors (I’ve written quite a bit about why this is over here – and may even finish it someday) but by the late 1890s he was definitely past his best, his last truly great novel, Germinal, being published ten years earlier. His work was always political, both explicitly and in its smallest detail, but central to his politics was an empathy for individual people and the rotten things the world throws at them.
Alfred Dreyfus certainly had a harder time of it that almost anyone. Born into a Jewish family in the forever-contested region of Alsace, he worked his way up the French army ranks before being found to be a convenient scapegoat when military secrets were leaked to the Germans.
History has to judge Zola’s intervention as a success. Despite the havoc it caused initially, it was clear that Dreyfus was innocent, and in 1906, already out of jail, he received his pardon. Zola was less fortunate, though. After fleeing to England, he died from carbon monoxide poisioning from a blocked chimney, the blocking quite possibly done by a chimney sweep who had been paid to kill him.
Reading The Island of Doctor Moreau, I thought it must be the darkest of Wells’s science fiction stories, but The War of the Worlds represents some solid competition on that front. As stories of alien invasion go, it’s remarkably bleak and lacking in heroism. After the aliens land in the suburbs of London (the capital of a third of the world in 1898) every attempt to deal with them is doomed by naivety, arrogant folly and blind, incoherent panic. An attempt by one individual to survive and rebuild is a castigation of these faults, but is, as the narrator soon realizes, guilty of the same. Victory over the Martians only comes by chance, with the humans having nothing at all to do with it.
1898 is quite a memorable year for one big reason; it marks the start and end of the Spanish-American war, the first adventure of the USA’s imperial phase, and the making of one of its most zeitgeist-setting leaders, Theodore Roosevelt. On the plus side this means the year is easier to research, but on the downside, the focus is usually blinkered.
When I’m scouting around for research sources through my strange little narrow frame, the most obvious thing to look at is “books about years.” This is the first one I’ve encountered so far (there are many, many more to come once we get into the 20th century) and is not the best, or the worst introduction to the genre. While supposedly about the events of 1898, the book is mostly (say 80%) about the Spanish-American war, from an entirely American perspective, and even the context setting introduction and conclusion are only basically lists of events in the USA. I guess this is fair enough, the war was nicely contained by the year, though the repercussions in Cuba and The Philippines would continue for decades after, and expecting American historians to take an international perspective is obviously wishful thinking. The war is described well-enough, taking a pretty even-handed approach to the rights and wrongs of it, but the analysis is a bit limited, events are covered in a reasonable depth, with no extra time taken on analysing deeper issues. Not sure I would recommend it, but I’m not giving it to Oxfam.
In the same sort of quality, but preferable due to being consumable in two hours, here’s a fairly dry PBS documentary with a host of military historians in front of bookshelves and hoary voice actors playing McKinley, Roosevelt and the rest.
It’s one of those stories that barely seems credible; British-led construction workers building a railway across Kenya and Uganda are picked off and eaten by a pair of unusually cunning lions. Traps are laid, but the lions manage to outwit the hunters at every stage, until in a final showdown they are defeated by a lieutenant-Colonel with a moustache and a twinkle in his eye. Some facts about the case seem to have been embellished or exaggerated (the kill-count being more like 35 than 100 for example), but the basics of the tale are apparently legit.
This is a podcast from ‘Stuff You Missed In History Class’ which discusses the case. As with all of their shows, great information, wish they would tone it down a little with the chat, and reduce the ads to something less than 30% of the show
Oscar in his third and final act was perhaps on the surface a different sort of animal; withdrawn and solemn, altogether lacking in the choice witticisms that made his name. I like to think that nothing had changed – here is the honesty and compassion that I see in his essays and his novel, just with the artifice relentlessly stripped away, and infused with an enforced humility in the face of the forces of fate. For all that, the resignation is still shocking in its cold fury, the numbing repetition of the simple meter mirroring the tramp of prisoners around the yard, the descriptions of the execution almost unbearably vivid. I’m not really a poetry person (hopefully with this project that can change) but this gets me *there* more than almost any other text.
The entire text is here and (if you are in the mood for something grim and depressing) I urge you to read it: