Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Vulgar Toothpick

Slate reports that the mysterious object of Henry James's novel The Ambassadors has been found out.

"It's a little thing they make—make better, it appears, than other people can, or than other people, at any rate, do," says Strether. When prompted to explain further, he again equivocates, describing the business as "a manufacture that, if it's only properly looked after, may well be on the way to become a monopoly." Impatient with Strether's "postponements," Gostrey asks him whether the article in question is something improper—perhaps even unmentionable?..

In the 1880s, Forster patented a revolutionary new machine that polished, rounded, compressed, and sharpened toothpicks. This new toothpick was a marvel, according to Petroski, "ahead of its time as a designed object." Now consider Strether's first impression of Chad Newsome, whom he hasn't seen in five years when he finally tracks him down:

Chad was brown and thick and strong; and of old Chad had been rough. Was all the difference therefore that he was actually smooth? Possibly; for that he was smooth was as marked as in the taste of a sauce or in the rub of a hand. ... It was as if in short he had really, copious perhaps but shapeless, been put into a firm mould and turned successfully out.
James had a habit of associating his characters with a specific piece of scenery or work of art, or, in The Ambassadors, manufactured object—recall Sarah Newsome Pocock's safety-match smile. Of Chad Newsome, it might be said that he was as compressed and polished as one of Forster's toothpicks.


Josh Glenn said...

Thanks for linking to my essay, Tim. But I think you mean Slate, not Salon. I like your blog, by the way!

Tim said...

Yeesh, my apologies Joshua! I made the cardinal sin of confusing the great online-mag "S"es!

I loved your article. Great slow-play of the revelation (which readers of my blog will have spoiled if they're paying attention).