Posted by R. John Howe on 02-25-2003 08:35 AM:

"Fine Writing" in Rug Books

Dear folks -

In his discussion of rug books published in the first half of the 20th century, Mr. Rocklin mentions "Arthur Dilley’s Oriental Rugs and Carpets in 1931,... Mary Ripley’s curious symbolism-laden work from 1900, The Oriental Rug Book, which appeared in 1936." and "Rosa Bella Holt’s, Oriental Rugs (1901)."

These three books always hang together somewhat in my mind because of the tendency of all three of these writers to indulge in what is sometimes termed "fine writing." This refers to a style of prose much laden with flowery language, that makes frequent references to classical literature and often to poetry. To our eye (and ear), nowadays, it often seems to have a cloying and syrupy sweetness that is postively distracting to read. But it seems in the early 20th century often to have been seen by writers who wanted to be taken to be serious ones, that such a style was evidence of one's learning and ability with language.

I am not sure that any of these books suffered in sales as a direct result. The Depression, as Mr. Rocklin suggests, may have had a much larger impact on two of them. But Dilley's case is one that often makes me wonder, since his book never achieved the sales that were expected for it.

And there was reason to think that a book by Dilley would be very successful. Dilley was an important New York City dealer. He had had an important hand in the assembly of the McMullan collection. He was the founder of the first rug club in the U.S., the Hajji Babas of NYC [although in its initial tendencies his creation seems now to us (there is a history of it written by a woman) more like a group of 14-year old boys in a tree house with a sign outside saying "NO GIRLS ALLOWED"] and he was widely in demand as a lecturer and I think traveled for awhile with exhibitions based on McMullan's collection and gave lectures at these exhibitions. And M. S. Diamond, the Curator of Near Eastern Art at New Yorks' Metropolitan Museum, thought well enough of Dilley's book bring out a revision of it in 1959. There seems no doubt that Dilley knew his rugs.

But I have often sorrowed a bit when trying to read him that he did not refrain from his fine writing tendencies and simply tell us more about what he obviously knew.

A parallel case is the later work by Jacobsen, who was also obviously very knowlegeable, but is, when he writes, so busy bragging and generally trying to impress the reader, that one dispairs of finding out what it was that he really knew.

I wonder what knowledge of rugs that such writers had has been obscured by their tendencies to fine writing.


R. John Howe

Posted by David R. E. Hunt on 03-09-2003 07:46 PM:

In Defense of "Fine Writing"

Dear R.J. Howe and All- While I agree that this "fine writing" technique can seem both digressive and superfluous at times, I believe that it is only fair that we maintain a historical perspective. This early part of the 20th century hearlded the rise of a middle class and the education there of, the age of the Chautauqua and the perception that education consists of more than a diversion of the upper class. In short, these writings are intended for a general and lay audience, and as such are as much entertainment as informative. Thus they are more at travel log or adventure than treatise.

The Victorians were much the romantic, and their writing style reflects this quality, as a cursory sampling of the literature of the period quickly reveals. And I think that it would be appropriate to describe the general knowledge of carpet weaving and carpet weaving cultures of the middle east during this period as patchwork, so this writing technique could be characterizes as an attempt to hang together diverse and disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Making do with what they had.

I own a copy of the 1937 reprint of Walter A. Hawely's 1913 "Oriental Rugs",the guy the Eiland's love to hate, and for all of it's reiteration of second and third hand information find it a telling window on the past. Aristotle said some pretty rediculous things, yet we don't discount the whole body of his work for this reason. Such as with Hawley.- Dave

Posted by R. John Howe on 03-10-2003 06:17 AM:

Hi David -

There is room for difference in taste with regard to literary style and I tried to acknowledge that these writers were in part responding to some of the tendencies of their times.

You will notice that I did not include Walter Hawley's "Oriental Rugs: Antique and Modern," 1913.

I did not for two reasons.

First, he does not indulge much in what I have described as "fine writing."

More important, he is one of the first writers to provide summaries (in a beginning way) of the technical characteristics of various oriental rugs. At the end of each of his major chapters, he provides a table in which he summarizes usefully his understanding of the structural features of the various sub-types. I did not know that he offends the "Eilands" of the rug world and am a bit surprized at that since he clearly shares their interest in technical analysis.

My thoughts about "fine writing" were triggered by the fact that Dilley's book did not sell well and there is reason to think that it should have. There is a history, by a woman, of the Hajjis Baba rug club of NYC, of which Dilley was a key founder, in which she recounts his keen disappointment at the low sales. I conjectured that perhaps the "fine writing" might have contributed to that.


R. John Howe

Posted by Lloyd Kannenberg on 03-10-2003 08:47 AM:

Hello everyone.
I'm curious to know why Kurt Erdmann's "700 Years of Oriental Carpets" wasn't included in the list of influential books. The English translation was published in 1970, within the prescribed time frame, and the German original was published about 1966, I think. True, it is just a collection of his articles, but I had the impression that even the originals of the articles were well regarded.

Lloyd K

Posted by R. John Howe on 03-10-2003 05:32 PM:

Mr. Kannenberg -

We're not keeping very strictly "in bounds" in the various threads in this salon, and so questions and answers are appearing in various places.

Mr. Rocklin has in fact acknowledged your point (in another thread) and I asked about it earlier, too, in an oblique way.

Here's what Mr. Rocklin said, in the other thread:

"...certainly erdmann is one of the most important of all scholars - a bridge between the early ones and the current crowd - and his works should have been prominently included. however, all three of his books were translated into english after 1970..."


R. John Howe

Posted by Jerry_Silverman on 03-11-2003 06:55 AM:

I'm currently reading "The Devil in the White City". It is about the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1892 (1893, actually) and a serial killer named H.H. Holmes who took advantage of the flood of single, young women visiting the Exposition to carry out his fiendish vocation. A ripping good yarn, by the way. Hard to believe it's non-fiction.

"Fine writing" was the norm of the educated classes at the time. It wasn't just in books or Chatauqua speeches or official documents. People really wrote that way in common discourse. Letters and memos between the people responsible for the planning and construction of the Exposition are filled with circumlocutions. It brings to mind the - to our ears - excessively polite, redundantly laudatory, roundabout way the Japanese have of addressing one another in formal contexts.

On another note: that "little" book by Liebetrau... There are 122 available currently on one of the used book databases. Common as dirt. Innumerable reprintings - which is proof if any were needed of the book's perceived utility.