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I recently took a respite from thinking about technology and the n-grams it plants in the creative brain and read a book about America at the turn of the last century. In The Iron Baby Angel,
1954, Washington and Lee University law professor Charles R. McDowell chronicles three months in the life of a small town (Danville, KY), seen from the perspective of precocious 9-year old boy. The story looks back to a time when every town had a street intersection with a horse-drinking fountain, which served as a nodal point for the exchange of news and gossip, much like the modern-day portal site or weblog (oh well, so much for that respite). With a gift for high-flown Southern gab reminiscent of Mark Twain's, McDowell takes us into the nerve center, introduces us to the "loafers" who hang out there (street-intellectuals all), then fans out via the boy's peripatetic wanderings to explore the town's back alleys, freightyards, schools, mansions, and ruins. Unlike Twain, who wrote about his own time, McDowell is looking back to his childhood, and seems very concerned to nail down every aspect of a world he knows has vanished (significantly, the "hoss-drinking fountain" is knocked down halfway through the book). Lacking any primary conflict or sweeping narrative arc, The Iron Baby Angel
--named after a cherub from the fountain--presents an exhaustive, anecdotal, but always entertaining catalog of the customs, speech patterns, clothing, and industries that prevailed in America circa 1909. In its vernacular humor and total-immersion approach to its subject, the novel bizarrely reminded me of V. S. Naipaul's early novels, in particular The Suffrage of Elvira,
which takes place in Trinidad in the '50s. Both McDowell and Naipaul wrote in depth about the worlds they knew, intelligently and without cynicism: it's interesting that they resemble each other, but even more interesting that they should speak powerfully to an urban, electronically-augmented present. The appeal isn't nostalgia or escapism but actually the comfort one finds in realizing that life in the apartments, parking lots, and cubicles of latter-day America isn't all that different.