Finding the Art in Everything

05 October, 2007

The Strand

Photo: The Strand, ca. 1929. The Museum of London

I think it’s sad when landmarks are reduced to a postcard existence. Sometimes I visit my favorite places, and I see they are bits of geography extracted from their meaningful historical context by tourist point, shoot, and run tactics. The Strand runs no risk of this. It is largely un-photogenic, though it has flashy endpoints (Temple Bar at one end and Trafalgar Square at the other.) No one really takes pictures while along the Strand, and its not a tourist target because there is little access to its unadorned stone buildings. Yet, it is always a small triumph when the appearance of something is no measurement of its importance.

The Strand is one of the most significant literary and historical thoroughfares in London history. Today, at either end, there are the 2 forces that drive society: the money of the The City and the politics and government at Westminster. The middle passes through the Covent Garden theatre district, past the Adelpi and the art galleries of Somerset House. Geographically it places art at the center between power and money—a familiar idea in the study of art’s history.

While literary London landmarks include Bloomsbury, Westminster, and Shakespeare’s South Bank, it is unlikely any single neighborhood housed more writers for a longer period of time. Since the Strand was the merely home to some of our greatest writers, it’s missing the celebrity culture of Bloomsbury and the journalistic excitement of Fleet Street. The Strand is extraordinary because grounds the works of Boswell, Dickens, and Kipling in the context of daily life.

Boswell drank coffee and picked up prostitutes along the Strand, only to be scolded by Dr. Johnson, who piously prayed at its St. Clement Danes on the same road. Twenty-five years later, Dickens’ parents were married in the church of St. Mary le-Strand, and his father was eventually thrown into debtor’s prison. Young Dickens was forced into a shoe-polish factory, where, upon leaving each night, would scrounge around the Strand for cheap food like Oliver. Many years later, adult Dickens would return to the Strand and its side streets as a parliamentary reporter, as does David Copperfield, and Dickens lives in a flat near the one described as Pip’s residence in Great Expectations. Here, the Strand is proof that, for Dickens, biography, geography, and fiction are inextricable. These are other writers who lived and worked on or near the Strand: Samuel Pepys, Ben Johnson, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskill, Wilkie Collins, William Rosetti, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie—and consistently, where they lived appears in what they wrote.

In college, much of my literary critical training emphasized a very formalist method. The literature I studied was deliberately extracted from its context; the author and his life were irrelevant—even intrusive—and the society surrounding it, even more so. But it seems the height of hubris to elevate art above its society. To do this renders the reader and his experience more important that the collective experience that conceived the work. It diminishes literature’s value to restrict its meaning to immediate contemporary experience. Just as common, the historical discipline renders society more important than its art. But it’s in art, particularly literature, that the demographic statistics, power changes, and economic trends come to MEAN something. What good is an understanding of the past if we don’t understand fully its impact on the human experience by concentrating on its expression? Someone told me that history was the story of “humans being,” but literature is the story of humans living.

The Strand is the Highstreet that connects society and art and history and literature. It deserves a stroll; it deserves some coffee and writing to commune with its saints and tenents--even if there won't be postcard shots to show for it.