Saturday, May 2, 2009

Brobdingnagian-sized words

On page 237, in the context of my discussion of Charles Magnus' "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y", I note that the illustrator has taken great pains to show that each elevator has the last name of its owner and the word "elevator" printed upon it "in Brobdingagian-sized words." My reference was not only to Jonathan Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels (1726), in which Gulliver visits the island of Brobdingag, which is populated by gigantic people who are 72 feet tall, but also to Frank Norris's novel The Pit (1903), in which the narrator proclaims that, "on all sides, blocking the horizon, red in color and designated by Brobdingagian letters, towered the hump-shouldered grain elevators [of Chicago]."

Norris' novel has come up once before, and it will (or, rather, should have) come up again, on page 258 of American Colossus, in which I mention several writers who anthropomorphicized grain elevators: Rudyard Kipling, who spoke of the "high-shouldered" elevators in Buffalo; Carl Sandburg, who referred to the "hunched shoulders" of grain elevators in the Midwest; and the anonymous author of "Ugly but Profitable: The Grain Elevators of Buffalo: Examples of Hideousness in Architecture" (1891), who claimed that Buffalo's elevators "rear their ungainly heads" above the skyline.

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