Web of Steel

A monthly book report from 1919:

Web of Steel, Cyrus Townsend Brady (1916)

“Web of Steel”, as those who read will see, is a book for men, about men, and written by men…. it cannot be too insistently set forth that this a book primarily for men…..  it may nevertheless appeal to women in some measure, especially those who would fain enjoy – the authors are careful not to say usurp! – masculine place and function.

Preface to Web of Steel

i

Cyrus Townsend Brad was very, very keen on people’s behaviour conforming to which genitalia they had.  What he wanted was manly men and womanly women.  He sought to exemplify this principle by describing the clothes of the characters in Web of Steel in great detail.  This is a feature of Brady’s writing that the Evening Post book reviewer was also struck by in 1919.  In fact, most of the review reproduces samples of it, and the only actual sense of how the reviewer regards this novel critically comes in the final three sentences. Those final summative sentences are not very encouraging:

It is guaranteed technically accurate, as to the engineering works and incidents it describes….  One great merit of the novel is that it is thoroughly clean, healthy, and sweet. [1]

Cyrus wrote the book with his son – Cyrus – who supplied the technical information on civil engineering.

The main business of the opening chapter is a young man and a young woman meeting and their thoughts about how they fancy each other (in a clean way).  The woman – Helen – arrives at a station close by the bridge that Bert – the man – is in charge of building.  It is to be the biggest  bridge in the world, and the masculine thrusting nature of the structure is to be much discussed later.  The writing in Chapter One however is concerned with contrasting the protagonists’ clothing, which is a thinly veiled blatantly obvious statement on manliness and the feminine.  Because Brady bangs away at this for so long he uses up conventional similes and we end up with some peculiar images.

butterfly hammer

To others perhaps he was a steam hammer?

In fact much of it is perfect if you were trying to write a camp classic with loads of innuendo:

throttle

The thrill of the great “engine-driver” as he lays his hand on the “throttle”?  Power in submission?  Steam hammers?

Is it getting hot in here?

ii

Cyrus was an Episcopalian priest and we can find him, in 1915, delivering fiery anti-suffrage “sermons” from a pulpit in New York.  The short version of this argument is that familiar idea that men are men and have man things to do (like work), and women are women and have woman things to do (like family).  Everyone should be putting more energy into making marriage perfect, and infidelity historic.  Slightly off point Cryus gives us his views on female dress:

rant

I feel like he might have lost his female audience right there at the end.  Hopefully more than one women thought: I wish you could see yourself up there with your funny little lip hair.

lip hair
The sensible lip hair of Cyrus Townsend Brady

Anyway, he should see the packs of middle-aged men out on their bikes nowadays if he wants a good laugh.

Back on his main message, Brady concludes that equal rights with men means that women will turn into men, and that society will collapse.  By which I think we should just read “change” instead of “collapse”.  Most conservative commentators mean “change to something I don’t like” when they say things like “the end of civilisation”.

I know that Brady’s speech is offensive, and that his ideas are patently stupid, but I do have a soft spot for a phrase like this: “The supineness with which you… clothe yourself in the ephemeral sartorial idiocies current is indicative.”  Of course to enjoy this is just to enjoy a kind of poetry of insult, a kind of verbiage which is like a feathered hat – if you will – and distracts from his empty-headedness about the construction of gender identity and all the power games those constructions represent.

While “ephemeral sartorial idiocies” is a great phrase, his writing is always only unintentionally funny.

“I’ll wait for you at the front door of the car,” said the engineer, his heart beating like a pneumatic riveter.

Web of Steel, p.44

iii

After spending Chapter One describing Helen’s outfit, he is back at it in Chapter Three when she dresses for dinner.

The rude hand of mere man could not hold pencil sufficiently delicate to describe her radiant apparel.

He certainly gives it a good go, although at times he seems to be digging himself into a hole when he describes Helen:

It was not the smallest foot that ever upbore a woman.  Quite the contrary.  Which is not saying it was too large, not at all.

You can sense Helen’s smile slipping as Bert gallantly presses on while describing her foot.  Also: upbore?

And then we reach Part Two of the novel and the full weight of his son’s civil engineering knowledge comes into play enlivening the text with passages such as these:

bridge

This comes after a paragraph-long description of a C-10-R which is less interesting than it sounds.

By this time I think it goes without saying that I was hooked on the book.

iv

Brady died in 1920 but between 1914 and his death – aside from pumping out about two books a year – he was writing scripts for the newly emergent film industry.  In fact, if you look through the old papers in that period his name is mentioned in connection with film far more often than in relation to his books.

Which is something the Evening Post reviewer comments on: how readily Web of Steel could be adapted to film.  I can see it now: jaw like a buttress meets eyes like a deer, backdrop of steel bridge over mighty chasm, bosom crushed against chest, inter-title card reads “Oh, Bert!”.

Propelling the flow of Brady’s cliches is, of course, the heart beat of western ideologies about gender and nature and progress.

The sage bush and buffalo grass were to go like the Indian before the march of civilization. [p.186]

Go.

Such a gentle word for it.

meccano

*

[1] The Bookman, Evening Post, 12 July 1919

 

Published by

John-Paul

I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō