Omar and the Consumer Market. Michelle Kaiserlian.
A group of American Rubáiyát parodies on a variety of topics address the theme of consumerism from different angles. In many cases, women are framed as the conspicuous consumers and men, if mentioned, are typed as the producers who fund their female counterparts and complain about their spending habits. Another related and recurring theme is that of fast-moving trends and the impulse to keep up with them. Josephine Daskam Bacon’s “An Omar for Ladies” encourages women to turn their attention towards fashion:
One for her Club and her own Latch-key fights,
Another wastes in Study her good Nights
Ah, take the Clothes and let the Culture go,
Nor heed the grumble of the Women’s Rights! (1)
It is difficult to know whether Bacon sided with the Anti-Suffragist Movement (2) or if she simply exaggerated her speech for comic effect. An early graduate of Smith College for women and a professional writer, Bacon was more likely a supporter of women’s rights. Later, she uses Khayyám’s carpe diem to condone impulse spending:
And she who saved her coin for Flannels red,
And she who caught Pneumonia instead,
Will both be Underground in Fifty Years,
And Prudence pays no Premium to the dead. (3)
The bulk of her poem focuses on clothing trends—items popular one moment and found in the bargain bin the next—that parody the world of fashion. It is yet unclear whether Bacon criticizes or promotes the system. Perhaps she does both. Her insinuation that the “Four Hundred”—the conservative, New York elites at the turn of the century—was a group somewhat removed from the newest trends, both through their pure bloodlines and their geographic location in the suburbs, clearly denotes a jab at those whose lifestyles are out-of-date.
Two other parodies, Mary B. Little’s The Rubáiyát of a Huffy Husband (1908) and Gelett Burgess’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Cayenne (1904), critique consumer culture while perpetuating the very craze that they mock. Little’s Huffy Husband is written in the voice of a husband whose wife has become preoccupied with the Rubáiyát craze.
She soon possessed the dreadful Omar Fad,
Which other Husbands, I have learned, think Bad.
But unlike other Fads which now are Past,
This has the power to make me very Mad. (4)
The husband goes on to deplore his wife’s obsession, noting that other fads, such as collecting vases or fans, did not disturb the comfort of their home as the Rubáiyát had. Little’s framing of the “Omar Fad” as a purely feminine affair links the fad more closely to the female realm of consumerism. While this aspect of Little’s parody is hyperbolic, as the craze also captured the male sector through advertisements and popular entertainment, the Rubáiyát’s inextricable link to consumer culture—and by association, to fashion and the decoration of the home—tagged the craze as “feminine,” or worse, “effeminate,” a label feared by early twentieth-century American men who advocated President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” (5) Thus, the Omar craze was an outlet for men only when it could be made a masculine endeavor. The members of the Omar Khayyám Clubs of London (f. 1892) and Boston (f. 1900) sung the praises of both FitzGerald and Omar while they smoked, ate, drank, and socialized in a setting that excluded their female counterparts.
Burgess’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Cayenne gives readers a picture of the driving force behind the mass-dissemination of the Rubáiyát—the publishing industry.
Wake! For the Hack can scatter into flight
Shakespeare and Dante in a single Night!
The Penny-a-liner is Abroad, and strikes
Our Modern Literature with blithering Blight. (6)
By the turn of the century, demand for classics had decreased and so had the quality of publications. Burgess bemoans the craze for “Modern Literature,” which he sees as a system driven by critics, advertisement, and the easy fame of inferior, often female, writers. He finds new texts devoid of meaning, their plots homogenized by the demand of readers, many of whom are now women. (7) Burgess even takes a jab at specific figures involved in the publishing industry; the “Spontaneous Glee” of Rubáiyát parodist Carolyn Wells is shamed among other works with a similar lack of substance.
Consumerism is also a theme in Harry Persons Taber’s The Rubáiyát of the Commuter, Being Quatrains Concerning the Affairs of Everyday, a 101-verse parody describing a day in the life of a modern worker. Written from a (male) commuter’s perspective, the story can be read as one of sacrifice for the happiness of family and the comforts of home. The husband commutes to provide for his family and the wife plays her part as the primary consumer:
Then fares she forth to town with merry smiles
And buys her Summer dresses in new styles,
And many strange and wondrous furbelows
She buys, persuaded by the shopman’s wiles. (8)
Taber’s verses do not express exasperation over compulsive spending; rather, he finds consumption to be an inherent quality in women, even a duty that need not be criticized.
Consumerism played an essential role in the Rubáiyát mania of the early 20th century. Clever marketing and the constant production of Rubáiyát goods fueled the craze. Especially in America, the tremendous economic shift that occurred during the latter half of the 19th century allowed for Omariana to flourish. In a stratified society characterized by great wealth for the lucky few and a flood of working-class immigrants who toiled for pennies to survive, an educated, rising middle class with free time on their hands and spending money in their pockets shaped their new identity through the Rubáiyát craze.
1) Josephine Daskam Bacon, “An Omar for Ladies,” in A Parody Anthology, ed. Carolyn Wells (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), 5, verse 1 of 12. See also: http://womenshistory.about.com/library/etext/poem1/blp_bacon_omar_ladies.htm
2) See Jane Jerome Camhi’s Women Against Women: American Anti-Suffragism, 1880-1920 (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1994), or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-suffragism, for a brief overview of the movement.
3) Bacon, verse 3 of 12.
4) Mary B. Little, The Rubáiyát of a Huffy Husband (Boston: The Gorham Press, 1908), n.p., verse 5 of 29.
5) Roosevelt preached his doctrine of “toil and effort,” “labor and strife” to a Chicago audience in 1899. See Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Mark C. Carnes’s Meanings for Manhood (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990).
6) Gelett Burgess, The Rubáiyát of Omar Cayenne (New York: Frederick A Stokes, 1904), 5, verse 1 of 101.
7) An increased literacy rate; the consumer-driven cycle for new reading materials that could be bought cheaply; the founding of lending libraries; and the continued relegation of women to the home accompanied by a desire for escapism into the world of fiction contributed to an overall rise in female readership during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
8) Harry Persons Taber, The Rubáiyát of the Commuter, Being Quatrains Concerning the Affairs of Everyday (Briarcliff Manor, NY: John Bridges, 1905), 36, verse 64 of 101.
Michelle Kaiserlian is a Ph.D. Candidate at Indiana University and a Visiting Scholar at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She is writing her dissertation on the various literary and artistic responses to the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, c. 1900-1930.
Omar sells: American advertisements based on The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, c.1910-1920. In: Early Popular Visual Culture, Volume 6, Issue 3 November 2008 , pages 257 - 269