Candlesticks, Clocks & Typewriters

Modern_Desk-framedIn 1900, at the turn of the new century, Sholem Aleichem published a short story that spoke to a tension between tradition and modernity that never left the forefront of his mind. “The Clock” tells the story of an ancient family heirloom that has proudly kept the the time for generations, when it suddenly begins striking thirteen times rather than twelve. Attempts to fix it result in bizarre sounds. The decision is finally made to weight the mechanism further, and the clock soon collapses under the extra weight. The story is a metaphor for the old order that had come loose, and attempts to update it that merely reveal its strains and stresses. If the story suggests the uncomfortable pull of progress, it also signals the impossibility of stasis.

The metaphor of the clock can be applied to Sholem’s own life. The ornate candlesticks on Sholem Aleichem desk point to the classic trappings of the gentleman and the allure of tradition. Yet the candlesticks, and indeed the whole aesthetic of the iconic writing desk photograph, disguise another side to Sholem Aleichem. From his embrace of global capital exchange on the Kiev stock market, to his obsession with gadgets – in particular his Remington Yiddish typewriter – Sholem was in constant dialogue with the modern. Perhaps an inevitability of living in a world undergoing such profound transformation.

The photo above is of a very different writing desk: a modern writing bureau at Sholem Aleichem’s home on Kelly Street in the Bronx, cluttered not with ink wells and candlesticks but instead with the modern writing gadgets of the day. It was in this house that Sholem would die in 1916.