Peterman Inspires More Than Sales

The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it.
— Robert Coover

Why do I snatch up the J. Peterman catalog whenever it comes?

Not because I can’t wait to order another outfit. Most of my clothes come second-hand– and probably look it.

J Peterman catalog

I’m more interested in reading the descriptions. The clothes are fairly ordinary, but what intrigues me is the mystique the writers have chosen to make customers pay shocking amounts of money to acquire them.

Here’s a man’s shirt with no visible distinction, buttoned in front with a round collar. Faded cotton in a muddy green, blue, or red. Sixty bucks.

The description begins:

“It’s Friday night at the Hog & Fool, a 200-year-old pub off O’Connell Street in Dublin. . . . Lean-faced men. Ruddy-faced women. . . . The bursts of laughter aren’t polite, but real, approaching the edge of uncontrollability.”

J Peterman Irish Pub shirt

Can’t you hear it? Three more paragraphs touch on Irish style and writers before the reader gets to the shirt: “well-suited for both the intoxication of talk and the difficult art of listening.”

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser

A page or two later, in a description of a jacket, comes this line: “For those occasions when you want to marshal all your resources, not just the bright shiny ones.”

And then there’s: “Thomas Jefferson disliked stuffy people, stuffy houses, stuffy societies. So he changed a few things. Law. Gardening. Government. Architecture.” Eventually the persistent reader discovers there’s a shirt for sale.

Salesmanship for women’s pants calls on other senses: “Days of gossip and sunbathing, green figs and Pernod. Smells of orange and lemon trees.”

Stories are medicine. . . . They do not require that we do, be, act anything . . .”
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I’ve evaluated zillions of essays by amateurs and professions, read thousands of well-reviewed books, but the catalog is still exciting reading. These write-ups help the company sell millions of dollars’ worth of products not much different than you can find anywhere.

What’s the secret?

This dress description opens with questions:

“Too much simplicity in your life? Yearning for a good hassle?” Follow the allure to a 1960s shirtdress.

A man’s jacket:

“The lord of the manor hated leaving the confines of his estate, perfectly happy surrounded by the birch and oak, the fainting goats. . . .” Fainting goats sell a jacket? You betcha.

Stories. Every clothing description hints at tales to be told, secrets to be revealed: the very backbone of most fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as of much excellent poetry.

Even the melancholy beginnings can draw a reader into a purchase:

“Dust storms. Drought. Poverty. Unemployment. Things were bleak in the ‘dirty 30s.’ But as in most times of struggle . . .”

J Peterman 1930s jacket and gardening equipmentGently the narrator begins to lead the story from despair into the impulse to buy a faded denim work jacket for a hundred fifty bucks.

The latest catalog even features high-class gardening tools destined for a shed or casual display on the deck, using Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw as part of the sales pitch. Pure genius.

Writers look for inspiration everywhere. I believe serious writers can find inspiration in the most barren landscape or situation. Finding it in a clothing catalog is something else again.

“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies,” wrote Steve Almond. The writers for J. Peterman are part of the same conspiracy that governs readers everywhere. The writer may be lying to the reader, but if the reader is enjoying it, he or she is happy to be deceived, whether purchasing clothes or reading a romance. Let this catalog be just another lesson to you!

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Lucknow: The Topic is Not Guns

Downton Abbey DVDsWe were immersed in an episode of Downton Abbey when a slighting reference was made to one of the titled ladies of the neighborhood.

Granny–Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham, was leaving the room when she turned her head and said with the significance of having the last word in an argument, “She loaded the guns at Lucknow.”

No other reference was made to Lucknow during the episode, but the line stuck in my mind, so I went looking for its meaning.

The Siege of Lucknow was part of the mutiny by Indian citizens against the exploitive British rule in 1857. Like most invaders, the British had been sacking the country for its wealth, insisting on establishing their own culture, and governing without regard for the citizens, who eventually fought back.

British troops and citizens, including men, women and children, took refuge from angry Indians in British governmental headquarters, which included a number of buildings which were vulnerable to sniper fire from many directions. From May 25 to November 27, 1857, with dwindling supplies and ammunition, the British fortunate enough to reach the site remained in the headquarters while the Indians massacred other Brits all over the country. About 5,000 Indians were thought to be in the initial attacking force, which eventually numbered 50,000, against about 1,729 British soldiers. About 7000 more English troops and their civilian charges were driven toward the location and joined the fight.

The story is complex and riveting, and at least a couple diaries written by women who were in the besieged force survive. In the reports I read, British losses were estimated at 2,500 killed, wounded and missing “while rebel losses are not known,” seeming to indicate that after the battles, the two sides didn’t even cooperate enough to count Indian losses. At this point in the Downton Abbey story, the British were just beginning to realize they were not going to be able to run the entire world.

Lucknow Books

Still, the point made by the Dowager Countess is significant: a woman who might not seem important or courageous in daily life showed fortitude in a situation that might have driven an ordinary woman to despair. Her heritage trained her to wear corsets, defer to men and be decorative, but she learned to stand with the fighters, to load guns while people were trying to kill her.

Imagine what it was like for women who had been raised to expect calm lives, their every need attended to be servants, to have almost nothing to eat or drink, to wear the same clothes day after day. And to stand near a window loading a rifle knowing that a sniper was ready to fire at any movement.

Lucknow Siege - steel engraving circa 1860 - unknown artistAnd loading those rifles wasn’t just a matter of slapping a bullet into the chamber. New cartridges had been issued for the Enfield rifle in February, 1857. To load his rifle, a soldier had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle’s muzzle, then stuff the paper cartridge into the musket as wadding. Then a ramrod was inserted in the rifle muzzle and driven downward to lodge the ball and powder against the firing mechanism. The paper cartridge was overlaid with a thin coating of beeswax and mutton tallow for waterproofing. Only then could the rifle be raised into firing position, cocked, and fired.

When the rumor spread that the cartridges were made from cow and pig fat, both Hindu and Muslim soldiers who were part of the British army were furious since Hindus consider cows holy while Muslims consider pigs unclean. Adding this rumor to the widespread dissatisfaction with the way the British treated India’s citizens was the final spark that ignited revolution.

I believe this will be one of those phrases that sticks in my mind and that I find myself applying often to those women who are the unsung heroines of our daily lives. I probably won’t use it aloud, since doing so would require this lengthy explanation.

These are the women who quietly do whatever is necessary for the common good, whether it’s cooking lunch or loading a rifle. Surely that is a worthy goal, to be a woman who is not acting for attention, fame, or money, but doing the job that most needs doing. Loading the guns at Lucknow.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Here’s a modern muzzle-loading enthusiast demonstrating and explaining how to load a rifle of the type that was doubtless used by the British in the Seige of Lucknow. During years and years as a buckskinner– that is, a muzzle-loading enthusiast who camped with others portraying the early fur trade days in America– I loaded my rifle like this many times, and can testify that he accomplishes the task about as quickly as it could be done. In conditions where someone was shooting back, many folks firing muzzle-loaders omitted steps like the wadding around the cartridges, and might keep the balls in their mouths so they could be spit down the barrel instead of withdrawn from a bag.
(This YouTube video is just over one-minute long.)