Underneath the George Washington Bridge on Manhattan’s West Side is a small red lighthouse, which I first wrote about in this post.
This is the sort of charming eccentricity that warms a traveler’s heart. When I mentioned it to The Manhattanites, with whom I stay when visiting, they pointed out that a children’s book had immortalized this adorable structure, and had probably been instrumental in saving it from extinction.
Naturally, I tracked down the book.
It’s the tale of the existential angst felt by an outmoded technology shoved aside by newer, shinier things. As such, a tale for our times.
Inadvertently, though, the work also chronicles other by-gone technologies.
As with the best of books, this one transports the reader to a different world entirely.
There still are tug boats on the Hudson River, of course, but they aren’t exactly like this one.
Because the book was written in 1942, there’s a lot about character: pride, gratitude, the shame of comeuppance and, eventually, validation.
In a blurb on the back, the New York Herald Tribune is quoted as describing the book’s message as “Each to his own place, little brother”. Whew — what a message for the ages.
(Just for the record, I think they got it wrong. I think the real message is closer to “sometimes you can keep old, enchanting, things and have new, shiny, ones, too”. What kind of a message is “each to his own place” here in the good old USA, where everyone believes “place” is utterly mutable?)
The book’s value now lies in the images capture of a by-gone time, which are as charming as the little lighthouse itself.
The images are also anthropomorphized, but far more subtly than is common today; the illustrator cleverly morphs, ever-so-slightly, the actual features of each object he draws.
Working in just three colors (red, blue, black, against the neutral background), the illustrator does a beautiful job of evoking mood. The author covers the little lighthouse’s inner turmoil, but also describes the building of the mighty bridge, and throws in a little gratuitous drama, just to keep the story moving, and to resolve the central question of the book: Can one small lighthouse find meaning in a world in which it is overshadowed, quite literally, by that which is newer and “better”?
You’ll have to read the book to find out: The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward, ISBN 0-15-204573-2. This version is a “restored edition”, replicating the original, with notes about author, illustrator, and an overview of the history of the little red lighthouse, whose checkered history involves more than one flirtation with obsolescence.