Friday Fun: The Woollett Question

Shortly after docking in Liverpool, The Ambassadors‘s Lambert Strether meets the cordial American expatriate Maria Gostrey, who, on hearing of his mission, inquires as to the nature of the industry that calls Chad Newsome back to Woollett, Massachusetts; Strether declines to name it.

The little manufactured item is at once, he suggests, too “familiar, too “trivial,” too “common” and too “vulgar” to merit mention. By the time he decides to tell her, toward the novel’s end, she no longer wants to know. The last century’s readers of James’s novel have no such qualms and have freely speculated that the mystery object could be anything from a chamber pot to an alarm clock.

In October, 2007, however, a writer for Slate claimed to have cracked the case with the aid of logic and a fortuitous New York Times book review:

For years, I’ve had the Woollett Question in the back of my mind: What kind of article would fit every particular? First, the object must be small, trivially so: not a chamber pot, then, nor an alarm clock, the former being too large and the latter insufficiently trivial. Patricia Evans’ safety match is an inspired guess … but matches are neither ridiculous nor vulgar. Second, the article must be something controversial, and therefore likely to have been talked about “constantly,” in late 19th- and early 20th-century polite East Coast society: not a button hook, then, nor most artifacts used in making your toilet. Razors, toothbrushes, menstrual pads, earwax curettes, and the like may have been vulgar, but controversial they were not.

The answer was finally revealed to me a few weeks ago, via a new book by Henry Petroski, prolific author of case histories of “useful things,” from pencils to paper clips to the kitchen sink.

One last guess? Read on.

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