There are few possessions more open to poetic waxing than luggage. The concrete denotations of luggage as transportation devices that bring our things from here to there are more often than not overwhelmed by their subjective connotations. In this welcome addition to Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, author Susan Harlan packs just enough in her sturdy devices to finish this trip on time and under budget. Object Lessons has a clear mission statement: “a book series about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” The premise seems fairly simple. However, there are layers to everything, corners in the dark not so much hidden as never revealed. By revealing connections, links, and ties between here and there, we can better understand our connections with these things.
What is luggage? What is baggage? Are they interchangeable terms, or does the former exist only because it started as the latter? Is a backpack luggage? Questions are asked and answered. First, Harlan invites us to join her at the community that is a baggage claim carousel at an airport. She notices the different ways we all identify our baggage. We tie ribbons around some, bandanas, some sort of mark. For Harlan, monograms are something different:
“A monogram is the textual distillation of your identity and a declaration of ownership. This is mine.”
There in the midst of baggage claim anonymity, we get to stand out, claim individual distinction. In a way, perhaps baggage claim is a place of reflection. It “…stops the forward movement of a journey and asks you to wait.” Harlan wants us to understand that her mission is to examine the things we bring with us along with their containers. Is our identity really tied up with our things? In the case of Louis Vuitton’s luggage line, founded in 1854, obtaining luggage with somebody else’s monogram meant immediate prestige, a clear separation between those who had things and those who aspired to something higher. Harlan reflects on Samsonite luggage, named for the Biblical strongman Samson, and connects it with how that luggage played a role in Robert Zemeckis’ 1984 film, Romancing the Stone. They were practical, reliable. Any adventurer traveling through a rugged jungle environment would be glad to have a set of Samsonite luggage. “But there is still nothing standard about luggage,” she writes. We trust them to bring our things with us on any given journey, and they need to follow rules.
Most of us understand the panic that might come if we lose our luggage. Harlan takes us on an interesting trip early in this book as she goes from Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire (“Everything I own is in my trunk”) to John Goodman’s character in the Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski (1999) replacing his money-filled suitcase with dirty laundry. It’s a welcome, time-honored trope in both spy thrillers and screwball comedies. Late in Chapter One, “Luggage and Secrets”, Harlan brings us to the baggage claim area of the Sacramento airport. She thinks the area looks like a Holocaust memorial, and it brings to mind not the temporary inconvenience of a lost bag but rather the permanence of loss. After airplane crashes, we don’t see those who die but we see their things. One piece of luggage was saved from the Titanic, and there’s a suitcase named after the doomed Ocean Liner. Ships can sink and planes can go down, but luggage is forever.
What does the word “luggage” mean? Harlan notes that the word has its origins in war culture. It referred to munitions, artillery. Writer Tim O’Brien detailed that life in his classic story “The Things They Carried” (1990). Harlan elaborates: “To say that you ‘carry’ something implies more of a burden than saying that you ‘brought’ something with you.” Some luggage is cargo, and the connotations of “baggage” are even deeper. Is baggage concrete and tangible, or is it something more disturbing? She goes back to Sisyphus, that hopeless hero always pushing and never getting anywhere:
“Perhaps Sisyphus’s boulder is baggage: the ultimate burden that offers nothing but its own burden-ness. Sisyphus is always going somewhere; Sisyphus is never going anywhere.”
Logic tells us that if we pack our baggage, we need to eventually unpack, thereby engaging in the ultimate symbolic act of cleansing, detoxifying, and moving from one part of life to another. To unpack is to deconstruct, to disassemble, and to spread all the parts on a desk or floor and account for everything we might have thought was once stable. She refers to a Portmanteau, a word formed by combining two words. The name was taken from a simple 19th century case that opened into two equal halves. The word portmanteau discussion leads to a reflection on suitcases after writer Orhan Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Lecture:
“The suitcase smells of travel. His father spent time away from his family, in Paris, writing… The suitcase holds evidence of another side of this affable and social man… In this suitcase are the hidden thoughts, and words, that discontent gives rise to.”
As for the act of packing itself, there’s more to tell. For Harlan, suitcases “…mark us as displaced… [they] ask to be filled.” Packing demands we make choices about what to include and what to abandon. Harlan looks at how films like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) used overstuffed luggage to accentuate female stereotypes of clothes-obsessed women (in the case of the former) and those who simply want to get down to business in the bedroom (in the case of the latter). Packing is about prioritizing space no matter the quality of the luggage, and that decisive act of what to embrace and what to abandon can be the toughest initial act.
Harlan reveals that she has collected vintage luggage for the past decade, and the “My Luggage” chapter reflects on some interesting gender dynamics at play with the production and marketing of these possessions. She refers to the “man bag” episode of the classic ’90’s TV show Seinfeld, where the fad of men carrying devices that looked like purses led to comic complications. Beyond the gender issues, though, the attraction to collecting vintage luggage was about connecting with the past:
“Luggage was a popular high school graduation gift… a middle class symbol of adulthood: you were leaving home.”
In her final chapter, “Lost Luggage: Alabama’s Unclaimed Baggage Center”, Harlan notes how the idea of losing luggage, let alone the fact, sets us adrift and unprepared for the future. “When you lose your bag, you fear you will never see it again, and then, suddenly, you do.” Bags never claimed are deemed “orphaned”. It’s an interesting choice in that it suggests the human owner is dead or has disappeared, not the thing itself. Unclaimed suggests abandonment, but orphaned is something deeper. There are souvenirs, trinkets from alternate or parallel lives. Harlan is able to walk through the shopping mart created to deal with the merchandise. They’re marked “Sell”, “Donate”, and “Trash”, which makes the reader reflect on the impermanence of life, such as it is. What would happen if we ended up relegated to the same categories?
Harlan’s Luggage is a quick read that might be a little overstuffed even in its convenient pocket size. Her italicized diversions and discursive stories that end the chapters don’t add to the discussion. In fact, they would have been better served in a separate venue. It’s a small complaint, however, that doesn’t take away from the strength of the book. As the Object Lessons series grows, it will be interesting to see where and how writers travel with it. The possibilities of subjects are infinite, and in the best hands, the results can be sublime.