October 2007

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2007.

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927)

The last three times that Bryan and I have taught our Writing New York lecture class, we’ve assigned Alan Crosland’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Often described as the first “talkie” because of its use of the Vitaphone recording process, the film serves several of our course’s storylines: theater in New York, representation of ethnic cultures New York, the interplay of word and image in New York “writing,” and New York’s competition with Los Angeles to the site where the national popular culture is produced.

We ask our students to consider:

  • What does it mean for the son of Jewish immigrants to be a Jazz Singer? To replace immigrant patriarchy with American sentimentalism (“Mother!”)?
  • In what ways and to what effect does this film preserve older or competing forms of cultural expression (print, stage, live music)?
  • What do these preservations say about the relationship between New York and Hollywood as cultural capitals?

But teaching the film has always been a big problem for us, because it hasn’t been available on DVD and the VHS version is out of print. We’ve had to make do with letting the students view the library’s worn copy, which we’ve supplemented with personal copies purchased used through Amazon. And we’ve arranged film screenings. But we’ve never been able to require that students study the film closely, because of the difficulty of obtaining a copy.

The Jazz Singer DVDNo more. Warner Brothers has just released a three-disc deluxe DVD edition of The Jazz Singer, with sound taken from original Vitaphone discs. If the review of the DVD in the New York Times is to be believed, we ain’t heard nothin’ yet until we’ve heard the way that “Mammy” and the “Kol Nidre” now sound.

The set also includes a new documentary, ”The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk,” produced by Turner Classic Movies; a variety of promotional shorts from the period; a Tex Avery cartoon parody starring “Owl Jolson”; and a full disc’s worth of Vitaphone shorts, many recovered through the work of a non-profit group called The Vitaphone Project.

According to the Times, “These fascinating documents may belong more to the history of American theater than of American film: perfect records of some of the most celebrated vaudeville performers, nightclub singers and opera stars of the day, performing exactly as they would before a live audience.” Which means that the discs are perfect for our course’s account of the film.

I can’t wait! Amazon’s sending mine as I write.

I’ve added a link to the New Netherlands Institute under “Keys to the City” in the right-hand sidebar. According to the site, “The New Netherland Institute (formerly Friends of New Netherland) seeks to increase public awareness of the work of the New Netherland Project and supports the Project through fund raising.”

What is “The New Netherland Project”? Established under the sponsorship of the New York State Library and the Holland Society of New York, the Project’s “primary objective is to complete the transcription, translation, and publication of all Dutch documents in New York repositories relating to the seventeenth-century colony of New Netherland. This unique resource has already proven invaluable to scholars in a wide variety of disciplines. It also serves to enhance awareness of the major Dutch contributions to America over the centuries and the strong connections between the two nations. The Project is supported by the New York State Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the New Netherland Institute.”

I expect that the site will be useful to us as we work on our history and as we plan a conference on New York writing to be held in the Spring of 2009 at NYU.

By the way, Russell Shorto uses the New Netherland Project to frame his account of Dutch Manhattan in The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (2004).


Whitman and Bryant

Young WhitmanAs we begin work on our cultural history of New York City, Bryan and I are starting with the premise that one of the things that will make our distinctive is its organization around different “scenes” that have existed during the city’s history. This principle was inspired by the account of the “downtown scene” that Bryan gives during our Writing New York lecture course at NYU. Where possible we want to locate these scenes in particular geographic locations such as neighborhoods, parks, buildings, or even street corners. And we’re looking for “tour guides” to help us make our way through these different scenes, polymathic individuals whose encounters with the city and its denizens will suggest the networks of cultural affiliation that will help us give shape to our history.

William Cullen Bryant, ca. 1855-65

So I’ve been working on Walt Whitman’s New York. I’m working for the moment on Whitman’s early career and my “scene” is centered on the ferry between Brooklyn and New York. I’m expecting Walt to lead me around Brooklyn, to the Lower East Side, to the opera, to the lecture hall to hear Emerson lecturing about the duties of the poet.

Today, however, I’ve been thinking about another encounter: between Whitman and William Cullen Bryant, the author as a young man of “Thanatopsis” and editor-in-chief, from 1829 to 1878, of the New York Evening Post. I started by thinking about whether “Thanatopsis,” with its blank verse and trisyllabic second line, can be seen as a precursor for Whitman’s free verse experiments, but a little rummaging around the stacks led me back to this piece from Whitman’s Specimen Days:

Read the rest of this entry »

dreiser 1907.jpg

I’ve been dipping in and out of Dreiser’s 1923 book The Color of a Great City, a collection of local-color newspaper sketches he had written between 1900 and 1915. He frames himself as a city walker, a young explorer, an observer in the vein of Stephen Crane or Dreiser’s contemporary Djuna Barnes — precursors, all, of someone like Joseph Mitchell, who would push such sketches into longer, sustained essays.

Just as he framed Sister Carrie (1900) as something of a period novel — though set just a decade earlier — Dreiser frames the sketches collected in Color of a Great City
as memorials to the “phases” of the city that “most arrested and appealed” to him as a young man, but were “fast vanishing or are no more”:

For, to begin with, the city, as I see it, was more varied and arresting and, after its fashion, poetic and even idealistic than than it is now. It offered, if I may venture the opinion, greater social and financial contrasts than it does now: the splendor of the purely social Fifth Avenue of the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this, for instance, as opposed to the purely commercial area that now bears that name; the sparkling, personality-dotted Wall Street of 1890-1910 as contrasted with the commonplace and almost bread and butter world that it is to-day. (There were argonauts then.) The astounding areas of poverty and of beggary even,–I refer to the east side and the Bowery of that period–unrelieved as they were by civic betterment and social service ventures of all kinds, as contrasted with the beschooled and beserviced east side of to-day.

I’m struck by a couple things, reading a passage like this one from his Foreword. Certainly the Lower East Side of the early twenty-first century would seem downright genteel when compared to the post-Five Points world he had encountered a hundred years ago. But this type of lamentation remains a familiar one. (Has Manhattan Lost Its Soul? a recent cover of Time Out NY asked, as if for the first time.) Is it simply that we’re at the tail end of a long gentrification process that spanned the entire 20th century? Or, acknowledging that economic disparities still abound in New York, even in Manhattan, is there something about the persistence of poverty — not to mention the durability of ethnic enclaves and even some old architecture —  that should cause us to question the tone of resignation in Dreiser’s Foreward and the certainty with which so many observers from his time to the present declare that Manhattan just isn’t as vital as it once was, say, ten or twenty years ago?

I find suprising things downtown every day.

UPDATE (later that day …): A very recent example of the lamentation for a more interesting, gritty, vital, and affordable New York can be found in the publicity for the new Berman and Berger edited collection, New York Calling, just out from Chicago:

New York City in the 1970s was the setting for Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, and Saturday Night Fever, the nightmare playground for Son of Sam and The Warriors,
the proving grounds for graffiti, punk, hip-hop, and all manner of
other public spectacle. Musicians, artists, and writers could subsist
even in Manhattan, while immigrants from the world over were
reinventing the city in their own image. Others, fed up with crime,
filth and frustration, simply split.

Fast-forward three decades and today New York can appear a glamorous
metropolis, with real estate prices soaring higher than its
skyscrapers. But is this fresh-scrubbed, affluent city really an
improvement on its grittier––and more affordable––predecessor? Taking
us back to the streets where eccentricity and anomie were pervasive, New York Calling unlocks life in the unpolished Apple, where, it seemed, anything could happen.

I wonder, is this lamentation constant through the last century (and perhaps even longer)? Or is it cyclical?

(Thanks to Sukhdev Sandhu for bringing New York Calling to my attention.)

I’ve been enjoying John Strausbaugh‘s new and (so far) monthly column in the weekend Arts section of the Times: Weekend Explorer.

To date, the author (a past editor of The New York Press and author of books on the aging Rolling Stones and blackface minstrelsy, among other topics) has explored Hell’s Kitchen, the East Village, and Brooklyn Heights (specifically its role as a stop on the Underground Railroad). Each installment comes with several multimedia features, including mp3 walking tour downloads. I haven’t test driven the walking tours yet but plan to at some point.

The first installment began with this observation —

NEW YORK is a walking city. People walk everywhere: to work, to
school, to shop, to worship. And usually we’re in such a hurry, with
the whole city rushing headlong around us, that we can miss what we’re
walking past.

It’s the past itself — fragments and layers of
New York’s history unceremoniously preserved in its streetscapes, in
stories told on park benches and bar stools, in ghosts glimpsed in
shadowed doorways.

— which serves as a departure point for Strausbaugh’s signature format: He’s going to play the role of a meta-tour guide. That is, while he’s offering his services as a tour guide for readers (and listeners) of his features, each installment will feature a long-time resident who plays Virgil to Strausbaugh’s Dante, taking him through the neighborhood and allowing him to see the rings or layers of sediment by which he can mark that portion of the city’s past.

I’ll happily post links to future installments as they appear.

r of i.jpg

I’ll be reading from my recent book about literary NYC in the 1790s next week at the mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL.

Date: Monday, October 15   Time: 6:30 PM

Audience: adults

At the end of the eighteenth century, decades before Hawthorne and
Melville ushered in an “American Renaissance,” a group of young writers
in New York City
who called themselves the Friendly Club set about a similar task. As
founders of a literary magazine, a theater, and a medical journal,
publishing novels and teaching law and science at Columbia College,
members of this club laid the cornerstones for much to follow and aimed
to define the city’s intellectual culture. Many of them were famous in their own day. Why have they been largely forgotten?

Mid-Manhattan Library
455 Fifth Avenue
(212) 340-0849

full handicapped access

I don’t want to repeat myself, so if you’re interested, see “Unsubsumed Virtuosos and Solo Operators” on patell.org.


I’m lucky to make it to one New Yorker Festival event per year, so I try to make it a good one. This year I scrambled for a ticket to Alex Ross’s audio-enhanced lecture on the history of music in the 20th century, drawn from his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Ross, the New Yorker‘s classical music critic (a position he’s held for a decade or so, since he was in his late 20s), has written what promises to be a riveting dot-to-dot tour through 20c sound, from Strauss and Schoenberg to Stockhausen and Stevens (that would be Sufjan). It’s partly biographical, partly critical, partly genealogical, partly descriptive, partly geopolitical: “Each chapter cuts a wide swath through a given period, but there is no attempt to be comprehensive: certain careers stand for entire scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting-room floor,” he writes in the preface. Sounds very much like our conceptualization for the cultural history we’ve embarked on writing.

I wondered, going into the lecture, how much of it would be New York centered. Was there a plot line to parallel the story of how New York stole the idea of modern art?

Turns out yes and no. New York seems to play some very important cameo roles, but the story begins in Vienna and ends all over planet earth, largely via the Internet. I was especially interested to take a sneak peak, though, at a couple paragraphs on the uptown/downtown divide in the 1950s and 60s and beyond, a topic I take great interest in for the purposes of our course and the book project alike. “Uptown,” Ross writes, following the composer Kyle Gann, included Lincoln Center, Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, Columbia, and “other richly endowed institutions.” Downtown was “anti-European, anti-symphonic, anti-operatic.” He elaborates:

“Downtown” as a musical construct dates back to the pioneer days of Edgar Varèse, who took up residence in Greenwich Village and wandered the lower end of Manhattan in search of musical noise. But it really got going after the Second World War, when [John] Cage and [Morton] Feldman unleashed chance in a tenement by the East River. By the late fifties, young Cageans were converging on New York from around the country. One of them, James Tenney of Silver City, New Mexico, moved to New York in 1961, and paid tribute to the city in the pathbreaking computer piece Analog #1, an oceanic surge of sound inspired by the noise of traffic in the Holland Tunnel. When Cage taught a class in experimental composition at the New School, the likes of Jackson Mac Low, Al Hansen, George Brecht, and Dick Higgins, all conceptual troublemakers who went on to co-found the neo-Dada movement Fluxus, were taking notes. In the name of Fluxus, violins were smashed (Nam June Paik’s One for Violin Solo, 1962), pianos were dismantled (Philip Corner’s Piano Activities, 1962), and Stockhausen concerts were picketed (Henry Flynt employed the slogan “STOCKHAUSEN — PATRICIAN ‘THEORIST’ OF WHITE SUPREMACY: GO TO HELL!” in 1964).

The Downtown story picks up a few pages later when the minimalist pioneer La Monte Young, a descendent of the Mormon pioneer prophet Brigham Young, was given a traveling fellowship by Berkeley, “according to legend, to get him out of town. Downtown New York welcomed him.” In California, Young had introduced Terry Riley (in Riley’s words) to “this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest.” Young also (in Ross’s words) “introduced Riley to the postserialist tendencies of marijuana and mescaline.” Not long after his arrival in New York, Young was curating happenings in Yoko Ono’s loft; in 1963 he started working with a Welsh viola player and composer named John Cale. The Downtown dot-to-dots are easy to follow from there to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth.

Ross’s book clocks in at over 600 pages. It’s hands-down going to be my fall bedtime reading. It may even inspire a long overdue trip to Young’s Dream House, still in operation.

Ross’s blog, The Rest Is Noise, is here. You can purchase the book at amazon.com, or at a local independent seller.

You won’t regret watching a video clip of John Cage performing here.

Never count the New York Yankees out. They have history and tradition on their side, not to mention a payroll that approaches $200 million, about three times that of their opponent in the American League Division Series, the Cleveland Indians. And tonight the bats came out of hiding, and the Yankees defeated the Indians 2-1, avoiding a sweep and earning the right to play another game.

Of course, as the Yankees discovered to their chagrin early last week in Cleveland, on any given night the $65 million payroll can defeat the $200 million payroll. But the bigger budget surely helps you to survive the grind of 162 games that gets you to the postseason. And you have to admire the team for refusing to give themselves up for dead in late May, when they were 14.5 games behind the Red Sox with a 21-29 record. Eventually they started to hit — a lot. And they found some bullpen help in their own minor league system, in the form of a fireballing 22-year-old named Joba Chamberlain, whose father was born on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska.

ny-yankee-logo.jpgYup, it’s the Yankees, not the Indians, who have a Native American on their team. Not to mention one of the most famous Japanese sluggers in Hideki Matsui and an ace pitcher (Chien-Ming Wang), who hails from Taiwain, in addition to the usual complement of nationalities and ethnicities that you can find on a major league team these days. The Yankees have emulated not only New York’s emphasis on big business, but the city’s cosmopolitanism as well. And so has US baseball.

I’m not a Yankee fan, though I’m not a Yankee-hater either. It’s just that it’s often seemed a little like rooting for Microsoft. But maybe that’s what most Americans think about New York City generally.

Context is everything. I started watching baseball as a third-grader in New York in the fall of 1969, so I became a Mets fan. I’ve been one ever since, through good times, bad times, and ugly times. I’ve even held myself personally responsible for some of those ugly times (this year included), as the result of a certain bargain I made during the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. I’ve written about that on my site patell.org in a piece called “The Crypto-History of the Historic Collapse of the New York Mets.”

Nevertheless, except for rare occasions like the 1986 season, the Mets toil in the shadow of the Yankees, one of the most famous franchises in all of sports and certainly the most storied team in US baseball history. Twenty-six World Series championships; thirty-nine American League pennants. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, A-Rod: a parade of some of the most famous names in baseball history.

So, given the way in which the history of major league baseball has been intertwined with the history of New York, why has baseball as an institution worked so hard to deny the urban roots of the professional game? George Will has described “the myth that Abner Doubleday invented the sport one fine day in 1839 in the farmer Phinney’s pasture at Cooperstown” as part of this “agreeable nonsense about baseball being an echo of our pastoral past.” Actually, writes Will, “the thing Doubleday helped begin was the Civil War. (He was stationed at Fort Sumter when the first shots were fired.) The New York Times obituary of Doubleday did not even mention baseball” (Men at Work, 294).

Until recently, baseball historians agreed that, although baseball is now believed to have evolved from the English game rounders, its modern form does have a founding moment: on June 19, 1846 a New York bank clerk named Alexander Joy Cartwright led his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to Hoboken to play the New York Nine. The Knickerbockers lost that day, 23-1, but in the end (so the story goes) they prevailed: their elaborate rules for playing baseball were widely imitated, and their style of play ultimately proved more popular than the variant played in Massachusetts.

In fact, however, Cartwright probably did not “invent” baseball either. A box score and newspaper account from The New York Morning News describes “a friendly match of the time-honored game of Base” that was played on October 21, 1845 at the Elysian Fields “between eight members of the New York Ball Club and the same number of players from Brooklyn.” The account contains indications that something close to the modern game of baseball was being played by different groups throughout the New York area in the 1840s and that several innovations in the rules believed to have been made by Cartwright were already in use in 1845. What this discovery indicates is that baseball did not have “the clear founding moment” that most fans would like to believe it did.

Indeed, most baseball historians believe that a founding moment for the game will never be discovered because the game most likely evolved over time. The 1845 account was rediscovered in 1990 by Ted Widmer, a Harvard graduate student, who is now the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Eleven years later, a research librarian at NYU, George A. Thompson Jr., discovered two newspaper accounts of a game played in April 1823 in New York City on a site just west of Broadway between what is now Eighth Street and Washington Place (largely occupied, appropriately enough, by buildings belonging to NYU). It seems that both the National Advocate and the New-York Gazette and General Advertiser had had received the same letter from someone who had observed the game. The Gazette summed up the letter in a paragraph that began: “We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball.” The Advocate published a longer account: “I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity.” Thompson noted at the time that the letter contained no explanation of what “base ball” was, suggesting its author assumed that it would be familiar enough to newspaper readers.

The association of pastoral imagery with baseball, which began with the denial of the sport’s urban origins through the substitution of Doubleday for Cartwright, continued as the nineteenth century progressed, despite the game’s clearly urban demographics: the sports historian Allen Guttmann notes that in 1897 “only three of the National League’s 168 players were from the rural South, while 31 men came from Massachusetts alone” and that the “early years of the game brought forth a disproportionate number of Irish-American and German-American city dwellers” (From Ritual to Record,100-101).

All of which leads me to ask: what does it mean that our so-called national pastime is in fact an urban rather than a pastoral game, a sport whose institutional history is intricately intertwined with the history of New York City? I’m starting to think that all that “pastoral nonsense” isn’t all that “agreeable.” It seems to me to be complicit with a kind of Americanism that gets the country involved in quagmires. Perhaps it’s time we started embracing the urban roots of the American self — and the kind of cosmopolitan vision that the urban often makes possible.

Anyway, look for some baseball in our cultural history of New York City.

Last weekend, the DUMBO Arts Council sponsored its eleventh annual arts festival, which I’ve attended for several years running. I plan to write at length about a couple NY-related projects I came across, one of which really has me excited, but for now I wanted to post this photo a friend took:


This neon work, one half of an installation by the Canadian-born, New York-based artist Juozas Cernius, was mounted over one exit from the waterfront park between the bridges. The other half of the piece, mounted on the other side of the gate (that is, over the entrance), said “GOD IS GREAT.”

I love this piece for a million reasons. Why hadn’t anyone ever thought to say “God Was Great” before? It’s such a funny sentiment: Sure, God was good back in the day, before he sold out. Or, God was great in bed last night. Or God was great, and then humans had to go and ruin it.

I’d seen this photo before I showed up there Saturday. In context I found the piece to be even more interesting. Unless you entered the park, you only ever saw the “GOD IS GREAT” side from the street. The sign looked a little like the entrance to a Christian theme park, with all the families with dogs and baby strollers milling around on the lawn inside.

But the other thing through that gate, of course, is the hole in the sky where the WTC used to be. (Why’s it on my mind so much this week?) It’s hard not to be in that park and spend some time looking across the river. What does it mean to situate your religious theme park across from Manhattan? (Of course the Jehovah’s Witness HQ was in DUMBO long before the neighborhood picked up that acronym and became, as one friend put it, a paradise for yuppies.) Are you safe on Brooklyn’s shores, protected from the evil metropolis beyond?

When you turn around to leave the park though, and get the “GOD WAS GREAT” side, it’s hard — at least it’s hard for me — not to associate the sentiment with 9/11 itself. God was great, and then he had to go and provide an excuse for religious fanatics to fly planes into towers full of people. It’s a funny sign, but with a hell of a bitter bite.  

Tags: , , ,