July 2008

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This summer’s New York novels to date — the books, that is, I’ve
consumed on my vacation: Richard Price’s Lush Life, Don DeLillo’s
Falling Man, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and about half of Kevin
Baker’s Dreamland.

All but the last are post-9/11 novels; I’m thinking hard, in
particular, about similarities and differences between DeLillo’s and
O’Neill’s — why the prose is more satisfying in one but the other more
satisfying overall, and what they each do with 9/11.

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But reading Baker, finally, has me thinking, too, of fiction and
history, one of DeLillo’s favorite topics (and mine too). I’ll have
more to say about all of the above novels over the next while, but for
now here’s a bit from an essay DeLillo published in the Times Book
Review
back in ’97, around the time Underworld came out. I’m trying to
think about how well his description holds up in a new century, when
poststructuralism has finally started to lose its grip on academic
imagination but when DeLillo’s old ruminations on terrorists and novelists are heralded as prophetic and prescient (even as his new, post-9/11 novels are panned); and I’m trying to think about how well his ideas apply to
fiction — Baker’s, say — that unabashedly takes on the generic label
“historical fiction.”

Fiction does not obey reality even in the most
spare and semidocumentary work. Realistic dialogue is what we have agreed to call certain arrays of spoken
exchange that in fact have little or no connection with the way people speak. There is a deep density of convention
that allows us to accept highly stylized work as true to life. Fiction is true to a thousand things but rarely to clinical
lived experience. Ultimately it obeys the mysterious mandates of the self (the writer’s) and of all the people and
things that have surrounded him all his life and all the styles he has tried out and all the fiction (of other writers)
he has read and not read. At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession,
superstition and awe.

Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history.

. . .

Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s
life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional
re-creation.

Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers
us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that
allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate.

The language of a
novel — E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” say — can be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past.
The tonal prose creates its own landscape, psychology and patterns of behavior. It is stronger than the
weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is
exposed as merely contingent. In “Ragtime,” history and mock history tool along together. They form a kind of
syncopated reality in which diverse human voices ultimately come into conflict with a single uninflected voice, the
monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line. In this novel, language is a democratic
experiment.

Find the full essay here.
To be continued … maybe when I’ve consumed a few more 9/11 novels, or
at least when I’m ready to come back to Baker’s thoughts on similar
topics, as promised way back when

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THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

Continuing the theme of maritime disaster raised in our post on the film Manhattan Melodrama, today we remember the “Westfield Disaster,” which took place on July 30, 1871.

The Staten Island Ferry was being operated by the Staten Island Railroad, led by Jacob Vanderbilt, which had purchased the ferry service from Jacob’s brother Cornelius. Passengers complained about the poor condition of the boats as well as the ferry’s limited schedule. On July 30, to accommodate unusually heavy demand on a Sunday afternoon, the wooden-hulled side-wheeler Westfield II was pressed into service. (An earlier ferryboat named Westfield was among the three commandeered by the Union during the Civil War. It was never return to the ferry service.) As the Westfield II prepared to leave shortly after 1:00 p.m., passengers congregated at the bow of the boat, facing Staten Island.

Unfortunately, the Westfield II carried her coal bunker and boilers at this end of the boat, and at 1:27, one of the boilers exploded, immediately killing 66 passengers and injuring 200. Fifty-nine of the injured would eventually die as well.

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Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The official report, submitted by the Steamboat Inspection Service to the U.S. Treasury Department on August 16, noted the testimony of the ferry’s superintendent, James Braisted, that the practice of “carrying steam above the pressure allowed by the Inspector’s certificate was not uncommon” and that he “frequently had to reprimand his engineers for carrying steam in excess of that allowed by law.” In the case of the Westfield IIon that day, the engineer, Henry Robinson, was a man who didn’t have an engineer’s license and could not read or write (making him unable to read the inspector’s certificate). The official report held Braisted responsible for employing an unqualified engineer. The fact that the engineer happened to be a black man resulted in openly racist commentary in the city’s newspapers during the days that followed.

Jacob Vanderbilt was eventually charged with murder. He was not convicted.

Shortly before the Westfield II was junked in 1916, the New York Times ran a story about one of the survivors of the disaster, Mrs. Abbie Cowan Phillips, who had been sitting with her husband, two infant children and paternal grandparents in a closed carriage on the ferry when the explosion occurred. Speaking through her son, Mrs. Phillips recollected the event:

Mr. Phillips said that his mother still recalls the horror of the scenes as the boat went down, but clearest of all are recollections of the part her ofnw family played in the tragedy. The two tiny children and the grandparents were lost. Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were taken to the same hospital, but occupied different rooms. The wife was badly burned, and underwent what was then one of the pioneer skin-grafting operations. Mrs. Phillips had been told that her husband survived, but believed the doctors were deceiving her. As a matter of fact, her husband had been blinded, but this the hospital authorities feared to inform her.

As Mrs. Phillips was recovering she was allowed to wander from ward to ward. One day as she walked about she was gladden by the sound of her husband’s voice, calling to a nurse for some attention. She rushed to him. Mr. Phillips threw his arms about her, and, in the shock and excitement of the reunion, suddenly regained his sight.

Thought for a time the doctors had abandoned hope, Mr. Phillips lived twenty years after the accident.

The Westfield II spent her final days as a hospital ship.

So I’ve spent the better part of the last week holed up in a cabin
somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, without the Internet, about as far from Gotham as you can
get. The Movie was playing in town on the local one-screener, of
course, since we’re still talking about planet Earth, but we skipped it
in favor of fly fishing and hiking from ski lifts to waterfalls.

Until today, that is, when we caught a plane to Seattle (and a smaller
one from there to central WA) and, within a couple hours of dropping
off our bags, hit the theater.

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There’s a lot to say about this latest incarnation of Gotham, including
(as Cyrus pointed out earlier) its simultaneous invocation of Chicago
and NYC, though I think a well-placed reference to the Bridge and
Tunnel crowd tipped the balance in the latter’s favor.

The above poster, in circulation at least since last April, should have
signalled that this installment had Big Things to say about the Age of
Terror. It’s an image, though, that strikes a certain ambivalent note:
the skyscraper’s gash certainly aims to invoke the North Tower on 9/11;
what to make of it, then, that the apparent sign of a terrorist strike
comes in the shape of our hero? Is he standing in the foreground to
confront the folks responsible, or is this his own doing?

The movie delivers in spades when it comes to wartime contextual
references, though the ambivalence foreshadowed in the image above
carries over enough to have provoked conflicting readings. Is Batman Bush,
that is? And if so, how are we to feel about it? Or does the tagline
about “a world without rules” align the current administration with the
Joker instead? (I should have known I could count on EOTAW to come through when it came time for Bat-blogging: a more nuanced version of the latter argument holds that “The Joker isn’t a stand-in for terrorists, then, but what clenched
conservatives assume terrorists to be — without plan, without
complaint, without decency, without humanity.”)

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Students from Writing New York will recall where we stand when it comes
to aligning Batman’s arch-enemies with our own gang of war criminals.
(Our AV for that lecture, which accompanies our reading of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns,
contains a more subtle rendition of the image to the left.) But they
will also recall the difficulties posed to Miller’s influential
rendering of the Batman myth (which stands behind Nolan’s films even
more than it did behind Burton’s) by Miller’s own ambivalence toward
New York, whose crime-ridden streets he fled for sunny LA in the early
’80s, prior to working on his Batman graphic novel. The context for
Miller’s Dark Knight prominently included Bernie Goetz,
who gets name-checked in the novel. In other words, the best retellings
of the Batman story have to come to grips with the cowboy equation of
vigilante justice with Americanism.

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To the degree the recent movie succeeds (and I think it might be the
best Batman film yet), it does so because it doesn’t let its hero off
the hook, though I’m willing to concede that bad readers (that is, the
nation that somehow elected both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for
two terms — well, not so much “elected” as acquiesced to the fiat in
the second case) might miss even the less subtle points of the film’s
anti-war agenda.

UPDATE: A former WNY student emails us with a link to an article looking back at Batman’s gay past … which ties to another section of our lecture quite nicely. Thanks!

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Dream of Life

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Still from Stephen Sebring’s Dream of Life

We assign Patti Smith’s first album, Horses (1975), in our Writing New York
class. It’s part of Bryan’s “Beats to the Punks” sequence, which runs
from Allen Ginsberg through Bob Dylan to the Velvet Underground and
Smith. Bryan’s written some posts about Smith here and on The Great Whatsit blog, where he’s also described his Beats to the Punks sequence. This year, we’re thinking about assigning the volume devoted to the album in Continuum International Publishing’s 33 1/3 Series. We used the volume on The Velvet Underground and Nico last spring; Bryan described his initial reactions to the book here last November.

With luck, we’ll also be able to draw from a DVD of Dream of Life, Stephen Sebring’s documentary about Smith, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and will be playing from August 6-18 here in New York at the Film Forum. It will also be shown at the American Cinematheque Rock doc series
in Santa Monica on August 29 and can be seen this fall in Columbus, Denver, Saint Louis, San Francisco, and San Diego. If you’re in Paris, you can catch it every Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Le Cinema Du Pantheon
(13 rue Victor Cousin Paris France 75005) from now until April 5, 2009.

Sebring, a fashion photographer, has been filming Smith for the past 12 years, and according to an article by Terrence Rafferty in today’s New York Times, Dream of Life “bears almost no resemblance to any other documentary about the punk-rock heroes of Ms. Smith’s turbulent era.” Shot on 16mm rather than video, the film, writes Rafferty, “looks handmade, as funky (and occasionally as baffling) as movies of the family vacation.” The film’s website includes images from “Objects of Life,” an “installation” of photographs by Sebring that accompanied the film at Sundance.

An interview with Sebring was published at indieWIRE. You can find a video interview with Sebring at the sundance.org website. We’ll post our reactions to the film next month.

Meanwhile, here’s a piece on the film from the Sundance Channel:

knickerbocker_1849.jpgElizabeth L. Bradley, one of the contributors to Bryan’s and my forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City, is publishing a book called Knickerbocker: The Myth that Made New York. Betsy is the Associate Director of the New York Public Library‘s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and her book traces the evolution of the idea of the “Knickerbocker” from Washington Irving’s coining of the term in his History of New York (1809) to the present day. Betsy traces the way in which the “Knickerbocker” took on a life of its own after the publication of Irving’s history, appropriated by a host of New Yorkers as a symbol for an authentic New York identity, even though Knickerbocker himself was made of whole cloth.  The picture of Knickerbocker at right is from the frontispiece by Felix O. C. Darley for the 1849 edition of Irving’s History.

In anticipation of the publication of Betsy’s book next year by Rutgers University Press, we’ll be keeping an eye out for appearances in Knickerbocker in New York culture (outside of the confines of Madison Square Garden).

This week’s sighting comes from the July 21 issue of The New Yorker, and appropriately enough, it involves the New York Public Library. Jill Lepore’s article “The Lion and the Mouse: The Battle that Reshaped Children’s Literature” tells the story of how Anne Carroll Moore, the first superintendent of the NYPL’s Department of Work with Children, tried to suppress the publication of E. B. White’s Stuart Little.

Here’s a tidbit from the article that involves Knickerbocker:

About this time, E. B. White fell asleep on a train and “dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing.” White had eighteen nieces and nephews, who were always begging him to tell them a story, but he shied away from making one up off the top of his head. Instead, he set to writing, and stocked a desk drawer with tales about his “mouse-child . . . the only fictional figure ever to have honored and disturbed my sleep.” He named him Stuart.

Anne Carroll Moore had an imaginary friend, too. “I have brought someone with me,” she would tell children, singsongy, as she fished out of her handbag a wooden doll she called Nicholas Knickerbocker. She even had letterhead made for him. “I’m the sorriest little Dutch boy you ever knew over your accident,” she once wrote, signing herself “Nicholas,” in a letter to Louise Seaman Bechtel. (When Moore forgot Nicholas in a taxi, her colleagues did not mourn his loss.)

In 1924, Moore published her own children’s book, “Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story.” It begins with Nicholas’s Christmas Eve arrival in a New York Public Library Children’s Room filled with fairy creatures:

The Troll gave a leap from the Christmas Tree and landed right beside the Brownie in a corner of the window seat. Just then the Fifth Avenue window swung wide open and in walked a strange boy about eight inches high.

It has not aged well.

The article as a whole is fun to read, and if you like Lepore’s writing, you should take a look at her latest book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, a fascinating account of slavery in eighteenth-century Manhattan and an episode in which 200 slaves were occused of conspiring to burn down the city, murder its white inhabitants, and take over the local government. You can find primary documents related to the episode that Lepore recounts (including a narrative by the presiding judge) in The New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741: Daniel Horsmanden’s Journal of the Proceedings, with Related Documents.

charles mingus_1976.jpgOne week from today (on July 29, 2008), the 50th Anniversary Season of the Washington Square Music Festival will come to a close with a performance by the Charles Mingus Orchestra, performing works by the great jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus (shown at left playing during the Bicentennial celebration in 1976).

The concerts take place in the Southeast quadrant of the park, near the statue of Garibaldi. The program starts at 8:00 p.m. and is scheduled to include the following works: “Taurus in the Arena of Life,” “Jelly Roll,” “Noon Night,” “All the things you could be by now (if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother),” “Blue Cee,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (are some jive slippers),” “The Chill of Death,” and “Tonight at Noon.”

In the event of rain, the concert will be held at NYU’s Frederick Loewe Theater at 35 West Fourth Street.

If you’re interested in an introduction to Mingus’s music, a good choice would be Mingus Ah Um, which is available for download at amazon.com.

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I’ve been a big fan of the Thin Man films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, for many years, but I had never seen the first film that paired the two actors, Manhattan Melodrama, released (like The Thin Man) in 1934. Both films were directed by W. S. Van Dyke, who would later direct the first two Thin Man sequels.

Manhattan Melodrama tells the story of two boys, Edward “Blackie” Gallagher (played as a boy by Mickey Rooney and as an adult by Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (played as an adult by William Powell) who grow up together on the Lower East Side and eventually end up on opposite sides of the law. Blackie is a prominent gambler, while Jim becomes a district attorney who runs for governor.

Right from the start, the film delivers what its title promises, recreating the “General Slocum Disaster,” which occurred on June 15, 1904, when the passenger boat General Slocum caught fire and sank, while carrying over 1,300 passengers on a cruise chartered by the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Only 321 people survived.

In the film, two boys, Edward “Blackie” Gallagher (played as a boy by Mickey Rooney and as an adult by Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (played as an adult by William Powell) lose their parents in the disaster. They are adopted by Poppa Rosen, a Jewish man whose son was among the victims. When Rosen invites the boys to come live with him and become “his sons,” Blackie says, “I’m not a Jew and neither is Jim.” To which Rosen replies, “Catholic, Protestant, Jew, what does it matter now,” appropriately enough for a film that was released by “Cosmopolitan Productions,” one of William Randolph Hearst‘s companies. Alas, this reconstructed family unit doesn’t last more than a single scene.

cover_spitz080324.jpgMyrna Loy plays Eleanor Packer, the woman who is drawn to both men, though she turns out to be not a femme fatale but rather a femme morale. As in many melodramas, the heroes are unambiguously good, and most of the villains are pasteboard crooks, but Blackie’s name turns out to be something of a misnomer. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that the career of Jim Wade offers a striking counterpoint to the career of that real-life district attorney-turned-governor Eliot Spitzer.

Manhattan Melodrama became infamous because John Dillinger was shot to death as he left in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934 after seeing a showing of the film. Sensitive to any adverse publicity, Hearst had the “Cosmopolitan Production” credit removed from all prints of the film.

Unbelievably, the film was remade in 1942 with the “Melodrama” kept in and the “Manhattan” left out: retitled Northwest Rangers, the remake was set in the Yukon of all places!

Manhattan Melodrama was released last summer on DVD as part of a 5-disc set called The Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection. The set also includes: Evelyn Prentice (also 1934), Double Wedding (1937), I Love You Again (1940), and Love Crazy (1941). I’m looking forward to watching them all in the coming weeks.

The “New York” in the title of today’s post refers to the state and not the city.

The first women’s rights convention was held 160 years ago today (July 19, 1848), about 275 miles northwest of the city, in the town of Seneca Falls, New York. The town was the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (shown at right), the well-known abolitionist and activist for women’s rights. While on her honeymoon eight years earlier, Stanton had befriended the Quaker minister and reformer Lucretia Mott  at the meeting of the International Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England.

The male delegates to the convention voted that women should be denied the right to participate in the meetings, even if they, like Mott, had been elected as an official representative of a participating abolitionist society. After the ensuing debates, women were allowed to sit in the balcony out of sight of the men. This treatment planted the seed that would eventually yield the Seneca Falls Convention.

Five days before the convention, the semi-weekly Seneca County Courier published this notice:

“A Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition
and rights of woman, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July, current; commencing at 10 o’clock, A.M.

“During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are
earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be present on the second day, when Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia, and others, ladies and gentlemen will address the convention.”

The convention produced the famous “Declaration of Sentiments,” which drew on the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. Several days later, Frederick Douglass published the “Report of the Women’s Rights Convention” at his North Star Printing Office in Rochester, New York.

You can see Wesleyan Chapel and visit Stanton’s house: both are part of Women’s Rights National Historical Park.

manhattan_br_greenway.jpgOnly in New York would a bike path on concrete next to iron girders and careening subway cars be part of something called a “Greenway.”

manhattan_bridge_bike_1.jpgAccording to the Parks Department, “A greenway is a linear open space, such as a path or trail, which links
parks and communities around the City, providing public access to green
spaces and the waterfront. Greenways expand recreational opportunities
for walking, jogging, biking, and in-line skating.”

The Manhattan Bridge path, which opened in 2004, links the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway and the Brooklyn Greenway. So it, too, is a “greenway.” I think the city should at least paint it green, matching some of the bike paths around the city. In a piece published on May 14m 2008, Joshua Benson, the bicycle program coordinator for the New York City Department of Transportation, answered readers’ questions about bicycling in New York, including one about painting bike paths green.

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I’ve spent the better part of the last few months finishing a chapter on the early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown for the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel (not to be confused with the Cambridge History of American Literature, the multivolume project Cyrus had a hand in producing).

brown_charles_brockden.jpgWorking on this piece reminded me again of something I was struck by while writing my dissertation (later revised as Republic of Intellect): that most critics and biographers have treated Brown as a Philadelphia writer, even though the majority of his best-known works — his gothic novels Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Mervyn — as well as his first magazine venture, The Monthly Magazine and American Review, were produced (if not always published) in New York. Brown may have come from a Philly Quaker background, that is, but he stands as an early example of an American writer who came to New York to launch his career. (Warning: the prior sentence risks anachronism, since New York was by no means established as the center of American publishing in the 1790s.)

Brown’s first book, the philosophical dialogue  Alcuin, or the Rights of Women, recounts a series of conversations in a New York parlor, where the title character, an impoverished schoolmaster, carries on an exchange with the metropolitan salonierre Mrs. Carter on topics ranging from women’s education to politics and the rules of polite conversation between the sexes. Here’s a taste of the scene-setting, which reveals some of the narrator’s insecurities as he anticipates the “scene” of conversation. Although the conversation itself is rather high-minded, think of these anxieties as an early version of Lou Reed’s “New York Telephone Conversation.” Alcuin narrates:

I looked at my unpowdered locks, my worsted stockings, and my pewter buckles. I bethought me of my embarrassed air, and my uncouth gait. I pondered the superciliousness of wealth and talents, the awfulness of flowing muslin, the mighty task of hitting on a right movement at entrance, and a right posture in sitting, and on the perplexing mysteries of tea-table decorum.

An early Woody Allen? Certainly there’s room here for a comedy of manners. If you want to see how it unfolds, you can nab a used copy of the dialogue here, or find the Bicentennial Edition of Brown’s works in your local library. That or shell out for volume one of the forthcoming Wadsworth Anthology of American Literaure, eds. Jay Parini and Ralph Bauer, which includes the dialogue in full with a headnote by yours truly. For more on Brown, visit the site of the Charles Brockden Brown Society.

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