March 2009

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boarding house.jpegCaleb Crain — a contributor to our forthcoming Cambridge Companion, whose bookish blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, we’ve long and consistently enjoyed — had a piece in the NY Times Book Review last Sunday on nineteenth-century New York boardinghouses. Taking as its departure point a nineteenth-century book on boarding life, Caleb wonders whether past housing habits may return in the current economic crisis:

[O]nce upon a time, the boardinghouse thrived in America, especially in New York. In 1856, Walt Whitman
claimed that almost three-quarters of Manhattanites lived in one. He
may have been exaggerating slightly, but the historian Wendy Gamber has
estimated that “up to 30 percent of all 19th-century households took in
boarders,” and the 1860 census counted 2,651 boardinghouse keepers in
New York State alone. In 1857, foreseeing that the phenomenon might not
last forever, Thomas Butler Gunn undertook to record it for posterity
in The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, which is available in an opportunely reprinted edition from Rutgers University Press ($23.95) as well as a facsimile edition from Cornell University Library ($23.99).
“I wonder what they were!” Gunn imagines a future researcher asking,
and for an answer, he provides chapters on the Hand-to-Mouth
Boardinghouse, the Fashionable Boardinghouse Where You Don’t Get Enough
to Eat and the Boardinghouse Where the Landlady Drinks, among other
representative types. New Yorkers of the 21st century will probably
recognize the 8-by-6-foot rooms and the walls soiled where mosquitoes
“have encountered Destiny in the shape of the slippers or boot-soles of
former occupants.” But the unceasing drama of boardinghouse life — the
flirtations, drunkenness, mutual irritation, backbiting, whining,
eccentricity, conspiracy, chiseling and deceit — may come as a
surprise. The closest modern parallel may be the comments section of a

[Read the rest of the piece here.]

Tempted to rent out your sofa? If the past’s prologue, you may want to get your hands on Gunn’s book — which is also available on Cornell’s Making of America website — to see what you may be in for.

One thing appears not to have changed from then until now: the persistent plague of bedbugs, which were thoroughly blogged about on New York sites last week and even mentioned in New York magazine’s week-in-review. Don’t miss the argument in the comments section of NYC The Blog, where readers debate the likelihood that the 2 Train Bedbug Man actually had bedbugs crawling on him when he was removed from the train by police. Oh, and over here you’ll find bedbug photography, too.

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59 at 100


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bleeckerbroadway.jpgMost of lecture today was devoted to the idea of Greenwich Village in the early twentieth century — and to the group of people the historian Christine Stansell has termed “American Moderns.”

I did mention during lecture some earlier stirrings of New York’s bohemian subculture, strong enough that they received commentary from outsiders. W.D. Howells pokes fun at middle-class slumming — young writers and artists who want to make a romantic escape from their parents’ stifling genteel culture — in The Coast of Bohemia (1893). In the 1870s the journalist James D. McCabe, in Lights and Shadows of New York Life, has this portrait of “Bleecker Street”:

In many respects Bleecker Street is more characteristic of Paris than of New York. It reminds one strongly of the Latin Quarter. … It is one of the headquarters of Bohemianism, and Mrs. Grundy [a code word for the epitome of genteel propriety] now shivers with holy horror when she thinks it was once her home. The street has not entirely lost its reputation. No one is prepared to say it is a vile neighborhood; no one would care to class it with Houston, Mercer, Greene, or Water Streets; but people shake their heads, look mysterious, and sigh ominously when you ask them about it. It is a suspicious neighborhood, to say the least, and he who frequents it must be prepared for the gossip and surmises of his friends. … Walk down it at almost any hour of the day or night, and you will see many things that are new to you. Strange characters meet you at every step; even the shops have a Bohemian aspect, for trade is nowhere so much the victim of chance as here.

Who are these strange characters? He goes on to say they’re quite a different crowd than you’ll find walking on Broadway, so close by:

That long-haired, queerly dressed young man, with a parcel under his arm, who passed you just then, is an artist, and his home is in the attic of that tall house from which you saw him pass out.  … If you look up to the second floor, you may see a pretty, but not over fresh looking young woman [an actress], gazing down into the street. … She is used to looking at men, and to having them look at her, and she is not averse to their admiration. On the floor above her dwells Betty Mulligan, a pretty little butterfly well known to the lovers of the ballet as Mademoiselle Alexandrine. No one pretends to know her history. In the same house is a fine-looking woman, not young, but not old. Her ‘husband’ has taken lodgings here for her, but he comes to see her only at intervals. … Women come here to meet other men besides their husbands, and men bring women here who are not their wives. Bleecker Street asks no questions, but it has come to suspect the men and women who are seen in it. [Excerpted in Sawyers, ed., The Greenwich Village Reader]

whitman_pfaffs.jpgThe intersection of Broadway and Bleecker had, even earlier, been home to a bohemian literary scene that met at a cellar pub called Pfaff’s. The characters affiliated with the Pfaff’s scene fit some of McCabe’s character types: artists, actresses, dancers, writers, the most famous of whom was Walt Whitman. (He took a visiting Emerson to Pfaff’s for dinner.) A terrific website hosted by Lehigh University and created by Ed Whitley and Rob Weidman offers biographies of over 150 key figures who made their way through Pfaff’s, including Howells, Horatio Alger, the famous actress Adah Isaacs Menken, and the actor Joseph Jefferson. The site, The Vault at Pfaff’s, also contains searchable digital reproductions of The Saturday Press, the short-lived newspaper edited by Henry Clapp, Jr., a key publication for the Pfaff’s crowd. There’s enough there to lose yourself in for several hours, to be sure.

[Whitman at Pfaff’s, image taken from The Vault at Pfaff’s]

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92nd St Y asked “What would NYC be without stoops?” as it kicked off its new Stoop Stories series last night. [92Y blog]

Bronx Tango, 8pm TONIGHT [Bronx Latino]

The other Five Points [5 Pointz flickr]

Flaming Neon on Fifth Ave. [Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn]

Staten Island’s first photo gallery opens on North Shore [Walking Is Transportation]

jazzsingerposter3.gifNormally when I lecture on The Jazz Singer, I spend some time near the end talking about the film’s final two vocal performances, especially Jack/Jakie’s decision to return to the synagogue to sing Kol Nidre in his dying father’s place. (The final scene, back in the Winter Garden, is Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy” to his mother, seated in the audience.)

Kol Nidre (“All vows”) is an Aramaic chant or prayer, performed to usher in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In this ritual the congregation is absolved from all obligations and vows that might come in the next year, working from the assumption that people make unwise promises all the time (“If I get a promotion, I’ll attend service every week until I die!”) and will need to be let off the hook. The ritual has murky origins, but for a long time–including during the period when the film was made–it was thought that the Kol Nidre originated in the forced conversion of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. In this context, the idea of communal absolution for any oaths has particular salience: it means that any oaths God’s people are required to take in order to ensure their survival are null and void. It turns out the ritual predates the inquisition, but it may have played this role for some people in that particular time and place. There’s also a part of the ritual related to the question of the transgressor being allowed to pray with the congregation, which seems significant here, given that Jakie is a black sheep returning (however temporarily) to the fold. Finally, some critics have suggested that when Jolson sings Kol Nidre he’s “ragging” it, jazzing it up a little. A few things to consider when understanding the song’s role in the larger film.

So: Is Jack/Jakie leaving Judaism behind a the film’s end, or carrying it with him and transmitting it into and thereby transforming American culture? Is he forging an alliance between Jews and blacks? Is he creating or perpetuating a hybrid form of identity or culture? (How will the lives of his Gentile friends be changed by their encounter with his family?) Are his gestures cosmopolitan? Or are they about his construction of a white identity beneath the blackface mask?

Critics have read this scene, variously, as one of unapologetic, even aggressive, assimilation, or as expressing an ethos of atonement. Representing the former, Michael Rogin writes in his influential book on Jewish immigrants, minstrelsy, and film, Blackface, White Noise, that the two vocal performances at the film’s end constitute its most “hysterical moment”:

The movie was promising that the son could have it all: Jewish past and American future, Jewish mother and gentile wife. That was what happened in Hollywood. The moguls left their Jewish wives for gentile women in the 1930s and mostly eliminated Jewish life from the screen. They bade farewell to their Jewish pasts with The Jazz Singer.

More recently, Marshall Berman, in On The Town (his wonderful book on Times Square in the twentieth century), offers a more generous reading, typifying those who endorse the idea that the Kol Nidre scene is redemptive:

For many Jews, [Kol Nidre] is the most dramatic and spiritually intense moment of the year. … Many secular Jews who wouldn’t dream of going to synagogue all through the year feel they have to be there for [Yom Kippur]. The Kol Nidre prayer is special in that it isn’t addressed to God, but to other people. We are supposed to recognize all the ways we have hurt each other all year, not just openly but in the shadows; we are supposed to seek and to offer forgiveness. …The cantor’s solo is the most passionate, heartrending music of the whole year. Jews believe nothing else can break down people’s resistance or open up their emotional floodgates. … At The Jazz Singer’s climax, Jolson … leads the congregation with an amazing emotional fervor and intensity that have eluded him till now: Now, at last, he’s there. His heroic act–returning to the ghetto, sacrificing for a father who didn’t sacrifice for him, renewing his thrilling but dangerous bond with his mother–unites his adulthood with his childhood, frees unconscious energy, and taps emotional depths that he has had to repress in order to work and live for twenty years under his father’s curse. Now, as his father dies, chains lift from his heart. He learns from his life what his father’s religion couldn’t teach him because it was too narrow, and what secular show biz couldn’t teach him because it was too shallow: the universal lesson that “music is the voice of God.” In The Jazz Singer, mass culture stakes a claim to universal value, not only for its global reach but for its emotional depth and power.

Berman goes on to reference the Eric Lott formula of “love and theft,” suggesting that part of what Jack needs to be forgiven of is the “theft” side of his blackface act; he also suggests, however, that Jolson’s Kol Nidre prefigures “the sounds, a generation later, of the great flowering of rhythm and blues: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Mavis Staples, Patti LaBelle. But why not?”

I’m curious to know if our students or other readers have different ways they take the end of the film.

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jazzsingersouvenir.jpgI mentioned in lecture this morning that the recent DVD repackaging of The Jazz Singer — which I highly recommend — comes with a copy of the original souvenir book sold in theaters for a quarter, a sort of playbill for the movie. The studio really pushes the parallel between Jack Robin’s and Al Jolson’s stories, not that surprising if you know (as the program also points out) that Samson Raphaelson was inspired to write the original story, and then the Broadway play on which the movie is based, after seeing Jolson in concert and speaking to him backstage. In this and other ways the studio bills the film as an extraordinarily realistic portrait of a second-generation Jewish immigrant’s rise from the LES ghetto to Broadway stardom.

I promised to post a few quotes from the Jolson bio in the souvenir program, given that they touch on the point that makes this film controversial in our own day: Jolson’s blackface performance. In class today I tried to touch on several ways in which the film self-consciously uses blackface as part of a larger set of coniderations about identity, much the way that the Vitaphone sequences (the synchronized songs and dialogue) thematize “voice” in meaningful ways. This discussion benefits, I think, from the program’s biographical note, which makes Jolson’s first use of blackface into the turning point of his career as an entertainer, which in its early, “white face” phase (yes, it uses that term), had met with “indifferent success”:

The turning tide was a chance conversation one night with an old darky. The man was a southern negro who assisted the comedian when he dressed. Jolson was extremely fond of him and appreciative of his loyalty through the lean days of his vaudeville tours. In Washington [DC, as a child,] Al had acquired a sympathetic interest in negro life and had learned to mimic the accent of the race.

One night when the two were preparing for a performance in a small theatre in Brooklyn, the actor confided to his old dresser his misgivings as to the merits of his act.

“How am I going to get them to laugh more?” he mused.

The darky shook his head knowingly. “Boss, if yo’ skin am black they always laugh.”

The idea struck Jolson as plausible and he decided to try it. He got some burnt cork, blacked up and rehearsed before the negro. When he finished he heard a chuckle followed by the verdict.

“Mistah Jolson, yo is just as funny as me.”

The sketch goes on to explain that Jolson got a raise and widened his tour circuit and that his adopting blackface eventually led to his international celebrity.

What I find curious about this story is that it makes it seem as if Jolson and his stagehand invented blackface, or at least saved it from obscurity. In reality, it was a common element of vaudeville sketches and had been for decades. If it’s a mistake for us to read Jolson’s use of blackface as anachronistic or idiosyncratic (and to do so clearly would be a mistake: the Spike Lee montage does nothing if not make us aware of how persistent and prevalent the form, and the stereotypes in which is trafficked, were well into the twentieth century) then it seems to be a misunderstanding Jolson helped to cultivate by identifying himself so personally with it.

More on the film’s use of blackface in the days to come; tomorrow I think I’ll post on possible ways to understand the Kol Nidre performance near the film’s close.

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Bryan is lecturing on Alan Crosland’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which is often described as the first “talkie,” because of its use of the Vitaphone recording process. Actually, it’s only the songs and some of the dialogue surrounding them that make use of the Vitaphone, and one of my favorite moments in the film occurs when Jolson’s Jackie sings “Blue Skies” to his  mother (his “mammy”), played by Eugenie Besserer. Jolson ad libs dialogue here, and Besserer seems a little taken aback but tries gamely to play along. For most of the film, Besserer uses the broad acting styles that mark silent film and melodrama, in contrast to Jolson’s seemingly more naturalistic style. But in this sequence, the father, played by Warner Oland, enters in and interrupts Jackie’s song — and the film abruptly switches to silent mode. It’s a formal counterpart to what’s going on thematically: the new, the modern, and the consensual are interrupted by the return of the old, the traditional, and the claims of genealogical descent.

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. In particular, we ask our students to think about these questions:

  • What does it mean for the son of Jewish immigrants to be a Jazz
    Singer? To replace immigrant patriarchy with American sentimentalism
  • 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?

One of the things that often shocks the students is the film’s use of blackface, and the first clip that Bryan shows is Jolson’s “blacking up,” looking in the mirror, and imagining his father the cantor singing at the synogogue.

This year, I’m put in mind of the comments that Ralph Ellison made about D. W. Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Ellison wrote,” Usually The Birth of a Nation is discussed in terms of its contribution to cinema technique, but as with every other technical advance since the oceanic sailing ship, it became a further instrument in the dehumanization of the Negro.”

Is the same kind of thing going on with blackface in The Jazz Singer? Spike Lee certainly thinks so, and if he has time today, Bryan will show the blackface montage that Lee created for his film Bamboozled (2000). You can watch it below:

ragtime_hardcover.jpgIn 2002, an all-white ad hoc committee of bookstore owners, libraries, publishers groups, and other groups such as the New York Women’s Agenda decided that New York should emulate Chicago’s successful “One Book, One City” program, which urged Chicago’s residents to read and discuss Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

The New York committee chose four finalists: Chang-rae Lee’s debut novel, Native Speaker (1995); James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996), Dennis Smith’s 1972 memoir Report From Engine Co. 82, and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Committee members then voted by e-mail, and Native Speaker edged out The Color of Water.

Controversy immediately ensued.

The contours of the controversy highlight some of the problems with the ways in which late twentieth-century institutional multiculturalism has encouraged us to read literary texts, particularly ethnic literary texts. One problem that became evident from committee members subsequent comments was the fact that many of them hadn’t bothered to read the books carefully or even to finish them before voting. According to the New York Times, “John C. Liu, the first Asian-American councilman, said he had not finished [Native Speaker] but relished the idea of a book about an Asian-American councilman.” In contrast, Barbara Gerard, a representative of the Women’s Agenda on the selection committee and a consultant to the Board of Education, also admitted not finishing the book and wanted to reserve judgment until she had seen “if there is anything derogatory toward Korean-Americans or Asians at this point.”

Gerard, like some other members of the committee, seemed to have a programmatic idea of multicultural reading, assuming that multicultural texts should be celebrations of particular ethnic identities.

Members of the committee who had dismissed Doctorow’s Ragtime as insufficiently multicultural had either not read up to the novel’s final pages, in which the rags-to-riches Jewish studio magnate imagines a film featuring “a bunch of children who were pals, white black, fat thin rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of ragamuffins, like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again,” or simply dismissed the novel because it didn’t include Asians or Latinos and spent a lot of time describing the lives of white people.

native_speaker.jpgUltimately, the New York Women’s Agenda decided to withdraw from the program and promote the reading of The Color of Water, the biracial McBride’s paean to his white mother, in part because of its greater attention to issues of gender and because, according to the Times, “Members of the group were concerned that Native Speaker was not engaging enough for high school students and might offend some Asian-Americans,” presumably because two of its central characters are Asian and turn out to be flawed human beings. The controversy over Native Speaker suggests that the pursuit of multiculturalism often leads to an essentialism in which the depiction of particular minority characters is assumed to reflect on the character of the minority as a whole.

We’ve thought in the past about including Native Speaker on our Writing New York syllabus, in part because it draws inspiration from Whitman’s view of New York’s immigrants as the future of American democracy. Doctorow’s Ragtime ends with a racially diverse, reconstituted nuclear family that strikes me as an emblem of hope for a cosmopolitan future. Native Speaker, too, dramatizes the necessity of pursuing cosmopolitanism, even as it dramatizes the failure of one man’s cosmopolitan dream. It would indeed be a good fit for our syllabus. Which leads to the inevitable question: what should we drop in order to put it in?

WNY Doctorow


E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime is the subject of today’s lecture in Writing New York. We read the novel at the moment in the course when we are considering the turn into the twentieth century, not when we’re talking about the 1970s (though I do bring the novel up again when we talk about Woody Allen’s Manhattan). One of the subjects of the course at this point is the challenge that Hollywood begins to offer to New York as the place where American national narratives are going to be produced, as well as the challenges offered by film to the novel as a purveyor of realism in narrative.

We began to explore these questions with Wharton’s Age of Innocence, and Ragtime offers an opportunity to continue the conversation — in part because one of the novel’s central characters transforms himself from a street vendor on the Lower East Side into a Hollywood film mogul in the course of the novel, but also because Doctorow makes explicit use of forms that he regards as cinematic. Doctorow once told an interviewer:

I don’t know how anyone can write today without accommodating eighty or ninety years of film technology. . .

[From film] we’ve learned that we don’t have to explain things. . . . My writing is powered by discontinuity, switches in scene, tense, voice, the mystery of who’s talking…. Anyone who’s ever watched a news broadcast on television knows all about discontinuity.

Readers of the novel have noted how Doctorow transposes into a novelistic key techniques that have become hallmarks of film such as montage and cross-cutting.

Comparing Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Age of Innocence to Wharton’s novel can reveal the strengths and limitations of each genre, and it’s fun to do something similar with Milos Forman’s 1981 film adaptation of Ragtime. In the case of Wharton and Scorsese, what is primarily at issue is how film can convey the social meanings of the objects and actions it depicts. A film enable us to see surfaces, but how does it convey the depths of signification, what those surfaces mean to those who see them? Scorsese’s solution is to turn back to Wharton’s text, through the use of voice-over.

In Ragtime, the problem is how to convey the way in which the novel brings history alive by mixing fictional and historical characters, but taking us into the heads not only of its fictional protagonists, but also in to the heads of figures like Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. In Forman’s film, historical figures aren’t protagonists: the film presents the stories of its historical figures through the use of newsreels that mix actual footage with recreations featuring actors from the film. (The one exception to this rule is Evelyn Nesbit, but that’s because her story briefly becomes entwined with that of the character Mother’s Younger Brother.) This simplification allows Forman to heighten the dramatic story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the fictional ragtime pianist who becomes a terrorist after a racial insult leads to the death of his girlfriend, who is the mother of his child.

But for film buffs, Forman manages to convey something like the novel’s mix of the fictional and factual through its cunning use of the supporting cast. Jimmy Cagney, famous for playing gangsters and tough guys in films like The Public Enemy and White Heat, essentially comes out of retirement to play Commissioner of Police Rheinlander Waldo (invented for the movie: in the novel the character is District Attorney Whitman); the lawyer, Delmas, is played by Pat O’Brtien, Cagney’s longtime pal (both on screen and off); the famous dancer Donald O’Connor plays Evelyn Nesbit’s dancing instructor; and the architect Stanford White is played by Norman Mailer.

Nevertheless, Forman’s film strikes the viewer as a well-executed piece of mainstream American cinema, whereas the novel still strikes readers, I suspect, as “experimental” fiction.

[There’s an excellent volume of interviews available from the University Press of Mississippi called Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, edited by Christopher D. Morris. The photo above comes from The New York Times.]

Just one day after I posted my lament for Woolworth’s eclipse, Curbed spent the day fielding, disseminating, and updating rumors that Gehry’s Beekman Tower was going to be capped at its current height.

It’s not clear yet what the full story is. Apparently a permit had been sought for a concrete “roof,” which some tipsters interpreted as a signal that the tower had topped out early, but the Tribeca Trib is reporting that the permit was simply for the first of three planned setbacks (forming a terrace from which the building will continue its ascent).


I suppose time will tell, but I’m not sure which I feel worse about — a garish 76-story silver rocketship, or one that gets cut off half way up, nipping in the bud Gehry’s stab at the skyline, a permanent memorial not just to Bloomberg’s developmania but to the recession.

P.S. Can we call a moratorium on the nickname FiDi for the Financial District? It sounds like a brand of dog food.

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