Uh, I guess that would be me. I had a friend who’d waited for me to get back from Bermuda before watching it, and then I was scheduled to take a group of students (my book group) the next night. I have thoughts but no time, and so I’ll postpone a longer post. For now I’ll say I thought it wasn’t terrible — and I did like it better the second time — but that it still has some big flaws that it can’t quite overcome. Contrary to those who think it’s about the book being unfilmable, it’s really about bad acting on the part of everyone but the perfectly cast Patrick Wilson (and he wasn’t close to being at his best).
Meanwhile, for a fun set of discussions (especially in comments), here are a couple links to SEK’s and dana’s takes over at Edge. My response was closer to dana’s, but I’m not sure I agree on the “worst use of ‘Hallelujah’” bit. I thought that was kind of funny. If I ever get around to a longer Watchmen post, it might be on the music direction, which was so overdetermined as to be self-parodic — kind of like the film as a whole.
In Yekl, Abraham Cahan uses the representation of dialect to enhance the realistic feeling conveyed by his text, but here it functions the way that code-switching works in bilingual texts. We are supposed to understand that most of the dialogue takes place in Yiddish, the lingua franca of Jews on the Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century, and Yiddish speech is denoted by proper English. In Yiddish, the characters speak eloquently, but their English is anything but. The characters sprinkle their Yiddish with a fractured English (indicated by italics) that one critic has described as “comic when it is not grotesque.”
In Hester Street, her 1975 film adaptation of Yekl, Joan Micklin Silver can’t make use of this technique without creating a Yiddish film with English subtitles. Instead, her characters all speak accented English, but there’s a payoff, the dramatic irony that’s created when characters like Jake and his flame Mamie talk about how “American” they are. We the audience know that in the era in which the film is set, their spoken English will still mark them as “immigrants” rather than “Americans.”
See how the irony works in this clip, the first scene after the credits, when Jake, Mamie, and their friend Joe Peltner meet a “greenhorn”:
“Once I live in America, . . . I want to live in America. Dot’ sh a’ kin’ a man I am! One must not be a greenhorn.” So says, Jake, the protagonist of Abraham Cahan’s novel, Yekl (1896). Jake shows that he’s no greenhorn by talking about American sports, especially baseball. Understanding baseball makes Jake feel less like a Semite and more like a Yankee, particularly because “all college boys and tony peoplesh play it.”
A College Baseball Team in 1893.
When I teach the novel, I suggest that Cahan is invoking a developing cultural mythology that links baseball both to individualism and Americanization. In 1886, Harper’s magazine reported that “the fascination of the game has seized upon the American people, irrespective of age, sex, or other condition.” Mark Twain declared that baseball was “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”
In 1919, Hugh Fullerton, one of the nation’s leading sportswriters, would write in the Atlanta Constitution that baseball “is the greatest single force working for Americanization. No other game appeals so much to the foreign born youngsters and nothing, not even the schools, teaches the American spirit so quickly, or inculcates the idea of sportsmanship or fair play thoroughly.”
Much later in the twentieth century, the novelist Philip Roth would write an autobiographical sketch entitled “My Baseball Years,” in which he described baseball as
this game that I loved with all my heart, not simply for the fun of playing it (fun was secondary, really), but for the mythic and aesthetic dimension it gave to an American boy’s life — particularly to one whose grandparents could hardly speak English. For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep, and who had no experience, such as a Catholic child might, of an awesome hierarchy that was real and felt, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nations and bound millions upon millions of us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasm, and antagonisms. Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best.
Another child of immigrants, A. Bartlett Giamatti, once president of Yale and later President of the National League, also extolled the Americanness of baseball. In a speech delivered before the Massachusetts Historical Society, Giamatti claimed that “baseball fits America so well because it embodies the interplay of individual and group that we love, and because it expresses our longing for the rule of law while licensing our resentment of law givers.”Giamatti speculated that baseball had become America’s national pastime because
we cherish as Americans a game wherein freedom and reunion are both possible. Baseball fulfills the promise America made itself to cherish the individual while recognizing the overarching claims of the group. It sends its players out in order to return again, allowing all the freedom to accomplish great things in a dangerous world. So baseball restates a version of America’s promises every time it is played. The playing of the game is a restatement of the promises that we can all be free, that we can all succeed.
Giamatti also stressed that at the heart of the game lies “the basic confrontation between two lone individuals. It is primitive in its starkness. A man on a hill prepares to throw a rock at a man slightly below him, not far away, who holds a club.” Moreover, Giamatti asserts, because players are “sufficiently physically separated on the field . . . the individual cannot hide from responsibility in a crowd, as in football or Congress.”For these reasons, Giamatti declares that “individual merit and self-reliance are the bed-rock of baseball.”
Cahan thus uses baseball to serve as a marker of Jake’s embrace of American individualism. The film Hester Street, which I’ll discuss tomorrow, includes a wonderful scene of Jake playing ball with his son in Central Park, just after lecturing his greenhorn wife, Gitl, and their greenhorn friend Bernstein, about what it means to be an American.
The subject of today’s lecture in Writing New York is Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novel Yekl. We read it not only as a example of early twentieth-century ethnic realism, but also an example of the novel of manners. It’s part of a unit that includes more predictable titles like James’s Washington Square and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, as well as Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie, which, like Yekl, is rarely included in the genre.
a significant proportion of turn-of-the-century New York novels expand the populations understood to be “mappable” by novels of manners: novels by William Dean Howells, Abraham Cahan, and Paul Laurence Dunbar bring into the tradition classes and cultures, races and ethnicities (and even literary genres, such as naturalism) not usually associated with manners literature as traditionally conceived. These novels share their preoccupation with manners with a polyglot host of other turn-of-the-century New York texts, reflecting the allure of manners–their diversity, even their exoticism–for chroniclers of a cosmopolitan society.
The title of Wilson’s essay comes from the final dinner party scene in The Age of Innocence, when one snobbish character remarks, “If things go on at this pace, . . . we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindlers’ houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastards.” Julius Beaufort is an example of “new money,” whose origins are mysterious (read: possibly Jewish) and whose conduct is regarded as boorish — though the novel’s characters are more than happy to attend his annual Opera ball. Wilson argues that for The Age of Innocence, as for the New York novel of manners more generally, “marrying Beaufort’s bastards” is a good thing, a sign of cosmopolitan change.
Cahan’s novel offers a useful example of the conflict between descent and consent that the critic Werner Sollors has described as a “central drama in American culture.” In Beyond Ethnicity, Sollors describes descent relations as “hereditary” and “ancestral,” in contrast to consent relations, which are “contractual” and “self-made.” Sollors continues:
Descent relations are those defined by anthropologists as relations of “substance” (by blood or nature); consent relations describes those of “law” or “marriage.” Descent language emphasizes our positions as heirs, our hereditary qualities, liabilities and entitlements; consent language stresses are abilities as mature free agents and “architects” of our fates to choose our spouses, our destinies, our political systems.
Yekl is about one man’s effort to transform himself from the Old World “Yekl” to the New World “Jake,” to Americanize himself. When his wife Gitl, arrives at Ellis Island, with their young son, complications ensue.
I’ll be talking about Yekl throughout the week. It’s available in an edition from Dover. Click here to find an e-text of the novel.
Christine Nilsson as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was
singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan
distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should
compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European
capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every
winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy.
Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus
keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and
yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic
associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so
problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
These are the opening lines of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence (1920), and the “new Opera House” to which she refers is the Metropolitan Opera, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary season this year. We’ve written here about the opening of the building on October 22, 1883, which featured a performance of Faust with Nilsson singing the role of Marguerite.
But let’s say you were interested in following up Nilsson’s subsequent career at the Met. It used to be quite difficult. As the current issue of the Metropolitan Opera’s Playbill puts it, “If somone called with a perfectly valid inquiry — how many times did Enrico Caurso and Geraldine Farrar sing together at the Met? — we would go to the performer cards faithfully prepared over the years by the first first Archivist, Mrs. John DeWitt Peltz, and try to remember the operas Caruso and Farrar sang together. We would pull out Bohème, go on to Carmen, and so on. Any total was suspect.”
That’s no longer the case, thanks to the online MetOpera Database. Typing “Nilsson” into the “Personal Names” field of the Keyword search engine yields 293 hits, the first of which is that first performance of Faust. Clicking on that link gives you cast and credits for the performance, a review from the New York Tribune, and a link to photos related to the production. It’s a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the history of the Met, the history of opera more generally, or the history of classical music in New York. Give it a whirl!
How’s this for a Bermuda-New York connection: Turns out John Lennon stumbled on the name for his 1980 album with Yoko while he was vacationing in Bermuda. “Double Fantasy” was a flower on display at the botanical gardens in Paget Parish.
From a Beatle fan blog:
It was during one visit to the Botanical Gardens that Lennon famously
came across the Double Fantasy freesia that was at the time being grown
there. A plot of the freesia were planted near the front of Camden
House and, under a cedar tree, Lennon is thought to have stopped and
read an identity label with the name of the flower.
possible that one or two late straggler freesias may still have been
around at the time Lennon came across the label, in any case he was
struck by the name and, as he recalled in interviews later that year,
decided it was the perfect title for the comeback album he writing.
at the rented house in Fairylands, Rolf Luthi occasionally turned up to
check everything was all right at the house and to arrange for any
repairs. One such problem arose with the outdated sewage system to the
property. Rolf called for the White family plumbers to fix it.
As the plumbers were working four-year-old Sean Lennon kept saying to them “My daddy’s a Beatle.”
said: “They didn’t know who was staying at the house and after Sean had
said this for about the fifth time one of the White brothers replied
‘Yeah, and my dad’s a cockroach.’”
This term I’m doing a directed reading course with a master’s candidate at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She’s taking a course at CUNY on feminism approaches to science fiction films and television, so our reading course is meant to offer a more traditional approach to science fiction or, more broadly, speculative fiction. Thus far we’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915). For this week we read two of Isaac Asimov’s robot novels from the 1950s, The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957).
The term “robot” had first appeared in 1921 in the play R.U.R. by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The word was coined by Čapek’s brother, Josef, and it comes from the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor” or “servitude.” R.U.R. stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” and Čapek’s allegorical play depicts a company whose founder, Rossum, (from the Czech rozum, meaning “reason”) has discovered how to make artificial persons. His nephew realizes that by simplifying the process and stripping these persons of feelings and other unnecessary attributes, he can create the perfect worker — the robot. These robots are much in demand; eventually they are used as mercenaries, with devastating results. And when the wife of the company’s director secretly has one of the scientists enable the robots to transcend some of their limitations because she feels sorry for them, disaster ensues. The robots revolt, and in the end all human beings but one — a worker — are killed. The play ends when two robots — one male, one female — develop emotions: it is they who will repopulate the earth with a new race of super beings.
Isaac Asimov’s robot novels consciously depart from the negative conception of robots that begins with R.U.R., because he steadfastly believes in the perfectionist possibilities of technological progress. Asimov’s robots have a built-in safety valve: the so-called “Three Laws of Robotics,” a set of instructions hardwired into all robots, which require them to put the interests and safety of human beings ahead of their own. In order of strict priority, the laws are: 1) Protect humans; 2) Obey humans; and 3) Protect yourself.
Asimov’s innovation is to imagine an earth that has evolved into a collection of vast cities that are essentially hives: he tests communist ideology from within by exploring it through that most individualistic of genres, the detective novel. And he ultimately finds that life in these hive-like cities is efficient but lacking in heart and soul. Its inhabitants cease to be individuals and become drones. At the same time, however, Asimov’s two novels teach the virtues of tolerance, pluralism, and democratic openness. For one of the other things that the detective Elijah Baley learns in these novels is respect for those who are different, whether they are humans or the robots. Rejecting both Communism and McCarthyism, Asimov’s robot novels advocate a return to Emersonian self-reliance and a more fully realized version of American liberalism.
What I’d forgotten about The Caves of Steel, however, is that it is set in New York. Here is What Baley sees when he looks at the window of the police commissioner’s office:
Even dimmed by the weather, the City was a tremendous thing to see. The Police Department was in the upper levels of City Hall, and City Hall reached high. From the Commissioner’s window, the neighboring towers fell short and the tops were visible. They were so many fingers, groping upward. Their walls were blank, featureless. They were the outer shells of human hives.
Later on we learn a little more about the new New York, as Baley, an amateur historian, thinks about the city’s past:
The City now! New York City in which he lived and had his being. Larger than any City but Los Angeles. More populous than any but Shanghai. It was only three centuries old.
To be sure, something had existed in the same geographic area before then that had been called New York City. That primitive gathering of population had existed for three thousand years, not three hundred, but it hadn’t been a City.
There were no Cities then. There were just huddles of dwelling places large and small, open to the air. . . . These huddles (the largest barely reached ten million in population and most never reached one million) were scattered all over Earth by the thousands. By modern standards, they had been completely inefficient economically.
Baley concludes that “the City was the culmination of man’s mastery over the environment. Not space travel, not the fifty colonized worlds that were now so haughtily independent, but the City.” Very few people live outside the Cities: “Outside was wilderness, the open sky that few men could face with anything like equanimity.”
It sounds like Robert Moses’s idea of paradise. What Baley discovers, of course, is that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
I’ll probably be posting infrequently between now and next Monday: poor me, I’m languishing in Bermuda while New York is in the depths of winter. (At least it was when I left yesterday morning.)
I’m at the sixth biennial conference of the Society of Early Americanists, which is being held here this year to mark the 400th anniversary of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture, an English ship on its way to Jamestown. A few survivors of the wreck stayed here, making it the second oldest permanent English settlement in the New World.
The Sea Venture has nothing to do with New York history or literature, of course — although there are other shipwrecks in Bermuda’s history that originated in New York. Which is to say that as we were descending into the airport I couldn’t help but think the whole place looked a little like the Others’ colony on Lost — done up in pastels.
In 1902, Henry James wrote to Edith Wharton after reading her first novel, The Valley of Decision, and two volumes of her stories: “In the presence of a book so accomplished, pondered, saturated, so exquisitely studied, and so brilliant and interesting from a literary point of view, I feel that just now heartily to congratulate you covers plenty of ground.” But he warned Wharton away from pursuing the kind of historical fiction represented by The Valley of Decision. Instead, he advised her to take up a subject closer to home: “Do New York! The 1st-hand account is precious.”
Three years later, Wharton did indeed “do New York,” telling the story of Lily Bart’s downfall amidst New York’s moneyed class in The House of Mirth, one of her finest novels. [The picture at left is a publicity shot taken to promote the novel.]
Eighteen years later, in The Age of Innocence, Wharton would turn a less caustic eye on the city, dramatizing the world of her youth. When she showed the manuscript to her cousin Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, he observed: “Yes, it’s good. But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it. We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.”
Berry was right about the novel’s quality, but wrong about its fate: The Age of Innocence was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and sold 115,000 copies in two years. Wharton earned $55,000 plus $15,000 from Warner Brothers for film rights to the novel.
Just before beginning to write the novel, Wharton had read Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, already a landmark in the nascent fields of ethnography and cultural anthropology. I’ll be spending some time in this morning’s lecture tracing Wharton’s references to ethnography in the novel. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter’s engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced, quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents’ tent.
The overarching theme of the lecture will be the ways in which the novel of manners has always
been a genre that dramatized tribal behavior, even if the tribe in
question happened to be upper crast English society or the high society of Old New York. What’s wonderful about Wharton’s novel is the self-consciousness with which she approaches the genre because of her reading of Frazier’s book and other ethnographic texts. Passages like the one above become meditations not only on the mores and customs of society but also on the ways in the mysteries of language.
Later in the week we’ll think about Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel, which makes significant use of Wharton’s language in Joanne Woodward’s voiceover narration. The comparison of novel to film in this case is instructive because it shows us how difficult it is for film to plumb the significance of a phrase or gesture, which a novelist like Wharton can reveal in just a phrase.
There’s something inherently funny about the idea of a countdown to Watchmen.
Tonight the book club I convene in the Residential College where I live with my family discussed Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. I first read it as a 16-year-old, waiting each month for the new issue to arrive. (When Issue 11 showed up I thought the cover was the most beautiful piece of comic art I’d ever seen.) Even then I swore that someday I’d teach it in college — that one and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which came out the same year. I’ve been teaching Dark Knight now for a while, but this was my first chance to make that nerdy teenage Watchmen dream come true.
I haven’t been reading around a lot about the movie. I’m wary, of course, but enough of a geeky fanboy that I’m also waiting with bated breath. I’m sure Cyrus and I both will have more to say about it later on.
For now, I’m still loving the last question posed by the book group. We didn’t take the formalist approach modeled over at Edge of the American West by SEK (parts 1 and 2); rather, we took a more cultural tack, talking about history, politics, media, gender, and genre, sex and the bomb. The final question, posed by a female student, was self-admittedly “girlie”: she wanted to know whether people preferred Laurie with Dan or with Jon. I thought it was a great question.
Well — those of you who know what the hell I’m talking about — what would you say?