June 2009

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THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

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Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has declared today to be “Spike Lee Day” in Brooklyn to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Lee’s film Do the Right Thing.

Readers of this blog know that Do the Right Thing is one of the staples of the Writing New York course that Bryan and I have been teaching at NYU since 2003. I wrote a couple of posts about the film here this past spring. The first invited readers to compare the openings of Lee’s film and the film that serves as its foil in our course, Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). The second suggests that the film dramatizes a culture of incivility in which cosmopolitan opportunities fail to be realized.

Brian Lehrer did a segment on the film yesterday on his radio show at WNYC. [You can listen to or download a podcast here.] The segment featured two writers from The Root, an online magazine devoted to African American culture and politics. First, senior writer Kai Wright discussed the impact of the movie twenty years ago and the ways in which the problems it dramatized remain problematic today. Then, political reporter Dayo Olopade talked about what the film signifies for Barack and Michelle Obama, who reportedly saw it on their first date.

The Root has a terrific set of articles devoted to the film’s anniversary, including a guide to dressing like it’s 1989.

To commemorate the anniversary, Universal has just released a Blu-ray edition of the film. The disc features a new 20th-anniversary documentary and a new audio commentary by Spike Lee. (Click here for an online review of the disc at highdefdiscnews.com. My preferred online highdef reviewing site, highdefdigest.com, hasn’t published its evaluation yet.) My copy of the new disc hasn’t arrived yet, but I suspect that fans or scholars of the film will still want the wonderful Criterion Edition of the film, which is in standard definition. I’ll let you know how the two compare in a later post.

Stonewall @ 40

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which most people cite as the starting point of the modern gay rights movement. Here’s a terrific piece from Democracy Now! to mark the occasion. It includes comments from historians, as well as a terrific radio documentary that features several “Stonewall vets” who recall gay life in NYC before the riots and offer memories of the uprising itself.


As a bonus, here’s the Bowery Boys’ podcast on Stonewall; this year they added a profile on a pre-Stonewall gay bar called Julius’

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Our colleague Lytle Shaw has written a wonderful piece called “Whitman’s Urbanism” for our forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York City. (Yes, “literatures” have become “literature” at the request of the press — more’s the pity.) Lytle’s piece focuses on the way that Whitman’s poetic evocation of the city influenced later writers, most particularly Allen Ginsberg.

Apparently, Lytle isn’t the only one interested in this subject. Here’s a call for papers that’s just materialized in our inbox:

Whitman & The Beats
April 9-11 2010
St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY

 
The English and Communication Arts Departments at St. Francis College calls for papers that celebrate the influence of Walt Whitman on Beat writers including but not limited to Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs,  and Jack Kerouac.
 
We seek papers that break new ground in addressing Whitman’s presence in the works of Beat writers, the reception of Whitman’s poetry by the Beats, and papers which address how the legacy of the Beats, their perspectives of their era and artistic innovations, may be traced to Whitman’s influence on American literary culture.  Topics may include (but are not limited to) areas of inquiry such as “the road”, “gender and sexuality”, “mysticism”, “religion and spirituality”, “America”, and “transcendentalism”.  Examples of possible papers include (but, again, are not limited to)
 
“The Beats and the Search for Authenticity”
“Forging a New American Language”
“The Spontaneous Yawp: “New” Writing Styles in Whitman and the Beats”
“Cultural Minutia Found in Whitman and the Beats”
“Whitman’s and the Beats use of New York City”
“The Beat’s (Sub)Consious Rewriting of Whitman”
“Whose America? The Idea of a Nation in Whitman and the Beats”
“Homosexuality in the Beats and Whitman”
“War in Whitman and the Beats”
“Poetry for (and about) the People”
“Autobiographical Influences in the Poetry of Ginsberg and Whitman”
“Not Ready for Prime Time: the “Forgotten” Works of Whitman and the Beats”
“Nationalistic Drum Banging in Whitman and the Beats”  
 
To submit, please send a 500-word abstract to Dr. Ian Maloney at imaloney@stfranciscollege.edu by January 31, 2010. Finished papers should be 8-10 pages, capable of being read in 20 minutes or less. Please note on your abstract your technological needs for your presentation.

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Michael Mann’s biopic Dillinger opens this Wednesday. It stars Johnny Dillinger as the celebrity gangster who was gunned down by the FBI after watching … what film?

Manhattan Melodrama
, of course. See last year’s post on the film (mentioned also in last Friday’s post). Manhattan Melodrama is available from Netflix.

The book that I mentioned in last night’s post is In the Shadow of Gotham, the first novel by Stefanie Pintoff, who happens to be a graduate of our doctoral program. Stefanie’s dissertation, A Narratology of Detective Fiction, was directed by our colleague Mary Poovey; it examined a range of Victorian novels — including Lady Audley’s Secret, The Woman in White, Bleak House, The Moonstone, Dracula, The Golden Bowl — as well as several Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s most controversial novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Pintoff argued that these fictions are designed to enable readers to recognize that the concepts that we typically use to construct “narraives about knowing” are in fact highly problematic and to model for readers new epistemological approaches. In their different ways, Pintoff suggested, these narratives experiment with form “to demand that readers become self-conscious about the epistemological processes by which we construct knowledge.”

stefanie_color.jpgI suspect that In the Shadow of Gotham puts some of these ideas into practice. The book was the winner of the inaugural Minotaur Books/MWA Best First Crime Novel award, and Pintoff’s writing has been compared to that of Caleb Carr.

The novel takes as its point of departure the 1904 General Slocum steamship disaster, which I wrote about here last summer in connection with the film Manhattan Melodrama. Pintoff’s hero, a policeman named Simon Ziele, loses his fiancee in the disaster and leaves the city for a more pastoral setting in Westchester. But the brutal murder of a young woman who was studying mathematics at Columbia University brings him back and requires him to team up with a brilliant criminologist named Alistair Sinclair. That’s because one of Sinclair’s subjects turns out to be the prime suspect in the murder …

On her website, Pintoff describes the appeal of writing about early twentieth-century New York:

Part of the fun I have as a writer researching this series involves delving into the rich history of turn-of-the-century New York. I love poring over old restaurant menus and subway maps, touring historic mansions and reading newspaper archives. What I find fascinating about this time period is its spirit of tremendous energy in the face of rampant change. Simon Ziele’s world was influenced by the growing popularity of the telephone and the phonograph, the automobile and the newly-built underground subway–even as his job was shaped by innovative but controversial practices like fingerprinting and early criminal profiling.

I’ll post again about the novel once I’ve had a chance to read it. But now I’m off to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — hey, my summer class just ended!

From the Times‘ Arts Beat blog:

Reaction in New York | 7:51 p.m.
Mr. Jackson first performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1969 at
the age of 9. The Jackson 5 won Amateur Night. “We will always remember
Michael in our hearts as a true Apollo legend, known for his
professionalism and grace,” said Jonelle Procope, the president of the
Apollo Theater Foundation. “Our sympathy goes out to his entire family.
He will be deeply missed.”

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colum_mccann.jpgAs a follow-up to Bryan’s post about Colum McCann’s new novel Let the Great World Spin, which I’m also looking forward to checking out once I’ve finished with the papers from my summer class, I just wanted to note that McCann will be giving a reading at the Union Square Barnes and Noble next Tuesday night, June 30, at 7:00 p.m. [Click here for info.]

If you can’t make it then, you can also catch him at the Bryant Park Outdoor Reading Room (42nd Street between 5th & 6th Avenues) on July 8 at 12:30 p.m.

What’s more, he seems to be sharing the stage with Joseph O’Neill, author of last year’s Netherland, which Bryan mentioned in yesterday’s post.

Tomorrow I’ll post about another recently released novel set in Gotham — one that promises to be less serious — that I’m looking forward to reading in July.

mccann cover.jpgI’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Colum McCann‘s new novel, Let the Great World Spin. It arrived in stores today; I picked up a copy this morning. I finish teaching this week and am looking forward to summer reading.

Last year I bought Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, also on the day it was released. I enjoyed it, certainly, but don’t really think of it a year later as a classic New York novel. A very fine one, perhaps, and among the best post-9/11 novels, but not quite a permanent part of the canon. I also read Price’s Lush Life last summer. It made its way onto New York Magazine‘s list of the best New York cultural artifacts of the last 40 years, though I suppose we’ll have to wait and see whether it’s still on the list 40 years from now. I ate it up, and think about it often (thought about it just last Sunday, in fact, sitting at brunch at Schiller’s with my family for Father’s Day). But it has something of the feel of TV in the end — good TV, The Wire TV — but maybe not classic literature.

Does that mean I’m setting my hopes a little too high for Let the Great World Spin? Lord knows I’m the target audience. Not only do I gravitate toward NYC hist and lit of all periods and styles, but I’m the right age (five years younger than McCann) to have a serious infatuation with the city circa 1974, which is when his novel’s set. Like him, I’m too young to have lived here then, or even for it to have been a part of my consciousness (Sesame Street notwithstanding). To boot, I’m gearing up to write about the band that kicked off CBGB that very year, so I’ve already got ’74 in particular on the brain.

New York‘s culture blog has an interview up with McCann today. Here’s a highlight:

Did you go to those places — like the South Bronx projects,
where two of your main characters are hookers working under the Major
Deegan?

Yeah, I hung around. To be totally honest I’d feel more at risk walking
down O’Connell Street in Dublin at midnight than I did at any time in
the South Bronx. But it’s impossible to find a hooker who was around in
the seventies, because she’s either stuffed herself with so much heroin
that she’s six feet underground or she’s 60 years old now and she’s not
going to talk about it.

It seems like the character most similar to you is also the most
unlikable — a selfish striver with Yuppie tendencies. Am I reading that
correctly?

I would say yes; in fact I’m going to do a recorded-books version and
I’m going to read that chapter. There’s a scene in the book where the
tightrope walker guesses everybody’s birthday at a party — he goes
around and pickpockets their drivers’ licenses. But the one person he
doesn’t get is this idiot who says, “Oh, I never carry my driver’s
license” — like me. And then the walker goes out the door and says
“28th of February” — which is my birthday. You’ve got to be a little
self-deprecating. I happen to be in New York, I’m middle-class, I live
on the Upper East Side for my sins. But the thing I’m attracted to is
the edges.

Rest of the interview here. I’m sure I’ll post my reaction to the book sooner or later; it begins with Philippe Petit’s walk on the wire between the Twin Towers, which is promising. If we can keep some frickin’ sun out around here I’d love to spend some time outside reading in the grass, seeing as it’s officially summer now and all.

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the-human-stain.jpgTonight we discussed Philip Roth’s masterful novel The Human Stain in my graduate class. I appreciate the book more each time that I read it (this was my third time). I love the language that Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, uses to recreate the life of his friend, Coleman Silk, veering as it does from the lyrical to the crass (often within a single sentence), creating  a heady mix of classical tragedy (Coleman was a professor of classics) and low comedy (it was the summer of 1998 when President Clinton’s sexual proclivities dominated the headlines).

The novel is set in Hawthorne country: it takes place in and around the fictional Athena College, nestled somehwere in the Berkshires. But the novel does a marvelous job of evoking a particular moment in the history of Greenwich Village — 1953 to be precise — when Coleman attends NYU on the GI bill:

He wanted to live in Greenwich Village far more than to go to NYU, wanted to be a poet or a playwright far more than to study for a degree, but the best way he could think to pursue his goals without having to get a job to support himself was by cashing in on the GI Bill. …

In those days in Greenwich Village there seemed to be no more engrossing off-hours entertainment for NYU’s ex-GIs than appraising the legs of the women who passed by the coffeehouses and cafes where they congregated to read the papers and play chess. Who knows why sociologically, but whatever the reason, it was the great American era of aphrodisiacal legs, and once or twice a day at least, Coleman followed a pair of them for block after block so as not to lose sight of the way they moved and how they were shaped and what they looked like at rest while the corner-light was changing from red to green. And when he gauged the moment was right — having followed behind long enough to become both verbally poised and insanely ravenous — and quickened his pace so as to catch up, when he spoke and ingratiated himself enough so as to be allowed to fall in step beside her and to ask her name and to make her laugh and to get her to accept a date, he was, whether she knew it or not, proposing the date to her legs.

Despite his literary aspirations, Coleman is no beatnik — in part “because he kept getting
co-opted because of his academic prowess” — but there is something of Jack Kerouac’s girl-chasing Dean Moriarty in Zuckerman’s description of Coleman as “ravenous,” I think.

What Coleman discovers in Greenwich Village is a space of transformation — in particular a space in which he can transform himself from a light-skinned African American into a white man. And, he discovers while he’s out with a girlfriend who also happens to be a light-skinned African American, he isn’t the only one doing it:

One evening she takes him around to a tiny Bleecker Street jewelry shop where the white guy who owns it makes beautiful things out of enamel. Just shopping the street, out looking, but when they leave she tells Coleman that the guy is black. “You’re wrong;’ Coleman tells her, “he can’t be.” “Don’t tell me that I’m wrong” — she laughs — “you’re blind.” Another night, near midnight, she takes him to a bar on Hudson Street where painters congregate to drink. “See that one? The smoothie?” she says in a soft voice, inclining her head toward a good-looking white guy in his mid-twenties cI1arming all the girls at the bar. “Him,” she says. “No,” says Coleman, who’s the one laughing now. “You’re in Greenwich Village, Coleman Silk, the four freest square miles in America. There’s one on every other block. You’re so vain, you thought you’d dreamed it up yourself.” And if she knows of three — which she does, positively — there are ten, if not more. “From all over everywhere,” she says, “they make straight for Eighth Street. Just like you did from little East Orange.”

Zuckerman emphasizes the contextual specificity of Coleman’s decision to pass: “The act was committed in 1953 by an audacious young man in Greenwich Village, by a specific person in a specific place at a specific time,” he tells us. Because it is 1953 and because he is at NYU, there is a particular kind of white man that Coleman is destined to become:

Coleman had been allowing that he was Jewish for several years now — or letting people think so if they chose to — since coming to realize that at NYU as in his cafe hangouts, many people he knew seemed to have been assuming he was a Jew all along. What he’d learned in the navy is that all you have to do is give a pretty good and consistent line about yourself and nobody ever inquires, because no one’s that interested. His NYU and Village acquaintances could as easily have surmised — as buddies of his had in the service — that he was of Middle Eastern descent, but as this was a moment when Jewish self-infatuation was at a postwar pinnacle among the Washington Square intellectual avant-garde, when the aggrandizing appetite driving their Jewish mental audacity was beginning to look to be uncontrollable and an aura of cultural significance emanated as much from their jokes and their family anecdotes, from their laughter and their clowning and their wisecracks and their arguments-even from their insults-as from Commentary, Midstream, and the Partisan Review, who was he not to go along for the ride …

There are, of course, costs. Zuckerman describes Coleman’s breaking the news to his mother as a symbolic act of murder: “Murdering her on behalf of his exhilarating notion of freedom! It would have been much easier without her. But only through this test can he be the man he has chosen to unalterably separated from what he was handed at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human being would wish to be free. To get that from life, the alternate destiny, on one’s own terms, he must do what must be done.” So Coleman leaves his mother, brother, and sister behind forever.

Zuckerman’s language here suggests a double crime — not only matricide but also hubris — and the Fates find a suitably ingenious way to engineer Coleman’s demise.

Roth’s novel brings together several different genres of U.S. literature: Hawthornian romance, the novel of passing (a la Chesnutt or Larsen), the Jewish American Bildungsroman, and the post-Vietnam novel of traumatic return (a la Tim O’Brien). With, as I’ve suggested above, an homage to the Beats.

Highly recommended.

Also highly recommended: Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity by our Columbia colleague Ross Posnock. The chapter on The Human Stain links the novel to two of our favorites here at P & W’s History of New York: Invisible Man and Moby-Dick.

Last night our old friends across the country at EOTAW posted a video of proto-Muppets, including an early version of Kermit, playing banjo and selling bacon (do you think Piggie knows about that dark past?). Just the other day, by coincidence, Flaming Pablum posted another proto-Muppet ad campaign, this one a rather violent enticement for consumers to purchase Wilkins Coffee.

After falling down a Muppet rabbit hole on YouTube and the Muppet Wiki, I came to learn that these early versions of familiar Muppet faces developed during the era of Sam and Friends, Jim Henson’s first TV show — a five-minute spot, really — which ran on a DC-area local TV affiliate in the late 50s and early 60s. One of his early characters, I was pleased to discover, was a fellow named Harry the Hipster. To me he seems like an early version of both Rowlf the Dog and Zoot (the sax player from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem). Here’s Harry with proto-Kermit in a 1959 sketch called “Visual Thinking”:

Here’s version #2, from a 1966 short on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Did you know Muppets had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? I didn’t.) This time Kermit’s the hipster:

Finally, here’s the sketch as it appeared on Sesame Street in 1971. Kermit’s gone; the Muppets here are voiced by Frank Oz (doing his Sam the Eagle voice) and Northern Calloway, who played David on the show:

I’ll leave it to readers to decide what to make of the hipster’s reappropriation, here, by a decidedly urban Black voice. David was one of the coolest dudes on Sesame Street. How is it that John Leland left this magnificent material out of his history of hip?

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