April 2010

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Our final contributor profile is devoted to Sarah Wilson, who received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. Her teaching interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature; literary modernism; theories of ethnicity, pluralism, democracy, and cosmopolitanism; and urban studies.

Sarah’s book Melting-Pot Modernism is forthcoming later this year from Cornell University Press. Here Sarah traces the melting-pot impulse toward merging and cross-fertilization through the writings of such literary figures as Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein, as well as through works of  autobiography, sociology, and social commentary drawn from the era. What interests Sarah in Melting Pot Modernism is the unexamined connection between the ideological ferment of the Progressive era and the literary experimentation of modernism. Sarah aims to reveal the richly aesthetic nature of assimilation at the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on questions of the individual’s relation to culture, the protection of vulnerable populations, the sharing of cultural heritages, and the far-reaching effects of free-market thinking.

For the Cambridge Companion, Sarah has contributed the chapter “New York and the Novel of Manners,” which complicates the story usually told about the novel of manners from Henry James to Edith Wharton by situating works of Lower East Side realism in its midst. Here is an excerpt:

At the conclusion of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), the gentlemen of the Welland-Mingott clan gather in Newland Archer’s library, and their talk turns to the social disintegration implied in the rise of that “foreign upstart,” Julius Beaufort. Lawrence Lefferts, the perennial (and hypocritical) defender of “society,” thunders: “If things go on at this pace … we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindlers’ houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastards.” Only a chapter (and twenty-six years) later, Lefferts’s quintessential articulation of Old New York embattlement is driven home by the revelation that Newland Archer’s eldest son plans to do just that. For The Age of Innocence, “Beaufort’s bastards” come to stand for illegitimacy legitimized by the passage of time: more specifically, they speak to a struggle over manners staged through generational change. Like many New York novels of the turn of the twentieth century, Wharton’s novel frames the rapid social change of the era in generational terms: cultural conflict comes off as family squabble. As the discussion of Beaufort’s bastards suggests, generational change stages intimate clashes between what is and is not culturally acceptable, all while troubling existing divisions between what is family” and what is “foreign,” what is private and what is public. “Manners,” in this sense, become the battleground through which turn-of-the-century New York writers bring cultural difference home; in particular, New York novels of manners reckon with such cultural difference by recognizing it as an inescapable force of historical change.

In this sense the New York novel of manners both resembles and differentiates itself from traditional novels of manners. Like the traditional novel of manners (best exemplified by the novels of Austen), these texts are concerned with the social conventions by which communities and classes can be mapped. The fiction of Wharton and Henry James remains relatively true to this tradition, while beginning to gesture at the forms of difference that press at the boundaries of class and culture in New York. However, 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.

Trysh Travis, who contributes the chapter “New York’s Cultures of Print” to the Cambridge Companion, is Assistant Professor in the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Florida. She received her bachelor’s degree from New York University, where she designed her own major in Media Studies and American Culture. Trysh taught high school English in New York City for three years before earning a master’s in English from the Breadloaf School at Middlebury College and a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University.

Trysh’s teaching and scholarship centers on contemporary US cultural and literary history with an emphasis on the gendered history of the book. Her writings on radical feminist publishing, contemporary spirituality, and popular culture have appeared in journals like Book History, American Quarterly, and Men and Masculinities as well as in publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Bitch magazine.

Her contribution to the Cambridge Companion traces “official,” mainstream print culture in New York City. In contrast, her most recent book, The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (2009), focuses on marginal and amateur readers, writers, and publishers—but, as Trysh puts it, “on squares, not hipsters.”  You can read an interview with Trysh about the book at Rorotoko.com.

Here is an excerpt from Trysh’s contribution to the Companion:

Throughout the long twentieth century, this dizzying array of publishers, printers, retailers, and readers overlapped and intersected in New York, reflecting and giving voice to the city’s unique pluralism. The various print trades — not merely publishing but also paper manufacturing, printing, binding, and the like — had long been significant contributors to New York’s economy, and by 1900 their concentration in and around the city had created a self-sustaining synergy. The presence of so many print institutions created a marketplace of goods, labor, and ideas that drew literary talent in from across the nation and sent texts of all kinds back out in return. Critic and editor Malcolm Cowley spoke for many when he observed in 1934 that the ambitious litterateurs of his generation flocked to Manhattan because“living was cheap, because friends of ours had come already (and written letters full of enchantment), because it seemed that New York was the only city where a young writer could get published.” The city’s complex web of print cultures invited competition and innovation, attracting talent and keeping the costs of entry for new enterprises relatively low.

At the center of that web sat a concern conspicuously absent from the cultures of print enumerated above: trade book publishing, which produces those volumes we think of when we think of the generic “book” -– works of fiction, drama, and poetry, as well as all forms of non-fiction prose, from presidential biographies to the latest weight-loss manuals. Trade publishers’ enterprise went unremarked in the earlier list of New York’s print cultures because its size, longevity, and ubiquity have to a large extent naturalized its presence in the city, masking the fact that, like all those other cultures of print, it is the result of particular cultural and political-economic arrangements. But what seems a commonsense equation of New York City and book publishing has not always been so commonsensical, and this chapter examines the ways that trade publishers (“book men,” as they liked to call themselves) constructed that equation between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. To do so, they deployed specific ideas about culture and democracy that both relied on and helped to create the image of New York as an “international capital of culture,” a modern and modernist city emblematic of all that was best in the free world.

Next: Sarah Wilson

Lytle Shaw is the author of the chapter “Whitman’s Urbanism” in the Cambridge Companion. He is Associate Professor of English at NYU, where he teaches courses on such topics as “New York Poetry and the New Left,” “Theorizing the Archive,” “Very Contemporary Poetry,” “The Source of the Hudson: Landscape, Theory, History,” and “Specters of Enlightenment in Postwar Poetics and Theory.” His scholarship centers on American literature with emphasis on poetics, art and theory.  A prolific writer, Lytle’s scholarly books include the monograph Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (2006) and two forthcoming studies: Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics and Specimen Box (on new modes of institution critique in art and poetry). He is also the editor of Nineteen Lines: A Drawing Center Writing Anthology (2007) and the author of several volumes of poetry, including Cable Factory 20 (1999) and The Lobe (2002).

Lytle is a contributing editor for Cabinet, and has recently published catalog essays on Robert Smithson and Zoe Leonard for DIA Center, on Gerard Byrne for Koenig Books, and on The Royal Art Lodge for the Drawing Center.  His collaborative work with the artist Jimbo Blachly has been exhibited widely and is collected in The Chadwick Family Papers: A Brief Public Glimpse (2008). To see an example of Chadwickiana,  visit the Winkleman Gallery’s website, which features photographs of an installation called “The Genretron.” Lytle discussed his work on the Chadwicks at the Lost New York conference last fall. You’ll get some of the flavor of that presentation by looking at Shaw and Blatchly’s account of “Fort Chadwijk” in The Brooklyn Rail.

Lytle’s contribution to the Companion is really a meditation on the impact of urban experience on Whitman’s poetics and on the poetic legacy that he bequeathed to such followers as Hart Crane, Federico García Lorca, George Oppen, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg. Here is an excerpt:

Rather than see Ginsberg, however, as simply clouding the blue Whitmanian skies over Manhattan, it is more accurate to understand him as focusing in on, and exploring, tensions already latent in Whitman’s celebration of urbanism -– his situating of the city at the center of his democratic, corporeal poetics. Before accounting for these tensions, let me elaborate on the special position of the city in Whitman’s seemingly all-inclusive poetics. Like several other passages in the poem, section 15 of “Song of Myself” presents a kind of macro-panorama of American trades, genre scenes embracing a broad array of regions, classes, social identities – from duck-shooters and deacons to spinning girls, whale-boat mates, and paving men, from “quadroons” and “half-breeds” to “squaws” and “newly-come immigrants”; this within the West, the Yankee East, the Great Lakes, the Southwest, with its “walls of Adobie,” and the Missouri plains. Passages like this propose that, with Whitman’s help, we might zoom across space to bring these disparate people and activities into a neat paratactic list – and that as we do so we experience American democratic possibility not just thematically through this array of variable vicarious occupations, subject positions, and regions but in a sense formally too through their conjoined equivalence. And yet part of the reason why the poet was so insistent upon identifying himself as “Walt Whitman, a Kosmos, of Manhattan the son,” was that the city seemed to offer a micro-Kosmos for its sons.

Next: Trysh Travis.

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We’re nearing the end of the semester in our Writing New York class. Many years we’ve concluded with Kushner’s Angels in America. This year we still have Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker to discuss, and so this morning I don’t feel quite the relief I often do when finishing my lectures on Angels. Still, it’s one of my favorite texts we teach in this course.

We’ve built up quite a few posts on Kushner’s play over the last few years. Here are a few of the highlights: Last year Cyrus supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting and on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, on that score). I’ve offered my own thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and a year earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene.

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Over on our Twitter feed we’ve been hosting a little chatter about people’s favorite New York poets, in honor of the soon-to-be-past National Poetry Month. Among the favorites people have suggested are Frank O’Hara, Edgar Allan Poe, Allen Ginsberg, W. H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. S. Merwin, Robert Lowell, Ken Koch, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Jim Carroll, John Ferris, F. G. Lorca, and Langston Hughes. I had suggested that people not list Whitman, since it’s hard to imagine how he wouldn’t be the presiding poet in any reckoning.

Are there others you’d add to the list?

By way of a longer post observing National Poetry Month, I thought I’d point readers to a couple anthologies of NYC-related verse. I’m linking to Amazon, but wouldn’t it be nicer of you to ask for these titles at your neighborhood bookstore?

The most obvious recent anthology, perhaps, is I Speak of the City: Poems of New York, edited by Stephen Wolf and John Hollander and published by Columbia University Press in 2007. It has quite a range, from the 17th-century Dutch poet Jacob Steendam to Tuli Kupferberg’s “Greenwich Village of My Dreams” to work by half a dozen poets who were under 40 when the book came out. These are “poems of New York” rather than poems by New York poets, if you’re splitting hairs. The entries explicitly take the city as their topic and affirm, as the authors suggest in their introduction, the Whitmanian idea that the city itself is a great poem. (For another collection in this vein, see Poems of New York, the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets volume edited by Elizabeth Schmidt and released in 2002.)

Another title to suggest, and one we’ve used in past versions of our Writing New York course, is Miguel Algarin and Bob Holman’s Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe (Holt, 1994). The legacy of one of the city’s multi-faceted downtown scenes of the early 1970s, the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe has always done more than just poetry — in addition to its ongoing slams, it also features film events, a theater program, and jazz and hip hop — all ways of pushing poetry’s limits. The anthology includes work from 1990s then works back to “founding” poems from the movement’s 70s origins, and also includes work drawn from “The Open Room,” the ongoing weekly open mic session in which “poetry in all stages of gestation” finds an audience. As Algarin’s introduction makes clear in its moving evocation of the poet Miguel Piñero’s Loisaida funeral, the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe reveals the power of words to organize, preserve, and memorialize community.

Finally, to broaden your view to include an outer borough — the one most centrally identified with ongoing arts scenes at this point — check out Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn, edited by Michael Tyrell and Julia Kasdorf and published by NYU Press in 2007. Beginning with Whitman, then looking back to the Lenni Lenape Indians, the cast of poets will, in many instances, overlap with the volumes above, but the subject matter here is specifically BK. “It’s so full of the sights and sounds of Brooklyn streets,” the editors write, “that it’s the next best thing to being there.”

When the volume was new, co-editor Michael Tyrell participated in a series of Q&As via the Times‘s City Room blog. As part of the Q&A, one reader want to push the relationship of poetry to place even further — to the level of the neighborhood rather than the borough:

Question:

Are there any good poets from Midwood, either well-known or under-appreciated?

— Posted by Edo

Answer:

Brooklyn College in Midwood has long been a hub for excellent poets and poetry. Its Master of Fine Arts program is particularly strong, and alumni include the poet and novelist Sapphire, and Anselm Berrigan, Ted Berrigan’s son and a fine poet in his own right. Allen Ginsberg, who was on the faculty of the M.F.A. program, wrote a charming and funny poem called “Brooklyn College Brain,” which conveys the awkward humor of being a famous poet and a writing teacher. In a third-person voice, it offers a series of instructions: get an identity card, workshop poems in the “Bird Room,” and “have some office hours.” I would also recommend a poet named L. S. Asekoff, who is also on the M.F.A. faculty; his poem, “The Widows of Gravesend,” along with Mr. Ginsberg’s, appears in “Broken Land.”

I threw in that extended quotation just in case any of our readers were miffed that we’ve lacked in Midwood literary coverage on this blog.

Other favorite volumes you’d recommend?

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Martha Jane Nadell, the author of the “Writing Brooklyn” chapter of the Cambridge Companion, is Associate Professor of English at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York. Martha received both her bachelor’s degree in Afro-American Studies and her doctorate in American Civilization from Harvard.

Martha is the author of Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture (Harvard UP, 2004), which explores the relationship between the literary and the visual in African American literary culture. At the heart of the book’s analysis are works from the 1920s through the 1940s that used visual elements in tandem with literary texts, such as the magazines and anthologies published by Alain Locke and Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston’s investigation of Southern folk culture, Mules and Men, which featured illustrations by Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias.

Martha is presently at work on a literary and cultural history of Brooklyn that examines the rise of Brooklyn as a central site in the American cultural imagination.

Here’s the opening of Martha’s chapter:

In an 1862 article in the Brooklyn Standard, Walt Whitman imagined, less than four decades hence, Brooklyn’s prominence among the cities of the world. At the time of his writing, Brooklyn was the United States’ third largest city. Home to more than 260,000 people, Brooklyn rivaled New York, its neighbor across the East River, in size, industry, and population. Residents lived and worked densely on streets designed in 1839 as a grid; they rode the numerous ferries that daily crossed the East River. In an earlier article in the six-month series entitled “Brooklyniana,” Whitman envisioned among future generations a widespread interest in the narratives of Brooklyn’s diverse inhabitants, their stories of daily life, “personal chronicles and gossip,” and most of all their “authentic reminiscences” and “memoirs” of urban life. Whitman was prescient. Although it is no longer its own city – the consolidation into Greater New York City occurred in 1898 – Brooklyn’s inhabitants and landscape are a recognizable and indeed iconic element of American arts and letters. Yet although Whitman foresaw the prevalence of Brooklyn memoirs, he did not anticipate the range and complexity of Brooklyn’s literary history, one that both complements and complicates that of New York City as whole.

Next: Lytle Shaw.

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Yesterday, I began my lecture for Writing New York by revisiting a scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan that I’d discussed briefly during the previous lecture. It’s near the end of the film, when the film’s protagonist, Isaac, is engaging in some self-therapy on his couch, free-associating about the things that make life worth living.

What he comes up with is a list of random cultural associations that reassure him of his place in New York’s hierarchy of culture and society (and invoke some of Woody Allen’s influences) — at least until the last one, which is meant to seem like a revelation. The scene takes place in silence, until Isaac thinks of his seventeen-year-old ex-girlfriend Tracy, at which point — cue the Gershwin music.

Here’s Ike’s list:

Well, all right, why is life worth living?
That’s a very good question.
Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.
Like what?
OK… for me…
Ooh, I would say Groucho Marx, to name one thing.
And Willie Mays.
And… the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony.
And… Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues.
Swedish movies, naturally.
Sentimental Education by Flaubert.
Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra.
Those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.
The crabs at Sam Wo’s.
Tracy’s face.

As I went over the list with the class, I asked them what they thought “Swedish movies, naturally” was supposed to signify. Someone volunteered: Ingmar Bergman. Quite possibly, I replied, though something about the way he says it makes me think that it’s less Bergman and more I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967). Nobody knew what I was talking about.

I guess none of them had read the school newspaper the previous day. The Washington Square News ran a piece with the headline, “Sexy Swedish Filim at FSLC,” in which it noted that “those interested in exploring sexy Swedish cinema should make a pilgrimage to the legendary 1967 ‘I Am Curous (Yellow),’ a little movie that enraged critics worldwide and eventually made it to an obscenity trial at the Supreme Court.”

The article was describing the film series “Northern Exposures,” currently playing at Lincoln Center through May 4. I Am Curious (Yellow) will be shown again at 7:20 p.m. on Friday, April 30.

And, yes, there are several Bergman films showing as well.

Actually, that’s from Bananas (1971). How about this, then?

We do have some links to old PWHNY posts on Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), which our students are watching for class this week. I’ve written here and elsewhere about the list, at the film’s end, of things that make life worth living. Last spring Cyrus posted a preview of his discussion of Allen’s film in his chapter on “Emergent ethnic literatures” for the Cambridge Companion. And Cyrus likes to compare the opening sequence of Allen’s film with the opener of a very different film — though one we sometimes read as a rejoinder to Allen’s — Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which was released a decade later.

As to the old question of things that make life worth living, I’ll post Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potatohead Blues” and let you decide whether Allen is being sincere or smug.

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