These papers focus on the ways authors’ neighborhoods inform their work.
1:30 – 2:45, Panel 3: Authors and Neighborhoods (19 University Place, Great Room)
1. Karen Karbiener, “The Living Archive of Walt Whitman’s New York”
This presentation focuses on two sites now functioning as living archives of Walt Whitman and his New York. The first is the house at 99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn in which Whitman completed the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and the second is the tenement building on Broadway near Bleecker that housed Pfaff’s Cellar Saloon, America’s first bohemian bar and Whitman’s hangout as he planned the sexually provocative, politically radical sixth edition of the Leaves. Neither building has achieved landmark status, yet both are rich with historical detail inside and out. Owners and users have been largely oblivious or disinterested in their history; preservationists have had no influence on their appearance or fate. And yet 99 Ryerson and the Pfaff’s tenement have survived nearly two centuries of urban growth and renewal.This paper demonstrates that each provides a direct link from Whitman’s experience to our own; each offers rare glimpses of everyday life in mid nineteenth-century New York City impossible to reconstruct from an organized archive or ‘preserved’ space.
Karen Karbiener is Master Teacher of Humanities for NYU’s Global Liberal Studies Program. Outside of the classroom, she has organized public Whitman-centric events and exhibitions around New York.
2. Mark Sussman, “Tenement Aesthetics: Howells, the Poor, and the Picturesque”
For writers like William Dean Howells, the problem of knowing how the other half lives was modulated by the problem of knowing how to represent them. Stating the problem more or less explicitly, Howells wrote “The shabby avenues have a picturesqueness of their own, but it is a repulsive picturesqueness…except at a distance.” And the picturesque itself, an aesthetic mode emerging out of debates about English gardens and landscape painting in the last half of the eighteenth century, became for American writers at the end of the nineteenth century a way to maintain an aestheticized distance from the impoverished subjects–for them, searching out the picturesque among the tenements makes poverty both visible and bearable. This presentation outlines the aesthetics of the picturesque as they emerged from late-eighteenth century English discourse and became central to late-nineteenth century American writers attempting to write about and “know” the lives of New York’s tenement dwellers. Focusing primarily on Howells’s essays and his novel A Hazard of New Fortunes, Sussman argues that the picturesque provided a way for writers to construct an aesthetic vision appropriate to the tenements. Ultimately, he demonstrates the primacy of aesthetic experience in the social vision of reform-minded New York writers, and questions the tenability of the distinction between aesthetics and social knowledge.
Mark Sussman is a graduate student in the English department at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently working on his dissertation, “Vessels of Consciousness: Problems of Knowledge in the American Novel, 1890-1900.”
3. Josh Glick, “Memory at the Margins: Jewish American Fiction and the Lived Landscape of Coney Island”
Located at the furthest most tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island occupied a central place in the imagination of Jewish American writers in the 1960s. Authors looked to its diverse demographic milieu and urban topography to cultivate their own literary voices and critically interpret the metropolitan environs in which they lived and labored. In Enemies, a Love Story (1966), Coney Island serves as a psycho-social space in which Isaac Bashevis Singer explores the haunting weight of World War II memory, as well as the challenges and opportunities for fashioning a contemporary Jewish American identity. Comparing Singer to writers such as Sol Yurick (The Warriors, ) and Herb Gardner (The Goodbye People ) reveals the different ways authors understood American race and ethnic relations through Coney Island’s heterogeneous social landscape. In this paper, Glick offers an analysis of how Coney Island served as a binding agent for writers working across literary genres, but with common geographic interests and a temporal framework. He demonstrates the creative ways authors worked to intervene and reorient popular understandings of the area during the 1960s.
Josh Glick is a PhD candidate in the joint program with Film Studies and American Studies at Yale. He is currently a Research Fellow in the Yale University Art Gallery and working on his dissertation, “What You See Is What You Get: Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958-1977.”