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Next up in our series of Q&A’s with Networked New York panelists is Karen Karbiener, a Whitman scholar who teaches at NYU. She regularly organizes and participates in Whitman-related events in New York.

You spoke about some New York City sites as uncurated,non-institutional archives. Does this usage of the word “archive” complicate our usual understanding of it? What do we gain by defining 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway as such?

I’m not looking to complicate, but test the boundaries of the traditional definition of “archive,” and to inspire fresh thinking about spaces that push the conceptual limits of what is conventionally deemed worthy of preservation. The first SAA definition of “archive”—loosely reinterpreted here—is ‘materials that are preserved because of their enduring value, or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creators and users.’ But what about materials of such value or relative importance that have been preserved by chance or happy accident– collections that lie outside the bounds of institutions or protective agencies and are freely accessed and used? Materials that maintain organic relationships with their environs because they have not been isolated, organized or controlled? Materials of nontraditional mediums or types, such as sidewalk vaults, floorboards, the spirit of place?

99 Ryerson Street, Brooklyn

Whitman’s former residence at 99 Ryerson Street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and the site of Pfaff’s Cellar Saloon at 647 Broadway in Manhattan, are what I’d like to call ‘living archives.’ Along with other city sites such as Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, and Brooklyn’s Admiral Row, they are unofficial, unprotected treasure troves of one-of-a-kind historical materials. 99 Ryerson is a row house built in the early 1850s; the Whitmans moved into the house in May 1855 and lived there for about a year. 647 Broadway is one of a twin tenement built in the 1840s, with Pfaff’s occupying the cellar from about 1856 to 1875. Both of these sites have operated interruptedly—as a private residence and commercial space, respectively—for more than 150 years in New York City: 99 Ryerson is currently owned by a Brooklyn resident and divided into several apartments, and the basement of 647 Broadway now stores the stock for Zigis Shoes.

What makes these two structures remarkable besides their endurance through more than a century and a half of urban growth and renewal, is their significance in American cultural history— specifically, to the poet Walt Whitman. Though he worked and wrote in New York City for nearly four decades and lived in dozens of places, only two structures with significant links to the poet still stand. 99 Ryerson is not only the single surviving Whitman house in the five boroughs; it happens to be the one in which he completed and published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and wrote much of the second. In the extraordinarily permissive underground bar known as Pfaff’s, Whitman gathered the forces for and may have even composed parts of the radical third edition of the Leaves. Frequenting what is now recognized as America’s first bohemian bar from 1858 through the early ‘60s, he mingled with outspoken, flamboyant actors like Ada Isaacs Mencken and leftist journalists such as Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press; he also had ties to what may have been the city’s first gay men’s club, the Fred Gray Association. Whitman did not participate in any social or intellectual coterie before or after his years at Pfaff’s, and the relationships he developed there enabled his focus on intimacy as a subject for poetry in the “Calamus” and “Enfans d’Adam” clusters.

Whenever I’ve visited these ‘living archives’, I’ve learned something about Whitman and his New York. Retracing Whitman’s daily

647 Broadway, NYC

two-mile walk from the location of the Rome Brothers Print Shop in Brooklyn Heights (where Leaves of Grass was printed) to 99 Ryerson, the house still feels “fearfully far” from gentrified Brooklyn (as a visitor remarked in 1855) and maintains a working-class vibe. Inside, the hallways and staircases are plain and strong-looking, if a bit shabby. Standing inside the threshold that Emerson and others entered, one faces the fact that this ordinary space was a cradle for extraordinary art. The current owner is ambivalent regarding recent efforts to place a historic marker on the house. But perhaps that is because the house—and in many ways, the poet himself—still belongs to this Brooklyn block. Residents of the other rowhouses on this street take pride in pointing tourists to Whitman’s abode; they come out to chat, show old photographs and share stories, often admitting that they’ve tried their own hand at poetry. 99 Ryerson may not be a traditional archive, but it accomplishes the best of what an archive can do: tell stories, identify relationships, and inspire. (and for an example of this much better than my own, please visit the site dedicated to 99 Ryerson created by my student Jesse Friszell)

What’s to be gained from labeling 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway as ‘living archives’? First and foremost, a designator for these and similar unrecognized structures that don’t really qualify as ‘historic sites’ or ‘landmarks’. Just because such buildings have escaped official designation should not mean that they should be forgotten. Additionally, the word ‘archive’ calls to mind the questions, what’s worth saving? How do we do it? And what is lost when we can’t? I believe 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway merit such attentions.

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman predicts that future New Yorkers will revel in some of the same facets of Brooklyn and Manhattan life that he enjoyed. He asks of his readers, “What is it then between us?/ What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” Can the sites you discuss help us address these questions? What might it mean to preserve Whitman’s memory in New York in the spirit of his poetry?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;

I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;

I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,

In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,

In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.

What’s between Whitman and us in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”? Residents of his city will recognize his references to the spirit of the city—a sort of ‘urban affection’, to use Ed Folsom’s phrase—a feeling of solidarity and support acquired by simultaneously losing and finding ourselves in the great metropolis. It’s this spirit that pulls Whitman out of the poem’s ‘dark patches’: doubts, guilty thoughts, regrets weigh him down (“The best I had done seemed to me blank and suspicious”), the camaraderie and energy around him buoy him up (as he responds to cries of “Walt!”—his nearest, or nighest name). This spirit is manifested in the faces and bodies around him as he traverses his New York. The divine connective power of the human form is celebrated in so many of Whitman’s poems: “this head is more than churches and bibles and creeds,” he declares in “Song of Myself” (adding, just for fun, “the scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer”). No need for priests anymore when the people of New York City were there to save him.

And then the last stanza seems to bring them up anyway:
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

The poem’s first title—“Sun-Down Poem”— hints that these lines are penned at the end of the narrator’s day, commuting from work in Manhattan back to Brooklyn. As he draws close to his destination, he recognizes those familiar aspects of his trip that signal he’s home: the waving flags and whipping masts, the Fulton Ferry buildings, the church steeples of St. John’s and St. Ann’s and the Holy Trinity (for a look at what Whitman saw, go to “Whitman’s Brooklyn”). These silent ‘ministers’, like the humanity around him, communicate more than any priest possibly could: they have a physical certainty about them that ensures Whitman’s connection with us through time. That certainty is reassuring to him: though he probably realizes we won’t be looking at the exact same ships and seagulls, he’s satisfied that a version of them will enable us to understand each other despite the years between.

So, in Whitman’s view, the survival of 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway doesn’t really matter. The same spirit imbued in these places can undoubtedly be found in other spots in twenty-first century New York City; as he proudly declares in the middle of “Song of Myself”, he’s “no sentimentalist.” But 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway should nevertheless interest us because such structures inspired his deep investment in his physical world. What is it about Whitman’s experiences with such tangibles that made him think they had spiritual value, that they could be immortal? Perhaps the secret still lies in the collapsed vault under the sidewalk of 647 Broadway.

Today, Josh Glick answers a few questions about his work on Coney Island history. He is a PhD candidate at Yale University in the joint program with Film Studies and American Studies, and his research and teaching interests are in urban cultural history, documentary theory and historiography, and Hollywood as a shifting mode of artistic and industrial production.

Your dissertation focuses on Los Angeles, while your paper for this conference was on Coney Island. Are there similarities among the networks that form in these urban, coastal spaces known for their entertainment industries? Is this a productive comparison?

I am interested in how different kinds of media inform the ways people experience and remember complex social landscapes.  Not only are Los Angeles and Coney Island major historic sites of mass cultural production, but both places have been obsessively represented by writers, painters, photographers, and filmmakers.  Within the popular American imagination, these seaside metropolises have assumed the status of romantic fantasy as well as nightmarish dystopia.  Artists working across media have also looked to these urban sites as ways to understand and comment on broader tensions, anxieties, and opportunities in the United States associated with immigration, race relations, leisure culture, and trends in city and regional planning.  While there are a lot of connections and resonances between Los Angeles and Coney Island, I also try to remain sensitive to crucial differences: the former dwarfs the latter in terms of scale; each region saw different kinds of infrastructural development and fragmentation due in part to the efforts of particular boosters and power brokers; and of course, the kinds of entertainment and media industries located in Los Angeles are quite different from those located in Coney Island.

Can you talk a little more about the connections and differences between Singer’s Coney Island and ours? Do you think literary and film criticism focusing on Coney Island should inform the ongoing debates over the future of the site?

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about Coney Island at a time when it was sliding into its socioeconomic nadir.  In a sense, urban renewal de-socialized the geography, and for many, the demolition of Steeplechase marked the end of an era.  There were a lot of wistfully nostalgic portraits made about the area in the 1960s-1970s, but there was also a first wave of critical and in-depth Coney Island historiography.  Today’s Coney Island faces a lot of the pressing questions that the site did in the 1970s; for example, how to revitalize the amusement district and encourage greater crowds.  However, there is more of an effort today to make “history” part of people’s everyday Coney Island experience.  This is a very exciting initiative.  Reasserting Coney’s identity as an entertainment destination through new roller coasters, theatrical performances, and attractions is certainly an important positive step forward.  At the same time, lobbying support for major architectural structures’ landmark status and sustaining a variety of institutions for helping people learn about Coney Island of yesteryear is central for attracting new visitors, and for creating a richer collective historical consciousness about the area.  While Coney continues to experience socioeconomic challenges on multiple fronts, embracing its past offers some strategies for development.

Artistic representations of all varieties can help contemporary audiences to better understand Coney’s past.  Singer’s 1970s accounts of his 1930s saunterings through Sea Gate, the amusement park core, and Brighton help map and illuminate the social texture of the urban environment during a major period of transition.  His writing registers the pedestrian rhythms of daily life and shows how private memories can serve as innovative forms of public history.  One gains an intimate understanding of how Coney Island was much more than just a day trip for tourists.  Coney Island was a landscape of firmly rooted communities and a cultural point of passage into the United States for immigrants.

You spoke briefly about your work on the Yale University Art Gallery’s upcoming traveling exhibition “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.” Can you talk a little bit about the curatorial process? What sort of story does the exhibition seek to tell about Coney Island? How has your work on that project informed your thoughts on Singer?

It has been a pleasure to serve as a Research Fellow on the exhibition, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.”  The exhibition is divided into five sections and explores how artists have taken Coney Island as their subject from the Civil War to the 21st century closing of Astroland.  Scheduled to open at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT in early 2015, the exhibition will then travel to the San Diego Museum of Art as well as the Brooklyn Museum.  It has been a true learning experience working with head curator Robin Jaffee Frank.   I’ve found out about all sorts of connections and points of collaboration between individuals and groups.  American impressionists such as William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman vividly captured the first major thrust of the amusement industry at Coney in the late 19th century.  So many of the great Photo League photographers trained their artistic eyes down at Coney Island.  And many prominent authors and filmmakers such as Herb Gardner (Thousand Clowns, The Goodbye People) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) are Coney natives.  The exhibition has given me a chance to connect my scholarly pursuits with the public humanities.  Planning for the exhibition has made me more aware of what it means to present material to different audiences and to think about how people encounter artifacts in real time and within a confined space. 

Research for this project has helped me to see Singer and his Coney-related articles, novels, and memoirs as part of a cultural moment.  He was not just an isolated voice waxing poetic about his own career, but really part of a broader group of figures who dug deep into excavating Coney’s past.  Still, I have not come to fixed conclusions about the implications of his work.  I am wondering if instead of further historicizing Singer’s literary practice, I might embrace some of the techniques of fiction to help people understand the 1930s era of culture in which Singer first encountered America.  This methodology follows some efforts by scholars such as the brilliant historian Norman Klein (A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, 1997).  I am currently writing a short story based on the premise that the writer-philosopher Walter Benjamin had made it beyond the French-Spanish border, briefly re-located in New York, and met Singer on the Coney Island boardwalk.  Imagine the dialogue!  What kind of conversations might they have had about the possibility and peril of American popular culture, about politics abroad, and transnational modernism?  They probably would have had a lot to say about Coney’s wax museum…

You can reach Josh at

This week, Micki McGee has graciously agreed to participate in our Networked New York follow-up Q&A series. For more on the Yaddo Circles Project, click here.

1. In “Creative Power: Yaddo and the Making of American Culture,” you write, “Although an artist’s work may seem to be authored alone, an artwork is a social activity, situated in a dialogue with the conventions that preceded it and, if widely enough disseminated, the artworks that follow.” Is this true of the Yaddo Circles project as well? Moving forward with the archive, how do you think other sites–both contemporary social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook and other digital archives like The Crowded Page–will inform your work?

Unequivocally the Yaddo Circles network-mapping project is situated in a dialogue with other such projects. The idea for the Yaddo Circles mapping project emerged in 2007. We wanted an interactive online media component for an exhibition I was developing for the New York Public Library, Yaddo: Making American Culture. I’d seen some of the work that others had done with mapping intellectual communities. Katy Börner’s beautiful information visualization projects with large citations networks were one source of inspiration. Another was the work on Valdis Krebs, who had been making his network mapping work transparent and accessible. Both Börner’s and Krebs’s teams were working with desktop applications that did not run live online (as were so many sociologists engaged in social network analysis), so the on-screen and print outputs were fantastic, but they were not exactly suitable for an interactive online tool that we wanted to build to accompany the exhibition.

As I was working in the Yaddo Records, Josh Greenberg came on board at the Library and became an enthusiastic proponent of working on developing this online tool. Around that time I also came across the newly developed Visual Thesaurus by and thought – “Wow, this is exactly what we want, only for mapping relationships of persons and institutions rather than the relationships between words.” Unfortunately, the Thinkmap software was not open source and was well outside of our budgets, so we tried to build our own mapping tool on the fly out of the thin margins of our exhibition and departmental budgets. This is not an approach that any of us would now recommend!

After the traditional brick and mortar exhibition was up and running, some of us circled back around to look for support to build our digital mapping tool. Jennifer Serventi and Jason Rhody, Program Officers at the National Endowment for the Humanities, introduced us to the work that Andrew Jewell (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) and Edward Whitley (Lehigh University), whom the Endowment’s Office of Digital Humanities had just funded for work to develop The Crowded Page. At that point if was clear that several of us were all dreaming the same dream: of being able to map the relationships of artists and writers to see the influences of one upon another. Other folks were doing this with the Muckety website, that maps relationships of political influence, but also allows you to upload your own data sets to their network mapping tool. Similarly, the computer scientists at IBM’s Many Eyes labs were making an online network visualization tool. And Jeffrey Heer and danah boyd had developed Vizster, for visualizing networks online. Heer’s beautiful open source Protovis and D3 software is part of the nuts and bolts of the tree-graph visualization that Aditi Muralidharan, Asik Pradhan, and Charles Forcey developed for Yaddo Circles. So many teams have been working on these network visualization tools. The magnificent Republic of Letters project from Stanford University is another example of this sort of mapping effort, though it maps the circulation of letters (and therefore a social network) over a geographical map, affording an understanding of both social and geographical spaces.

Another important parallel development to this rise of network information visualization has been the movement to harness the power of the semantic web to render network visualizations. In the world of archival science, Daniel Pitti from the University of Virginia was working with a number of people on the standards for archival data developing Encoded Archival Context-Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) guidelines that are beginning to make it possible to capture data from archival finding aids and render network maps from that information. His prototype project Social Network for Archival Contexts (SNAC) is really a model for the field. At the same time, other parts of the cultural heritage sector coalesced around the idea of developing linked data standards for libraries, museums, and archives when Jon Voss (now at History Pin, formerly at LookBackMaps) and Kris Carpenter Negulescu (Internet Archive), hosted an international meeting on Linked Open Data in Libraries, Museums, and Archives (LODLAM). The conversation that they ignited has accelerated the rate of discussion for appropriate data structure and capture that would allow us to leverage the power of the semantic web to conduct this mapping of ideas and influences on a massive scale. The Compatible Data Initiative that I am working on with Börner, Pitti, Whitley, as well as with Richard Edwards at Ball State University, is part of this effort. Cristina Pattuelli’s Linked Jazz project is another example of a network-mapping project that harnesses the power of linked data to create network maps of cultural communities, as is David R. Morrow and Chris Alen Sula’s Phylo project that looks at the networks of twentieth century philosophers.

Now there is also the Person Data Repository in Germany at the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the Linking Lives project out of the UK. Lots of people have been dreaming the same dream and the technologies to realize this dream are now becoming more widely available. It is mind-boggling to imagine what will be possible in terms of humanities research on intellectual communities within the next five years, and simply thrilling to be involved in these efforts.

Well, that was a very long answer. I promise to be more concise on your other questions!

2. Returning again to “Creative Power,” you write, “The fabric of a community is woven by…modest moments of admitting one and rejecting another, in the reinvitation or refusal of the next. An institution, although conceived in its papers of incorporation, is made and remade in the minutiae of such actions.” How does the team behind your site represent Yaddo’s exclusivity and make their own decisions about whom to include?

Our intention with the Yaddo Circles project is to make available all the data we have captured about the community and its admissions process in our network visualization. At this point our prototype models only the first, second, and third degree relationships of persons associated with the group in the 1942 summer photograph (which includes about 5,000 total records). This decision was made so that we could develop a working prototype and then begin to work out the issues of scaling that up to include the 6,000 personal records and more than 12,000 corporate records in our data set.

3. How, and by whom, do you envision the site being used? How do you think using a controlled vocabulary to describe relationships at Yaddo will inform the work researchers produce?

These seem like very different questions to me, so I’m going to answer them separately. We envision two complementary outcomes for the Yaddo Circles project. On one hand, we imagine the project serving as a tool for discovery, allowing anyone with internet access to explore the relationships between the artists, writers, and composers affiliated with Yaddo and the impact of this group on 20th century arts and letters. And on the other hand we imagine building a data-agnostic tool that would allow researchers to capture person and entity-centric data from any archival source, map it for their own purposes, and when they are done with their own scholarly projects, release their materials as structured open data with provenance information, allowing people to almost incidentally begin crowdsourcing the work of indexing archives. Several people are also dreaming the data-agnostic back-end dream. Among the most promising developments is the work being done by Alan Liu has put together at UC Santa Barbara on a project called RoSE, a Research-oriented Social Environment. We want what we are developing on the Yaddo Circles project to resonate with these initiatives so that we can contribute to advancing these efforts nationwide.

With respect to the use of controlled vocabularies for describing the relationships between people represented in the Yaddo Records, the Compatible Data Initiative group and my Yaddo Circles research team at Fordham will be experimenting with this in the next few months, and consulting with archival experts like Cristina Patuelli and Daniel Pitti to explore how our work at the level of the archival file might be captured in such a way as to allow for individualized, highly-granulated, folksomic tagging of relationships as well as for a controlled vocabulary that can be interoperable with projects such as SNAC, that work at the level of the collection and its finding aid (or even at the level of the card catalog, if one moves out of the archive and into the library more broadly).


For the next few weeks, Jane and I will be posting Q&A’s with our Networked New York conference panelists. We’ll start with Edward Whitley, Professor of English and American Studies at Lehigh University.

1. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between digital representations of 19th- and 21st-century social and professional networks? How do sites like Facebook and LinkedIn serve as foils or complements to The Vault at Pfaff’s and The Crowded Page? Are there other sites that inform your team’s work?

Sociologists and historians have been thinking about social networks for decades, and they’ve produced a complex body of scholarship about how to define and interpret them. In recent years, however, as sites like Facebook and Twitter have become part of our everyday lives, the concept of social networking has become both more expansive and more narrow than this scholarship had previously allowed for: expansive in that those of us who participate in these website are more keenly aware than ever of how we fit into our personal and professional networks; and narrow in that what social networks are and how we image they behave have come increasingly to be defined by the look and feel of these massive websites. I cringe when people describe The Vault at Pfaff’s and The Crowded Page as “nineteenth-century Facebook,” because I don’t want our ability to imagine what these projects could become to be overdetermined by sites like Facebook and Twitter. I’ve learned a lot about how to think outside the Facebook box from Micki McGee, a sociologist-turned-digital humanist and the director of the Yaddo Circles project, and Jean Bauer, the creator of Project Quincy and the director of  The Early American Foreign Service Database. These scholars have a keen eye for design and a strong sense of how the data sets they are working with are unique products of their particular historical moments. If we want to create digital visualizations of the complex workings of literary communities from the past, we need to be able to do what McGee and Bauer are doing: which is to say that we need to understand how these communities are not like Facebook and Twitter, despite the surface similarities–the Pfaff’s community, for example, barely even had the telegraph to keep them connected, let alone high-speed wi-fi–and we need to work with talented graphic designers who take seriously the idea that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social networks behave differently than their twenty-first-century counterparts.

2. In American Bards (2010), you seek to “correct the critical myopia that has cast Whitman as the ‘solitary singer’ of American poetry.” Is this a goal motivating your work on The Vault at Pfaff’s as well?

In American Bards I had a lot of fun pairing Whitman with poets he never met but with whom he nevertheless shared a project to assume the title of national poet from the margins of national society. My goal was to see Whitman—and, by extension, antebellum poetry—in new and exciting ways through these unexpected comparisons. The Vault at Pfaff’s also has a similar goal of resituating Whitman in his culture, but I’m not trying to produce the same kind of unexpected contrasts that I was aiming for in American Bards when I put Whitman into conversation with an African American abolitionist (James M. Whitfield), a Mormon pioneer (Eliza R. Snow), and a Cherokee journalist (John Rollin Ridge). To be honest, when I started The Vault at Pfaff’s in 2004 I didn’t know what would come from situating Whitman among the antebellum bohemians, and that was (and continues to be) part of the fun. I didn’t know if Whitman would fade into the background as just one more counter-culture writer from the 1850s or if he would emerge even more powerfully as the definitive voice of the antebellum New York underground. I hand-picked the poets for American Bards to generate a very specific effect; for The Vault at Pfaff’s I’ve deliberately kept things open-ended. A scholarly monograph needs to have an argument (“Whitman is not x; rather, he is y”), but a digital archive isn’t obliged to direct its materials in defense of a specific thesis statement. Instead, an archive such as The Vault at Pfaff’s can make its contribution by raising questions–“How would it change our view of Whitman to consider his life and work from within the community of x and y?”–rather than arguing for certain answers.  

3. What are your hopes for The Vault at Pfaff’s? Do you anticipate the archive begetting traditional scholarship? Given the site’s accessibility, who do you imagine to be its future users?

Since its initial public launch in 2006, The Vault at Pfaff’s has helped to bring together a community of scholars who are working to recover the lives and careers of the antebellum bohemians. Some of these scholars learned about the bohemians in large part through the materials available on The Vault at Pfaff’s; some of them had been researching the bohemians prior to 2006, but the presence of The Vault at Pfaff’s has since helped to coalesce the identity of this scholarly community. Members of this community of scholars have presented research together on panels at the conferences of the American Literature Association and Modern Language Association, and we are currently working on a collection of essays titled Whitman among the Bohemians (under contract with the University of Iowa Press), which I am editing with Joanna Levin. I’m hopeful that The Vault at Pfaff’s will continue to support scholarly productivity. I also look forward to continuing to receive emails from genealogist, journalists, writers of historical fiction, and New York history buffs who visit the site and thank us for what we’ve done to make information about the antebellum bohemians more accessible than it’s ever been.

Twitter: @edwardwhitley

For further reading, check out another blog post about Whitley’s take on digital humanities for the University of Michigan Press.

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For our last posts before the conference, Blevin and I decided to write a little about our own understandings of New York networks. As a native Brooklynite, I have a long-standing and deep-rooted interest in the ways artists represent the relationships that form here. Thinking about all of the networks in New York often overwhelms me, and so in order to talk about my understanding of the topic I’m going to lean on a poem that represents that sense of awe.

In 1948, Elizabeth Bishop published “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” in an issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature dedicated to celebrating her friend and mentor’s 60th birthday. In this poem, Bishop describes the multiplicity of networks that make up her experience of living in New York, including her own relationship with Moore. Bishop entreats in the opening line, “From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying.” At this point in the poem, it’s possible to read the bridge’s significance in a way that’s strictly literal: Moore is in Brooklyn, Bishop is in Manhattan, and the bridge connects these places and therefore also the poets residing in them.

The connections in the rest of the piece are not as straightforward as the one in this first line. It’s a hard poem to write about; Bishop’s portrayal of the sights and sounds of the city is dazzling. She electrifies the (dare I?) network of networks that are all somehow functioning at once in New York. Bishop points out the ways networks of natural life mirror networks of industry, for instance, when she writes, “The ships/ are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags/ rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.” “Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide,” signaling that New York is a network formed by nebulous information, manmade structures, and the natural world. The mutable network of language itself is explicitly embedded in other networks: economic, as in “priceless vocabularies,” familial, as in “dynasties of negative constructions/ darkening and dying,” and natural, as in “grammar that suddenly turns and shines/ like flocks of sandpipers flying.” To disentangle all of these networks from each other would be to misrepresent the experience of New York.

In one sense, the poem reads like a dizzying list of inside jokes thanks to its density of metaphor. Moore delightedly responded to its publication, “Lots of things, lots of things that mean more to me than to anyone else!” Read this way, the original one-to-one connection in the first line stands: it is a poem primarily concerned with connecting Bishop and Moore. And yet, by the poem’s end, when Bishop repeats the first line, “from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying,” her use of comparison and juxtaposition throughout has opened up the possibility of interpreting the bridge’s significance metaphorically. Even if Moore hasn’t yet “come flying,” the reader has already made the trip to the city, and the bridge becomes a symbol for the many kinds of connection New York affords.

Please come flying to our exploration of New York networks next Friday, March 9. Full conference program here.



4:00 – 5:30, Panel 4: Blogscapes and Digital Interaction (19 University Place, Great Room)

In May 2002, Dallas-born Brooklynite Maud Newton began her eponymous blog, driven by “the aim of finding others who were passionate about books, culture, and politics.” Newton elucidates for her many readers the multiplicity of networks that make up contemporary literary culture. She also contributes to these networks, both online and through other outlets. Her works of fiction and criticism have been featured in a number of publications, and she has discussed books on television, radio, and as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Contemporary Writers Series. Twitter: @maudnewton.




Like Newton, Rachel Fershleiser of You Rach You Lose is concerned with bringing bookish people together. For the past six years, she ran public programming and social media for Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and now does community outreach for Tumblr. She’s also a Contributing Editor at SMITH Magazine and co-editor of the bestselling Six-Word Memoir books series. Regardless of professional affiliation, as Fershleiser herself said in a recent Jewcy interview, she remains interested in “providing people opportunities to interact with writers and readers, talk about favorite books, recommend them to others, turn strangers into friends and unknowns into bestsellers, all while figuring out that little thing we like to ominously call The Future of Books.” Twitter: @rachelfersh

For more information about Networked New York, visit the conference website.



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, [1965]) and Herb Gardner (The Goodbye People [1968]) 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.”

Our second panel considers various literary communities, and the ways in which affiliations among their members are represented in archives.

11:15 – 12:30, Panel 2: Community, Production, and Place (19 University Place, Great Room)

1. Steven Smith “Gotham’s Grub Street: The Development of New York’s Publishing Trade, 1783-1830”

Using city directories, manuscript account books, city tax records, and census data, Smith reconstructs the physical place wherein printers, booksellers, bookbinders, and their users existed in New York from the mid-eighteenth-century to the 1830s. Bound by William Street, Pearl Street, and the East River waterfront, the community Smith discusses was teeming with these bookmakers, their apprentices, and journeymen. His paper argues that these groups’ close proximity – some resided next door to each other or only a few steps away – fostered mutual economic improvement and an artisanal identity that bolstered the expansion of the city’s publishing industry.

Smith is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University of Missouri. He is currently working on his  dissertation, titled “A World the Printers Made: Print Culture in New York, 1783‐1830.”

2. Cecily Swanson “‘Personal-Experiences-Personally-Experienced’: Gurdjieff and the Harlem Renaissance”

In this paper, Swanson turns her attention to the social relationships structuring literary experience. Discussing the activities of two 1920s and 1930s reading groups devoted to the writings of mystic George Gurdjieff, she argues that participants (who were themselves writers) highlighted the non-textual dimensions of reading and writing, and found within these groups a strong sense of literary identity without the burden of producing acclaimed literature. Specifically, her research suggests that Jean Toomer conceived of his Harlem reading group as a “masculine” alternative to the more classic female salon sociability of a Parisian group of lesbian women. Swanson uses archival sources to demonstrate that, ironically, Toomer’s New York group provides an early example of the salon’s contemporary manifestation: book clubs run by women, where an individual or group’s personal relationships to books is of more importance than the books themselves.

Swanson is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Cornell. Her dissertation, “‘A Circle is a Necessity’: American Women Modernists and the Aesthetics of Sociability,” considers the legacy of salon conversation for writers who conceived of literature as not just a text, but also a way of talking.

3. Micki McGee, “The Yaddo Archive Project”

McGee discusses the Yaddo Archive Project’s interactive online tool for mapping the relationships between the artists, writers and composers affiliated with Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York. Yaddo’s archive was transferred to the New York Public Library, and in 2008  McGee curated an exhibition based on those materials.  As part of that project, and ongoing through the present, a team of researchers have been mapping the relationships of the artists, writers, composers and other individuals represented in that collection, many of whom were based in New York City.

Micki McGee is a member of the sociology faculty at Fordham University.  Dr. McGee’s second book, Yaddo: Making American Culture (Columbia UP, 2008), is a comprehensive critical and historical survey of the well-known Saratoga Springs, NY artists’ and writers’ colony and its impact on twentieth-century American culture.

For the full program of Networked New York, visit the conference website.