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Our latest Networked NY Q&A comes from one of our “Blogscapes and Digital Interactions” panelists, Greg Young of The Bowery Boys. Greg answers questions below about the evolution of blogging, the future of the podcast and life as a history evangelist.

As a member of the “Blogscapes and Digital Interaction” panel, what was your take on the conference as an occasion to explore material, literary and digital connections in the city? What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from your conversation with Bryan, Teri, Rachel and Maud?

As somebody a little outside the world of academia, I was honored to participate and was interested in academic exploration of the ever-evolving methods of digital information.  If anything, our panel discussion made me realize that the issues I face daily as a blogger and podcaster are similar to everybody else’s issues, no matter the subject matter. It’s like there are two tracks to a blogger’s life these days – the topic they’re discussing and the actual process of blogging itself.  Sometimes knowing how to maximize digital content can take as much intellectual prowess as the subjects of the articles themselves.

One of your most quotable moments from the panel came when you suggested that newspapers are picking up the bad habits of blogs and blogs are picking up the best habits of newspapers.  Can you say more about what you mean by that?  I know that the focus during the panel was driven by the audience’s interest in fact-checking, but I’m curious whether you see other applications/developments in the evolving relationships between New York blogs and New York print outlets.

My background is in magazine journalism, and I studied at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where the study was extremely (some would so overly) focused on newspaper craft. Wrapped within that was a traditional take on journalistic ethics. So when I originally began blogging, I was struck by the seeming lack of such structure to so-called ‘blog journalism’.

Over the past five years, however, that has noticeably changed from my perspective. Blogs have become reliable sources of information as a greater pool of digital source materials becomes available, making it actually irresponsible to be factually incorrect. With a greater cacophony of blogs in the digital universe, factually wrong or poorly written blogs are simply ignored.

I also think basic design has influenced content. There was a very awkward period when digital newspapers tried to convey their information using standard newspaper column design. Academic and library resources also presented their information in ways that was not viewer friendly.

As readers have become comfortable with what might be called ‘standard blog template’ (one or two columns, scrolling, with hotlink and jump buttons to expand articles), those design basics informed newspapers. But in doing so, it changed the content — article length, of course, but also the tone of articles. Perhaps cynically, the writing itself might take reader’s abbreviated attention spans into consideration.

Your podcast and blog speak in a very immediate way to an audience of New Yorkers, but you also noted how they organically generate a community beyond New York through comments, links and other digital formats.  Do you see an opportunity for exchange between these local and global communities? 

The biggest revelation in doing The Bowery Boys, both the blog and podcast, is the profound reach of the internet. We did our first couple dozen episodes completely unaware that anybody outside New York would find them interesting. Today, about half of our listeners live outside of the New York metropolitan area.

This has changed my perspective on creating content, but for the better.  Interacting with a global readership has broadened my personal perspective of the impact of history. Listeners aren’t just interested in the glamour of New York (although tourism is a big driver to our show) but also in how the city influenced the world. As a result we often do shows on larger topics (histories of electricity, radio or film) and New York’s contributions to those fields.

In a real sense, our global community has helped shape the show, but in a way that has only expanded its original purpose. I only hope to explore this further and, one day soon, to take it to another level.

My advice for any blogger: Keep true to yourself and your topic but realize that somebody in Tibet is probably reading you.

Image below: Brooklyn Radio Stores, 33 Flatbush Avenue, September 8, 1936. Wurts Brothers Collection, NYPL.

In your remarks at the conference, you cited the widespread obliviousness of most New Yorkers to the history they’re literally and figuratively inhabiting by living here. Are you an evangelist for New York history?  Does a resistance to thinking of ourselves as “native” New Yorkers (or the very porousness of that identity) contribute to the obliviousness you see?

I am totally a history evangelist, and not just New York history either. Every place on the planet has a story to tell. New York just happens to be very thickly stratified with them.

History enriches people’s lives abstractly, of course, but I argue that it does so practically as well. It’s about context. Your pizza tastes a whole lot better when you realize it’s been made in New York’s oldest pizza kitchen. (Whether it actually tastes good is besides the point.) This is the tourist perspective of New York. But to infuse that perspective into a daily experience here is profound. Suddenly, every street corner, every building, has a particular uniqueness. Everything talks back to you.

But that can be exhausting. The drone of everyday life in a city as difficult as New York blocks appreciation of it. It’s one of New York’s stunning ironies. We live in one of the most history-saturated places in America, but the speed of regular life obfuscates this.

I think the secret to a well-balanced, full-bodied life in New York is to have a little bit of tourist in you. Nobody should ever take our environments for granted. It’s simply too expensive to do so!

Your fellow panelists at Networked New York were all bloggers.  Can you say a word about how the podcast has shaped The Bowery Boys?  What can you do with the podcast that you can’t do with the blog?  Where is this format headed?  What other podcasts do you listen to?

We started the podcast in July 2007, and the blog was started shortly afterward, at Episode 3.  It was literally just started because I heard it was a good way to promote the podcast.  But I’ve always been a writer — always been writing something — and suddenly I realized that a blog could be an excuse to expand my own knowledge while presenting other stories on the periphery of ideas brought up in the podcast. It now seems that the podcast actually supports the blog.

The podcast makes history truly immediate for people. I could get really theoretical and talk about my theories of the oral tradition, of course, but simply put, a podcast is easy for people. As the authors, Tom and I can create a rapport that you simply cannot do with a written blog.

It’s unclear where the podcast as a medium is going. In one sense, this is actually the best time to create a podcast. Quality recording and editing equipment is affordable, and outlets like iTunes and Stitcher continue to support them. However, the medium has not evolved as it should. Some major outlets (like the New York Times) have abandoned it, even as others (like Slate) embrace it. It may turn out that there is a limited audience for podcasts in general, that in the end, for whatever reason, it will be unable to overcome perceived limitations when compared to regular terrestrial radio. But we’re doing our part to push the boundaries as we can.

There are a lot of excellent history podcasts out there. I regularly listen to only few of them! After doing my own, I find my brain almost maxed out on dates and places. I personally love a couple of big film podcasts (Filmspotting and Kermode Film Reviews). The slate of Slate podcasts are all outstanding. In a way, the best podcast in the world is the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day.  One day soon, I hope to work the word ‘incunabulum’ into a sentence.



Next up in our series of Q&As with Networked New York participants is Joey McGarvey, who recently graduated from NYU with her M.A. who recently graduated from NYU with her M.A. degree. McGarvey is also an editorial assistant at Knopf. Her paper at the conference, “‘The Good, the Great, and the Gifted’: An Introduction to the New York Fruit Festival,” was taken from her master’s thesis, which won the 2012 Rose and Herbert H. Hirschhorn Thesis Award.

Though previous critics have touched on the Fruit Festival, your paper insists on a fuller and more complete understanding of its cultural importance.  How would you briefly describe the significance of the Fruit Festival to the 19th-century literary and cultural history of New York City?

The Fruit Festival wasn’t entirely anomalous. A similar event for literary tradesmen—not involving fruit—was held in the 1830s, and in the decades after the Festival large birthday celebrations were thrown for various authors. But the Festival occurred at a particularly dynamic moment in American literary history. Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had both been huge bestsellers in the years immediately preceding the Festival, and of course there are all of the canonical masterpieces by male authors, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). There was a lot at stake in literary culture of the period—establishing copyright laws, for example—but managing authorship and the relations of authors, publishers, and readers was, it seems to me, most crucially at the heart of the Festival.

Also especially important for New York City, and another underlying reason for the Festival, was the competition among the big publishing cities—New York, Boston, and Philadelphia—to be the literary capital of America. New York was more or less there by 1855, when the Festival was held, but Boston was still very much alive and vibrant. At the Festival, the Boston-based publisher Uriel Crocker introduced the speech of his colleague, James T. Fields, by saying, “Though we stand on the soil of New York, there is at hand a fine Boston Field, from which we have often reaped great harvests, and as this is a fruit festival, and the fruit gathered from this Field is always pleasant to the taste.” Putnam, in turn, noted in his Festival speech, “The issues of our presses in about eighteen months would make a belt, two feet wide, printed on both sides, which would stretch from New York to the Moon!” New York, mind you—not earth, not America, and certainly not Boston or Philadelphia.

Why fruit and why a Fruit Festival? 

Pragmatic reasons: much of the press coverage notes that absence of liquor, wine, and cigars, all hallmarks of male gatherings, and in their letters, several of the women express anxiety about the dangers of the Festival’s mixed company (female guests were outnumbered 14:1). But also for bigger reasons, related to the Festival’s place in nineteenth-century American literary culture. The publishers organized the event to celebrate the boom in American literature in mid-century, and fruit obviously stands in for that growing body of native-produced books—as professor and encyclopedist Francis Lieber writes in his letter, “The varied fruits on your wide-spread tables . . .  will be fit representatives of our literature.”

But fruit, I argue, also represents women, especially women writers, and is deployed by Putnam and the other publishers to metaphorically circumscribe female authorship. Just as Putnam had the countryside’s finest fruit imported to the city for the Festival—and he did, so much so that twenty-one varieties of pear alone were served—so did he pluck and transport these women writers from the smaller villages, towns, and cities of New England to New York. In the second chapter of my thesis, which I’m just about to finish, I discuss the counter-metaphor of authorship developed by these women in their periodical tales of the 1830s through 1850s, based on the twinned concepts of mobility and home (and working out the dangers and opportunities of each).

How did the Festival provide a space and an opportunity for professional networks of writers and other agents of culture to emerge and become visible, accessible?

In lots of ways. What’s a more visible representation of a professional network—especially as it intersects in one hyper-connected node—than Putnam’s scrapbook? Also, as a number of those scholars mentioned above have noted (for example, Michael Newbury, in Figuring Authorship in Antebellum America), the Festival was one of the first real celebrations of celebrity in America. Authors, especially women authors, weren’t always comfortable with what celebrity meant; like fruit, again, being a literary celebrity meant that you could be commodified and consumed by your audience. But collecting all of these prominent figures in one place meant getting to put faces to names—a literary pantheon made very visible, and almost within reach, of the fans who filled the galleries of the Crystal Palace, where the Festival was held.

What archival materials were most central to your project?  What was your most surprising or unexpected find and how did that shape the story you tell with your project?

I spent a lot of time with the New York Book Publishers Association Records at the New York Public Library—the archive that underpinned my entire project. Basically, and I’m passing along what I’ve been told by the (awesome) librarians there, the NYPL has this small but really terrific collection of papers related to the New York-based publisher George Palmer Putnam. In the 1940s, they acquired a two-volume scrapbook that seems to have been assembled by Putnam himself (he was a huge scrapbooker, and a noted autograph collector as well), containing 190 RSVP letters from notables invited to the Festival. It seems like the scrapbooks were originally intended to be part of the Putnam papers, but eventually became their own archive.

Two of the potentially most important letters for my project are actually missing from the archive—a handwritten table of contents at the beginning of the first volume mentions letters from the writers Sara Payson Willis (Fanny Fern) and Susan Warner, but they’re no longer in the scrapbooks. That being said, there are wonderful letters—letters that help us to approach the Festival from a textual as well as historical angle—from women writers including Sarah Josepha Hale, Sara Clarke Lippincott (Grace Greenwood), Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Catharine Esther Beecher. And while this isn’t very professional of me, I’ll admit that I nearly wept when I saw Melville’s letter to Putnam, which actually constitutes its own puzzle.

Photo and quotes from letters courtesy of the New York Public Library: New York Book Publishers Association records. Manuscripts and Archives Division. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.



Joey says: This letter from Sarah Josepha Hale appears in one of Putnam’s scrapbooks. This photo gives viewers a good sense of the material nature of the archive—you can see the brightly colored paper that comprises the scrapbook, and you can also see that Hale’s letter is firmly attached to the page on the right—but also hints at the relation between New York and the other towns and cities these women writers called home. Hale, from Philadelphia, writes on this page, “I do not like to incur the risk of such fatal accidents as have, of late, happened on the mid-route between the two cities. I should go without fear of danger if duty made it necessary, but in ‘the pursuit of happiness’ I think we should take personal safety into the account.”

Though you were unable to attend in person, you were an active participant in the tweeting of the conference. What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from the conference?

It was pretty surreal to watch responses to my paper—which was read by Annie Abrams, one of the conference organizers—live-tweeted. Presenting a paper to an audience is anxiety-provoking, but your performance can also shield the paper (i.e., maybe if I move through this point quickly, no one will notice the gap in my argument). When someone else reads your paper, and you’re not even there to hear it, you feel naked, like your thoughts and their weaknesses are utterly exposed and vulnerable. That being said, Annie apparently did a terrific job. People laughed, which was definitely one of my goals—if you wrote a paper about the Fruit Festival and it wasn’t somewhat funny, you’d be missing something.

Certainly one question I left the conference with is what constitutes a city—how a city isn’t just constructed from buildings, bridges, or borders, but emerges from networks. Perhaps the city, like Putnam within literary culture, is just a node; that seems obvious when you look at a map but is somewhat less obvious when you live in New York. If you’re a resident here, you feel mutually embedded with millions of other people in this mass of concrete, not necessarily like you’re being connected by it. But that’s what the Festival was meant to do, to make New York the center of a network of authors, booksellers, and publishers. Even the Crystal Palace, which stood where the NYPL and Bryant Park now are, hovered near the midpoint of Manhattan (if not New York as it existed in 1855).


Our latest Networked NY Q&A is with Reed Gochberg, a doctoral student in English at Boston University. Reed studies late nineteenth-century American literature and culture and her research interests include American intellectual history and urban cultural history.

Your paper at Networked New York offered a re-reading of the tableaux vivant in The House of Mirth, which you place in the context of New York cultural institutions established in the final decades of the nineteenth century. What are the key elements of this historical moment and these cultural institutions that you see at work in Wharton’s novel?

I first began considering these ideas after visiting an exhibit at another New York institution this past November: the “Beauties of the Gilded Age” series at the New-York Historical Society, which showcases (on rotation) the miniature collection of Peter Marié. Marié was a bachelor who commissioned miniatures of beautiful New York women (including Edith Wharton) and amassed a collection of over three hundred such portraits. On visiting the exhibit, I was immediately reminded of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and its famous tableaux vivant scene, in which the protagonist, Lily Bart takes part in an “entertainment” staged by a wealthy New York family in their Fifth Avenue mansion. As one of twelve performers in tableaux vivant, she appears as Joshua Reynolds’ painting, Mrs. Lloyd, in a striking display that showcases both her beauty and her ability to become an art object (see image at left). I was struck by the seeming reversal of such a process: photographs of women transformed into miniatures, as opposed to women transforming themselves into paintings.

The cultural context of the novel definitely suggests its interest in cultural institutions, especially given the historical proximity of its publication (1905) to the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870) and other contemporaneous institutions. On further reading of the tableaux vivant scene, other inversions present themselves: rather than a museum where art objects are displayed, Wharton describes a ballroom transformed, temporarily, into a theater/gallery. And more importantly, rather than directing their money to philanthropic purpose—and particularly, supporting the public arts—her wealthy characters are throwing a private party. When read in light of these broader philanthropic networks, the scene suggests a powerful commentary on an important moment for cultural institutions in America—and an issue that’s continually relevant to today’s debates about the funding of the arts.

What relationships between and among authorship, institutions and philanthropy at the turn of the twentieth century do the art scenes in The House of Mirth establish?

I think that the tableaux vivant scene registers the importance of beauty in the novel, on a much deeper level than Jonathan Franzen’s purely cosmetic interpretation of Wharton in a recent New Yorker piece would imply. By examining this moment in the context of New York’s cultural institutions, I find that this idea of beauty takes on a much broader meaning, beyond the personal beauty of Lily Bart, which extends to interrogations of the city itself and the cultural opportunities that it provided at the turn of the century. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton laments the “intolerable ugliness of New York” as a creative environment; similarly, Lily famously hates “dinginess” and spends much of the novel trying to avoid it. In her book, The Decoration of Houses and all of her novels, Wharton emphasizes the importance of cultural spaces that encourage creative work, rather than stifle it. This concern was shared with many of her contemporaries, and this context opens up a range of comparisons to other novels that more explicitly consider visual art, connoisseurship, and philanthropy from this era, including Henry James’s The Golden Bowl or William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham.

What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from the conference?

At the conference, I presented with Kristen Highland and Joey McGarvey on the “Institutions and Enterprise” panel. While I was thinking about the museum as a public space in my paper, it was quite interesting to hear about their projects on more explicitly literary spaces, such as a bookstore or a fruit festival. By putting these different projects into conversation, it raised a number of questions for me about the relationship between the visual and literary arts at the turn of the century, especially for realist authors: an idea that was particularly well voiced by Tom Augst in his response to our panel. Additionally, our discussions suggested new ways of considering the role of institutions in creating a newly public, social space for cultural experiences, whether literary, visual, or musical.

The conference as a whole did an excellent job of bringing together a number of different perspectives on the spaces of New York. From our panel on institutions to the closing discussion between New York bloggers, it suggested a number of approaches to understanding how the evolving landscape of a city inspires different forms of written representations. Moreover, the conference demonstrated the variety of approaches to preserving the energy of New York, both within and beyond the traditional archive: architecturally, through preservation, registry, or even re-creation (as in the Vault at Pfaff’s); or interpersonally, through digital maps of nineteenth century networks.



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As part of our ongoing series of interviews with Networked New York participants, Kristen Doyle Highland weighs in on her work, which examines the nineteenth-century bookstore in New York City. Moving between the rise of the dedicated bookstore in nineteenth-century New York City to contemporary battles to save the independent bookstore, Highland’s presentation at Networked New York explored how the physical space of the bookstore has come to frame ideals of urban life and community. She is a doctoral student in the English Department at NYU, specializing in Early American and antebellum literature.

Your paper crafts a compelling analogy between contemporary lamentations over the fate of today’s independent bookstores and the mid-19th century sense that stores like Daniel Appleton and Company’s bookstore sell “more than just books”—that what they offer, such as communal/civic aspirations, transcend the materiality of market commodities.  What motivated your focus on Appletons’?

I should start by saying that my larger research project focuses primarily on the nineteenth-century NYC bookstore. But the Networked NY conference was a great opportunity to begin to think about the relationship between yesterday’s bookstore and the status (often described as the “plight”) of today’s bookstore—point here being that I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the modern bookstore.  It seems an obvious point to us today to say that the bookstore isn’t just about selling books—it’s about a lifestyle, about values, about community, literacy, culture. Though the loss of any independent store—consider the rapid decline in the family hardware store, for instance—is an occasion for expressing regret over a changing, more corporate retail landscape, the closing of a bookstore (or just the threat of closing) inspires particularly vehement defenses and alarming predictions of the future of neighborhoods, of communities, even of knowledge itself. This emotional investment in the bookstore has always fascinated me. It’s not just about the books; there’s something about the physical space of the bookstore—it’s environment, it’s people—that has such deep resonance.

But was this ‘deep meaning’ in bookstores always there? Certainly, bookshops have been a gathering place for literati to share news, ideas, and conversation for centuries. But with the rise of the dedicated retail bookstore—increasingly, though not always, separate from publishers—in the 19th century, we have the opportunity to consider how the bookstore imagined and produced itself as a venue for books in an urban landscape that had libraries, reading rooms, and street-corner book peddlers, among other book spaces. I focus on New York specifically because by the mid-19th century, it had become the national center for the book industry and had a lively, diverse bookselling trade. D. Appleton & Co.’s bookstore [see photograph at left, the facade of the Appleton building in 1854, courtesy of New-York Historical Society], operating from a number of different locations in the decades before the Civil War, seemed a promising case study to examine the forms and “meanings” of the bookstore for a couple reasons. First, a practical one—the Appletons’ success as book retailers and publishers made them very visible in the contemporary media. Each new move prompted energetic press coverage (and not just in NYC), commentary, and detailed descriptions of its space. Along with other surviving resources and unlike the vast majority of 19th-century bookstores, the archive can support a close analysis of Appletons’ stores. And second, also a result of their success, D. Appleton & Co. had the means to design their own spaces, and after 1860, their own buildings, revealing deliberate spatial strategies for staging the bookstore.

What I see happening in Appletons’ stores is an increasing dedication to investing their bookstore with what we would term today as capital “C” Cultural significance—making it aesthetically impressive, exhibiting books as art (and actual fine art pieces as well), drawing on classical and monumental design, spatially isolating and separating the commercial functions of the store. Designing the bookstore, in other words, as more than a commercial outlet for books—rather, as a space for communal engagement, individual improvement, and for performances of reading and consuming. Of course, this was also a marketing strategy—offer patrons rich, pleasing surroundings, and they will buy their books here. But if we consider Appletons’ in a sort of genealogy of the bookstore, we see an early example of a bookstore aspiring to a position as cultural institution. Over time (and with lots of other variables, of course), we’ve naturalized this cultural-institutional definition and function of the bookstore and further rhetorically and materially separated the cultural and commercial functions of the store.

You ask what it is about bookstores that makes them intensely local but also subject to being abstracted as the “soul” of a community.  How would you answer your own question in the cultural landscape of 19th-century antebellum New York?  Why do you think such easy resonances emerge between that historical context and the present-day? I’m thinking especially of how you use the comments section from EV Grieve

First, I want to thank EV Grieve and the individual writers whose letters to Cooper Union he posted. I probably should have asked for permission to quote from them. They’re such great examples of the passionate defenses of and symbolic significance invested in the modern bookstore.

On the intensely local aspect of the bookstore—One of the dangers in talking about “the bookstore” as a general thing is that it elides all of the local pressures that shape the bookstore and inform our experiences and associations of it. The big box store in Union Square, for instance, occupies a very different historical, physical, and symbolic space than the small neighborhood bookseller, and, as Ted Striphas has shown, different than the exact same big box store in Durham, NC where it is the only bookstore for miles and is enmeshed in that region’s own racial and economic history.  And of course, individuals form their own distinct associations and experiential geographies of bookstores. Nineteenth-century luminary, William Templeton Strong, loved Appletons’ but derided the bookstore just next door as a “citadel of humbug.” One of the appeals, then, of investing the bookstore with the symbolic significance of a cultural institution is that it can both capture the local significance of the bookstore to a certain vision of “community” while also linking one bookstore’s survival to a larger cultural preservation project.

But I don’t think many nineteenth-century New Yorkers would have talked about the bookstore in a similar way, as both locally and symbolically significant. It didn’t yet have the widespread cultural cache (or sentimental attachment?) that it does now. By the early 20th century, however, trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly reveal a growing panic about the future of the bookstore and attach to the physical space of the threatened store larger concerns about literary values, modes of reading, and cultural authority—not too far from concerns of the “soul.”

 As a “landmark” in the way you describe in your paper, can the bookstore be understood as a civic space apart from its status as a “commercial institution of culture?” When you write of Appleton’s that to “buy books here was to assert one’s own taste and membership in a fashionable community,” are there other acts of civic or public participation that perform a similar membership?  Where else might these members self-identify—or are you arguing that bookstores present a unique and distinct occasion or space for membership or community formation?

I think most people today consider the bookstore a civic space—for participation in a community, for sharing ideas and information—independent of its commercial functions. To the detriment of the bookseller’s bottom-line. That’s the fascinating paradox of today’s bookstore—locating a “higher value” in its role as an enlivening cultural space for readings, conversation, or leisure and not in its more mundane commercial role as a place where books are commodities to be sold, and crucially, bought, risks the bookstore’s survival. Certainly, there are a variety of ways individual booksellers have found to strike a balance between a store’s commercial and cultural functions or to make the cultural profitable. But I wonder, what might the bookstore look like in the future if it was actually classified as a cultural institution and funded primarily by donors or government entities and not solely by the sale of books?

Appletons’ built the cultural significance of their stores on the foundations of its commercial functions. In that way, his stores mid-century and later might be aligned with the emerging department store model. Any act of consumption—buying a dress, decorating a drawing room—could be argued to incorporate an individual into a fashionable community and communicate values through physical objects, but I do think that the bookstore, by nature of the books it sold—objects already circulating in intellectual and social economies, and increasingly in the 19th century with advances in binding, cover options, and illustration technologies in a material economy—offer a unique and complicated space for individual identification and community formation.




Next up in our Networked New York Q&A series, we have Cecily Swanson, 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.

Your paper examines how social relationships structure literary experiences by focusing on two groups of writers from the 1920s and 1930s.  Can you elaborate on the contrast you identify between the reading group and the salon?

The modern salon has been characterized as both a location for transgressive sociability and a holdover of old world aristocratism. As Janet Lyon argues in “Sociability in the Metropole:  Modernism’s Bohemian Salons,” the modern salon sought above all else to give the appearance of anti-bourgeois spontaneity, refusing claims to institutionality and conventionality even as these gatherings accrued cultural and material capital. Indeed, it is very difficult to distinguish between the modernist salon’s institutional side – in other words the way the it enabled through patronage networks and marketing strategies the development of a self-conscious, autonomous “scene” – from its more experiential side, where art and life blur through casual banter, a shifting guest lists, and its emphasis on participation, rather than a museum-like separation of guest from the artwork. Natalie Barney, one of modernism’s most influential salon hostesses, claimed, “I never had a salon, I only had  têtes-à-têtes,” characteristically refusing to acknowledge her salon’s institutional stature even as it became a fixture of literary Paris.

But the modernist reading group, as my research of several Gurdjieff reading groups suggests, sought to institutionalize “spontaneous” conversation through the framework of documented philosophical analysis. These reading groups, in other words, attempted to formalize the salon experience into a codified literary practice, where authorship could be produced through carefully documented social exchanges but was not necessarily tied to a published text.  Jean Toomer’s Harlem Gurdjieff reading group minutely recorded not only their discussion, but also the affect of each participant, seeking to account for and legitimate these ephemeral moments. Toomer thus seems to have conceived of his reading groups as a “masculine” alternative to female salon sociability. But Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s Gurdjieff reading group, run in Paris and comprised of lesbian expatriates, found through this effort at Gurdjieffian self-documentation an opportunity to more freely express, record, and consecrate, their non-normative sexual choices and lifestyles.

What archival sources were most central to your project?  Can you say a bit about how archival materials shaped your understanding of the circles you examine, especially the relationship between Jean Toomer and George Gurdjieff?

My dissertation as a whole considers three principle archives: (1) The Natalie Barney papers at the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet in Paris, (2) The Muriel Draper Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library and (3) The Jean Toomer Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

My “Networked New York” paper explored the Toomer collection, arguing that question of racial passing that so vexed Toomer throughout his career finds a solution, or at very least a theorization, in Toomer’s proliferation of papers. Authorship, as professed in his archive’s myriad versions of himself, is always a form of passing, of articulating a variety of possible identities, which may or may not consolidate into a single “truth,” or, to use Gurdjieffian terminology, an “objective” being. I connected Toomer’s exploration of the non-identity of the author to the conversational aesthetic promulgated by the social experience of the literary salon. Toomer’s New York Gurdjieff reading group attempts to formulize the spontaneous chatter of the salon through a Gurdjieffian practice that entails keeping a detailed record of personal experience.  Through Gurdjieff, Toomer could confer authority on the conversational and social dimension of written production, demanding that the social performance of an authorial persona “count” as much as the published work when the question “what is an author?” is answered.

Critics have tended to read Toomer’s unpublished and published writings after Cane as either a failure, the consequence of an over-investment in Gurdjieffian mysticism, or as a the logical continuity of Cane’s success, arguing that the effort at “self-objectification” was already present in Cane, but then further exploited (and perhaps made ridiculous) through Gurdjieffian tenets. My paper tried instead to read Toomer’s post-Gurdjieff archival papers another way, as neither break nor continuity with the authorial identity established by Cane but instead as an exploration of the social context that enabled, but also delimited, such a persona.

Your 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.  What other writers and communities do you take up in your project?

My dissertation considers the aesthetic legacy of the literary salon for American women writers who are now remembered more for the bohemian gatherings they hosted, or the artistic connections they facilitated, than they are for their own literary contributions. These women, I argue, have been difficult to “read” as important figures of literary modernism because their contribution was less literature as we are accustomed to perceiving it than a new conception of the literary, which championed the aesthetic merits of salon conversation. I consider a range of materials: Natalie Barney’s unpublished memoirs written after the heyday of her literary salon in Paris; Muriel Draper’s music salon in London and her subsequent career as an NBC radio broadcaster; Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s notorious 1916 “blank issue” of their influential literary and art journal, The Little Review; and the way in which two reading groups devoted to the writings of mystic George Gurdjieff, one in Harlem and one in expatriate Paris, promulgated the myth of an artistic or literary temperament that is not dependent on actual aesthetic production.

Conversation and literary exchange exist as such heavily freighted, gendered concepts in cultural and historical analysis.  Can you elaborate on the tensions between conversation and writing in New York’s modernist literary salons?

“Autonomy” and autonomy’s preferred modernist synonym, “impersonality,” are words that were almost compulsively used by modernist writers and that have enjoyed an after-life in explanations of the period. Recent scholarship, of course, has begun to question these terms’ viability, the result of a critical climate that has offered productive readings of collaboration and social networks. But even the critiques of the modernist autonomy have tended to assume an a priori stable text, a modernist classic of Stein’s, William’s, or Eliot’s, which becomes relatively open or less open through interpretation. By exploring the conversational aesthetic that emerged through salons and social gatherings in a variety of media formats (such radio broadcasts, reader-response columns, and reading group discussion), it is it not the “openness” of interpretation that is at stake but the very text itself. Attention to social context, audience reception, and unpublished archival material helps make visible an alternative form of modernist textuality, where literary production occurs at the threshold of speech and writing and in the material form of fans’ written responses.

By turning attention to the social relationships structuring any literary experience and the literary potential of “conversational” forms, the women writers of my analysis challenged modernist claims for the autonomy of the literary object and offered new possibilities for female authorship, where even the most casual conversations can have literary power. In this way, my dissertation hopes to make visible an early, overlooked feminist critique of the text-as-object. The restitution of neglected women writers to the canon has been one of feminist studies’ great successes. But as I show through the evaluation of a range of archival materials, these writers’ significant contributions to modernism cannot be appreciated simply through the recovery of lost classics because their literary legacy lies in the interstices between oral and written forms. Only through the archived responses of countless female fans and communities of “writing” readers can we begin to see the literary importance of the conversational aesthetic my dissertation traces.

What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from the conference that relate to your work?

I was fascinated by my co-panelists presentations on digitizing social networks. Micki McGee’s work on the Yaddo Archive Project and Edward Whitley’s digital mapping of 19th century bohemian circles offered me great insight into the possibilities, and the potential difficulties, of digitizing the raw data of my own archival research of modernist salons. When literary circles are made accessible online, scholars can more easily examine the social world of their research, interrogating the canonical position of major literary figures through their minor friendships and intellectual alliances. These maps allow scholars working from different fringes of the same period to turn partial knowledge into more “total” picture by collaboratively building these circles together. But I am also interested in the way the writers of my own work offered a critique avant la lettre of social mapping that makes the locus of each digital circle an autonomous individual, connected by spokes to other autonomous individuals. Toomer, for example, quarreled with the idea of a coherent self, preferring to see himself as productive example of dual identity, where authorship emerges less in product than in process.  It would be fascinating to cull together more information on the social maps writers drew before the internet age. Natalie Barney drew a map of her salon that looks a lot like the digital social maps of our era, with names of each guest tessellating outward, although she positioned herself “outside,” more a boundary point than the center [see image at left]. But Toomer’s “maps” are quite different. His archive contains index cards documenting social affect, making the fluctuating emotion and comportment of each participant more important than their “individual,” or stable, selves.  It would be hard to digitally present a social circle where valences of anger, discontent, or elation matter more than names, although it would certainly be useful to have this information more readily available to other researchers.


As Annie announced on Tuesday, she and I will be posting Q&A’s with our Networked New York conference panelists over the next few weeks.  Speakers will elaborate on their work and questions the conference raised for them. Next up: Marvin Taylor, the Networked NY keynote speaker and Director of the Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU.

In your keynote, you emphasized that the Downtown Collection embraces materials that defy conventional “archival” designation and that in doing so, offers a model for how libraries, museums and other cultural institutions might relate more productively to one another.  Can you elaborate on the kinds of interpretive or categorical flexibility you’ve internalized or identified with the Downtown Collection?  What insights has it generated about defining “the archive” that might be applied more broadly?

There are two common processing strategies for archival materials: the literary and the historical. The literary model emphasizes the construction of literary works and the importance of biography to literary interpretation. These collections tend to be personal papers of authors, “personal papers” being the term for individual’s collections and “archives” the term for organizational papers. The literary model organizes materials according to various “series” or groups of like materials such as journals, diaries, correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, audio, video, etc. The emphasis in processing is on the draft versions of manuscripts that ostensibly show the process of the creation of a literary work. The historical model tends to be chronological and to look at the “great names” of history as a means of determining which correspondents, for instance, are more important than others when it comes to level of detail in “processing,” i.e. organizing and describing the collections. These traditional models do not work for artists’ papers, for instance—and perhaps never really worked all that well for literary and historical collections.  Artists work in very different ways. Objects are much more common in their creative process and serve as source materials. Traditionally, archives have shied away from collecting non-paper-based materials because of storage, lack of preservation expertise, and difficulty in describing such items. Of course, this is a prejudice within the epistemology of library and archival practice that is self-perpetuating. The same rationale removes all media from its context within a collection and all photographs to separate divisions of archives, if the materials are even collected in the first place.

At Fales we process all the materials from an artist’s collection together in the “finding aid” so that the intellectual organization of the artist’s materials is maintained. We separate the materials for storage, of course, but we are committed to maintaining the artist’s intellectual organization. My favorite example is David Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box. [See photo]. Wojnarowicz kept this old orange crate under his bed and didn’t tell anyone about its meaning, even his partner, Tom Rauffenbart. It contains about 80 objects, including a primate skull painted Klein blue, a plastic dog, a cloth snake, a metal globe, a crucifix, and other various objects. If you know Wojnarowicz’s work, you find physical representations of his set of symbols and metaphors that he uses in his painting, photography, films, and writing in the box. This is the very kind of thing that most archives would not accession or would refer to as “realia” and not describe in any detail. For me, the Magic Box is essential to understanding Wojnarowicz’s artistic practice and central to the collection. We borrowed descriptive methods from museum practice to accession each object in the box as a part of the whole, so there is a number for the box itself, a “parent record, and each object within it has a number as a “child.” We are able to blend these styles of description because of the flexible nature of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) that is used now as a standard to create finding aids. For me, each time I bring in a collection that confounds typical archival practice, I am reminded that libraries and archives are grand narratives of culture that impose the epistemology of their time onto materials rather than merely describing those materials. Downtown art questioned these structures of culture. Downtown collections query the library and archive in the same way. To adequately represent downtown work, I have to constantly be careful not to let the systems of the library and archive undermine the disruptive qualities of downtown work. This disruption that downtown work causes should make us look at all library and archival systems for their inherent modes of power and control.

Your talk included two especially striking phrases. First, described the Downtown Collection as offering a “genealogy of outsider practice.”  You also talked about needing to see punk’s shaping of the downtown scene as a geography and a metaphor.  Beyond the beauty of their language, these phrases also get at the heart of how the Downtown Collection re-imagines the cultural work that archives can do.  Can you say more about what these phrases mean to you?

I hope I didn’t say “punk’s shaping of the downtown scene as a geography and a metaphor.” What I meant to say is that I see the Downtown Scene as both a geographic and a metaphorical space. Punk would be a subset of the larger culture of that time period. I have never hidden the fact that I admire critical theory. I find literary work that does not engage with it unsatisfying. At the same time, I detest literary work that is jargon-ridden and intentionally obtuse. Time and again I have found that the work of the post-structuralists is very helpful to me as a librarian who thinks about the larger philosophical issues of how knowledge is created, how it is structured, how it is documented, how we collect it, how and what we preserve, and how power is displaced across time in the preservation of knowledge. The process of accreditation that libraries maintain is rarely questioned, but it should be. The post-structuralists taught us how to look at master narratives, interestingly, none of them looked at the library as such a structure. I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that. I found that special collections and rare book libraries were one of the most conservative and most heavily politicized places in library history. Book collecting and connoisseurship go hand in hand. Many people think of rare book and manuscript libraries as the lofty heights, off-limits to ordinary students, where only the most seasoned scholars are allowed through the locked doors. This was not the kind of special collection I envisioned. I wanted to document cultural moments as completely as possible so that whatever critical fad was in fashion, there would be resources for students and faculty to use for primary research. The downtown scene provided me with the perfect subject matter for just such a project. It also had the benefit of being our “neighborhood” collection and of supporting departments as varied as performance studies, American studies, drama, photography, English, art history, museum studies, and a host of others. To get around the connoisseurship model I devised a strategy for collecting that was based, in part, on geography. Anything that happened in downtown NYC, that is, below 14th Street, was game for acquisition. Of course, not everything below 14th Street was really “downtown” material, so some things that were not a part of the various scenes has been left out. (Post-twelve-tone chamber opera, for instance, didn’t make the cut.) And many things that are not downtown geographically are very “downtown.”  Think Dennis Cooper’s papers. So, my vision of downtown is primarily a geographically centered one that also has a metaphorical component. Anyone sharing the same sets of concerns as downtown artists might be included in the downtown collection, even if they were not primarily involved in the scene. The archive, as I conceive of it, can comprise much more cultural material than has traditionally been the case. And it should. Archives should be catalysts for change.

 Given your experiences with the Downtown Collection and other collections at Fales, what parts of the story would you say scholars sometimes miss when they use archives to tell the stories of subversive artistic or creative networks? Where should we be directing our attention? 

Archives are the fossil evidence of human experience. They are necessarily stripped of the quotidian context in which they were originally embedded. The practical, the daily, the mundane aspects of a person’s life may not be evident from the remains of their artistic practice, but they may be incredibly important to a more complex understanding of the artist’s life, work, and the broader cultural milieu in which he or she lived and worked. My best example is not from downtown, but from the scholarship on Oscar Wilde. Richard Ellmann’s monumental biography of Wilde is a thoroughly researched and masterfully written authoritative tome. There is one major part of Wilde’s life that Ellmann neglected to research thoroughly enough: his daily writing for Women’s Day—his day job. The archival materials about this are at the Henry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. I find it very interesting, for instance, that Wilde may have been the first person to write about women’s fashion as an expression of “lifestyle” instead of merely discussing dresses and current fads. It seems to me perfectly aligned with his own self-fabrication and with the theme of self-created personalities that runs throughout his work. One can conjecture that Ellmann found the story of Wilde’s queerness in sexual terms, more interesting and more important for the focus of his biography, but there is another story about the working, family man that needs to be told along side the more sensational narrative.

At the opening of your talk, you gestured to the artistic and political communities beyond punk whose work gets documented by the Downtown Collection—especially the ephemeral traces and performative strategies of radical feminist and queer artistic activism.  What other material traces from other New York-area communities, movements or networks lurk in the collection? 

There are many other communities documented in the Downtown Collection. One very important one is artists’ collectives. SoHo was the breeding ground for artists who were trying to break the cycle of the commodity art world. By working together as collectives, groups such as the A.I.R. Gallery, Group Material, RepoHistory, Godzilla, and Artists Space created new possibilities for artistic production and display. Similarly, experimental theater collections such as Richard Foreman’s and John Vaccaro’s papers, and the archives of Mabou Mines, Eye and Ear Theater, Ohio Theater, Ubu Reporatory Theater, and Split Britches provide a window into downtown theater. Another subspecialty is public art. Such collections as Judson Memorial Church, Public Art Fund, Joyce Pomeroy Schwarz, and Creative Time reflect this community. Artists who use media make up another category with collections like Guerilla TV, Jaime Davidovich, Paper Tiger, and Deep Dish Television. Queer communities are represented by papers of Jay Blotcher, Alan Klein, Bill Bytsura, Lee Snider, Fred McDarragh, Frank Moore, Dennis Cooper, David Wojnarowicz, Gary Indiana, David Trinidad, Tim Dlugos, the Gay Cable Network archives, and many others. AIDS decimated the downtown scene.  Many of our collections reflect this devastation. Similarly, topics such as gentrification, drug abuse, sex work, police brutality, homelessness, performance art, experimental poetry and fiction, experimental music, installation art, postmodern dance, experimental film and video, and a variety of others are found in the collection. All of these areas have been collected intentionally to show the wide, overlapping, and cacophonous mess that was the Downtown Scene.

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