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Halfway around the world from New York City, my 9/11/11 began in the most uncanny of ways. You can read about it over at patell.org. And you can read an alternative account of the same event over at mannahattamamma.com.

How did you mark the day?


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One hundred fifty years ago today, the United States was at war — with itself.  On the morning of April 12, 1861, the first shots were fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina beginning the war that still leads the list of U.S. wartime deaths. For comparison’s sake, there were 623,026 Civil War deaths, compared to 407,316 in World War II, 116,708 in World War I, and 58,169 in Vietnam.

Melissa Block of NPR’s All Things Considered did an interesting interview yesterday, to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the war, with Civil War historian Harold Holzer, who has published widely on the Civil War and is the editor of The New York Times Complete Civil War. The two talked about the “eerie calm” pervading U.S. newspapers on the day the war began. They began with The New York Times:

BLOCK: Let’s start with The New York Times on that day leading up to the first shots being fired on Fort Sumter. The New York Times had a brief item from Charleston, talking about intense excitement in the city and that it has a map, actually, of the forts in Charleston Harbor; lots of anticipation leading up to that day.

Mr. HOLZER: Absolutely. And a map itself was a rarity. It was a declaration by the publisher that something special was afoot, indeed, because the newspapers were very gray in those days, bereft of illustration, unless they were the picture weeklies. So The Times is heralding the kind of breathless anticipation that’s gripping the whole country.

You can view the first page of the Times from that day here and read the transcript of the NPR interview (or listen to it) here.

The Times has a superb collection of materials about the war on their Disunion blog, which follows the progress of the war. Among the materials is a reproduction of the note that actually began the war and a vivid account by Adam Goodheart of the circumstances surrounding its delivery.

One piece that should be of interest to our students in Writing New York describes how Walt Whitman spent the evening of April 12:

On the evening of April 12, 1861, Walt Whitman attended a performance of Fromental Halévy’s opera “The Jewess” at the Academy of Music, on 14th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan. Just before midnight he was walking down the west side of Broadway, toward the Fulton Ferry to return to his home, in Brooklyn. Suddenly, he later recalled, he “heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side more furiously than usual.”

Tom Chaffin’s piece, “How Manhattan Drum-Taps Led,” describes the way in which Whitman would come to leave New York for Washington, D.C. where he ministered to wounded soldiers.

The site also features a virtual reproduction of the notebook that Whitman carried during the war. Students of Whitman — and of U.S. literature more generally — will find it fascinating.

[Photo from the Times blog: Adam Goodheart’s piece, “The Defenders.”]


I Tweeted this last week, but each time I’ve watched it (a few now) the more I want it to have a broader audience. It’s the work of one of our Writing New York students this semester. Enjoy!

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This is a week of significant anniversaries in the history of New York City.

First, the New York Grid, which turned 200 this week. A state-appointed commission that had the power to establish a binding plan for the development of future streets and open spaces in New York City had been formed in 1807, led by Gouverneur Morris and chief engineer and surveyor John Randel, Jr. They filed their plan for the city on March 22, 1811,  just in the nick of time (the act creating the commission required the plan to be filed within four years).

Click here to read the original Commissioners’ report.

Some recent press coverage of the anniversary:

New York Times: “200th Birthday for the Map That Made New York

Wall Street Journal: “On Grid’s Birthday, Beautiful Manhattan Maps

Here’s one of our favorite commentaries on the effects of the grid, from our friend Speed Levitch in The Cruise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9awJCyjt550

On Friday: the 100th anniversary of the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Earlier today, as part of his lecture on Abraham Cahan’s Yekl (1896), Cyrus showed a clip from Ric Burns’s New York that offered the history of the popular song “Sidewalks of New York.” The version featured above situates the song in a medley of other popular songs about the city and has some nice illustrations of the city from the turn of the twentieth century.

Another way of thinking about New York’s sidewalks, especially on the Lower East Side from the same moment, comes via Thomas Edison’s footage of a “ghetto” fish market:

For more clips along the same line, check out the uploads from YouTube user TigerRocket.

For a round-up of our earlier posts about Cahan’s novel, click here.

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Thanks to our friends at the New-York Historical Society for reminding us, via Twitter, that today marks the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s arrival in New York City after his escape from slavery. He was followed shortly by his fiancee, Anna, and the two were married by the Reverend James Pennington. Though he ultimately decided it was too dangerous to remain in New York — he was warned by a fellow fugitive that slave-catchers roamed New York’s streets and no one, black or white, was to be trusted — his descriptions of the city and his reaction to arriving there remain one of my favorite passages in his 1855 book My Bondage and My Freedom:

The flight was a bold and perilous one; but here I am, in the great city of New York, safe and sound, without loss of blood and bone. In less than a week after leaving Baltimore, I was walking amid the hurrying throng, and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway. The dreams of my childhood and the purposes of my manhood were now fulfilled.

And yet, he continues, the feelings are complicated, and not simply because a fugitive slave knows no safety. He also found himself, amidst Broadway’s dazzling wonders, newly homeless:

I was soon taught that I was still in an enemy’s land. A sense of loneliness and insecurity oppressed me sadly. … It takes stout nerves to stand up, in such circumstances. A man, homeless, shelterless, breadless, friendless, and moneyless, is not in a condition to assume a very proud or joyous tone; and in just this condition was I, while wandering about the streets of New York city, and lodging, at least one night, among the barrels on one of its wharves. I was not only free from slavery, but I was free from home, as well.

In 2007, a portion of Chambers Street near the West Side Highway, where Douglass arrived on a New York wharf, was co-named “Frederick Douglass Landing.”

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Over the last several weeks, as Cyrus and I have both been in and out of town — mostly out — and under multiple writing deadlines, we’ve let the blog languish. With luck, now that a new semester is upon us and we’ll be looking for relief from workaday woes, we’ll be back in action.

I really regretted not being able to write sooner about a recent street art installation/performance/”Happening” commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn — and raising our consciousness about the invisible but very real presence of wars, historical and contemporary, in our daily lives.

A street artist and high school art teacher living in Brooklyn, General Howe has spent the last two years installing street art that recalls New York City’s place in the American Revolution. In the most recent wave of work, he was accompanied by social networking guru and self-described Art Evangelist Kianga Ellis, who live-tweeted Howe’s progress installing miniature figurines and wheat-paste posters, rain or shine, and Jaime Rojo of the blog Brooklyn Street Art, who captured the work in breathtaking photos. I have more I’d like to write about the whole conceptual structure of the work and event, but no time now. With luck I’ll get to come back to it. Meanwhile, if you weren’t following along, you can see General Howe’s retrospective on the event at his Flickr stream; Brooklyn Street Art interviewed General Howe for the Huffington Post. For more on the Battle of Brooklyn, see the useful site for Barnet Shecter’s The Battle for New York.

Photo Copyright All rights reserved by General Howe

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Melissa Bradshaw, the author of our Cambridge Companion chapter “Performing Greenwich Village Bohemianism,” is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University. A leading expert on the poetry of Amy Lowell, she is co-editor of Selected Poems of Amy Lowell and Amy Lowell, American Modern, a volume of criticism on her work, as well as the author of Amy Lowell: Diva Poet, forthcoming from Ashgate.

Bradshaw writes: “I write about the iconic woman—the diva—as a powerful and dangerous figure of feminine gendering in a culture of celebrity, that for all its token celebration of some women, remains profoundly sexist. Scholars have seen the diva as a queer figure because she rejects heteronormative femininity in favor of public fame and devotion to her art. My interest in the diva began with my doctoral training in literary modernism, and has grown into a multivalent, interdisciplinary approach to female celebrity, one that is increasingly wary of the sacrifices and indignities required of public women.” She pursues this line of thinking in a recent Camera Obscura article, “Devouring the Diva: Martyrdom as Feminist Backlash in The Rose,” which explores the 1979 film The Rose and its spectacular reimagining of Janis Joplin’s death.

This interest in the diva and the public identity of the poet informs Bradshaw’s chapter for the Companion, which focuses on literary celebrities and the performance of bohemian identity in the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Djuna Barnes, and others, as well as on Eugene O’Neill and fellow members of the Provincetown Players. The following selection from her chapter deals with tensions between “local people” (the mostly immigrant inhabitants of the area south of Washington Square) and the “Villagers” (the bohemian artists looking to establish an enclave in a low-rent district):

For all their inability, or unwillingness, to integrate with the locals, Village artists found them good artistic fodder, drawing on the disparities between the two groups for dramatic effect in their art. Djuna Barnes wrote local-color sketches for New York daily newspapers, for example, which often romanticized the locals as earthier, more authentic figures than the Villagers. In “Paprika Johnson” (1915) she tells the story of a stenographer who becomes the “first cabaret artist.” Paprika is a beauty, “as good to look upon as a yard of slick taffy, and twice as alluring,” but for the men in Swingerhoger’s Beer Garden, her allure is in her voice, as she sits on her fire escape Saturday evenings, singing and playing on her banjo eight floors above the revelers in the garden below.

Convinced that she is the beer garden’s real draw, Swingerhoger offers her a job as paid entertainment, but Paprika demurs, certain she’ll find a husband and a life away from her fire escape. In the meantime, Paprika uses her lovely voice to help her unlovely best friend, Leah – “thin, pock-marked and colorless” – woo Gus, a blind man. Once Leah is married, Paprika is free to pursue her own interests and eagerly accepts the epistolary courtship of the boy who tends the donkeys at Stroud’s. On the very night that they are to meet face to face, however, Gus’s vision is restored, and Leah begs Paprika to sit at his bedside in order to soften the blow of realizing he has a

homely wife. As Paprika sits at Gus’s bedside, the boy from Stroud’s arrives at her apartment, and seeing Leah, “laugh[s] suddenly, with a hard, disillusioned break,” and leaves. Her dreams of leaving the city for marital happiness in Yonkers, or the Bronx, of trading popular songs for lullabies, crushed, Paprika accepts Swingerhoger’s offer, and as the story ends is still, at thirty, sitting on her fire escape, strumming on her banjo, singing to the men below.

“Paprika Johnson” critiques bourgeois desires as they fester, unattainable and unworthy, in the urban working class. Paprika’s desires are simple: she wants a husband; she wants to move from the eighth floor to the second-floor front apartment. Were it not for her loyalty to her bosom friend, she might have had them. But as Barnes’s narrative makes clear, Paprika’s loss might be for the best. The boy from Stroud’s is no catch, a pampered only child “who had put his hands into his mother’s hair and shaken it free of gold.” His hasty departure after he mistakes the homely Leah for Paprika suggests he
is no spiritual match for the noble heroine.

Ironically, when Paprika Johnson’s trustworthiness and compassion get in the way of her dreams, she accidentally achieves what Villagers like Barnes hunger for by becoming an artist. This dense character study offers an enigmatic moral: Paprika achieves the Village ideal – she escapes the bourgeois institutions of marriage and motherhood, and finds a venue and an adoring audience for her art – precisely because she did not want or try for it. Paprika’s lonely banjo songs, free of symbolic import or political significance, exist only as art. Effortlessly countercultural, Barnes’s heroine represents the authenticity of the proletariat.

Bradshaw notes that her favorite part of writing this chapter was the chance to research the Village feminist club Heterodoxy: “I knew Amy Lowell had lectured to the club at least once,” she says. “Katharine Hepburn was there.”

Monday: Caleb Crain

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Last year, we wrote a post about the history of St. Patrick’s Day in New York.

This year, we call your attention to a New York Times story entitled”Bit by Bit, Coming to Terms With His Elfin Self” about the gentleman pictured above.

[Photo credit: Richard Perry / nytimes.com]

The aim of this morning’s lecture in Writing New York was to situate Walt Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass within the nineteenth-century city’s worlds of print, from the highbrow publishing industry to cheap print, penny presses, flash weeklies, and urban pornography. Depending on which Whitman critics you read, he hews closer to high or low. I suggested he wanted to have it both ways: ever a joiner, he wanted to bring together the best of both worlds.

At one point, while talking about the so-called “Flash press,” I did geek out considerably, telling the story of how a bundle of these rare “sporting” men’s periodicals, mildly pornographic and thoroughly anti-authoritarian, made their way from an early-20c sportswriter’s private collection into the American Antiquarian Society. For the last dozen years or so, cultural historians have been poring over them aiming to understand more about 19c New York subcultures of style, sexuality, and reading. Other rare examples of these magazines have turned up in the city’s municipal archives, where they were long ago submitted as evidence in a rash of obscene libel trials in the 1840s, right about the time Whitman was editing his nativist newspaper, The Aurora. I mentioned Donna Dennis’s account of this legal history last week; you can also read key samples of this material in an anthology published a few years ago by some urban historian whose work I admire quite a bit.

If you want to understand why I would geek out about the preservation of this sort of ephemera, let me just offer one example of the fascinating work these materials have allowed cultural historians to undertake. In the on-line quarterly Common-place a few years back, James Cook — a cultural biographer of P. T. Barnum and editor of a thoroughly engrossing Barnum reader — drew on some material from flash weeklies to tease out some new understanding of the mixed-race origins of American popular culture. He starts his piece by recalling Charles Dickens’ famous account of the a dance hall in the Five Points, which featured a black performer who later became famous as “Master Juba.” Later in his essay Cook points out that most people have assumed Dickens catapulted Juba to stardom, but some new evidence from flash weeklies helps us flesh out the story: “We now know a good deal more” about Juba than ever before, Cook writes. We know

that his real name was William Henry Lane, although he generally performed as Juba or Master Juba; that he was born in Providence, Rhode Island, during the late 1820s, part of the first generation of African Americans to come of age following emancipation; that soon after Dickens’s visit he became the first black man to break the color line in the minstrel industry; that he participated in a series of “match dances” against Master John Diamond, the leading Irish American minstrel dancer of the day; and that he used his growing fame to forge a more lasting and successful career in Britain, where he eventually performed for Queen Victoria.Most scholars have assumed that American Notes represented the starting point for Lane’s public career. But an anonymous letter to one of the flash papers offers a more complex history. An up-and-coming showman by the name of P.T. Barnum, it turns out, had recently managed a young black dancer known as Juba at New York’s Vauxhall Gardens. The letter also suggests that Barnum deceived the sporting fraternity in two ways. In 1840, he presented Lane as part of a conventional minstrel show, without informing his patrons that the man behind the burnt cork was black. In 1841, he took the deceit a step further, promoting the young African American virtuoso as John Diamond. Barnum even staged bogus “trials of skill” as part of the act, with wagers on Lane-as-Diamond to win!

For evidence of the hopelessly mixed racial origins of U.S. popular culture, this is about as good as it gets.

For cultural historians of 19c NYC, that’s about as good as it gets too. I recommend the rest of Cook’s fascinating essay, which includes topics that have turned up elsewhere in our course, from Five Points and Bowery B’hoys, to city mystery novels (including those by Ned Buntline, a guy I didn’t get a chance to mention, but who, in addition to writing racy novels was a ringleader in the Astor Place riots), to blackface and the Bowery Theatre. It’s a perfect slice of the Bowery world Whitman sometimes wandered into, eager to take his readers with him.

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