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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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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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Thumbnail image for lost_new_york_cover.jpgThe Fales Library exhibition that accompanied our recent Lost New York conference will remain on view through November 6. If you’re in the area, stop by the Bobst Library (Washington Square South at LaGuardia Place), tell the security desk that you’re going to Fales, and head up to the third floor. It’s a wonderful exhibit. You can read more about it in this post from earlier in the month.

While you’re there you can pick up the volume essays that accompanies the exhibit — not exactly a catalog, the volume takes both the exhibit and the conference theme as a point of departure.

If you aren’t able to visit before November 6, you can download a copy of the volume here in PDF format. (The download is approimately 28.5 MB.)

And, for a limited time, readers of this blog can request a complimentary copy of the book itself, which is printed on glossy stock and makes a handsome addition to any library of books about New York. Just send an e-mail with your mailing address to

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commonplace-medium.gifI’m taking the liberty of writing today about the special issue of the online journal Common-Place that Bryan has just edited with Joanna Brooks and Eric Slauter. Common-Place, which describes itself as “the Interactive Journal of Early American
Life,” is co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma.

Bryan has a piece called “Who Reads an Early American Book?” His answer: “More people than you might think.” The piece examines “the history of one curious early American text: the epitaph on the
headstone of a Revolutionary-era poet named Elizabeth Whitman, the
prototype for the heroine of one of the new nation’s bestselling
novels, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797).”

Other pieces that might be of interest to readers of this blog include Edward Cahill‘s reading of Irving’s Sketch Book in the light of the Panic of 1819; Max Cavitch‘s account of the publishing of early American texts “from codex to Kindle”; and Lisa Gordis‘s meditation on why readers are drawn to certain early American texts. Gordis’s piece includes a discussion of the stone marked “Charlotte Temple” in the graveyard of Trinity Church, which became something of a tourist attraction for reader’s of Susanna Rowson’s popular novel of the same name.

In fact, the entire issue is a pleasure to read, and it’s aimed at a more general readership than the standard academic journal.

bleeckerbroadway.jpgMost of lecture today was devoted to the idea of Greenwich Village in the early twentieth century — and to the group of people the historian Christine Stansell has termed “American Moderns.”

I did mention during lecture some earlier stirrings of New York’s bohemian subculture, strong enough that they received commentary from outsiders. W.D. Howells pokes fun at middle-class slumming — young writers and artists who want to make a romantic escape from their parents’ stifling genteel culture — in The Coast of Bohemia (1893). In the 1870s the journalist James D. McCabe, in Lights and Shadows of New York Life, has this portrait of “Bleecker Street”:

In many respects Bleecker Street is more characteristic of Paris than of New York. It reminds one strongly of the Latin Quarter. … It is one of the headquarters of Bohemianism, and Mrs. Grundy [a code word for the epitome of genteel propriety] now shivers with holy horror when she thinks it was once her home. The street has not entirely lost its reputation. No one is prepared to say it is a vile neighborhood; no one would care to class it with Houston, Mercer, Greene, or Water Streets; but people shake their heads, look mysterious, and sigh ominously when you ask them about it. It is a suspicious neighborhood, to say the least, and he who frequents it must be prepared for the gossip and surmises of his friends. … Walk down it at almost any hour of the day or night, and you will see many things that are new to you. Strange characters meet you at every step; even the shops have a Bohemian aspect, for trade is nowhere so much the victim of chance as here.

Who are these strange characters? He goes on to say they’re quite a different crowd than you’ll find walking on Broadway, so close by:

That long-haired, queerly dressed young man, with a parcel under his arm, who passed you just then, is an artist, and his home is in the attic of that tall house from which you saw him pass out.  … If you look up to the second floor, you may see a pretty, but not over fresh looking young woman [an actress], gazing down into the street. … She is used to looking at men, and to having them look at her, and she is not averse to their admiration. On the floor above her dwells Betty Mulligan, a pretty little butterfly well known to the lovers of the ballet as Mademoiselle Alexandrine. No one pretends to know her history. In the same house is a fine-looking woman, not young, but not old. Her ‘husband’ has taken lodgings here for her, but he comes to see her only at intervals. … Women come here to meet other men besides their husbands, and men bring women here who are not their wives. Bleecker Street asks no questions, but it has come to suspect the men and women who are seen in it. [Excerpted in Sawyers, ed., The Greenwich Village Reader]

whitman_pfaffs.jpgThe intersection of Broadway and Bleecker had, even earlier, been home to a bohemian literary scene that met at a cellar pub called Pfaff’s. The characters affiliated with the Pfaff’s scene fit some of McCabe’s character types: artists, actresses, dancers, writers, the most famous of whom was Walt Whitman. (He took a visiting Emerson to Pfaff’s for dinner.) A terrific website hosted by Lehigh University and created by Ed Whitley and Rob Weidman offers biographies of over 150 key figures who made their way through Pfaff’s, including Howells, Horatio Alger, the famous actress Adah Isaacs Menken, and the actor Joseph Jefferson. The site, The Vault at Pfaff’s, also contains searchable digital reproductions of The Saturday Press, the short-lived newspaper edited by Henry Clapp, Jr., a key publication for the Pfaff’s crowd. There’s enough there to lose yourself in for several hours, to be sure.

[Whitman at Pfaff’s, image taken from The Vault at Pfaff’s]

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In response to Cyrus’s injunction to “Ask Bryan” what the hell “Rhinestone Cowboy” would have to do with our overview to a course on New York lit, I’ll offer this link, which takes you to a version of what I said this morning in my part of our opening lecture. The bit on “Rhinestone Cowboy” comes at the end, and I’d just add here what one of our students mentioned after class: that Campbell’s persona isn’t even a Rhinestone Cowboy, at least not yet: he’s just feeling like one, which is even a little sadder than the song was already.

In other news of the flâneur (and yes, I read the sad, would-be rodeo star’s saga as fitting in the tradition of the flâneur), I’ve long wanted to direct readers to the terrific blog Walking Off the Big Apple, a daily log of city walks. The site’s author, Teri Tynes, describes her project as “an homage to the flâneur tradition and to the literary heritage of New York arts and letters.”

Here’s a link to one of her year-in-review posts. You’ll also find plenty of links to NYC lit and culture walks and loads of ideas if you’re itching to get out and strut your stuff.

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artbook_2029_38437712.jpgWatching Wild Combination last week, I had my curiosity piqued by references to a club called Tier 3. I’d heard the name before, but never really paid too much attention — it seemed third tier to more famous (and more fully chronicled) places like Mudd Club, CBGB, etc. More references turned up last week, though, in a book I bought as a Christmas gift for a friend: Soul Jazz Publishing’s New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground, 1978-88.  (Review here. Fun fact: I once played in a band with someone featured in the volume.)

I’m sad to admit I didn’t even know where Tier 3 was located. So I poked around. God bless the internets.

Turns out it was an early TriBeCa club, West Broadway and White, that catered to post-punk/new wave acts, a lot of them British acts that provided the soundtrack to my teenage years in faraway rural Arizona. Post-punk photo chronicler Eugene Merinov has a set of Bauhaus photos online from a 1981 gig.

Must be something in the air right now about Tier 3 nostalgia; the current issue of the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever has a profile on the club by Andy Schwartz, based primarily on an interview with founding booker Hilary Jaeger. The piece is part of an ongoing series about defunct NYC venues. Hilary recalls the club’s origins:

I was waitressing at the L&M Coffee Shop, at
Second Avenue and 10th Street, and I had a friend named June
Giarratano. Her mother, Kathleen Giarratano, and Kathleen’s friend
Maureen Cooper somehow got the lease and the liquor license for Tier 3.
June told me they needed a waitress, and I started working there in
March or April 1979… TriBeCa at that point was just a no-man’s-land.
There was hardly anybody there.

You walked up a few steps to enter the place, and
the bar was on the right-hand side of a sort of narrow room. We built a
DJ booth to the left, and behind that a couple of booths with bench
seating. The whole space was divided by a half-wall, so you could see
over and into the rectangular space where the bands played, to the left
and a few steps down. Because of how low the ceilings were, the stage
was only about ten inches off the floor and maybe fifteen feet wide.

I don’t who named it Tier 3, but in fact it did have
three levels. The second floor was a more brightly lit room with tables
and chairs. People didn’t really go to the third floor–there were
bathrooms up there, and a disco ball, and in the very beginning there
was a DJ booth there. At some point we showed films there, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. God knows what else went on up there!

There were really very few places to play in
Manhattan at that moment–basically C.B.G.B., Max’s, and Hurrah. The
Mudd Club was open, but I don’t think they were doing a lot of live
bookings at the time. My sister [singer Angela Jaeger] was in bands and
my friends were in bands and I was completely involved in music. Tier 3
was obviously an auspicious space in which to do something.

New York acts featured regularly: dB’s, DNA, The Stimulators, The Bush Tetras, 8 Eyed Spy with Lydia Lunch, The
UK bands included the Raincoats, the Slits,
the Pop Group, Delta 5, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Bauhaus, and Madness.

All this talk about new wave in TriBeCa reminded me of the great little 10-minute film Soul Jazz included on their ACR compilation Early a few years back. It intersperses footage of the band banging out beats in their TriBeCa loft with a performance at Hurrah’s, the famed “punk disco” venue on W. 62nd Street. The YouTube embedding is disabled; link here.

ACR’s MySpace page has this recollection of the early 80s downtown scene:

In late 1980, the [band relocated] from post-punk Manchester to the
hustle-bustle of the Big Apple, New York City. Romantic Mancunians love
to ponder the similarities between the two cities, the skyline over
Hulme, the great canals running through the cities (born from their
mutual industrial heritage), the fantastic nightlife. Realistic Mancs
know the score — Manchester is fuck-all like New York, but it looks
good in print. The band played gigs with local funk-machine ESG, along
with a fledgling New Order and a little known support act by the name
of Madonna.

For the intellectually and musically curious, our friends at Fales Library and Special Collections have compiled a set of resources for studying the scene.

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cover copy 2.jpg Do you know Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten New York?

I’ve had a copy for a year or so, and every once in a while remember to pack it with me when I’m heading to an unfamiliar neighborhood. (There’s also an accompanying blog, cheerfully cluttered, that’s well worth checking regularly.)

The book offers hundreds of out-of-the-way or in-plain-sight-but-easily-overlooked details from the city’s past, broken into categories like “Truly Forgotten,” “Quiet Places,” or “What’s This Thing?” It’s  designed for New Yorkers rather than tourists; it’s for people constantly on the look for little glimpses into lost parts of the city.

I rarely use the book to find a destination for an afternoon outing, say, but when I pack it along it always adds a nice dimension to a trip to or from somewhere I already wanted to go. A few weekends ago, ssw and I took our bikes and headed up the paths along the Hudson. We weren’t sure how far we’d go, though we had a vague idea we wanted to go kayaking up at Pier 96 before the weather turned. Once we were done (and had spent enough time spread out in the sun to dry our asses off) we got back on our bikes and headed up as high as St. Clair Place, around 125th street.

I had my copy of FN in my basket, and vaguely had some idea that we were close to Grant’s Tomb, which we’d never managed to visit. So we circled around until we hit Riverside Drive, pumped our way up the rather steep hill, and made our way back a few blocks to 123rd St.

Do you know who’s buried at Grant’s Tomb? I’m sheepish to admit I didn’t know the answer to that riddle until we visited with FN‘s assistance.

One minor disappointment, though. I remembered, when the Hudson River path hit St. Clair Place and we decided to stop our journey north, that FN had an entry explaining that street’s name. It accompanies the entry on Grant’s Tomb, in fact. It has to do not with the more famous tomb, but with an obscure grave nearby:

Five-year-old St. Clair Pollock was playing on the rocks overlooking the Hudson River on the Pollock property, and fell to his death on July 15, 1797. When the Pollocks later sold the property, his father (perhaps his uncle; records are unclear) made the request that St. Clair’s grave, which was on the property, would always be respected. A small stone urn remains marked, “Erected to the memory of an amiable child.” St. Clair is also commemorated with the very short St. Clair Place, which runs between the Hudson River and West 125th Street under the Riverside Drive Viaduct, about a half mile to the north.

We only spent about 15 minutes looking for it, but we couldn’t find the little stone urn, which is supposedly a little ways “up Riverside” (I assumed that meant north), “standing by itself, surrounded by an iron fence.”

I suppose I’ll have to go back and look again. Tip for bikers: ride back downtown as far as you can along Riverside Drive itself, which is somewhat more spectacular than I would have imagined and certainly lusher than a ride along the river at that point.

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Adaptations ahoy!

Yglesias laments the recent announcement of a new Moby-Dick film adaptation — directed by the guy with the unspellable last name who just directed Wanted, written by a team that has only teen comedies to their credit (including the Olsen twins vehicle New York Minute), and co-produced by the folks who’re bring us the American history adventure series National Treasure. (Recall Nicolas Cage peering at the all-seeing eye on a dollar bill: “I think the Illuminati were trying to send us secret messages!”)

Is it indulging in Ivory Tower elitism to join Matt in thinking: “Terrifying!” — and not in a good, White-Whale-crushing-your-boat way?

Part of what’s to be lamented, apparently, is that the writers are conceiving this as “an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the
advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an
action-adventure revenge story” — something more akin to dramatizing a graphic novel.

Actually, Melville wrote that version of the story himself. And then he spent a year rewriting it into Moby-Dick. Biographer Delbanco draws on Melville’s own words to set the scene as a vampire story:

Looking back at his labors on Moby-Dick, Melville saw “two books … being writ … the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for [his] own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink.”  Moby-Dick was Melville’s vampire book. It sapped him — but not before he had invented a new kind of writing that, we can now see, anticipated the kind of modernist prose that expresses the author’s stream of consciousness without conscious self-censorship.

So what’s lost in reducing Melville’s two-in-one grand-slam to a film adaptation of a graphic novel? Lots, I suspect, as is true with all other film versions of the book. This time they’re jettisoning the first-person narration, for one — something most of the graphic novel adaptations of the book don’t even manage, as far as I can tell.

The news of the new adaptation — and its conception in relation to graphic novels — led me to do some poking around. I quickly realized the graphic adaptation of Melville’s book had gone through many more versions than I was aware of. I grew up on the old Illustrated Classics rendition; my wife picked up one for our kids when she worked for Scholastic. We own the pop-up version, of course. What self-respecting Am Lit professor under age 50 doesn’t?

Moby Dick - preview.jpgBut I hadn’t realized until this morning that there’s a Will Eisner version, along with two others that feature major figures from my experience as a teenage comic book collector in the 1980s: Dick Giordano and Bill Sienkiewicz. And just this year Marvel published a six-installment adaptation, due for single-volume hardcover release next month (see illustration to the left). I’ve just put in orders for all of the above — of course there are many more — but I have to say that list of names here heartens me. Certainly some of these adaptations are smart? Maybe this will turn out better than the 90s version of The Scarlet Letter, before filming which Demi Moore didn’t even feel the need to read the novel.

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I blogged this elsewhere last year, but this afternoon I’m leading an annual Sweets and Cheap Eats on the LES walking tour for students returning to the Residential College where I live as faculty in residence.

If you were to add something to this tour, what would it be?

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