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In anticipation of the NYUAD Theater Program and Theater Mitu’s presentation of MD (Or, The Whale) later this week, the Program in Literature and Creative Writing is sponsoring a marathon reading of novel, which the play takes as its inspiration.

The reading should take around 24 hours total, spread out over 3 1/2 days. On Monday, 30 September, reading will run from 10am-5pm; Tuesday, 1 October, from 10am-6pm; Wednesday, 2 October, from 10am-5pm; and Thursday, 3 October, from 11am-1:30pm (UAE times; for NYC, subtract eight hours).

We’ll stream as much as possible here. Keep checking back to see if we’re on!

video platform video management video solutions video player

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Dinosaur, “Kiss Me Again,” 12-inch, side A, 1978. Composed by Arthur Russell. Remix by Jimmy Simpson.

The personnel for this record blows my mind:

Arthur Russell (cello, organ)
David Byrne (guitar)
Sammy Figueroa (percussion)
Frank Owens (piano)
Henry Flynt (violin)
Peter Gordon (sax)
Larry Saltzman (guitar)
Peter Zummo (trombone)
Myrian Valle (vocals)

The Henry Flynt finale is an especially rewarding touch, & it’s kind of thrilling to hear him — and Byrne — on the same record as Russell, Gordon, & Zummo.

See Tim Lawrence’s richly detailed Hold On to Your Dreams, pp. 130-37, for an account of this record’s origins. Find a download link here.

Previously. And.

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Joe Brainard at work. My office is perilously close to looking like this right now.

p.s. You know about this, right?


Frank O’Hara at frankohara.org & at poetryfoundation.org.

Frank O’Hara

By Ted Berrigan

Winter in the country, Southampton, pale horse
as the soot rises, then settles, over the pictures
The birds that were singing this morning have shut up
I thought I saw a couple kissing, but Larry said no
It’s a strange bird. He should know. & I think now
“Grandmother divided by monkey equals outer space.” Ron
put me in that picture. In another picture, a good-
looking poet is thinking it over, nevertheless, he will
never speak of that it. But, his face is open, his eyes
are clear, and, leaning lightly on an elbow, fist below
his ear, he will never be less than perfectly frank,
listening, completely interested in whatever there may
be to hear. Attentive to me alone here. Between friends,
nothing would seem stranger to me than true intimacy.
What seems genuine, truly real, is thinking of you, how
that makes me feel. You are dead. And you’ll never
write again about the country, that’s true.
But the people in the sky really love
to have dinner & to take a walk with you.

Ted Berrigan, “Frank O’Hara” from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Copyright © 2005 by University of California Press. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press. [via]

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For the past couple summers I’ve taught two versions of the same course, though with separate titles and a few tweaks that suggest multiple possibilities for ordering the material we examine. The undergrad version of the course is called Downtown Scenes, 1960-1980. It grew out of a lecture I’ve given several times in the Writing New York course Cyrus and I have taught since 2003. I also used this more specific course — which is a 2-week summer intensive, meeting 4 hours/day for 10 days — to help me prep for writing about Television’s Marquee Moon. The grad version of the course is called Literature in the Age of Warhol. It also focuses primarily on the downtown scene in the 60s and 70s, though in this version Warhol is more pronounced as a defining figure in the era. The first time I taught the undergrad version, Ginsberg emerged as a link between several of our readings. Here are a few links to prior material on the blog, especially about Ginsberg.

So is there something more to be said here about defining these decades variously as an Age of Ginsberg or an Age of Warhol? (For what it’s worth, I think we’re still living in the latter.) Are there other figures you’d suggest had as strong an impact on underground literary and artistic subcultures? I’m just waiting for either one of these fellows to get a cameo on Mad Men.

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Following on yesterday’s Q&A with Alex Roe, who directed The Contrast for the Metropolitan Playhouse in 2009, today we’re happy to host a Q&A with Professor Cynthia Kierner of George Mason University, who edited the play with a substantial introductory essay for NYU Press in 2007. Professor Kierner directs GMU’s PhD program in History and Art History and is the author of Scandal At Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America (Virginia, 2004).

PWHNY: When I teach The Contrast in an American Lit survey I discuss it as dealing with post-Revolutionary American culture broadly. In Writing New York it’s a more local affair, a picture of New York staged for New Yorkers by a visiting Bostonian. How do you teach the play?

CK: I first read the play in grad school, but never really thought about teaching it (or editing it) until it was one of the assigned texts for a discussion group (among high school teachers) that I was leading for a National Humanities Center Seminar in North Carolina. Although I thought that the play was really, really funny, I had never really thought that its humor would transfer to a discussion group of modern readers. It did. So, the main reason I decided to edit the play was to create an accessible edition for use in college-level courses. What fun to talk about dating and sex and shopping in a college history class! (The only online edition at that point was a real mess and not especially usable.)

I have used the book as a required text in undergraduate and graduate classes on the Revolutionary era and in an undergraduate course in American women’s/gender history. In both contexts, I tend to play up the gender angles. Among other things, this play is very much about the distinctive roles of women and men — at home, in the marketplace, and in society — and how, if at all, those roles differed in a republic. I also emphasize the extent to which, even after the Revolution, the U.S. was part of an Atlantic culture. The question of how distinctive Americans were within that Atlantic world is arguably the central one in Tyler’s play. And the notion of “American exceptionalism” continues to be hotly debated, even in today’s political discourse.

PWHNY: Cold War readings of the play often took for granted that Manly and Maria and Jonathan were unquestionably virtuous and the play’s heroes. Over time I’ve come to think that Tyler satirizes them as forcefully as anyone else. Does the play have characters we’re meant to embrace and emulate?

I agree completely that Tyler satirizes both Manly and Maria. Despite his admirable qualities — patriotism, loyalty, respect for his parents and for women, etc. — Manly is long-winded and wears bad (and old) clothes. Arguably, his patriotism, however inspiring during the war, was not the kind that would make him an effective role model in the post-revolutionary era. (Note that George Washington, that quintessential role model, was known for his reticence and also for going back to civilian dress after the war was over). I think that Tyler is much gentler toward Maria, but she’s not perfect either.

I can’t think of any single character that Tyler would have wanted his readers to emulate completely. I think that most of his characters have admirable qualities, but they also have flaws. And maybe that’s the point: Americans don’t have to be perfect as individuals to have a republic, but they do have to be sufficiently moderate and open-minded to make their experiment work.

PWHNY: Charlotte’s opening anecdote about her stroll on the Battery seems to set the stage (so to speak) for a long tradition of conflating New York with the theater: the town, that is, seems to be one big performance situation. Do you think Tyler was trying to get at something he saw, as an outsider, as specific to New York, or are we being given insight into the nature of commercial society?

CK: Interesting point (about conflating NY with theater). I think that for anyone whose experiences had been primarily rural — a category that would have included the vast majority of Americans ca. 1787 — any city would have struck them as “one big performance situation.” The thing that might have made New York special in 1787 would have been its new status as the capital of the United States, which made it the stage on which the nation’s leaders (and prominent New Yorkers) enacted official and quasi-official rituals as they constructed the public culture of the republic. Philadelphia occupied this position both before and after New York’s brief stint as the center of government. (Note that NY was not the largest city in the U.S. at that time, nor was it the one with the most significant theater history.)

PWHNY: What do you think The Contrast has to teach us today?

CK: My students are really interested to learn that theater was so controversial — that people regarded the stage variously as a source of corruption and a source of education. Does that make theater the “new media” of late eighteenth-century America? On an even more basic level, by including characters from so many different ethnic backgrounds, Tyler’s portrait of New York teaches readers that the city — and, by extension, the United States — was born diverse, and that contemporaries saw diversity as an important aspect of their society. That’s a crucial insight and a useful counterpoint to those who would see the story revolutionary era as a top-down founders-focused sort of history.

PWHNY: Thanks for this conversation!

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For many U.S. academics, Labor Day marks the end of summer: for my colleagues at NYU, tomorrow marks the beginning of the fall term. Today, therefore, seems like the right moment to announce Bryan’s and my new “course”: Virtual Writing New York, or vWNY for short.

I’m spending the academic year at NYU Abu Dhabi and Bryan is concentrating on other activities (including being Director of Undergraduate Studies), so our Writing New York course is on hiatus. But Bryan and I have always wondered what it might be like to teach that course over a full year, allowing ourselves the time to explore books currently on the syllabus in greater detail and to take a less hurried tour of the twentieth century by adding a few more titles.

vWNY is a step in that direction. It’s a thought experiment: Bryan and I are imaging what a year-long syllabus might look like for this year were we actually teaching Writing New York this year. We’ve put together a course schedule, and we’ll be writing blog posts that approximate the blog posts we would have written had we actually given the lectures that are listed on our virtual schedule.

So here’s the “syllabus” for the fall term. [Note that CCLNY stands for our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York; EAD stands for Early American Drama, edited by Jeffrey Richards.]

Wed. Sept. 7: Introduction

Mon. Sept. 12: E. B. White, Here is New York (Little Bookroom)
Wed. Sept. 14: Excerpts from Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World (Vintage)

Mon. Sept. 19: Washington Irving, A History of New York (Penguin)
Wed. Sept 21: Irving (continued); Elizabeth L. Bradley, “Dutch New York from Irving to Wharton” [CCLNY]

Mon. Sept 26: Royall Tyler, The Contrast [EAD]; Washington Irving, “Jonathan Oldstyle Letters”
Wed. Sept 28: The Contrast (continued); Bryan Waterman, “The City on Stage” [CCLNY]

Mon. Oct. 3: George G. Foster, New York by Gas-Light (University of California Press)
Mon. Oct. 5: New York by Gas-Light (continued)

Mon. Oct. 10 – HOLIDAY
Wed. Oct. 12: “MIDTERM” Contest

Mon Oct. 17: Anna Cora Mowatt, Fashion [EAD]
Wed. Oct. 19: Benjamin Baker, Glance at New York in On Stage America: A Selection of Distinctly American Plays, ed. Walter J. Meserve.

Mon. Oct. 24: Selected Poems and Journalism by Walt Whitman; Cyrus Patell, “New York, 1819–61”
Wed. Oct. 26:  Whitman (continued); Thomas Bender, “New York as a Center of Difference”  in The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea (NYU Press)

Mon. Oct. 31: Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Excerpts from Moby-Dick; Thomas Augst, “Melville, at Sea in the City” [CCLNY]
Wed. Nov. 2: Melville (continued)

Mon. Nov. 7: Theodore Winthrop, Cecil Dreeme
Wed. Nov. 9: Cecil Dreeme (continued)

Mon. Nov. 14: Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick (Norton Critical Edition)
Wed. Nov. 16: Ragged Dick (continued)

Mon. Nov. 21: Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (Bedford Cultural Editions); Jacob Riis, “The Problem of the Children” and “The Working Girls of New York,” in the Bedford Maggie, 128–132 and 202–207.
Wed. Nov. 23: Wed. Nov. 30: Maggie (continued)

Mon. Nov. 28: Henry James, Washington Square (Penguin)
Wed. Nov. 30: Washington Square (continued)

Mon. Dec. 5: Abraham Cahan, Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom (Dover)
Wed. Dec. 7: Yekl (continued); Eric Homberger, “City of Immigrants: Politics and the Popular Cultures of Tolerance” [CCLNY].

Mon. Dec. 12: Wharton, The Age of Innocence (Penguin)
Wed. Dec. 14: The Age of Innocence (continued); F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Lost City”; Sarah Wilson, “Beaufort’s Bastards” [CCLNY]

Mon. Dec. 19: “Final Examination” Contest

Our Twitter feed will be using the hashtag #vWNY to refer to the “course.”

Please join us for our introductory blog post after Wednesday’s hypothetical opening lecture!

This afternoon my Downtown Scenes class was fortunate enough to take a walking tour of the East Village (or a portion of the Lower East Side, as he would have it) with Cary Abrams, a long-time teacher, friend of PWHNY, and affiliate of the Lower East Side History Project.

At the outset Cary shared a quote from Alfred Leslie, who moved to the Lower East Side following WWII and took up a career as an artist. Tomorrow we’ll watch the famous film he made with the photographer Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy (1959), and think about it alongside the poetry of the Beat icons who feature as actors in the film. For today, Cary wanted us to think about people who walked these same streets in past eras. To that end he quoted Leslie:

There’s an essay at the end of Thoreau’s Walden on the pleasure of walking. I can’t recall it exactly, but it went something like this: “I wish to speak a word for walking and for wildness, for taking little walks along unmapped paths, like the saunterers of old….” After the war, the wild was no longer nature, it was the city. You had the feeling that you were starting out on a journey that had no end in sight, and from which you’d never return. There was an element of danger in it, and of psychic and primitive power…… Everything was accessible, if you went after it…. And it was particularly so on the Lower East Side which was like an abandoned part of the city.

We’re not sure where the quote comes from. (Does anyone out there recognize it?) I tried finding it on Google Books to no avail. Cary says he took it from the placards attached to the fence on the Second Avenue side of St. Mark’s Church, which we passed today on our walking tour. Wherever it comes from, it’s a terrific quote, encapsulating the thrill of walking in the city in a particular moment of time whose echoes are barely audible to us.

Photo of Alfred Leslie, 1960, by John Cohen, from Artnet.com.

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This week I begin teaching two summer courses, both of which are outgrowths of the Writing New York course I team-teach each year with Cyrus.

The first is an undergraduate seminar called “Writing New York: The Downtown Scene, 1960-1980.” I pioneered it last summer as a way to get me in an appropriate frame of mind to work on my book for the 33 1/3 series. It’s a 2-week intensive seminar: four hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks. It’s baptism by immersion, and by the end of the second week we certainly feel like we’ve been through a full semester.

My second course this summer will be a graduate seminar called “New York in the Age of Warhol.” Compared to the undergraduate course, this one will have  luxurious pacing, spread out over six weeks. This is still quite a bit faster than a seminar in the regular semester, though, meeting twice a week whereas in the regular semester we’d meet once.

The two courses share over 90% of the same readings, which is one way I can keep this load manageable. They begin with some seminal figures on the downtown scene — Ginsberg, O’Hara, Cage — and end with Patti Smith’s glance backwards in Just Kids. I’m going to be curious to see, though, what effect the course title has on our discussion. What will it mean to foreground the concept of “scenes” over any particular personality? Or to define an era by the influence of one figure — Warhol? The grad seminar will have a heavier dose of Warhol, it’s true: we’ll read Popism in full and even tackle “his” novel, A. In my 33 1/3 book on Television’s Marquee Moon I consider, following the critic and filmmaker Mary Harron, the long shadow Warhol cast over the downtown underground rock scene, even as some bands (including Television) eventually sought to define themselves by breaking with the Warhol-influenced glitter scene that preceded them. Implicit in my account, I think, is my own sense that we’ve not yet escaped the Age of Warhol. Will we ever?

Over the next six weeks I’ll have more to say here. I’ll also be using the Twitter hashtag #downtown11 to indicate material relevant to our discussions. Feel free to follow along and join in as you’re inclined.

Photo: CBGB Pinball 1977, by Bob Gruen.

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One of the questions that I asked in today’s lecture was what we should make of this passage from the third chapter of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence (1920):

Wandering on to the bouton d’or drawing-room (where Beaufort had had the audacity to hang “Love Victorious,” the much-discussed nude of Bouguereau) Archer found Mrs. Welland and her daughter standing near the ball-room door. Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.

The notes to the Penguin edition that we’re using (edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff and available for Kindle) tell us that “Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905), a French painter who won the Prix de Rome in 1850, was well known for us nudes.” What they don’t tell us is what I learned from T. J. Clark many years ago in an art history class: that Bouguereau was an “Academic” painter, a traditionalist who was popular in his day and consistently exhibit in the annual Paris Salon during his career.

Bouguereau never painted a painting called Love Victorious, but it’s thought that Wharton may have had this one in mind, Le Printemps (The Return of Spring), painted in 1886 and currently on display at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska:

Martin Scorsese used this picture to depict “Love Victorious” in his film adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Like many of Bouguereau’s nudes, it aspires to what we would think of now as photo-realism — except for the, er, putti. I talk about this painting in class as part of a larger discussion of the novel’s relation to the idea of realism: how can a novel compete (in terms of “realism”) with forms like visual forms like painting, photography, and film?

I then compare this painting with a painting by Gustave Courbet (a “Realist” with a capital R), entitled L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), painted in 1866 and currently hanging in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Courbet once said, “I cannot paint an angel, because I have never seen one,” a remark that seems to be a deliberate swipe at Academic painters like Bouguereau. Here’s Courbet’s rendition of the origin of the world:

Bouguereau’s approach is idealized, mythological, allegorical; Courbet’s is amusingly literal.

So what should we make of Wharton’s use of Bouguereau? What does the reference signify? Is it a subtle way of indicating that Newland Archer’s Old New York, which thinks of itself as so cosmopolitan and worldly, is in fact quite provincial. Bouguereau may be scandalous in New York, but in Paris — well, he’s an Academic, not a provocateur like Courbet.

Or does the novel really “believe” that Bouguereau is scandalous? Is it unaware of the way in which Courbet and other Realists are upping the ante when it comes to nudes? Is the novel just as provincial as the New York it depicts?

I tend to think not, but the question I pose to the class is: What kind of evidence would you need to make an argument either way?

This invocation of Bouguereau is what I would call an exemplary moment in the text. But what does it exemplify? Let me suggest that the two questions I’ve just posed only scratch the surface of the complexity of this moment.


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