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In my lecture last month on Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” (1853), I presented the story as a meditation on the kinds of selves that democratic urban modernity was producing in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century and also as a diagnosis of trouble within the cosmopolitan ideal.

I generally read Moby-Dick as a dramatization of opportunities presented by a cosmopolitanism that is devoted to crossing the divides of human difference, that brings individuals together through the power of conversation conceived not only as interaction through speech but also — as Anthony Appiah puts it — “in its older meaning, of living together, association.”

In “Bartleby,” however, Melville dramatizes one of the problems that this model of cosmopolitanism faces: what happens when someone, like Bartleby, simply refuses to talk and by extension refuses to live together in association with others. The lecture suggested that one of the ills that seems to have beset democratic urban modernity is precisely the production of Bartlebys in one form or another.

As a way of investigating this idea, I proposed that there was a connection between Melville’s story and this picture, Edward Hopper’s Morning in the City (1944):

How do you get to Hopper from Melville? By way, I argued, of an insight from E. B. White’s Here is New York (1948):

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

I think Hopper’s paintings of the city must have been lurking in the back of White’s mind as he wrote this passage, which is the first in his book. Unlike the teeming city depicted in Whitman’s poetry, Hopper’s city is seemingly devoid of inhabitants, as in this picture from 1921, Night Shadows:

Hopper paints people who are alone, often facing away from us and therefore anonymous, people who have far more in common with White’s vision of the city than Whitman’s.

Looking at Hopper’s paintings can tell us something about the kind of experience that Melville was seeking to depict in “Bartleby.” The narrator of Melville’s story thinks he learns something from his encounter with “Bartleby,” but I’m convinced that he doesn’t: I read the story’s final line — “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” — as a conventional, even theatrical gesture designed to persuade us that the narrator has experienced something like an epiphany. But the very theatricality of the gesture belies the possibility of insight. Melville’s narrator has the same relationship to the scrivener as the viewer has to one of Hopper’s paintings: forever on the outside, separated by an ontological difference that seems absolute.

I’m usually in the business of historicizing the texts that we read in Writing New York, but in this case I think the juxtaposition of these two writers and one artist yields an insight that transcends particular historical context — or perhaps that suggests that continuities between mid-nineteenth-century and mid-twentieth-century New York.


With our spring courses starting up — the Writing New York lecture Cyrus and I have team-taught since 2003 and my honors seminar The Port of New York, which I’ve taught periodically since 2006 — perhaps it makes sense for us to call our students’ attention to our favorite blogs that intersect with the study of New York literature and cultural history.

The blogroll to the right includes all of these resources but also aspires to some degree of comprehensiveness, so forgive me for being a little more particular here. Also, I’m less interested for the purposes of this post in professionally produced resources than in blogs, which we see as producing an extraordinary amount of vital, open-ended writing that aims to interpret and preserve the city and its literary and cultural traditions. For a set of more traditional library-based resources, see Bobst’s suggestions for approaching research on New York. CUNY’s Gotham Center also has a terrific website also worth exploring. And, of course, our own Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York contains essays and reading suggestions that will guide those who have specific literary historical questions or concerns.

What follows is a set of blogs/Twitter feeds we find essential for students of New York history on the ground — material produced by ordinary New Yorkers who are attuned to noticing traces of the past still visible, or perhaps recently vanished. Some are written by academics or professional journalists, but many aren’t. We’d love to think this site aspires to be like some of these when it grows up. We’ve left historical societies and museums off this list, though we encourage you to look those up. You’ll find a longer list of our top 25 NYC Twitter feeds here. And I have a set of links on my personal website that more or less duplicates our blogroll but also includes resources for studying American culture more generally. Have fun exploring our blogroll too, which includes dozens of neighborhood- and news-oriented blogs. Please let us know if you’re aware of sites we’ve overlooked that obviously belong here. The only thing I won’t add are cupcake blogs. Sorry, SatC fans. Just the way it is.

The Bowery Boys — This is, simply, the best NYC history blog out there. They take their name from a nineteenth-century street gang and, later, the stars of film shorts, also known as the Dead End Kids, who typified for many Americans the insouciant attitude to be found on New York’s streets. Daily posts take up a range of topics, often but not always related to current events. Weekly podcasts go into greater depth, take you on the scene. Their archive is a treasure trove of NYC neighborhood/historical resources. Twitter: @boweryboys

Walking Off the Big Apple, a blog written by Villager Teri Tynes, updates the Baudelairean tradition of the flâneur, or city walker. Offering a series of self-guided tours, many with literary orientation, as well as gallery and museum guides, Tynes also takes you through the nooks and crannies of multiple neighborhoods and the ordinary workings of urban life. Travel sites pitch her as a resource, but locals should be checking her every day as well if they already aren’t. Twitter: @TeriTynes

Built Manhattan is a relatively recently launched blog by Michael Daddino, who formerly wrote one of our favorite NYC architecture sites, The Masterpiece Next Door. That project aimed to index Manhattan’s landmarked buildings. Built Manhattan is working its way through the city’s architectural history one year at a time, at least for years that are represented in the standing city. It’s a fun ride so far. Twitter: @epicharmus

Lost City is the Brooklyn-based granddaddy of NYC’s anti-gentrification blogs. Written by the pseudonymous Brooks of Sheffield, a freelance journalist and longtime city dweller with particular affection for old-time eating and drinking establishments. Last summer Brooks rocked the NYC blogosphere by announcing his site’s retirement. Luckily for us it seems to have been only temporary; for now, at least, we still have the opportunity to let Brooks look around and tell us what we may be missing soon, himself included. Twitter: we wish!

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York works in the same vein, though he’s holed up closer by, in the East Village. Like most prophets, he’s got followers as well as people who reject his message, but that message is clear: recent decades have seen development on such an unprecedented and reckless scale that the very character of our city is in jeopardy. In the process of documenting closings and brushes with redevelopment, Jeremiah Moss (who started on the site as a fictional character created by the anonymous blogger) has done us all an enormous service by preserving an extraordinary amount of information and emotion about parts of the city that have disappeared or may soon be gone, from the Meatpacking District’s leather scene from decades past to Coney Island’s dive bars. We interviewed Jeremiah along with his compadre EV Grieve here. Twitter: @jeremoss

Inside the Apple is the companion blog to Michelle and James Nevius’ clever and handy historical guidebook to the city. The book contains 14 walking tours along with a wealth of key details and quirky anecdotes. The site specializes in the same, calling our attention to important anniversaries and to odds and ends that might otherwise end up in history’s dustbin, such as the fact that when the World Trade Center topped out it screwed up TV receptions in multiple boroughs. Print and web are both important companions. Twitter: @insidetheapple

Ephemeral New York operates on a simple principle: Its writer takes some scrap — a newspaper ad, an old postcard, a fading ad on the side of a building — and extracts a bit of information about the time and place that produced it, perhaps something about the people who were involved as well. The posts are short; the stories stick. She describes her own project as “chronicl[ing] a constantly reinvented city through … artifacts that have been edged into New York’s collective remainder bin.” A consistently delightful and informative blog. Twitter: we can only hope she’ll come around!

Forgotten New York is Kevin Walsh’s companion site to his stellar guide of the same name. His approach and concerns don’t overlap so much with the Nevius’, so don’t be deterred from checking out both books. Walsh does overlap with all of the above, however, in simple acts of noticing: seeing what’s still here that offers us little trails to follow into the city’s past lives. Walsh also leads walking tours of various hidden corners of the city–more information on his site. Twitter: @forgottenNY

Let us know what you think — and what resources, blog-based or otherwise, you find most useful.

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Yesterday my J-Term class visited The Big Picture: Abstract Expressionist New York, an exhibition at MoMA that is on display through April 25. One of the pieces that particularly caught my eye was a small photo by Minor White (1908-1976) entitled Peeled Paint on Store Window, San Francisco . Taken in 1951, the photograph resembles the kind of abstraction created in paint by Willem de Kooning in Painting (1948), shown below:

Painting (1948) by Willem de Kooning. Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8" (108.3 x 142.5 cm). Purchase. © 2010 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy moma.org

White’s photo is displayed in a room devoted to demonstrating that photographers were inspired by the same goals — defiance of expectations, playing with scale, expression through abstraction — that motivated painters like de Kooning. At first glance, it isn’t entirely clear what the photograph depicts, but once you see the title, you return to the photograph and begin to make out referential details that tell you that what you are seeing is indeed peeling paint. The relationship between title and image brings to mind the dynamics of titling in Abstract Expressionism more generally: some titles — like White’s or like or Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-5) suggest the continuing referentiality of the image: the image is depicting something. Unless it isn’t and the title is a joke. Which is the case with Newman’s painting, shown below?

1950-51. Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller. © 2010 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy moma.org.

Others, like de Kooning’s, don’t seem to invoke referentiality: his Painting is just a painting. Unless it’s actually referential: look, the title tells us, you’re looking at paint.

Looking at the large paintings in the other rooms of the exhibition tells you something about how to understood White’s photograph, but White’s photograph can also get us to think about the paintings in a different way. Thought experiment: White uses the camera to render the real abstract. We can think, very concretely, about how that result is accomplished. So what if the painter’s “camera” is his or her head?

And, of course, when a photographer takes a picture of peeling paint is he inevitably “commenting” on the ephemerality of paint, perhaps uncannily predicting the fate of Mark Rothko’s mural for Harvard University’s Holyoke Center?

The photograph of White’s photograph, snapped with an iPhone and shown below, doesn’t nearly do justice to the beauty of the image. You’ll just have to go to MoMA and see it for yourself.

Peeled Paint on Store Window, San Francisco by Minor White. 1951. Gelatin silver print.

The Skyline

Today is the first day of my January term class on “New York and Modernity,” which I’m teaching for NYU Abu Dhabi here in New York. Thirty-four NYUAD students have come from various parts of the world to take one of several courses being offered here. (In fact, NYU has altered its academic calendar to accommodate J-Term classes: the spring semester will now begin on the Monday, rather than the Tuesday, after Martin Luther King Day, six days later than in previous years.) My course has five students from NYUAD who hail from Australia, Canada, Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia respectively — plus one native New Yorker who studies at NYU New York.

We’ll be traipsing around the city for the next three weeks and blogging our way through the course: we’ll be writing posts about the things we’re seeing and the reading we’re doing and the things that we’re thinking about the City and its relationship to the idea of “the modern.” And I mean we: I’ll be posting along with them, here at PWHNY. The students will each maintain an individual blog, with the posts aggregated at http://jterm.patell.org.

For their initial posts, I’ve asked the students to write about what they expect from New York, either from direct experience (in the case of our native New Yorker) or from all that they’ve heard and read about the city before coming to it.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be asking the students to look for exemplary moments or objects — small things that seem to encompass something larger about the urban or the modern or both. Here’s my contribution:

The skyline. (This picture was taken as we landed back in New York after a family trip to Abu Dhabi in November.) If you’re a real New Yorker, that skyline never gets old. On that day after I received my job offer from NYU back in 1993, I flew out to UCLA where my then-partner was on the verge of receiving an offer. I’m one of those New Yorkers who doesn’t hate the idea of LA and indeed finds the city appealing (sorry, Woody), but as I took the taxi over to the Triborough Bridge to LaGuardia Airport, I looked out the window and saw the skyline emerge over the barriers at the side of the ramp, I suspected I wouldn’t be leaving New York in the end — and that even if I did a part of me never would.

A real New Yorker is always a New Yorker: no matter where he or she might happen to be living, that skyline indelibly marks what Whitman would call “the soul.”

I’m very pleased to announce the debut of a project on which I’ve been working with a number of faculty and students at NYU Abu Dhabi: Electra Street, a Journal of the Arts and Humanities published at NYU Abu Dhabi. In the initial incarnation that became public last Wednesday, the project is a website. Its address is http://electrastreet.net.

It is our hope, however, that the Electra Street will present work in a variety of different manifestations. Part of what we are trying to do with Electra Street and with many of the projects we undertake at NYU Abu Dhabi is to rethink our practices from the particular vantage point — in space and in time — that being at NYU Abu Dhabi now offers us.With Electra Street, we are taking the opportunity to ask taking the opportunity to ask, “What should a 21st century ‘journal’ published in an emergent arts and humanities culture look like?” We hope that the project will take some kind of codified form by the end of this year academic year or early in the next, but I’m not prepared to say now what that form will be. Perhaps it will be published book, a DVD, a flash drive, or an app for the iPad — or some combination of these things. For now, we’ll be adding content each Sunday and developing a reservoir of exciting work from which to draw.

The project is headed by an editorial collective that consists of both students and faculty. The mission of the journal, expressed in the “Guidebook” that appears on the site, is to serve as “a forum for journeys undertaken by today’s academics and artists as they navigate the region and the globe, including the cities that host NYU’s global network such as Accra, Paris, London, New York, and Shanghai.” We’re hoping to establish smaller editorial collectives at each of NYU’s study-away sites, as well as in New York, each contributing to the project. I’ll be encouraging NYUAD students to serve as correspondents for the journal as the travel within the network (as early as this J-Term) and to join up with the collectives that will exist at the sites they visit during their semesters abroad. I can imagine a future in which both students and faculty participate in a network of editorial collectives as they spend time at different sites in NYU’s global network.

Given its title, the site uses a spatial metaphor for its organization and is divided into several sections. “Avenues” presents work of various kinds from the full range of disciplines in the arts and humanities. “Crossings” offers work that is interdisciplinary or multidisiciplinary or that defies conventional boundaries. “Progressions” presents ongoing colloquia or conversations on various topics within the arts and humanities. “On Location” takes a look at events at sites from across NYU’s global network.You can also use the “Roundabout” dropdown box at the bottom of the main page to locate work not only by section but also by genre. The “Search” box at the top of the page enables you to conduct free-form searching.

On the occasion of its launch, Electra Street featured the following pieces of work: videos from the Iktishaf Project, which is a collaboration between NYUAD and Zayed University in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Film Festival; a phototext entitled “Istanbul: Why Photos Cannot Capture It,” in which Katherine James meditates on the Istanbul that lies outside the purview of the photographer’s lens; and the text of an address entitled “From Athens to Abu Dhabi,” given in Abu Dhabi by the historian David Levering Lewis, offering a history of the university from its earliest days to its present global incarnations; and an essay on the exhibition “No Customs” curated by artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, who are currently in residence at NYU Abu Dhabi. There is poetry by Julia Welsh with illustrations by Besiki Turazashvili. We also have the first installment of our “Colloquium on Cosmopolitanism” featuring the video that I recorded this summer “Cosmopolitan Ideas for Global Citizens” (and presented here in an earlier post).

The name “Electra” street has different connotations (and I expect its name to be the subject of an extended essay in the near future). People in New York immediately think of that tragic figure from Greek mythology, dramatized by Euripedes and Sophocles:the princess who, with her brother Orestes, plotted revenge against her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus for the murder of their father, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek invasion of Troy. In Abu Dhabi, however, that resonance is muted. “Electra Street” is the name commonly used for the street where NYU Abu Dhabi’s Sama Tower is located. The official name is Shaikh Zayed the Second Street. According to the Gulf News, the street “inherited its unusual name from an old video and electronic games shop of the same name that has since shut down.”

Electra Street welcomes submissions of original work and original research in the arts and humanities. We are developing guidelines for contributors, but if you’re raring to go, please send submissions as an e-mail attachment to submissions@electrastreet.net. For video submissions (or files that are to large to be e-mailed), please send a query to help@electrastreet.net.

Hope to see you on the Street!

[Photo Credits: The photo above appears on the Guidebook page of Electra Street, which currently contains the journal’s mission statement. It is a satellite picture of the island of Abu Dhabi taken by International Space Station in March 2003, courtesy of the Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Source: http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov, Filmroll: ISS006-E-32079. Click here for detailed copyright information.]

[Cross-posted from patell.org.]

Welcome back

I know I used this last year, in case anyone’s paying attention who would call me on the carpet for the re-run, but I can’t start a new school year without humming the Welcome Back Kotter theme song. As I noted last year, these Brooklyn street scenes and images of the F train were, along with Sesame Street, responsible for most of my sense of what New York City was like when I was a kid in the remote mountains of northern Arizona:

Since I already used that clip last year, I’ll offer up this segment from Gabe’s first day on the job. Though I do live in a building that also houses a couple hundred students, luckily they don’t come climbing through my windows:

And that, my friends, is why Al Gore invented the Internet: so I could eventually rediscover where I picked up the phrase “Off my case, toilet face” as a kid.

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I’m getting out of Manhattan for the weekend and noticed this view on the west side of Lexington Avenue between 40th and 39th Streets while waiting for a bus. I think it embodies quite a nice bit of the history of New York.

It might make a good prompt for the exam in the “New York and Modernity” course that I’m teaching this January for NYU ABu Dhabi.

Lost Penn Station

Bryan and I began our third seminar for NYU’s Faculty Resource Network, which sponsors a variety of week-long programs each summer for faculty from affiliated colleges around the country. The subject of our seminar this year is “Lost New York“:

Has New York always been a lost city? On the heels of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage for the Dutch and the 200th anniversary of Washington Irving’s legendary reimagining of this New World encounter in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, this seminar will explore the dynamics of creativity and destruction, nostalgia and invention, that have for centuries marked efforts to represent life in New York City. Readings and discussions will address the relationships between the literary imagination and the archives, between migrations and displacements, between loss and remembrance, and between preservation and development in the long and storied history of one of the world’s greatest cities. We will focus our analysis on two famous cultural moments in the city’s history — Greenwich Village Bohemia and the Harlem Renaissance — and explore the ways in which our approaches to uncovering forgotten urban pasts might serve as a methodological foundation for the exploration of urban modernity more generally.

In the end, we decided to cut back on the reading we planned for the course, making it less literary and more interdisciplinary. We’re featuring three guests: David Freeland, the author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure; the documentary filmmaker Ric Burns; and the architectural preservationist and Brooklyn maven Ward Dennis.

Our group includes literary scholars, librarians, architects, historians, and a scholar of immigration and public health. During our morning session, we used NYU’s Founders Hall and the old Penn Station to open a discussion of the dynamics of creation and destruction, nostalgia and counter-nostalgia, and the politics of preservation. We showed an excerpt from the seventh chapter Burns’s New York documentary (which we will be showing in its entirety on Wednesday morning in preparation for his visit) and then two scenes from the second episode of the third season of Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s ad agency (on the wrong side of history once again) proposes to represent the Mdison Square Garden Corporation, which is bent on tearing down Penn Station.

The afternoon presented a case study in the loss and recovery of a figure from New York’s downtown scene, the avant-garde cellist and pop musician Arthur Russell. We showed the biopic Wild Combination and afterward Bryan contextualized Russell’s work by linking it not only to the downtown music scene and Allen Ginsberg, but also to Frank O’Hara and his successors. My favorite insight of the day came from seminar member Alma Vinyard, chair of the English Department at Atlanta Clark University: that O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” which recounts the poet’s activities on the day that Billie Holiday passed away, might appeal to today’s college readers because it resembles a Twitter feed!

Tomorrow we’ll be talking with Freeland and joining him in the afternoon for a walking tour of Harlem. Stay tuned.

Today my “Downtown Scenes” class will be considering conceptual art and performance and the stirrings of minimalism in music, painting, and sculpture. Some analogies and overlaps with the world of poetry we’ve been talking about and will continue to talk about as we move into the Second Generation New York School later this week. The first two figures we spent intensive time with were Ginsberg and O’Hara. Today we’ll think about the vast influence of John Cage.

Here’s my favorite early Cage clip. I know I’ve posted it before, but in case you weren’t reading at that point — trust me. It’s worth the time:

Here’s a 2007 performance of the same piece at Brown University.

Our reading for today includes Calvin Tomkins’s seminal New Yorker profile of Cage, originally published in 1965 and later included in his book Bride and the Bachelors. It’s not the most academic take on Cage, but I wanted to use it in part to consider it as a product of the period itself: it’s chatty, gossipy, and works to create Tomkins’s persona almost as much as Cage’s. But it also allows us to think about Cage before the longevity of his influence could have been known.

Our primary text, though, is Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, originally published in 1964 and expanded in 1970, with a new introduction by John Lennon (“Hi! My name is John Lennon / I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono”). Grapefruit is primarily a book of instructions, what some performance scholars call “event scores.” They are conceptual pieces that present themselves variously as instructions for music, dance, painting, film, or other artistic performances. Like musical scores, they do not depend on the composer being present to perform them, often blurring the line between artist and audience. (To what degree that’s actually true will be part of our discussion.) A number of these instruction pieces are collected as part of her website; she also regularly tweets instructions that work in the same vein as these early pieces.

Ono met John Cage through her first husband, the Japanese avant-garde composer Ichiyanagi Toshi, who had taken part in Cage’s seminar on Experimental Composition at the New School (along with a host of others who would become important to the Downtown Scene). She made her loft space on Chambers Street available for early experimental performances and loosely affiliated with Fluxus artists, based more or less in SoHo, who also operated under Cage’s influence. (The MoMA blog just last week ran a feature on Yoko’s Fluxus wallpaper featuring an imagine from her famous Film No. 4.)

Here’s a fairly recent clip of Ono reading from her instruction pieces:

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I’ve encountered the claim that John Lennon thought of the lyrics to “Imagine” as akin, generically, to Yoko’s instruction pieces, which I suppose makes it appropriate to wrap up this post with Yoko singing that song:

P.S. If we have time at the end of class today, we’ll take a quick field trip to SoHo to see Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room. This class is turning out to be pretty fun — at least for me!

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Starting my morning over coffee by looking for clips of Frank O’Hara reading his own work. Wound up getting sucked down a rabbit hole of Man Men blogs. (Getting ready to teach O’Hara today has been more fun than getting ready to teach most things. Maybe it’s just that I don’t teach this stuff all that often and so it still feels fresh.)

First, O’Hara on O’Hara:

If you want to start making sense of O’Hara’s poetry, you could do worse than to think about his tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism” (1959).

Two: I found something sweet about the idea of a 15-year-old Jim Carroll dogging O’Hara’s steps one afternoon in an attempt to see everything he was seeing, so as to be able to identify, at some future date, the poem O’Hara was about to go home and write:

And finally, the Mad Men episode. I had forgotten the use of Meditations in an Emergency at the opening of Season 2. Don encounters someone in a bar reading the poems over lunch (heh, heh: lunch poems, get it?). He later winds up sending the volume to an unspecified lover, probably Midge, his bohemian girlfriend from the first season who had finally blown him off. (Too bad, too — I kind of liked the midtown/downtown tension of that relationship more than the similar function of Paul Kinsey’s beard or the pot-smoking punks brought in to help the firm reach a younger demographic.) The actual sequence from the end of the first episode of the second season has been disabled by request. Here’s the voiceover with a fan montage of scenes, which has the over-the-top effect of making the poem even try harder to get at Don’s particularly shifty interiority, but also extends the “emergency” to the rest of the cast:

“Grey” in the poem calls up the idea of “grey flannel suits” quite effectively.

For kicks, here’s where the Man Men blogs took me. One post noted that in the commentary track for the DVD release of the season, the series creator described how accidental his encounter with O’Hara was, and how chance the use of that specific poem (“Mayakovky”) was as well:

Matthew Weiner was at an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York where there were snippets from Frank O’Hara’s poetry on the walls. The poetry he saw that day was from a different O’Hara book, Lunch Poems. Weiner wanted to use this book in the show, but it had not yet been published in 1962. Instead, he chose Meditations in an Emergency, seemingly without having read it. When Weiner had finished the script for “For Those Who Think Young”, he and a co-worker looked at the last poem of the book out of curiosity and found that the last poem, “Mayakovsky”, fit perfectly with what Don was experiencing in the episode. This is how they came to have Don recite the poem as he walked to the mailbox in the last scene. Not the brilliant creative decision I had expected, but an interesting case of serendipity.

The folks at AMC’s house blog, though, have pushed a more academic approach, suggesting just how brilliant the creative decision was. They enlist David Lehman, the collective biographer of O’Hara and the other New York School poets, to tease out the “hidden messages and literary motifs” in the episode. Lehman obliges:

“‘Mayakovsky’ has the phrase ‘the catastrophe of my personality,'” Lehman explains. “It is part of O’Hara’s charm that he uses such self-deprecatory humor, and I think that charm extends to the voiceover. Also, the ending of that poem implies a split in the speaker’s personality: ‘It may be the coldest day of / the year, what does he think of / that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, / perhaps I am myself again.’ Note the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he.’ Does Don ‘feel like’ himself?”

Well read! Though I can’t help but note the sharp difference between O’Hara’s reading style, which camps everything up, and the gravity of Hamm’s delivery. Maybe that’s another point to be made: how the poetry can’t help — perhaps especially because O’Hara died so tragically young — but be more serious than his own delivery suggested.

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