Writing New York

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FILE - Rolling Stone Reports Death of Rock Musician Lou Reed, at 71

So it’s just about three days since Lou Reed died and I admit I’m kind of holding my breath, waiting to see if he rises from the tomb on the morning of the third day. It’s hard to imagine him as anything other than transformed into a more perfect state.

A lot’s been said online and in print in the last couple days by a lot of people, many of whom knew Lou Reed the person or the vast corpus of Lou Reed’s work better than I do. I especially appreciated remembrances by Robert Christgau and Dave Hickey at Spin; our friend Caryn Rose, who came as close as anyone has to tapping into the vein of my own personal connection to Reed’s work; Sacha Frere-Jones. I laughed at Handsome Dick Manitoba’s account of Lou’s last public appearance and then was happy to find footage of the same event. (As a friend pointed out to me, it’s kind of great that pretty much the last lines Lou uttered to an audience through a mic were “Hey!! Shut! Up!”) I was really pleased to find a 1976 Voice essay by James Wolcott, one of my favorite on-the-scene writers from the period. I returned to Rob Sheffield’s appreciation of The Blue Mask, one of my favorite Reed records, on its 30th anniversary. I grieved in community with radio audiences via WFMU (10/27/13 show) and East Village Radio. I thought about the first time I listened to “Rock n Roll” and resonated with that heady mix of New York, rhythm guitar, and radio that really did feel like salvation to a perpetual outsider.

I was really moved when, in the middle of the night after Reed died, a recent student of mine — someone who’d been in my Andy Warhol seminar last semester — sent me a condolence email. I don’t have any stories about accidentally running into Reed on the street or meeting him at somebody’s party, but the music sits with me about as deep as anyone’s. Aside from my own private listening, which spans more than two decades at this point, my intimacy with Reed’s work really deepened in the classroom over the last dozen years. In 2002, the first honors thesis I advised at NYU, by Nicholas Taylor, was on Warhol and the Velvets (find a trimmed-down version of it here), even though my field of specialization was still, at that point, the eighteenth century. Cyrus and I taught The Velvet Underground and Nico for a decade in our Writing New York class, and I got to cover things with thicker strokes in the Downtown Scenes class that spun out of that WNY unit. I’ve read dozens of student papers analyzing Reed’s lyrics, screened documentary footage, and assigned accounts the Velvets’ history, from the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Warhol’s a: a novel and Popism to gossipy biographical accounts by Legs McNeil and Bockris and Malanga to the astute criticism of Ellen Willis and the temper tantrums of Lester Bangs. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the many faces and phases — and hairstyles — Reed went through and had occasion to consider his vast influence. Imagine! Without Reed (well, and Warhol, too) we wouldn’t have had David Bowie’s entire 70s corpus. It just wouldn’t have happened the same way. And sure, Reed owed an awful lot to Dylan, and to Jackie Curtis too, for that matter, but that influence folded back upon itself, the same way the Stones later said they were influenced by the Velvets. Once I was even moved to write a monologue in the voice of Rachel, Lou’s longtime lover, a former Club 82 drag queen whose story I became fascinated with while working on my Television book.

One of the big challenges to teaching The Velvet Underground and Nico is getting students to hear what’s radical about it. After all, most of what we call punk, post-punk, college rock, alternative, or indie is so indebted to the Velvets — and so many of those sounds have been so thoroughly disseminated throughout global pop culture by this point — that it’s sometimes hard to peel back those layers of influence and listen to the record fresh. To illustrate my point that the Velvets weren’t mainstream — and still aren’t by many standards — I used to tell a story in lecture about the days when I would write in a bar at the South Street Seaport, just before the Fulton Fish Market closed. The fish guys would come in on Friday mornings when their shifts ended for the week and start ordering beers around 8 am. They’d rhapsodize about the olden days, when their pops worked the market, and they’d request an awful lot of Sinatra from the bartender, who usually indulged. One morning she was playing the Velvets’ first record instead, and part way through “Black Angel’s Death Song” one of them finally had had enough. “What is this shit?” he shouted. The bartender replied, maybe a little defensively: “It’s the Velvet Underground. You don’t know them? This is classic rock!” To which the fish guy replied: “The Velvet Underground isn’t classic rock! It’s East Village junkie music! And it should stay in the East Village!”

I’ve been slightly horrified by the onslaught of Lou Reed listicles over the last couple days, as if any one list could identify his twenty best songs or snippets from his lyrics. The thing I’ve noticed, though, is that aside from obligatory inclusion of “Satellite of Love,” “Walk On the Wild Side,” “Coney Island Baby,” and “Street Hassle,” any consensus in these lists breaks down. It’s clear which writers haven’t listened to anything later than New York (1989) and which know the Velvets much better than even the 70s solo records. There’s hardly any mention of the “New York Trilogy” — New York, Songs for Drella (1990), and Magic and Loss (1992) — as such. (I have to admit my own knowledge of Reed’s music tapers off after Drella, and one of the pleasures of the last few days has been listening to some of the later records: Magic and Loss, especially, but also Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) and Ecstasy (2000), which is the record Christgau says he’d been playing since he heard Lou was ailing late last week.) What’s clear about all this is that we’re dealing with one of the most prolific artists of the last 50 years, someone whose output, musically and lyrically, competes with the likes of Irving Berlin or even Dylan. We simply won’t have a handle on it or its impact for a long, long time. So many of these songs are songs that could be — and should be — kept a live for a long, long time, not just in Reed’s recordings, but in other people’s voices as well.

What follows isn’t a listicle, I promise. It’s just a collection of clips I’ve enjoyed the most over the last couple days, in roughly chronological order. Some I’d seen before, many times. Some were new to me. Do you have favorites that aren’t here? Lemme know in the comments.

Lou Reed, “Your Love,” 1962 demo recorded while he was a Syracuse student.

Warhol’s 1966 film, The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound.

The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On?” Live, 1969, set to a montage of Warhol footage.

lou reed paris 72

Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico in Paris, 1972. Reed sings “Berlin” a few minutes in. (Embedding disabled on YouTube) ht Tim Wager

“Sweet Jane,” live in Paris, 1974.

“Street Hassle,” 1978, set to Warhol film, including Lou’s Screen Test.

“Coney Island Baby” and “White Light/White Heat,” with Robert Quine, in New Jersey, 1984.

The tail end of the video for “I Love You Suzanne,” also 1984, in which Mr. Reed really cuts the rug. ht Michael Daddino and Caryn Rose.

Patti Smith inducts the Velvets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996.

Lou Reed and John Cale, performing “Small Town,” from Songs for Drella.

“Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” from Magic and Loss, 1992. ht Jody Rosen

“Sweet Jane,” from the closing credits of Berlin, dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007.


One of the great delights of the decade Cyrus and I spent teaching our Writing New York class was the repeated opportunity to screen clips from Ric Burns’s monumental New York: A Documentary Film. Without a doubt, the highlight of that film is — for me, at least — the series of appearances by the philosopher and social critic Marshall Berman. The interview was clearly done in one long sitting, and over the course of it Berman begins to tire, to slouch a little, to nod his grizzled head to one side, almost coming to rest on his shoulder. And then, in a flash, he’ll animate, lean forward, offer a stinging indictment of Robert Moses or wax poetic about the fact that New York offers the possibility of living car-free. In the clip above he concludes his commentary on the lasting devastation of Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway with a lecturette on the birth of subway graffiti and hip hop among ruins in the South Bronx. “We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined,” Berman says, offering the story as a parable of the ways in which urban life can foster thrillingly creative moments even among the destructive forces of modernity.

New York lost one of its intellectual giants yesterday, when Berman passed away, and this morning I’m treasuring all the more the chances we had not simply to learn from him and to let him teach our students, but also to collaborate with him over the last few years, to count him a partner in our projects on the city’s literary and cultural history. From the first, when we taught Ginsberg’s Howl in our course, we structured the lectures using Burns’s treatment of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and the urban renewal movement at mid-century. Burns relies in those segments on the story Berman tells in the final chapters of his classic text All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). After a few years of listening to Berman sum up this historical episode in Burns’s film, we began assigning the chapters from Solid along with Ginsberg’s poem. Berman’s triangulation of Moses-Jacobs-Ginsberg isn’t the only way to read Howl, of course, but it became a very compelling reading for us and, I think, for our students.

Imagine my delight one day in 2007, then, when I found myself in line at Tekserve, in Chelsea, behind Berman, who was there with his son in an attempt to diagnose a damaged laptop. (I’m pretty sure the kid said he’d whacked it for running too slowly.) I wanted to introduce myself, but instead became a fly on the wall as I observed one of my heroes engaged in parenting. I blogged about it later, not imagining I’d ever get to know him personally. Berman was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Marx brothers above the text: “Why yes, I am a Marxist,” or something like that. He and his son were engaged in a conversation about ecology:

“I don’t get it,” the kid said. He seemed genuinely thoughtful, a bit abashed for his violence toward the pokey laptop, and not at all aware that his pop was one of the smartest people on earth. “There’s a lot of open space on the planet that doesn’t get used at all,” the kid said. “Why don’t people just spread out?” Berman gave a thumbnail overview of the forces behind early urbanization and explained that it was a good thing some land was yet unused. “Imagine a society where global warming has made living in some cities impossible,” he said. “People may have to return to farming.” Besides, he explained, not all of the empty space was amenable to habitation or agriculture. Deserts, for instance would have to be irrigated, “and irrigation is expensive,” he said. “Fantastically expensive. Spec-TAC-ularly expensive.” The conversation turned to the history of L.A. right about the time my number was called.

When I finally met him a couple years later, I had trouble toning down my fan-boy excitement. It turns out his son and my daughter ended up attending the same high school on the Upper West Side. I realized this at a parent meeting for a Paris study abroad trip during my daughter’s freshman year. Catching sight of Berman across the crowded high school library, I passed my daughter a note, asking if any of her classmates had the last name Berman. “Yeah, Danny,” she wrote back. I passed another note: “His dad is one of my great intellectual heroes!” She’s never let me live that down. A few weeks later at the airport, putting our kids on a plane to France, I finally had a chance to introduce myself. He invited us to ride back into the city with him and his wife (“Cab? No, we’re subway people”) and we talked with him about his own first trip to Paris, by steamer, when he was 20. It changed his life, he said.

Berman was delighted that we taught his material and never failed to offer suggestions for things we should include in our histories of New York lit. “You need a chapter on mothers and playgrounds,” he said once. “It’s one of the most overlooked scenes of cultural life in the city. Read Grace Paley.” When we hosted our Lost New York conference in 2009, he agreed to keynote it in conversation with David Freeland. We’d originally invited David Byrne as well, and though he couldn’t make it, his publicist wondered if Marshall would appear with Byrne at a Barnes and Noble reading instead. “Not if it means just showing up as a fan,” Marshall said. “Has he read my books?” During the planning of that conference I realized that Berman preferred phone to email, but I still loved the way he signed his emails with an exuberant “Shalom!” When I last saw him, at a conference on Modernist Manhattan in early 2012, he buzzed with excitement when he talked about the underground circulation in Iran of an unauthorized Farsi translation of All That Is Solid. (He also wrote about this in a new 2010 Afterword to the book.)

What I appreciate most about Berman’s thinking is his ability to remain optimistic about modernity even as he theorizes its devastating effects. Skyscrapers might remove community from the street, I heard him say once, but people love to live in skyscrapers for the views. Mass culture, for Berman, wasn’t something to bemoan, but to celebrate, not only for its “global reach,” but for its potential to convey “emotional depth and power.” (That quote from his stunning reading of the Kol Nidre sequence in The Jazz Singer.) In support of this optimism, Post-War New York again serves him as a parable. The transformations under Robert Moses in the 1950s and 1960s, he writes, created a new New York not necessarily hospitable to writers and artists. Some retreated to the universities. Some left the city. Some holed up in new countercultural enclaves downtown: SoHo and the East Village, which would begin to foster new art scenes during the years in which Berman wrote Solid. He refers to the split between the city and its artists as a “split between the modern spirit and a modernized environment.” For him, the opportunity to be modern always mitigated the darker forces modernity carried in its train. That’s not the only lesson I hope I’ve learned from him over the years, but it’s an important one. Again from All That Is Solid:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.

… To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Indeed. Our thoughts are with your family, Marshall. Thanks for sharing part of your journey with us.


coleToday’s installment in our discussion of Teju Cole’s novel comes from guest blogger Martha Nadell, who teaches at Brooklyn College and is at work on a literary history of Brooklyn. The author of a book on image and text in early twentieth-century African American culture, she also wrote the chapter “Writing Brooklyn” in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York.

Less than two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, genre-bending novelist and Brooklyn resident Jonathan Lethem published “9 Failures of the Imagination” in The New York Times Magazine. Lethem recalled the hours and days after September 11, describing how he moved among the homes of his friends and visited and revisited the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which offered him a close vista on the “raw, unmediated plume, now black, now white, now gray, now black again.” Lethem found himself wondering, just days later, if he were willing to write the “unimaginable fact” of the fall of the Twin Towers: “Can I bear to narrate this into normality, 40 hours after they crumbled and fell? To craft a story: and then, and then, and then? Will the words I’m spilling here seem fatuous or hysterical or naïve by the time they’re read?” Lethem was, in all probability, one of the first writers to speculate about the possibility and nature of literary responses to 9/11, what many have described as a world-altering event.

Despite Norman Mailer’s admonishment to Jay McInerney – to wait ten years “to make sense of it” – Lethem and a host of other writers addressed, some directly and others even more obliquely, the events and aftermath of 9/11. The first decade following the event saw the publication of a spate of novels that scholars have used as evidence of post-9/11 genre: Art Speigelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (2005), Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006), Don Delillo’s Falling Man (2007), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005), John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland (2008), Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil (2010), among others.

Scholars, of course, had to get in on the act and have argued about the characteristics of post-9/11 literature (if they believe it exists at all), its ethical and political responsibilities, its formal innovations, or lack thereof. They have called attention to repeated tropes and common themes: depictions of falling or obvious references to the falling man depicted in Richard Drew’s harrowing photographs; the trauma of familial, domestic, and national loss; connections with other national and international traumas. Richard Gray argues that American literature post 9/11 has failed to address adequately the meaning of September 11, because it couches the unfamiliar and traumatic in familiar personal stories and literary forms. Michael Rothberg follows Gray, arguing that American writers are unable to deal with the complexity of global political discourse. Both insist that American literature has not yet been able to deal with what Catherine Morley calls “the figure of the Other” — a problem, given (as Gray writes) that the US has been shaped as much by its multiculturalism and immigration as by 9/11 itself.

Gray and Rothberg have in mind a particular idea of what literature should do – to engage in political and historical discourse on a global scale, to imagine not just the trauma on the domestic level, among families and communities split apart, but to present accounts of the US and its power in the context of world affairs. Literature, in their view, should be a means to address politics and power and should move beyond the discourse of trauma that emerged in many of the novels published in the years immediately following September 11. For Gray, O’Neill’s Netherland is a candidate for the successful 9/11 novel. In its intertwining of the stories of two immigrants – a Dutch banker and a Trinidadian entrepreneur cum gangster – and their experience of cricket in New York, Netherland offers the possibility of a cosmopolitan vision of America. Rothberg, however, doesn’t want to remain on US soil. He worries that novels focused on immigrants within the US run the risk of maintaining national boundaries. He calls for a post-9/11 literature that moves abroad and interrogates what the meaning of the US not only for its citizens but also for others outside of its national borders.

What would these scholars make of Teju Cole’s Open City?

Early in Open City, Julius finds himself in an alley – “not one’s preferred route to any destination … all brick walls and shut-up doors.”  It seems to deny entry, movement, the legibility that De Certeau’s view from 110th floor of the World Trade Center offers. But then the alley gives way to a view of “a great black building,” the distant tower swathed in black netting, and then to a vast, empty space that was “the ruins of the World Trade Center.”  Julius begins to reflect on the site — “a metonym of its disaster” – but then finds himself in one of the conversations that punctuate his walking in New York and abroad. When he returns to his walk, he reflects on the other city walkers he sees, the memorial to fallen police officers, the individuals who pedal on their stationary bikes as they  look out from a gym onto the 9/11 construction site. In his view of the cityscape and its visitors and inhabitants, he reflects on the historical persistence of atrocity and on the creative destruction that marked the construction of the World Trade Center, thereby resisting any possible sense of historical or national exceptionalism.

But this is just a brief moment in Cole’s novel, which wanders through space, time, and voice. Julius does not simply encounter or engage with others: Faroq, Professor Saito, Dr. Maillotte, etc. The novel inhabits the multiple voices and narratives of Julius as well as these individuals. It allows them to comment on New York, the US, and the world both in the post 9/11 era and before, in ways that are both political and deeply personal. The novel, then, fulfills Rothberg’s call for “a centrifugal mapping that charts the outward movement of American power.”  And yet it does more than that. In its migrations through history and memory, it offers multiple “cognitive maps” that de-center the politics and power of the contemporary US. Consider this passage, which reflects on the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan:

The squabble about the construction of the monument did not interest me. There was certainly no chance that six acres of prime real estate in lower Manhattan would be razed and rededicated as holy ground. What I was steeped in, on that warm morning, was the echo across centuries, of slavery in New York. At the Negro Burial Ground, as it was then known, and others like it on the eastern seaboard, excavated bodies bore traces of suffering: blunt trauma, grievous bodily harm. … How difficult it was, from the point of view of the twenty-first century, to fully believe that these people, with the difficult lives they were forced to live, were truly people, complex in all their dimensions as we are, fond of pleasures, shy of suffering, attached to their families. (221)

Cole’s novel faces the anxiety of the post 9/11 era, often emerging in Julius’s experiences of being read, most often racially, as he walks the city.  But, as Julius reads the city, its inhabitants, and its history, the novel does something else; it engages with difference on a fundamental level.  While it reckons with the complexities of power, nations, and atrocity, as Gray and Rothberg would have it, Open City also insists on interrogating individuals, their histories and memories, their rich or vexed emotions, always in their idiosyncratic contexts.

In an interview, Cole commented :

This is a book set five years after 9/11. There’s a public response to 9/11 that’s the most well-known, and for me the most agitating being that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. That was a response, a significant part of it. There was an invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion of Iraq, and enhanced security in all parts of public life. Those were the three main responses. But there was something else going on, especially for those of us who were in New York before, during, and after the attacks on the Twin Towers.

It’s the “something else going on” that makes Cole’s novel a post-9/11 novel of a different and new sort.

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0318_tejucoleToday’s installment in our book club discussion comes from long-time friend-of-the-blog Sunny Stalter, an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University. Her research examines technology in American literature and culture. Her book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, will be published by the University of Massachusetts this fall. Follow her on Twitter: @slstalter.

*Spoiler alert*: those who have not read Open City should be warned that I discuss its one major plot twist throughout this post.

Cultural historians of the city like to talk about the split between different spatial perspectives taken by recorders of urban life: David L. Pike distinguishes the “view from above” and the “view from below”; John Kasson sees writers and artists in nineteenth-century New York either taking a “bird’s-eye view” or a “mole’s eye view.” (Nineteenth-century New Yorkers thought about this division in another way, looking at New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.) But whatever you call it, this difference in perspective marks a difference in attitude: you’re either removed from the space you’re observing and thus detached, or you’re in the thick of things, up close and, often, implicated in what you’re observing. For the view from above, think about Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Pictorialist photograph The Octopus, with its godlike perspective of Madison Square Park. My favorite view from below can be seen in Walker Evans’s magisterial book of portraits, Many Are Called, where subway riders are framed singly or in pairs, shot by a man who sat across with them with a camera hidden in his coat. But the view from below need not be literally underground: the street-level observations of the flâneur and the urban sketch artist both qualify. Open City interests me because it moves so fluidly between the personal and the panoramic.

This idea of the view from above as detached, godlike, and (faux-)authoritative has helped me understand the one issue that most critics have found problematic in this otherwise much-lauded book: Moji’s revelation that when she and Julius were teenagers at a party, he raped her. Notably, the narrative does not use that word to describe what happened. Russian Army soldiers raped women during World War II including, presumably, Julius’s maternal grandmother. His own actions are described as “sexual abuse” and “forc[ing] himself” on Moji. She has told him everything that she remembers about this event and its aftermath while both of them watch the sun rise on the Hudson. After she has finished, she continues to stare in silence. Their scene does not read as a traumatic revelation from the outside, however: “Anyone who has come out onto the porch at that moment could not have imagined that we were doing anything other than enjoying the play of light on the river.” What looks like an abstract, aestheticizing gaze is instead a mute attempt to process trauma.

Or at least it is on Moji’s part. Julius is thinking high-flown thoughts worthy of his view, thoughts that only obliquely acknowledge the pain in front of him. We hear about a story he’d read in Albert Camus’s journals where Friedrich Nietzsche imitated the actions of ancient Roman, who thrust one hand into a fire to display his fearlessness. In Camus’s version, Nietzsche grabs a coal and burns himself proving the point to his friends, scarring his hand permanently. This is not the real story, though, as Julius later finds out: young Friedrich used matches, and an older student quickly knocked them off his hand. Julius understands the world through the lens of high culture, and in this moment we can see him thinking about the fallibility of memory and the way some painful things leave a permanent trace and others don’t.  What would have been elegant contemplation elsewhere in the book, however, seems particularly cold here.

Reviewers don’t like this plot point: at least two call it a misstep, and one ignores it altogether. They do so, I think, because they’ve enjoyed Julius’s company, his knowledgeable voice, even his occasionally wry detachment. But it’s a useful reminder of some of the major critiques that have been visited upon the flâneur figure in the past, especially his privilege to roam where women could not and to gaze at his surroundings in ways that women could not.

The last chapter finds Julius looking out over the Bowery from the office where he’s gone into private practice with a fellow psychiatrist. He thinks about bird migrations, which he watched from his apartment window in the novel’s first chapter. In the pages that follow, we see lots of scenes that ironically reverse the sense of authority and detachment usually ascribed to the view from above. The most literal comes when Julius attends a Mahler concert. Exiting from his fourth-floor balcony seat, he accidentally leaves Carnegie Hall through a fire door and finds himself outside on the scaffolding of the building as rain beats down. Here, the view from above is a vertiginous one; it even transforms into a view from below when he notices how many stars are visible above him.

After the concert, he takes the subway downtown to 23rd street, walks to Chelsea Piers, and joins a cruise that’s going to the Statue of Liberty. The tour guide tells them, or the narrator tells us, “The crown of the statue has remained close since late 2001, and even those visitors who come close to it are confined to looking upward at the statue; no one is permitted to climb up the 354 narrow steps and look out into the bay from the windows in the crown.” The vantage point that gives you that kind of view is too great a security risk. Michel de Certeau’s wonderful essay “Walking in the City” discusses that privileged view that one experienced from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, a view that “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.” For all of the clarifying that Julius does in his lovely, meditative voice, some things about the city remain opaque and unfixed.

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Teju Cole reads from Open City and discusses urban experience at Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2012.

More book club discussion from Cyrus on Friday.

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coleFrom its first sentence I had a hunch that Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) would have been a perfect fit for the Writing New York syllabus Cyrus and I tinkered with for almost a decade, and when we eventually take up the course again — Inshalla — I take very seriously the possibility of using this novel to close the semester. Our final text has varied over time: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, most often, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The final emphasis on sunshine and shadow, utopia or dystopia, varies depending on how we end, but Kushner’s plays, more than any thing else we teach, have seemed to wrap up some big narratives that run through our course: the relationship between performance/theater and urban life; the legacies of immigration; the real-world force of imaginative acts (especially ways of imagining the city itself); the meanings and uses of history; and issues of identity (consent v. descent), assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. Something about Open City, from the start, promised to take up most of these issues but also others: the impact of 9/11; New York as global city; and — another favorite trope in New York and other urban writing — the appeals of flânerie.

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place to set out into the city,” the book begins. James Wood suggests Sebald as Cole’s model here, an influence Cole himself isn’t shy about, although he’s also given nods to Calvino. But the first thing I thought about as I tried to ease myself into a relationship with Cole’s narrator, Julius, was Rousseau’s posthumous Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), which like Open City serves as a meditation on psychology and memory as much as it dwells on political theory or current events. Rousseau described his book, a sort of coda to his Confessions, as “a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint.” Rousseau was more obsessed with his public reputation than Julius appears to be, perhaps, but the digressive character of both books, which seek to recreate thought processes and external stimuli, come off feeling like the books’ production processes actually form a significant portion of their contents. If Open City feels digressive it’s because it’s about digression, as a habit of mind, an educational program, a psychological defense.

Julius never reveals too much about the means by which he acquires knowledge about the city, or art, or music, with the exceptions of a quick nod to Internet radio, his current book list, and some descriptions of his formal education, including his friendship with a former teacher. But it feels like Julius’s habits must be somewhat in harmony with Cole’s own writing process. (That said, I don’t really feel the need to assume too much about Julius is autobiographical. I like Cole’s comments, on the misguided conflation of Julius/Cole, from this interview, in which he acknowledges a passion for Mahler he shares with his character: “I could not write about Mahler in that way if I did not have an interest in Mahler. Julius probably knows more about Mahler than I do (laughs). But he knows a lot less about jazz and hip hop than I do. So he’s not me.”)

If the novel’s episodic structure is a significant component of its content, this suggests a lot about the book’s take on issues of temporality and history. Julius’s thoughts — his stimulation to new knowledge about the place he inhabits, his recall of episodes from the past — depend as much on his “aimless wandering” as anything else. But perhaps we should speculate about a gap between Julius’s habits and Cole’s. Julius simply recalls things: he encounters runners from the New York Marathon while walking near the Park and remembers an anecdote about “Phidippides’ collapse,” the instant death of the first marathoner. He comments in detail on the classical music playing at a Tower Records fire sale. Are these details Cole just had in his arsenal? Or, more likely, is his own research underwriting Julius’s apparently brilliant marshaling of dozens of historical details? It’s not hard to imagine early versions of some of these sketches being drafted on the fly, out and about, in a writer’s notebook, then fleshed out with aid of research later. You walk, you think, you notice things. You probably take notes on street names, peculiar buildings, historical details recorded on plaques here and there, odd architectural details that suggest the past lives of some buildings, the CD being played in a store you wander into, the details of Alexander Hamilton’s epitaph, and then you do a bunch of Googling when you get home to deepen your understanding of where you’ve been and what those places had been and seen before you got there. Reminds me a little of our friend David Freeland‘s approach in Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.

It’s this obsession with New York’s history and the curiosity — and expertise — of the flâneur that appeals most to me about Julius. How could it not, when a walk near Trinity Church almost inevitably winds up with the magnetic pull to the waterfront and thoughts on Melville? We’re to assume that Julius, or Cole, or both, perhaps, has become a New Yorker by way of this relentless curiosity about the city’s past, about the island’s prior occupants, and through a whole lot of reading. And yet Julius’s curiosity also leads him to take in the stories of other current inhabitants, including the histories that brought them here, which often have to do with warfare or conflict on other parts of the globe. Julius has a thing for New York history, but the boundaries of that history for him are extraordinarily capacious.

One of my favorite passages in the book — the one that really sold me on the whole thing — comes fairly early. It offers an extreme take on the kind of stuff I’m talking about here, historical obsessions and personal identity and whatnot. But it also suggests something beyond Google-gained insights about surroundings. It’s one of the weirdest and, to me at least, most beautiful episodes in the novel. The fifth chapter begins with a moving narrative of a Liberian prisoner, held indefinitely in a Queens prison for attempting to enter the country with a false passport. (“The lawyer they assigned to me said I might have had a chance before 9/11.” And later: “I don’t want to go back anywhere, he said. I want to stay in this country, I want to be in America and work.”) This episode, which has received a fair amount of attention from critics, is followed by one less examined but equally moving: Julius’s encounter with a “a Haitian man in the underground catacombs of Penn Station” who offers to shine Julius’s shoes. In spite of his antipathy to the traditional shoe-shiner’s set-up — the “elevated chairs in the shops and hav[ing] someone kneel before me” — Julius goes ahead and makes himself a customer anyway on the old man’s insistence.

What happens next is rather extraordinary, even in a book that consists almost entirely of reverie. As the man begins to tell Julius his story, betraying the trace of a Caribbean French accent, we gradually get the sense that he didn’t flee Haiti in the twentieth century at all, but in the 1790s. He is, according to his own account, a refugee from the Haitian Revolution, a survivor of New York’s nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemics, a resident of the racially mixed neighborhoods around the Five Points, a freeman who purchased his sister’s freedom before purchasing his own, the proprietor of a school for free blacks. All of this passes us by almost imperceptibly as Julius narrates. I had to go back and read the man’s story twice, since nothing in the novel to that point — and nothing, really, in what comes after, either — brushes this close to magical realism. Julius hardly seems to notice anything odd with the man’s story. He lets the man finish the shine, heads outside, tightens his scarf against the cold, and notices various signs of the war in Iraq. If he worried he’d been time-traveling, he doesn’t betray it. Instead, he continues to imagine he’s stumbled into the New York of the Civil War Draft Riots. He narrates rather matter-of-factly:

That afternoon, during which I flitted in and out of myself, when time became elastic and voices cut out of the past into the present, the heart of the city was gripped by what seemed to be a commotion from an earlier time. I feared being caught up in what, it seemed to me, were draft riots. The people I saw were all men, hurrying along under leafless trees, sidestepping the fallen police barrier near me, and others, farther away. There was some kind of scuffle two hundred yards down the street, again strangely noiseless, and a huddled knot of men opened up to reveal two brawlers being separated and pulled away from their fight. What I saw next gave me a fright: in the farther distance, beyond the listless crowd, the body of a lynched man dangled from a tree. The figure was slender, dressed from head to toe in black, reflecting no light.

Unlike his encounter with the bootblack, this situation resolves itself, rationally, “into a less ominous thing: dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold, twirling in the wind.” But the temporal rip that allowed Julius to hear the voice of a past citizen, to listen to a story — akin to the Liberian prisoner’s — that’s too easily forgotten, provides us with a sense of how history works for Cole. His city is a palimpsest, as commentators on the novel have repeatedly pointed out. But it’s up to us — our obligation, even — to do the hard work of reading through those layers.

Anyone else have favorite/key moments so far?



Looking for one last, fantastic read before summer ends? This year I’ve been pitching Teju Cole’s 2011 award-winning novel Open City to anyone who’ll listen. It’s brief but still feels bursting with detailed observation, beautifully written, and as important a novel I’ve read about global politics and local identity in a long, long time. Set in New York in the middle of the last decade, the book ambles through city streets — and a quick trip to Brussels — with its narrator, Julius, a Nigerian-born medical student studying at Columbia. The novel’s sensibilities are cosmopolitan — in Appiah’s sense of the term — and so Julius’s flânerie tends to take him to the places where cultures collide, combine, and create something new. But the book is also deeply interested in the idea of history: how the spaces around us were produced, how they produce us, and how we interact, often unknowingly, with their past inhabitants.

In short, it’s a book Cyrus and I would be likely to use in the final weeks of our Writing New York course. The class is still on hiatus while we teach in Abu Dhabi, but we’re committed to blogging again this fall, so hold us to it. Starting next week, we’ll be running several posts on the book. If you’ve read it — or if you grab it in time for a plane or the beach this week — we’d love to hear your thoughts.

New Yorker review here; great 3AM Magazine interview here; and a PBS Art Beat conversation here. (We nabbed their graphic, above.) Also highly recommended: Teju Cole on Twitter. Here’s a blurb he filmed for Leonard Lopate’s club last year:

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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In our discussion of Whitman earlier this term, we talked about the way in which Ralph Waldo Emerson served as an inspiration and mentor for the young poet in the years before and just after the publication of Leaves of Grass. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman is reputed to have said, “and Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Abraham Cahan

Abraham Cahan also had a mentor: the novelist William Dean Howells. Cahan  had come to the United States in 1881 in order to avoid being arrested as a revolutionary in the aftermath of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. A dedicated socialist, Cahan sought to interpret U.S. culture to his fellow immigrants. He had become a fan of Howell’s writing during the 1880s, when Howells was writing a series of novels that addressed the problems of class difference and poverty; in 1889, Cahan delivered a lecture on “Realism” before the New York Labor Lyceum, in which he presented Tolstoy and Howells as practitioners of realism in literature.

Cahan was a “walking delegate,” a union representative seeking to organize sweat-shop workers, and Howells sought him out as part of his research for his Utopian novel A Traveler from Altruria (1892-93). Howells encouraged Cahan to write fiction and sought to help him have his first novel, Yekl, published. Howells’s own publisher rejected the book, saying that “the life of an East-Side Jew wouldn’t interest the American reader.”

One editor wrote to Howells that “our readers want to have a novel about richly-dressed cavaliers and women, about love which begins in the fields while they are playing golf. How can a novel about a Jewish immigrant, a blacksmith who became a tailor here, and whose wife is ignorant interest them?” Cahan later recalled in his autobiography that Howells comforted him by saying that “even though he had the biggest name, cheap trashy novels sold better than Howells’s best works was discouraged, and reviews of his writings showed that the critics had a quite primitive view of literature.” Cahan translated Yekl into Yiddish, and it was published in 1895 in the Arbeiter Zeitung. Howells made a final attempt, submitting the manuscript to D. Appleton, who accepted it. Yekl was published during the summer of 1896, and Howells reviewed it for the New York World.

William Dean Howells

Howells’s review was titled “New York Low Life in Fiction” and paired Cahan’s novel with Stephen Crane’s latest novel, George’s Mother. Printed between the byline and the text was a special sub-headline: “The Great Novelist Hails Abraham Cahan, the Author of ‘Yekl,’ as a New Star of Realism, and Says that He and Stephen Crane Have Drawn the Truest Pictures of East Side Life.” Howells praises Cahan as “a writer of foreign birth who will do honor to American letters, as Boyesen did,” but his review replicates the distinction between “Americans” and Jews that ran through the various editorial rejection letters that Cahan had received. Cahan is a “Russian,” and because “romanticism is not considered literature in Russia, his story is, of course, intensely realistic” just as Crane’s are. Yet, although “the artistic principle which moves both writers is the same,” Howells implies that Cahan’s writing is more poweful because “the picturesque, outlandish material with which Mr. Cahan deals makes a stronger appeal to the reader’s fancy.” Howells adds, “He has more humor than the American, too, whose spare laughter is apt to be grim, while the Russian cannot hide the relish of the comic incidents of his story.” Implicit in Howell’s review is a kind of cultural essentialism, in which many of Cahan’s strengths as a writer are the result of “the far and rich perceptions of his Hebraic race”; Cahan’s English is “marvelous” because it has the “simplicity and purity” of “a man born to write Russian.”

Howell’s praised Cahan’s next book, The Imported Bridgegroom and Other Stories (1898), equally enthusiastically, and he begins his review by asserting that Cahan is a regionalist writer:

Abraham Cahan’s last book, bears the same topographical relation to the East Side of New York that Miss Wilkins’ bears to New England, or Miss Nicholas’ to Indiana, or Miss Bell’s to the South, or Mr. Gray’s to Western New York. No American fiction of the year merits recognition more than this Russian’s stories of Yiddish life, which are so entirely of our time and place, and so foreign to our race and civilization.

Once again, Cahan’s subject is represented as un-American, and much of its interest lies precisely in the fact that it is un-American, that it is “so foreign to our race and civilization.” Like Chesnutt with his conjure stories, Cahan is being praised for treating an “outlandish” subject realistically. The comparison to regionalist writers, who are typically bringing stories about provincial life to the attention of a metropolitan audience, suggests that there is something provincial about the Lower East Side, even though it lies in the heart of one of the oldest districts of the metropolis. Indeed, Howells concludes the review by wondering whether Cahan will ever tackle a truly American subject: “It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Cahan will pass beyond his present environment out into the larger American world , or will master our life as he has mastered our language.”

Cahan would write only one more literary fiction in English, his 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which tells the story of the Americanization of a Jewish businessman and was inspired by Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884). Howells called the book an “artistic triumph,” though privately he felt that the book was “too sensual.”

Previously: On Yekl and baseball

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