Writing New York

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Three endings to the same story. First, the ending to William Wyler’s film The Heiress, adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from their own 1947 stage adaptation of James’s 1880 novel. Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her portrayal of Catherine Sloper, the homely daughter of an overprotective father, played by Ralph Richardson. (As in several other categories, The Heiress‘s supporting actor nomination for Richardson lost out to All the King’s Men. Montgomery Clift, for what it’s worth, wasn’t nominated for Best Actor.)

Here’s another take, from the 1997 adaptation of Washington Square directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Chaplin. Just as Clift was, Chaplin seems too handsome in the final scene: I want to see Morris fat and bald. I don’t remember much else about this adaptation — it’s been years since I’ve seen it — except for my impression that it seemed to get the provincialism of 1850s Washington Square North dead on. The parties seemed so small town. In any case, its final scene:

And here’s how the novel ends:

“You treated me badly,” said Catherine.

“Not if you think of it rightly. You had your quiet life with your father–which was just what I could not make up my mind to rob you of.”

“Yes; I had that.”

Morris felt it to be a considerable damage to his cause that he could not add that she had had something more besides; for it is needless to say that he had learnt the contents of Dr. Sloper’s will. He was nevertheless not at a loss. “There are worse fates than that!” he exclaimed, with expression; and he might have been supposed to refer to his own unprotected situation. Then he added, with a deeper tenderness, “Catherine, have you never forgiven me?”

“I forgave you years ago, but it is useless for us to attempt to be friends.”

“Not if we forget the past. We have still a future, thank God!”

“I can’t forget–I don’t forget,” said Catherine. “You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.” And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her this way, “I can’t begin again–I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life. I never expected to see you here.”

“Ah, you are angry!” cried Morris, who wished immensely that he could extort some flash of passion from her mildness. In that case he might hope.

“No, I am not angry. Anger does not last, that way, for years. But there are other things. Impressions last, when they have been strong. But I can’t talk.”

Morris stood stroking his beard, with a clouded eye. “Why have you never married?” he asked abruptly. “You have had opportunities.”

“I didn’t wish to marry.”

“Yes, you are rich, you are free; you had nothing to gain.”

“I had nothing to gain,” said Catherine.

Morris looked vaguely round him, and gave a deep sigh. “Well, I was in hopes that we might still have been friends.”

“I meant to tell you, by my aunt, in answer to your message–if you had waited for an answer–that it was unnecessary for you to come in that hope.”

“Good-bye, then,” said Morris. “Excuse my indiscretion.”

He bowed, and she turned away–standing there, averted, with her eyes on the ground, for some moments after she had heard him close the door of the room.

In the hall he found Mrs. Penniman, fluttered and eager; she appeared to have been hovering there under the irreconcilable promptings of her curiosity and her dignity.

“That was a precious plan of yours!” said Morris, clapping on his hat.

“Is she so hard?” asked Mrs. Penniman.

“She doesn’t care a button for me–with her confounded little dry manner.”

“Was it very dry?” pursued Mrs. Penniman, with solicitude.

Morris took no notice of her question; he stood musing an instant, with his hat on. “But why the deuce, then, would she never marry?”

“Yes–why indeed?” sighed Mrs. Penniman. And then, as if from a sense of the inadequacy of this explanation, “But you will not despair–you will come back?”

“Come back? Damnation!” And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.

Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy work, had seated herself with it again–for life, as it were.

I plan to write a little bit about that last line for Wednesday. In the meantime, what do you make of the contrasts between these wrap-ups? Which one do you prefer?

Previously on PWHNY.

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The first time that I lectured on Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in Writing New York, I worked from the Bedford Cultural Edition, despite the fact that we’d elected to order a cheaper Signet paperback edition for the students to use.

I wanted to show the students how Crane made use of dialect in the novella, and I wanted to highlight the tension between the novel’s “naturalism” and Crane’s fanciful, almost expressionist, use of color imagery.

I began talking about the first paragraph, as it appears in the Bedford edition:

A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him.

His infantile countenance was livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery of great, crimson oaths.

“Run, Jimmie, run! Dey’ll get yehs,” screamed a retreating Rum Alley child.

“Naw,” responded Jimmie with a valiant roar, “dese micks can’t make me run.”

Howls of renewed wrath went up from Devil’s Row throats. Tattered gamins on the right made a furious assault on the gravel heap. On their small, convulsed faces there shone the grins of true assassins. As they charged, they threw stones and cursed in shrill chorus.

The little champion of Rum Alley stumbled precipitately down the other side. His coat had been torn to shreds in a scuffle, and his hat was gone. He had bruises on twenty parts of his body, and blood was dripping from a cut in his head. His wan features wore a look of a tiny, insane demon.

On the ground, children from Devil’s Row closed in on their antagonist. He crooked his left arm defensively about his head and fought with cursing fury. The little boys ran to and fro, dodging, hurling stones and swearing in barbaric trebles.

From a window of an apartment house that upreared its form from amid squat, ignorant stables, there leaned a curious woman. Some laborers, unloading a scow at a dock at the river, paused for a moment and regarded the fight. The engineer of a passive tugboat hung lazily to a railing and watched. Over on the Island, a worm of yellow convicts came from the shadow of a building and crawled slowly along the river’s bank.

A stone had smashed into Jimmie’s mouth. Blood was bubbling over his chin and down upon his ragged shirt. Tears made furrows on his dirt-stained cheeks. His thin legs had begun to tremble and turn weak, causing his small body to reel. His roaring curses of the first part of the fight had changed to a blasphemous chatter.

In the yells of the whirling mob of Devil’s Row children there were notes of joy like songs of triumphant savagery. The little boys seemed to leer gloatingly at the blood upon the other child’s face.

I finished reading, glanced up, and saw that the students had puzzled looks on their faces. It was then that I suddenly remembered that there were two versions of Maggie: the original version that Crane had published himself in 1893 and the version published by D. Appleton in 1896, which was altered to make it more palatable (or so it was thought) to the general public.

Here’s what the students had in front of them:

A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row, who were circling madly about the heap and pelting him.

His infantile countenance was livid with the fury of battle. His small body was writhing in the delivery of oaths.

“Run, Jimmie, run! Dey’li git yehs!” screamed a retreating Rum Alley child.

“Naw,” responded Jimmie with a valiant roar, “dese mugs can ‘t make me run.”

Howls of renewed wrath went up from Devil’s Row throats. Tattered gamins on the right made a furious assault on the gravel heap. On their small convulsed faces shone the grins of true assassins. As they charged, they threw stones and cursed in shrill chorus.

The little champion of Rum Alley stumbled precipitately down the other side. His coat had been torn to shreds in a scuffle and his hat was gone. He had bruises on twenty parts of his body, and blood was dripping from a cut in his head. His wan features looked like those of a tiny insane demon.

No “great, crimson oaths.” Among the things that Crane edited out of the 1896 edition was much of the color imagery that I wanted to discuss! Let’s just say that I had to adapt my planned discussion quickly on the fly! The following year, we adopted the Bedford edition, which has the virtue not only of using the 1893 text, but also of providing useful contextual materials including pieces by Jacob Riis that we would assign in addition to Maggie in subsequent years.

The biggest change between the two versions is the omission from the 1896 of the “huge fat man in torn greasy garments” who approaches Maggie at the end of Chapter 17, the last time that she is portrayed alive in the novella. Readers of the 1893 text have often taken the text’s focus on this unsavory character to imply that he is eventually involved in Maggie’s death. In his absence, the 1896 text suggests that Maggie’s death is a suicide rather than a murder.

I offer this anecdote up as an interesting moment in the history of American literary naturalism and a cautionary tale to instructors who order editions of texts that differ from the ones that they’ve been used to using. Sometimes the new texts have been reset and re-paginated; at other times, as I discovered, there can be more significant problems. Best to discover those somewhere other than the lecture podium!


Earlier this week, we at NYU Abu Dhabi were treated to a visit by the artist Christo, who spoke about one of his signature projects — The Gates — which took place in Central Park in February 2005. The project was conceived in the late 1970s by Christo and his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, who passed away two years ago tomorrow. The city repeatedly refused Christo and Jeanne-Claude permission to mount the project, until Michael Bloomberg became mayor. He gave it the go-ahead immediately, once the pair reapplied for a permit.

I fell in love with the Gates project and went to see it — no, experience it, immerse myself in it — as many times as I could. I made sure to see every bit of the park during the sixteen days it was up and reintroduced myself to areas I had visited since my childhood. The Gates transformed the Park’s bleak midwinter with its explosion of color; it compelled many New Yorkers who had become blase about this jewel in the midst of Manhattan to see the Park afresh. On one visit to the Northwest corner of the Park, I was lucky enough to coincide with a visit to the area by Jeanne-Claude and Christo themselves and was able to watch them — from afar — enjoy their creation. Both of them refer in the film to the works of art as their children, and it was a parent’s joy that they seemed to exude as they looked at what they had done.

The process by which the project was conceived, planned, and ultimately mounted is beautifully documented in a film called The Gates (2005) made by Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles and originally shown on HBO. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were meticulous about documenting their work, not only by preserving drawings and other artifacts, but also by having the process of approval and construction filmed. The documentary work on The Gates was begun by the legendary documentary team of Albert Maysles and David Maysles, who first became famous for their legendary film  Gimme Shelter (1970), an account of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, which ended infamously at Altamont Speedway in California at a free concert during which Hells Angels killed a concertgoer. Christo and Jeanne-Claude became close friends with the Maysle brothers, who would document five of their projects.

Christo joined us at Sama Tower for a showing of the documentary, which was completed by Antonio Ferrara (who was also present) and includes early footage shot by the Maysles. Watching this footage is a little like watching outtakes from Woody Allen’s great films of the 1970s,  Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Jeanne-Claude and Christo take pains to remind — or, perhaps, simply inform — the culture vultures moaning about defiling the sacrosanct space of the Park of something that all Writing New York students realize by the end of our account of Alger and the Park: that it is a man-made space, domesticated nature, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to create a particular kind of pastoral experience. The Gates is a beautifully made documentary that is sadly out of print at the moment. Find it at a library or a used DVD store and watch it: it’s a wonderful slice of New York history and will remind those lucky enough to experience the gates six years ago of the wonder of the experience.

Christo gave a second presentation during his visit to NYUAD, speaking at the NYUAD Institute about his latest project, “Over the River,” which was approved just last week! Christo will cover a length of the Arkansas River with white fabric. Like The Gates, the project will be mounted for about two weeks. I’m going to start honing my white-water-rafting skills.

He also spoke about an as-yet-unapproved project, conceived around the same time as The Gates, which he hopes to mount in the Liwa desert here in the UAE: “The Mastaba,” a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels secured to an inner structure. Unlike The Gates and “Over the River,” “The Mastaba” would be a permanent installation.

Christo began his question-and-answer period at the NYUAD Institute presentation by remembering Jeanne-Claude, whom he met in Paris in 1958. “We immigrated to the United States in 1964,” Christo recalled, before correcting himself: “No, not immigrated to the United States in 1964 … we immigrated to Manhattan, New York City, in 1964.” After letting the audience chuckle at that remark, he explained it: “She was very proud of that. She insisted all the time to say that from 1964 to 1967, we were three years illegal aliens in Manhattan. We came as tourists and we disappeared in the crowd. Only many months and years later, we became residents.”

[Photo Credits: I took the photos of The Gates that accompany this post. Thanks to the NYUAD Institute for providing the video from which the still of Christo is taken.]

Our students are currently registering for spring semester courses and I’m feeling a little out of sorts about the fact that Cyrus and I aren’t offering Writing New York this year. It’s only the second time since 2003 that we will take the year off from WNY, this time due to the fact that Cyrus is teaching in Abu Dhabi. What will happen in spring 2013 and beyond is still a little up in the air, but for now we soldier on with #vWNY, our virtual version of the course, spread over two semesters here on the blog.

Our model, for those who may just be joining us, is to post something that approximates what we might have posted as a follow-up or complement to our lecture for a given today. Today’s reading assignment is Horatio Alger’s 1868 novel Ragged Dick, which over the years I’ve taken to reading as the antithesis of Melville’s “Bartleby.” If that story has been taken up by Occupy Wall Street as either a prototype for the sit-in or as an illustration of the crushing effects of the one percent’s blindness to the social conditions of actual workers, Ragged Dick is a book about a humble, initially homeless bootblack’s aspirations to join the 1% through a combination of pluck and luck. He does make it, of course, if not to excessive wealth then at least to business-class respectability, and in doing so lays the cornerstone of American Dream ideology that continues to support people who somehow think that the 1% are “job creators” who will somehow allow the worthy hard workers of the world into their elitist circles and so should be exempt from paying their fair share of taxes. Um, okay.

Actually, the way I’ve always taught Ragged Dick has to do with what I see as its inadvertent revelation of exactly how corporate capitalism works. In this I’ve been heavily influenced by two important readings of the novel, one by Michael Moon (Emory University) and the other by Glenn Hendler (Fordham University). Both essays are included in the recent Norton Critical Edition of the novel, edited by Hildegard Hoeller (College of Staten Island), which we will adopt as our official edition once we resume teaching this course in the flesh. In the meantime, we recommend it to you.

Here’s the upshot of the argument I make in lecture, drawing on Moon’s gendered analysis of the nature of corporate capitalism and Hendler’s understanding of how the genre of the “boy book” worked in the nineteenth century, when Alger’s novels, like Twain’s, caused some amount of controversy for their celebration of rough-and-tumble boy culture. In Alger’s novel, of course, Dick cleans up. He stops wasting his money on childish things or working-class leisure activities. He puts aside money and buys a home. He charms older men and takes on younger boys as wards (and housemates). He has a keen eye for opportunity — “an eye for business” we’re told over and over from the moment we meet him. He knew how to “look sharp” in both senses of the word. Consider Alger’s initial description of Dick, who’s awakened from his sleeping place in a packing crate on Nassau Street:

Washing the face and hands is usually considered proper in commencing the day, but Dick was above such refinement. He had no particular dislike to dirt, and did not think it necessary to remove several dark streaks on his face and hands. But in spite of his dirt and rags there was something about Dick that was attractive. It was easy to see that if he had been clean and well dressed he would have been decidedly good-looking. Some of his companions were sly, and their faces inspired distrust; but Dick had a frank, straight-forward manner that made him a favorite.

Dick’s business hours had commenced. He had no office to open. His little blacking-box was ready for use, and he looked sharply in the faces of all who passed, addressing each with, “Shine yer boots, sir?”

“How much?” asked a gentleman on his way to his office.

“Ten cents,” said Dick, dropping his box, and sinking upon his knees on the sidewalk, flourishing his brush with the air of one skilled in his profession.

“Ten cents! Isn’t that a little steep?”

“Well, you know ‘taint all clear profit,” said Dick, who had already set to work. “There’s the blacking costs something, and I have to get a new brush pretty often.”

“And you have a large rent too,” said the gentleman quizzically, with a glance at a large hole in Dick’s coat.

“Yes, sir,” said Dick, always ready to joke; “I have to pay such a big rent for my manshun up on Fifth Avenoo, that I can’t afford to take less than ten cents a shine. I’ll give you a bully shine, sir.”

“Be quick about it, for I am in a hurry. So your house is on Fifth Avenue, is it?”

“It isn’t anywhere else, said Dick, and Dick spoke the truth there.

The narrator and the businessman alike seem to gravitate toward Dick, find him attractive in a way Moon deems pederastic. This attraction is key to Dick’s shoe-shine business and to his upward mobility over the course of the novel. Recognizing the role played by his good looks and his eagerness to charm older men leaves us with a picture of how corporate capitalism works that is much more accurate than the rags-to-riches ideology Alger doesn’t really represent after all. Dick plays of the businessman’s nostalgia for the wildness of youth, for life on the street, for the outdoors, away from daily bathing and polite society. That desire, in corporate capitalism, translates into older men’s eagerness to recruit and promote good-looking successors who remind them of their own youth. And through this desire the corporation perpetuates itself. Where Bartleby would prefer not to, obsequious Dick is more than willing to do whatever it takes.

Previously on PWHNY.

Did you know that Metropolitan Playhouse’s big winter festival centers on Alger this year? Check it.

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In Theodore Winthrop’s novel Cecil Dreeme, Washington Square is rechristened “Ailanthus Square,” and NYU makes its appearance as “Chrysalis College.” The name is apt: in 1862, when Winthrop published his novel, the university was only 31 years old and still in its infancy, still a chrysalis, not yet the butterfly that it aspired to become.

And it did have big aspirations, which the novel gently mocks. Our narrator, Robert Byng, has decided to accept his friend Harry Stillfleet’s invitation to borrow his digs in the Chrysalis College’s Gothic building while Stillfleet is out of the country.:

“There I live,” said [Stillfleet]. “It’s not a jail, as you might suppose from its grimmish aspect. Not an Asylum. Not a Retreat. No lunatics, that I know of, kept there, nor anything, mysterious, or out of the way.”

“Chrysalis College, is it not?”

“You have not forgotten its monastic phiz?”

“No; I remember the sham convent, sham castle, modern-antique affair. But how do you happen to be quartered there? Is the College defunct?”

“Not defunct; only without vitality. The Trustees fancied that, if they built roomy, their college would be populous; if they built marble, it would be permanent; if they built Gothic, it would be scholastic and medieval in its influences; if they had narrow, mullioned windows, not too much disorganizing modern thought would penetrate.”

“Well, and what was the result?”

“The result is, that the old nickname of Chrysalis sticks to it, and whatever real name it may have is forgotten. There it stands, big, battlemented, buttressed, marble, with windows like crenelles; and inside they keep up the traditional methods of education.”

“But pupils don’t beleaguer it?”

“That is the blunt fact. It stays an ineffectual high-low school. The halls and lecture-rooms would stand vacant, so they let them to lodgers.”

“You are not very grateful to your landlords.”

“I pay my rent, and have a right to criticize.”

“Who lives there besides you?”

“Several artists, a brace of young doctors, one or two quiet men about town, Churm, and myself.”

The novel reminds us that NYU was part of the artistic culture of Greenwich Village from close to its beginnings, that its Gothic main building was at least in part a Bohemian space. The Gothic building was replaced in 1892 by the present structure, first called Main Building, recently renamed Silver Center.

Of course, Stillfleet’s comment — “No lunatics, that I know of, kept there, nor anything, mysterious, or out of the way.” — proves, by the novel’s end, to be deeply ironic. But the description of NYU as an “ineffectual high-low school” cuts pretty close to home — arguably, it was an apt description of NYU when I arrived in 1993. Now, I’d argue, NYU has metamorphosed into something else, and I fully expect that in its incarnation as a “global network university,” it will finally emerge from its chrysalis and become the butterfly it has always wanted to be. But we might keep in mind Winthrop’s comments about the building “roomy”: just building it isn’t enough. A cautionary tale, from one century to another.

Greetings to all vWNYers from the pink city of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan in India. My family and I are spending NYUAD’s Eid al-Adha break in India. Sorry for missing m post last Wednesday when we were on our way to Delhi. I’ll do a make-up at some point.

Meanwhile, it’s very odd to be thinking about Theodore Winthrop’s (1862) novel Cecil Dreeme while I’m nine-and-half time zones away from New York, because it’s always seemed to me to be such a local novel. Such an NYU novel. It’s set, after all, in a lightly fictionalized version of Washington Square. Winthrop calls it “Ailanthus Square,” because Of the ailanthus trees planted there. Henry James refers to the tree in one of our favorite paragraphs from his novel Washington Square (1880), which we will be reading later in the term:

The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of white marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. This structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, were supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings. In front of them was the square, containing a considerable quantity of inexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased its rural and accessible appearance; and round the corner was the more august precinct of the Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with a spacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies. I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare–the look of having had something of a social history. It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority, that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety of sources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step, and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailanthus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations. It was here, at any rate, that my heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this topographical parenthesis.

The trees make another appearance late in the book, when the protagonist’s aunt looks out her window on a July evening and thinks about the countryside.

In It Happened on Washington Square, Emily Kies Folpe notes that “only one very large ailanthus tree now remains in the Square, near the edge of the dog run.” (I’m assuming it has survived the renovation!) She adds, however, that the plant is stubborn and that “numerous others shoot up like weeds in courtyards and cracks of sidewalks all around the village.”

But here’s the rub, which makes my present vantage point a little less incongruous: the Ailanthus is actually native to Asia and Australia. (The Indian version is Ailanthus excelsa, but the most common variety is Ailanthus altissima, native to China and known as the “Tree of Heaven.” In North America, it’s considered an invasive species. Apparently, it was introduced to the U.S. in 1784 by a gardener in Philadelphia and, because it’s such a hardy plant, it was introduced into industrial cities like New York in the early nineteenth-century. [Click here for a fascinating article about the tree by Shiu Ying Hu.]

Bryan’s already posted about the novel, and we’ll have more to say about it later in the week.

[The picture of the University Building at the head of this post is from a watercolor and engraving by A.J. Davis, c. 1833. [For more information, click here. The illustration accompanying the quote from Washington Square is an 1881 lithograph. The view is roughly from the south, and you can see University Building and next to it the Southern Dutch Reform Church at the right. I’d like to think that it pictures Ailanthus trees. For more information, click here.]

I’m blogging this morning from the jury selection room at a courthouse down at Thomas and West Broadway. Not sure how long I’ll be sitting here — I was under the impression that the trial to which I’ve been assigned as an alternate juror was supposed to start an hour ago. In the meantime, though, I’ll offer a very quick post by way of introduction to this week’s reading on our Virtual Writing New York course. (You’re participating in it just by reading this; feel free to comment as well.)

We don’t teach Theodore Winthrop’s Cecil Dreeme in our regular Writing New York course, though we’ve always wanted to. It’s not in print, but you’ll find it in full on Google Books. It’s a quirky urban Gothic novel set in a thinly veiled version of NYU’s old University Building — pictured above — which occupied the east side of Washington Square before the current Silver Building went up in the 1890s. The dilapidated building was rumored to be filled with hidden passageways, mysteries, and secret histories. The novel plays up such legends in its own twists and turns of plot and character.

NYU’s Bobst Library has a nice page devoted to the novel and to its author, a former post-graduate resident of the old NYU building who died during the Civil War. (He also was a descendant of the Puritan leader Jon Winthrop.) His novels, poems, and travel writing were published posthumously, but Winthrop seemed to have a taste for popular genres. Another novel, John Brent, picks up on the mid-century craze for anti-Mormon, anti-polygamy fiction. Here’s how the Fales pages describes Cecil Dreeme:

Cecil Dreeme (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862) is one of the queerest American novels of the 19th century. Basically a gothic tale in the style of The Castle of Otranto, which is cited in the text, the partially autobiographical story is a combination of plots take from Shakespeare and Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Winthrop’s experiences living on Washington Square. In the story Robert Byng, a former New Yorker who has just returned from ten years abroad, takes up lodgings in “Chrysalis College” (NYU) on “Ailanthus Square” (Washington Square) in rooms unused by the fledgling school. Caught up in the strange world of artists, “bohemians,” and dandies on the one hand and the stolid, respectable society of Knickerbocker New York on the other, Robert befriends a young man who has locked himself away from the world, painting by day and moving about the City at night. Their friendship deepens into love as Robert describes them as “Damon and Pythias,” the famous Greek lovers. The disappearance, and presumed suicide, of a young woman Robert knew when he was a child haunts Churm, one of his other friends, who is convinced that the evil dandy, Densdeth, was in someway responsible for the girl’s disappearance Densdeth was engaged to marry the girl by her father’s arrangement but against her will. Densdeth, whose influence is considerable, has ruined many young men and his next conquest is to be Robert himself. Robert’s attentions to Cecil, however, keep him from falling totally under Densdeth’s power. As the plot unravels, scenes of life in Chrysalis College, the Square, and the Village during the period provide a backdrop for a complicated philosophical discussion about the nature of male/female, manly/unmanly, womanly/unwomanly, and effeminate and langourous behavior. Cecil Dreeme, the young artist of Robert’s affection, turns out to be Clara Denman, the young woman, thought dead, who has been hiding in Chrysalis College dressed as a man. This revelation is startling to Robert who now has an explanation for his sexual attraction to the young man, but now has to confront the gender differences society places on their relations.

What’s not to like here? We’ve included the novel on our vWNY list as a first step toward eventually finding a publisher who’ll let us reissue it. I hope, by Wednesday, to offer a few more questions and observations to help locate Cecil in the trajectories we’ve been tracing in the course so far.

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The Melville scholar John Bryant traces the roots of the author’s fascination with the sea from his childhood days in Manhattan. In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Typee (1846), Bryant writes:

Much of the area is now a park built on landfill, but in earlier days Pearl Street stretched along the waterfront, and the Melville home stood right at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers, so that in the summer of his first year Melville learned to walk on the edges of New York Harbor. Today, iron railings gird those edges, allowing tourists to lean safely and observe the Statue of Liberty, but the infant Melville toddled the area unfenced in search of the seashells that gave his street its name. Thirty years later, in the voice of Ishmael, the author would describe his old backyard as a magnet for all manner of seekers “fixed in ocean reveries.” His birthplace was a spot where “meditation and water are wedded forever.” Melville knew the sea from birth.

In our account of “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” in Writing New York, we take the story’s subtitle seriously, tracing the ways in which the Manhattan setting is crucial to the story’s meanings. And we suggest that a student interested in the impact of New York on Melville’s thinking would do well to investigate one of Melville’s longer works — that novel called Moby-Dick — which sets its opening scene in Manhattan.

Why does Herman Melville choose to begin the narrative of Moby-Dick in Manhattan?

Like his earlier sea narratives, Moby-Dick has its roots in personal experience: while still living in New York City, Melville wrote a letter to his English publisher, Richard Bentley, dated June 27, 1850 in which he described his new book as “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.” Melville’s scene of writing becomes his narrator Ishmael’s scene of writing. By mid-1850, however, Melville had decamped from New York and moved to New England. Ishmael follows that pattern, decamping in the second chapter for “Cape Horn and the Pacific” via New Bedford and then Nantucket.

In Moby-Dick, Melville takes liberties with his “own personal experience” that far outstrip the liberties he had taken in his earlier books. Melville had sailed west around Cape Horn in the whaleship Acushnet in the spring of 1841, but he sends Ishmael in the other direction: east around the Cape of Good Hope. Melville deserted from not one but two whaleships. He left the Acushnet at the island of Nukahiva in the Marquesas, where he would spend a month, before escaping to join the crew of the whaleship Lucy Ann, an experience that would form the basis for Typee. The Lucy Ann, however, was an unhappy ship: a faction of its crew was in open rebellion against the ship’s captain and Melville decided to take that group’s part, which resulted in his spending several days in jail on Tahiti. Contrary, therefore, to his own experience, Melville has Ishmael follow his captain to the bitter end, with nary a thought of mutiny even as it becomes clear to him that Ahab is “crazy,” suffering from “monomania” and a “broad madness.”

So why not just begin Ishmael’s whaling voyage in a whaling town, with Ishmael on the doorstep of the Spouter Inn? Why set the opening chapter set in New York? The question becomes even more important if we take the opening chapter to be a kind of philosophical overture, in which Ishmael sounds the notes that will recur like leitmotifs throughout the narrative that follows.

We suggest that Melville opens the novel in the insular city of the Manhattoes in order to align Ishmael’s perspective with what the intellectual historian Thomas Bender calls “the historic cosmopolitanism of New York.” Unlike New England Puritanism and Jeffersonian agrarianism, which Bender describes as “the most influential myths of America,” New York’s cosmopolitanism does not “reject the idea of difference”; indeed, according to Bender, “Very early in the city’s history, difference and conflict among interests were acknowledged as not only inevitable but perhaps of positive value.” Bender attributes this perspective to the city’s Dutch origins: “If religion inspired the Puritans and if the dream of plantations and wealth drove the Virginians, the practicality of trade engaged the first settlers of New Amsterdam.” Likewise, in The Island at the Center of the World (2004), Russell Shorto argues:

What matters about the Dutch colony is that it set Manhattan on course as a place of openness and free trade. A new kind of spirit hovered over the island, something utterly alien to New England and Virginia, which is directly traceable to the tolerance debates in Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the intellectual world of Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza.

Several scholars have noted the impact of Melville’s experiences in New York on his subsequent writings. In her essay “From Wall Street to Astor Place: Historicizing Melville’s ‘Bartleby,’” Barbara Foley argues that Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is, as its subtitle suggests, “a ‘Story of Wall Street,’ . . . not only in its allusions to specific persons and events connected to conflicts between the rulers and the ruled in midcentury New York but also in its participation in contemporaneous discourses about class relations and property rights.” In “Class Acts: The Astor Place Riots and Melville’s ‘The Two Temples,’” Dennis Berthold examines the relation between Melville’s story “The Two Temples” (1854) and Melville’s involvement in the events leading up to the Astor Place Riots, which left Melville “struggling to understand … a world where working-class people opposed abolitionism, immigration, and foreign culture, and where state militias murdered citizens.”

In Melville’s City (1996), Wyn Kelley argues that Moby-Dick is a “pro-urban” novel in which Melville explores “different strategies of creating urban space for characters unable to find a place to live in the city.” According to Kelley, the use of these strategies suggests that Melville “did not see the city only as an empty, heartless place but as a dynamic ground of cultural conflict out of which new, more encompassing cultural forms might emerge.”

Andrew Delbanco goes further in his biography Melville: His World and Work (2005), asserting that “New York broke open Melville’s style [and] opened his mind as well to the cosmopolitan idea of a nation to which one belongs not by virtue of some blood lineage that leads back into the past, but by consent to the as-yet-unrealized ideal of a nation comprehending all peoples . . . in a future of universal freedom.”

Which is why we’ve asked you to read “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, alongside “Bartleby” for today.

In 1825, the poet William Cullen Bryant moved to New York City from Massachusetts, where he had been practicing law since 1816; with the help of some family friends, he had been appointed editor of a periodical called the New-York Review. He moved on to a similar post at another periodical, the United States Review and Literary Gazette, before gaining the more stable position of Assistant Editor at the New-York Evening Post, a newspaper that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton. The portrait above, by Samuel Morse, was painted in 1825.

Bryant helped to put the struggling paper on a more sound financial footing, and two years later he was both a part-owner and the paper’s editor-in-chief, a position he would hold for the next fifty years until his death on June 12, 1878. The New-York Evening Post made Bryant both rich and politically prominent in New York City. With the publication of a revised edition of his poems in 1832, both in New York and (with Washington Irving’s help) in London, Bryant became known as America’s foremost poet. His most adventurous years as a poet were behind him, however, and his later poetry is comparatively genteel and conventional.

Walt Whitman attended Bryant’s funeral and reminisced about Bryant in Specimen Days:

I had known Mr. Bryant over thirty years ago, and he had been markedly kind to me. Off and on, along that time for years as they pass’d, we met and chatted together. I thought him very sociable in his way, and a man to become attach’d to. We were both walkers, and when I work’d in Brooklyn he several times came over, middle of afternoons, and we took rambles miles long, till dark, out towards Bedford or Flatbush, in company. On these occasions he gave me clear accounts of scenes in Europe—the cities, looks, architecture, art, especially Italy—where he had travel’d a good deal.

The arc of Whitman’s career is the opposite of Bryant’s: he began as a journalist and ended up as the pre-eminent poet in the United States. Unlike Bryant, who was associated with elite publications, Whitman worked in the penny press and saw them as a force for democratization. Writing for the New York Aurora in 1842, Whitman proclaimed:

Among newspapers, the penny press is the same as common schools among seminaries of education. They carry light and knowledge in among those who most need it. They disperse the clouds of ignorance; and make the great body of the people intelligent, capable, and worthy of performing the duties of republican freemen.

The Aurora was a two-penny paper—a cut above the pennies both in price and in content—but it still catered to similar audiences. Nearly two-thirds of Whitman’s newspaper sketches can be classified as sensationalism. After being fired from the Aurora (ostensibly for laziness), Whitman worked for the Tattler, for which one of his assignments was to write the murder bulletins; his assignment at the Sun was police and coroner’s stories.

Many of Whitman’s early poems and stories were written to cater to the public’s taste for sensationalism. In 1842, he published a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, which would turn out to be his most popular work during his lifetime, selling some 20,000 copies.  Fully attuned to the public’s taste for sensationalism, the novel tells the story of a young orphan named Franklin Evans, who goes to New York, where his first drink leads to a series of tragic circumstances including robbery and murder. Whitman’s publisher believed that the novel would “create a sensation, both for the ability with which it was written, as well as the interest of the subject.”  Whitman himself was profoundly embarrassed by the book later in life. He would continue writing sensationalist sketches and stories throughout the 1840s.

Whitman’s immersion in the penny press and in sensationalist writing became a crucial part of the poetic imagination that would produce Leaves of Grass.  Indeed, Emerson once remarked to a friend that Leaves of Grass was a “combination of the Bhagavad-Gita and the New York Herald.”

For a number of years, we offered this extra-credit question on the Writing New York final examination: “Who was Baron Axel von Klinkowstrom and what is his significance to our course?”

To answer this question, you would have to have read the draft of my essay “Whitman’s and Melville’s New York, 1819–1855,” assigned as secondary reading on our syllabus. There you would have discovered a discussion of Klinkowstrom (1775-1837), a Swedish naval officer, who visited the United States in 1818 and lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn from 1819–20. Klinkowstrom was a precursor of such distinguished European commentators on American affairs as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, James Bryce, and (more recently) Bernard-Henri Levy

The primary purpose of Klinkowstrom’s visit to New York was to report on a new invention: the steamboat. He wrote a series of letters to the Swedish government in which he described not only the American development of steamboat technology, but also the state of American life, especially life in and around New York City.

“I was not prepared to find such a large and populous city on a coast where two hundred years ago there was only an insignificant village,” Klinkowstrom wrote on his first arrival in 1818. He added that “from the sea the city is not handsome, as the houses are not stuccoed, and the view is obstructed by the many ships whose tackle hugs the bridges in a double row, and whose masts form a forest.” He was immediately impressed by the city’s commercial spirit: “Although I have only hurriedly seen New York as yet,” Klinkowstrom wrote in 1818, “I do believe there is a livelier spirit of speculation there and that people are eager to become rich quickly through many enterprises.”

The following year, after he had taken up residence in Manhattan, Klinkowstrom commented on the city’s architecture and streets. Noting that “the houses in New York are usually painted in the English fashion, that is to say with a dark brick color and white trimming between the stones,” Klinkowstrom suggested that

the city would be rather gloomy if the streets were not wide and cheerful. Here and there trees are planted along the streets. The streets all have sidewalks which make walking very easy. In the newer part of the city, the streets are straight; but they seldom cross each other at right angles, and in the entire city there is not one handsome square.

Klinkowstrom praised Broadway and drew a watercolor of the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street, facing City Hall, and he called this part of New York “really quite beautiful.” Klinkowstrom, however, wryly included a pig rooting about in the street on the right-hand side of the picture, and in his letters he noted the “harmful and unpleasant” custom of “allowing the swine to wander about freely on the streets. . . . These pigs have often caused ridiculous situations. Once during the fashionable promenade hour on Broadway I saw some of these animals rush on the sidewalk, making a sharp contrast with the elegant clothes, and one filthy pig bumped into a well-dressed woman. Often they trip people who are not sufficiently observant.”

New York, he concluded, “is not as clean as cities of the same size and population in Europe.”

[The picture, “Broadway-street and the City Hall in New York” (1824) is engraving by Carl Fredrik Akrell (Swedish, 1779–1868), after Klinkowstrom’s watercolor. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Read more about it here.]


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