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Here is Writing New York

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Thumbnail image for clinton_lazio.jpgToday's lecture in our Writing New York class is devoted to E. B. White's Here is New York, which will function as a kind of overture to the course. We'll introduce it whimsically, first with a clip of Speed Levitch's homage to White from the documentary film The Cruise, then by recalling Hillary Clinton's run for the Senate in 2000 and her debate with Rick Lazio.

Asked to "define a New Yorker," Clinton displayed her customary learning and book smarts:

Well you know, E. B. White and others have done that over the years. And what's so great about being a New Yorker or defining a New Yorker is that New York has always been a magnet for people from literally all over the world. People are drawn to New York because this is a place that you can stake your claim, you can build a future, you can dream your dreams.

It is the place that my grandparents came through as well. And it is a place that I've always known welcomed everyone from everywhere, including immigrants from Washington, D.C.

So for me, New York represents the best not just of America but of the entire world. . .
Later on, Governor Pataki disparaged Clinton's response:

Rick Lazio looks, sounds and talks like a New Yorker. Mrs. Clinton quoted some guy, Wyatt or somebody--I don't think he was from Brooklyn--with some definition of a New Yorker that she must have read somewhere. I don't know who that guy was. I don't know what he wrote. I don't know where he was from. But it sure doesn't sound to me like that guy was a New Yorker or understood New York the way we do.

Still later on, the governor's daughter reminded her father that he had read E. B. White's Charlotte's Web to her, leading the governor's office to issue an apology of sorts: "He just forgot ... The Governor values learning. He thinks everyone should be reading Charlotte's Web to their kids." Lazio, by the way, made the connection between White and Charlotte's Web right away when asked. Out of politics for a while, Lazio is apparently now thinking of running for governor.

We'll point out, however, that during this brouhaha White's book was discussed in the media as if it were a timeless portrait of New Yorker and New Yorkers. And we'll ask: In what ways is it, in fact, "timeless"? Which of White's characterizations of the city are still applicable today? Which seem out of date? In what ways is White's book not timeless but time-bound -- and to what times is it bound?






The Do-Over

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So President Obama had to retake the oath of office yesterday, because he and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed it the first time.

There's a New York angle to this story.

Obama joins Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge as the only presidents who have had an inaugural do-over. In the cases of his predecessors, however, the irregularities arose because they were taking over for a sitting president who had just died in office.

Arthur's initial oath was administered in his Lexington Avenue residence on September 20, 1881 by John R. Brady, the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, after President Garfield died from wounds received when he was shot in the back the previous July. The oath was readministered when Arthur returned to Washington, DC, two days later.

pi02801.jpgArthur has the distinction of being the last incumbent president to seek renomination and fail to obtain it: the Republican Party nominated James G. Blaine, the Secretary of State and former Speaker of the House to run in 1884.

Blaine, in turn, lost the general election to Grover Cleveland, a New Yorker.

(I've written a little bit more about Obama's misadventure over at patell.org. The image above comes from the Library of Congress's Presidential Inaugurations site.)


In the Clouds

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Here's the Wordle cloud for Barack Obama's inaugural address, using the prepared text given to the New York Times:
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Obama is One of Us

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The President-elect during his salad days in NYC.

The cover story of this week's New York magazine, the year-end double issue, is "Reasons to Love New York (Especially Right Now)." It's the fourth time that the magazine has run the feature, but the first time that a Chicagoan has figured so largely in it.

You see, the magazine's number one reason to love New York right now is that "Obama is one of us, despite all that business about Chicago." After noting that other presidents in the last half-century have lived in New York before assuming the presidency (Kennedy, Nixon, Bush I), the article argues that none of these men were really "of New York. The city did not make help make them who they were." Not so with Barack Obama:

Barack Obama, on the other hand, deliberately chose New York as a young man, transferring his junior year from Occidental College to Columbia, and all one has to do is crack the binding of Dreams From My Father to appreciate the authenticity of his experience. It's all right there in chapter one, paragraph one, sentence four. "The apartment was small," he writes, "with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn't work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle." Before readers have even turned the page, he's mentioned his stoop, his fire escape, and the Knicks.

Hey, it works for me. [Click here to read the whole article.]

[Photo: Obama Presidential Campaign/AP via nymag.com.]






Ahab by MC Lars

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Later this morning I'll be giving the last lecture of my Conversations of the West class, wrapping up the course's treatment of how Moby-Dick engages with its cultural inheritances from the ancient Greek, Biblical, and early modern English traditions. I'll try to tie it all in the end to what Barack Obama calls "deliberative democracy," in which "all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent." (As we've noted here before, Moby-Dick is reputedly Obama's favorite novel.) "Deliberative democracy," which Obama writes about in The Audacity of Hope, sounds a lot like the conception of cosmopolitanism that we've been exploring in my course: in fact, you could think of it as applied cosmopolitanism.

The last word will go, however, to someone whom I suspect very few of you have heard of, the post-punk laptop rapper MC Lars. I'll show his music video, Ahab, which you can watch below. Fans of Moby-Dick will be impressed, I think, by just how well Lars's song gets at major ideas in the novel.



But that won't be the last song of the course: that honor goes, of course, to Led Zeppelin.



My Fellow New Yorkers

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It was nice to see Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton acknowledge the citizens of her adopted state at President-Elect Obama's press conference on Monday. Obama had described Clinton's appointment as "a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances."

Clinton began her remarks this way:

Mr. President-elect, thank you for this honor. If confirmed, I will give this assignment, your administration, and our country my all. I also want to thank my fellow New Yorkers who have, for eight years, given me the joy of a job I love with the opportunity to work on issues I care about deeply in a state that I cherish.

And you've also helped prepare me well for this new role. After all, New Yorkers aren't afraid to speak their minds and do so in every language.
Speaking their minds, and in every language -- and being willing to listen: that's cosmopolitanism. Are you listening, Rudy Giuliani?

You can see a video of Obama's announcement of his national security team and Clinton's remarks below:





From the White House to Capitol Hill

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Now that Hillary Clinton, the junior senator from New York, has been officially named by President-Elect Obama as the Secretary of State-designee, there's been speculation that New York Governor David Paterson might name her husband, Ex-President Bill Clinton, to take over her Senate seat. Apparently, Bill has denied any interest in taking his wife's seat. But the speculation got me wondering whether any ex-presidents had indeed continued to serve in an official capacity in one of the other branches of our government.

In fact, one ex-president has gone on to serve in the Senate. Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president, who succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, had previously served five terms in the House, one term as governor of Tennessee, and was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee when the Civil War broke out. Impeached on three counts for violating the controversial Tenure of Office Act, which forbade the president from dismissing certain appointees without the approval of the Senate, Johnson was acquitted by one vote on each count.

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Andrew Johnson

Johnson served out Lincoln's term, but failed to secure the Republican party's nomination for the presidency in 1869. After failing in bids for re-election to the Senate in 1869 and to the House in 1872, he was finally re-elected to the Senate in 1874. He served from March 4, 1875 until July 31, 1875, when he suffered a stroke and died.  He is the only former President to serve in the Senate after his presidency.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was subsequently elected by the people of Massachusetts to serve in the House of Representatives, which he did for the last seventeen years of his life. And William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh president, was named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Warren Harding in 1921 and served in that capacity until his death in 1930. According to Taft's biography on whitehouse.gov, Taft thought of the justiceship as his greatest honor: "I don't remember that I ever was President." Perhaps that was because Taft was the only candidate for a second presidential term to finish third in the election!

It's worth noting that Bill Clinton already has one thing in common with Andrew Johnson: they are the only two presidents to have been impeached.




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Common-place, the online journal of early American history and culture, has a special issue up this quarter on early American politics. Among its features is a joint interview with Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, a prolific historian couple formerly of University of Tulsa and now of Louisiana State. Burstein recently published a biography of Washington Irving, focusing on the political context for the emergence of his career; Isenberg recently published a biography of Aaron Burr. The Common-place interview focuses on ways in which the two men's histories and careers, both based in Manhattan, were entangled. It begins:

How does one speak of Aaron Burr and Washington Irving in the same breath?

Burstein: First of all, they shared the island of Manhattan for a good many years. Washington Irving was the youngest in a large family of merchants with both literary and political ambitions. The brother with whom he was closest, Peter, ran as a Burrite for the New York Assembly and was the editor of the Burrite newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. The oldest Irving brother, William, served two terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican. John Irving, a lawyer and later a judge, hung out his shingle at the Wall Street address that Burr had recently occupied. Washington Irving, trained in the law, briefly worked there, too. Just before his first voyage to Europe, in 1803, twenty-year-old Washington had breakfast with Burr and absorbed his advice on how to profit from his time abroad.

Isenberg: Burr's appeal to the Irvings was the same as his appeal to other young New Yorkers looking to rise in society by attaching themselves to a politician sympathetic to their ambitions. Burr was a patron of the arts--the patron, for instance, of the well-known artist John Vanderlyn; Washington Irving was an incurable theatergoer and theater critic in his New York years and would pal around with painters and poets all his life. His brother William, the congressman, belonged to a literary society and wrote doggerel poems that formed companion pieces to his soon-to-be-famous brother's occasional pieces. In a letter to his daughter Theodosia, who was Irving's age, Burr, when vice president, eagerly praised the young writer's satirical essays about Manhattan society.

For the rest of the interview click here.




Roundup Postscript

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Alex Ross has this to say, in light of the spontaneous singing in Union Square the other night (see his original post if you want more links to follow):

A quick search of YouTube reveals that young crowds across the country broke into the national anthem in the early morning hours. You can find videos for the East Village, Times Square, Berkeley, Portland OR, Amherst, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Madison WI, and Harvard Yard (with band), among others. Two obvious conclusions: 1) contra Palin, the entire country is "pro America"; 2) increased support for music education would be nice.

One more musical angle: Bob Dylan announced the outcome of the election by playing "Blowin' in the Wind."

If you're like me at all, you've been thanking your favorite deities (or Barack Obama, whichever you prefer) that you haven't heard Sarah Palin's voice in the last several days. If you can handle it, though, check out this final note, so to speak, on the Couric interviews, also courtesy of Alex:





Post-election Roundup

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Highlights from some of my favorite bloggers' reactions to the news that we won the election:

Jeremiah Moss, from Jeremiah's Vanishing New York (my favorite anti-gentrification blog), has a great account of the spontaneous parades that could be heard roaming below 14th street until 3 am on the 5th. He was at Union Square for the sing-along I posted a video of the other day. From his post, composed around 2:30 in the morning:

In the streets of New York, crowds are still cheering, shouting "Yes, we can!" Cars honk their horns. People bang pots and pans. They cannot stop. Don't want to stop. When the announcement came over the television that he had been elected, cheers erupted from the streets. A crowd gathered on 8th Street and 1st Avenue, taking over the intersection. Police pushed them back here and there, but otherwise left the celebration alone.

People in cars stopped and the crowd rushed to shake their hands and kiss them through open windows.

Garbage men riding the backs of honking trucks waved and pumped their fists.

City bus drivers honked and slowed down so passengers could stick their hands from the windows and high-five the people on the street.



At Union Square, the park was packed. People climbed lamp posts and hoisted flags atop. We sang God Bless America. We chanted "U-S-A" and "Yes, We Can" and "O-Ba-Ma!" Strangers hugged and kissed strangers.

The celebration went on and on, a wave that rose and fell, then rose again, for hours and hours. Down side streets and avenues, in pockets of jubilant people.
For Jeremiah's photos of the night -- a fantastic set of images -- click here.

Alex at Flaming Pablum (which has its own recurring feature on NYC's Vanishing Downtown) has my favorite rubbing-it-in image:

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Alex also has one of my favorite Obama/pop culture mashups as part of his GOTV post:

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(Sidenote: As his penchant for Bowie imagery would suggest, Alex is a serious 70s rock aficionado, with a specialty in the NYC downtown scene. If you wander over to his site, don't miss his series of posts on NYC in rock videos and on album covers. I thought I'd throw that in since I know some of our readers share similar tastes.)

Gowanus Lounge collects accounts and photos of Obama celebrations in Brooklyn; Gothamist reports on arrests from one such street party in Williamsburg. (h/t to Jeremiah for the last two.)

Meanwhile, our friend MaNNaHaTTaMaMMa posts on intergenerational euphoria spilling over into other areas of life.

Are there other accounts from NYC blogs you think we should know about?


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