Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City

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The Brooklyn-based writer Caleb Crain is the author of “The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class,” a chapter in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York that looks at narratives of New York high life from the mid to late nineteenth century. He is also the author of the 2001 book American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (Yale UP) and a frequent contributor to such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Nation, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. He maintains the weblog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, from which he has selected a number of pieces in the print volume The Wreck of the Henry Clay (2009).

Caleb’s piece for the companion could alternatively been called “High Life, with a Glance at the Low,” since he includes a significant treatment of the sunshine/shadow dynamic that structured many accounts of nineteenth-century New York City. But as fascinating as the lower depths were to armchair slummers in the nineteenth century, readers then as now also loved to peek into the world of New York’s elite. Of the insider expert and literary celebrity Nathaniel Parker Willis, Crain writes:

Fashion was Nathaniel’s god. But he wrote about it with more insight, nimbleness, and edge than any of his contemporaries. On a city without an opera: “Like a saloon without a mirror.” On the depreciation of courtesy in New York: “Politeness has gradually grown to be a sign of a man in want of money.” On a sudden vogue for a fabric still posh today: “‘She had on a real Cashmere’ would be sweeter, to a number of ladies, as a mention when absent, than ‘she had a beautiful expression about her mouth,’ or ‘she had such loveable manners,’ or ‘she is always trying to make somebody happier.’”

For all his talent, Willis never wrote a solid book. The need to earn a living fettered him to magazine ephemera, a fate he accepted with a pose of tragic resignation: “The hot needle through the eye of the goldfinch betters his singing, they say.” After he abandoned sacred poetry in early youth, Willis’s ambition took a conventionally serious form only once, in a public lecture on fashion at the Broadway Tabernacle in 1844. In the lecture, Willis made explicit his peculiar, and peculiarly democratic, understanding of fashion, which he called an “inner republic.”

He began by defining fashion as “a position in society” that different cultures awarded to different traits. In France, it went to intellectual and artistic achievement; in England, to beauty and cocksureness. In both countries, according to Willis, the “first principle” of fashion was “rebellion against unnatural authority,” because fashion forced the ruling class to acknowledge people of merit born outside it. The particular acknowledgment that he had in mind was sexual, although he didn’t say so explicitly. Through fashion – that is, through a selection of spouses prompted by fashion – the English upper class ensured that their children would be attractive and bold, and the French, that theirs would be intelligent. Although the principle of fashion might be revolutionary, its effect was conservative, by a kind of sexual engrossment.

What did American fashion reward? “Conspicuousness in expense,” Willis wrote with dismay. (A few years later, he would identify New York as “the point where money is spent most freely for pleasure.”) He hoped that this preference was temporary and that Americans could change it by force of will. But he feared that no one would bother to take the problem seriously. Like Willis himself, fashion seemed trifling to most people. He insisted it wasn’t, because it determined which virtues the ruling class would welcome into their beds and thereby into the elite.

We’re thrilled to have Caleb serve as a tour guide through the fascinating world of nineteenth-century New York’s fast set.

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Melissa Bradshaw, the author of our Cambridge Companion chapter “Performing Greenwich Village Bohemianism,” is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University. A leading expert on the poetry of Amy Lowell, she is co-editor of Selected Poems of Amy Lowell and Amy Lowell, American Modern, a volume of criticism on her work, as well as the author of Amy Lowell: Diva Poet, forthcoming from Ashgate.

Bradshaw writes: “I write about the iconic woman—the diva—as a powerful and dangerous figure of feminine gendering in a culture of celebrity, that for all its token celebration of some women, remains profoundly sexist. Scholars have seen the diva as a queer figure because she rejects heteronormative femininity in favor of public fame and devotion to her art. My interest in the diva began with my doctoral training in literary modernism, and has grown into a multivalent, interdisciplinary approach to female celebrity, one that is increasingly wary of the sacrifices and indignities required of public women.” She pursues this line of thinking in a recent Camera Obscura article, “Devouring the Diva: Martyrdom as Feminist Backlash in The Rose,” which explores the 1979 film The Rose and its spectacular reimagining of Janis Joplin’s death.

This interest in the diva and the public identity of the poet informs Bradshaw’s chapter for the Companion, which focuses on literary celebrities and the performance of bohemian identity in the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Djuna Barnes, and others, as well as on Eugene O’Neill and fellow members of the Provincetown Players. The following selection from her chapter deals with tensions between “local people” (the mostly immigrant inhabitants of the area south of Washington Square) and the “Villagers” (the bohemian artists looking to establish an enclave in a low-rent district):

For all their inability, or unwillingness, to integrate with the locals, Village artists found them good artistic fodder, drawing on the disparities between the two groups for dramatic effect in their art. Djuna Barnes wrote local-color sketches for New York daily newspapers, for example, which often romanticized the locals as earthier, more authentic figures than the Villagers. In “Paprika Johnson” (1915) she tells the story of a stenographer who becomes the “first cabaret artist.” Paprika is a beauty, “as good to look upon as a yard of slick taffy, and twice as alluring,” but for the men in Swingerhoger’s Beer Garden, her allure is in her voice, as she sits on her fire escape Saturday evenings, singing and playing on her banjo eight floors above the revelers in the garden below.

Convinced that she is the beer garden’s real draw, Swingerhoger offers her a job as paid entertainment, but Paprika demurs, certain she’ll find a husband and a life away from her fire escape. In the meantime, Paprika uses her lovely voice to help her unlovely best friend, Leah – “thin, pock-marked and colorless” – woo Gus, a blind man. Once Leah is married, Paprika is free to pursue her own interests and eagerly accepts the epistolary courtship of the boy who tends the donkeys at Stroud’s. On the very night that they are to meet face to face, however, Gus’s vision is restored, and Leah begs Paprika to sit at his bedside in order to soften the blow of realizing he has a

homely wife. As Paprika sits at Gus’s bedside, the boy from Stroud’s arrives at her apartment, and seeing Leah, “laugh[s] suddenly, with a hard, disillusioned break,” and leaves. Her dreams of leaving the city for marital happiness in Yonkers, or the Bronx, of trading popular songs for lullabies, crushed, Paprika accepts Swingerhoger’s offer, and as the story ends is still, at thirty, sitting on her fire escape, strumming on her banjo, singing to the men below.

“Paprika Johnson” critiques bourgeois desires as they fester, unattainable and unworthy, in the urban working class. Paprika’s desires are simple: she wants a husband; she wants to move from the eighth floor to the second-floor front apartment. Were it not for her loyalty to her bosom friend, she might have had them. But as Barnes’s narrative makes clear, Paprika’s loss might be for the best. The boy from Stroud’s is no catch, a pampered only child “who had put his hands into his mother’s hair and shaken it free of gold.” His hasty departure after he mistakes the homely Leah for Paprika suggests he
is no spiritual match for the noble heroine.

Ironically, when Paprika Johnson’s trustworthiness and compassion get in the way of her dreams, she accidentally achieves what Villagers like Barnes hunger for by becoming an artist. This dense character study offers an enigmatic moral: Paprika achieves the Village ideal – she escapes the bourgeois institutions of marriage and motherhood, and finds a venue and an adoring audience for her art – precisely because she did not want or try for it. Paprika’s lonely banjo songs, free of symbolic import or political significance, exist only as art. Effortlessly countercultural, Barnes’s heroine represents the authenticity of the proletariat.

Bradshaw notes that her favorite part of writing this chapter was the chance to research the Village feminist club Heterodoxy: “I knew Amy Lowell had lectured to the club at least once,” she says. “Katharine Hepburn was there.”

Monday: Caleb Crain

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Well, we’ve dropped the manuscript for our Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City — the size of a ream of paper — in the mail to our editor. [Insert huge sigh of relief.] We were only a couple weeks late, and that owing to a few slow permissions and illustration requests. We’re happy to say how very pleased we are with the volume, which should be out early next year.

Here’s what the final table of contents looks like; it differs in minor details from the earlier one, and we’ve added one contributor since then:



            Cyrus R. K. Patell              INTRODUCTION

1          Robert Lawson-Peebles     FROM
BRITISH OUTPOST TO AMERICAN METROPOLIS

2          Elizabeth L. Bradley            INVENTED ANCESTORS: DUTCH NEW YORK FROM IRVING
TO WHARTON

3          Bryan Waterman                THE
CITY ON STAGE

4          Thomas Augst                    MELVILLE,
AT SEA IN THE CITY

5          Lytle Shaw                         WHITMAN’S
URBANISM

6          Caleb Crain                        HIGH
LIFE, WITH A GLANCE AT THE LOW: THE EARLY LITERATURE OF NEW YORK’S MONEYED
CLASS

7          Martha Nadell                    WRITING
BROOKLYN

8          Sarah Wilson                     
“BEAUFORT’S BASTARDS”: NEW YORK NOVELS OF MANNERS

9          Eric Homberger                  CITY
OF IMMIGRANTS:
POLITICS AND THE POPULAR CULTURES OF TOLERANCE

10        Melissa Bradshaw              PERFORMING
GREENWICH VILLAGE BOHEMIANISM

11        Thulani
Davis                      BLACK MECCA TO BLACK FIRE:
AFRICAN AMERICAN MOVEMENTS

12        Trysh Travis                       NEW
YORK’S CULTURES OF PRINT

13        Daniel Kane                       FROM
POETRY TO PUNK IN THE EAST
VILLAGE

14        Robin Bernstein                  STAGING
LESBIAN AND GAY NEW YORK

15        Cyrus R. K. Patell              EMERGENT
ETHNIC LITERATURES

            Bryan Waterman                EPILOGUE:
“THE MAGIC OF THIS BROKEN WORLD”: NOSTALGIA AND COUNTER-NOSTALGIA IN NEW YORK CITY WRITING

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