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Downloadable Lost New York

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Thumbnail image for lost_new_york_cover.jpgThe Fales Library exhibition that accompanied our recent Lost New York conference will remain on view through November 6. If you're in the area, stop by the Bobst Library (Washington Square South at LaGuardia Place), tell the security desk that you're going to Fales, and head up to the third floor. It's a wonderful exhibit. You can read more about it in this post from earlier in the month.

While you're there you can pick up the volume essays that accompanies the exhibit -- not exactly a catalog, the volume takes both the exhibit and the conference theme as a point of departure.

If you aren't able to visit before November 6, you can download a copy of the volume here in PDF format. (The download is approimately 28.5 MB.)

And, for a limited time, readers of this blog can request a complimentary copy of the book itself, which is printed on glossy stock and makes a handsome addition to any library of books about New York. Just send an e-mail with your mailing address to

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The-Contrast.jpgRoyall Tyler's The Contrast (1787), currently on stage at Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village, is best known to literary historians and theater buffs as the first play by an American writer to be professionally staged. Written by a young New Englander who was visiting New York City on government business, the comedy of manners sets up several contrasts: between the new nation and the mother country, between country and city, between New England and New York.

Critics commonly treat the play as a brief for Revolutionary republicanism: an attack on British "luxury" as effeminizing and a plea for young Americans to cultivate homespun virtues, fashion, and entertainment. In making such arguments, the play would seem divided against itself, since the theater itself was taken by some old-guard republicans to be one of the chief European vices that needed to be stamped out.

During the Revolution, the Continental Congress outlawed all "shews, plays, and other expensive diversions." New York's major theater troupe, the American Company, most of whom were natives of Great Britain, left for the British West Indies, where they stayed for eight years, waiting out the war. The British, who eventually came to occupy New York City for the duration of the Revolution, continued to sponsor amateur theatricals (with British soldiers staging plays of their own). When the American Company returned following the evacuation of the British, the New York City council denounced them for performing "while so great a part of this city still lies in ruins, and many of the citizens continue to be pressed with the distresses brought on them in consequence of the late war." Tyler, whose native Boston would not legalize the theater until 1794, was treading a thin line in writing for the stage.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that The Contrast is so preoccupied with theater conventions themselves. The play mines the idea of theatrum mundi--"all the world's a stage," in Shakespeare's formulation--to its fullest comic potential in a series of situations in which the play comments on the conventions of the theater itself and draws extended comparisons of society to stage acting. The most exemplary of these moments involves the prototypical "Stage Yankee," Jonathan, a country bumpkin from Massachusetts in town as an attendant to the Revolutionary War officer Colonel Manly.

Jonathan explores the city in company with two local servants, Jessamy and Jenny, while Manly finds himself caught up in a seduction plot involving his sister, Charlotte, and then falls in love himself with Maria, a novel-reading sentimentalist who's become dissatisfied with Billy Dimple, the affected fool her father wants her to marry. While the romance plots and subplots unfold among the upper-class characters, the unsophisticated Jonathan -- played to full comic effect at the Metropolitan by Brad Frazier -- accidentally finds himself in New York's John Street Theater, the very theater in which The Contrast premiered. Jonathan mistakes the playhouse, though, for a church -- unwitting commentary on similarities between stage and pulpit -- and when the curtain goes up, he assumes he's somehow peeping on the family living next door. When Jessamy and Jenny ask him later for details about what he saw, his confusion is apparent: "Why, I vow they were pretty much like other families," he says of the people he saw on stage. "[T]here was a poor, good-natured, curse of a husband, and a sad rantipole of a wife." He goes on to offer details that would make it clear to Jonathan's audiences, on stage and off, that he was describing a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's extraordinarily popular play, The School for Scandal (1777), along with John O'Keefe's The Poor Soldier (1783), both British imports. The actor who originally played Jonathan even winds up commenting on what would have been his prior performance in the latter, in some stuttered lines about "Darby Wagall," a conflation of role and actor.

Though audiences today need program notes or footnotes to make sense of some of these references, Tyler's initial audience would not have, which is precisely the point and the source of Tyler's humor. The inside joke does depend, however, on the audience's refusal to suspend its disbelief, or to differentiate between the theater and real life--on its ability, that is, to see the actor and his character on stage at the same time. (At the Metropolitan, director Alex Roe has his actors interact directly with audience members, making plain that they are implicated in the play's social satire.) The line between stage and "real life" has been stretched precariously thin; this idea would become a staple in theatrical representations of New York over the coming century.

Jonathan's experience at the theater helps us see one of the many "contrasts" the play stages: between a sophisticated theater audience (represented on stage by Dimple, Jessamy, and Jenny) and a bumbling rube, Jonathan, the intellectual and cultural victim of the theater's ignorant opponents. What does it mean, then, that the play aligns its own knowing audience--the people who understand the jokes--with derided characters like Dimple and Jessamy, who go to the theater only to turn their backs on the performers and watch elite women in the boxes "play the fine woman to perfection"?

LetCharweb.jpgTo the extent that Jonathan represents audience members he is a rather poor and unsophisticated one here and elsewhere. Jonathan continually misreads the city, assuming that Jessamy is a member of congress, that a theater and a brothel are both churches, that the theater's stage is a neighbor's house, and that a prostitute is a deacon's daughter. But Jonathan does get something fundamentally right about the theater's relationship to life: that the theater is like life in some ways. If his peep into the "neighbor's household" convinces him that Sheridan's characters are essentially like any other family, the observation implies that most members of society are caught up in various kinds of performance themselves. The Contrast's opening scene makes much the same point, in Charlotte Manly's account of a walk on the Battery, at the bottom of Broadway, before an audience of admiring soldiers and beaux. Broadway, which ran close to the sites of both the John Street and the Park Theatres, from very early on was the site of fashionable promenades, becoming a contested territory in the nineteenth century as multiple social groups wanted to display their taste. Tyler, poking fun at such pretension, makes visible something that would remain a part of New York's characterization as a city all the way to the present: the popular conflation of the city with the theater itself.

Tyler's play shows how manners or politeness help institutionalize divisions based on class, sex, and race. For Tyler, social theatricality poses a problem, to be sure, but most particularly when members of the servant class seek to climb above their stations. We are to understand it as dangerous, for instance, when Jessamy recites Lord Chesterfield's advice (from his oft-reprinted if controversial Letters to His Son) on how to behave in polite society. Even Jonathan, whose rural simplicity is sometimes understood as "native worth," is marked as an outsider to metropolitan manners and, in the process, kept in a lower-class position. Two virtues, as it were, for the price of one. At the same time, Manly's ability to perform his role as a natural aristocrat and to appear artless and sincere while doing so offers just one example of the cultural work such a play could perform in the name of patriotism. The Contrast's conclusion--the promise of a wedding between New England and New York landed gentry, all done by Federal authority and isolationist rhetoric--leaves those who can't comprehend theatrical and social cues (or who can't afford to pay to learn them) out in the cold.

DimpleManly1web.jpgMuch of what I've just written seems positively sterile in the face of the vibrant, humorous staging of the play at the Metropolitan. This production keeps its emphasis on the satire of urban social mores in ways that make the play seem incredibly contemporary rather than a period piece. (In fact, I couldn't stop comparing it to the TV teen drama Gossip Girl in its relentless satirization of New York's moneyed classes, whether they be openly vacuous or self-righteously unmaterialistic and moral.) The decision to have the cast appear in tanktops and rather plain skirts and pants (with the exception of the clownish Jonathan, who appears in pajama pants) calls attention to the play's critique of fashion in ways that quaint period clothing simply could not have done. But the biggest surprise for me, having read and taught the play a dozen times, was how thoroughly unprepared I was for the play's rich and constant humor. Cold War critics, this production suggests, were completely snookered by Colonel Manly's patriotic platitudes. He seemed boring or priggish, sure, but no one really talked about him as the object of Tyler's satire in the same way Tyler was clearly sending up the Anglophile fops and coquettes, Dimple and Charlotte, or the class-climbing servants, Jessamy and Jenny. But in this production -- and I suspect in the original as well -- Manly and his sentimental counterpart Maria are shown to be as much the objects of Tyler's satire as anyone else in the play. Manly's declamations (as delivered by Rob Skolits) are meant to ring hollow and self-serving -- to the point of hilarity, given his inability to see his own blind devotion to republican cliche. Maria Silverman's performance as Maria leaves no doubt (from her first entrance singing a popular tune about a stoic Indian chief -- her model of manly behavior) that Tyler was lampooning her rather than making her a virtuous alternative to the foolish, fashion-obsessed Charlotte, played pitch-perfect by Metropolitan veteran Amanda Jones.

The Metropolitan's cast and director have unlocked a hilarious streak in this play too long overlooked by literary scholars. They've changed the way I will read and teach it in the future. This is a rare opportunity to see a piece of American and New York City theater history brought to new life in a way that doesn't feel stuffy and dated. I can't recommend enough that you get out and see it before it ends November 1.

More on The Contrast and New York history at Inside the Apple.

DRT 20th Anniversary

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Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has declared today to be "Spike Lee Day" in Brooklyn to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Lee's film Do the Right Thing.

Readers of this blog know that Do the Right Thing is one of the staples of the Writing New York course that Bryan and I have been teaching at NYU since 2003. I wrote a couple of posts about the film here this past spring. The first invited readers to compare the openings of Lee's film and the film that serves as its foil in our course, Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). The second suggests that the film dramatizes a culture of incivility in which cosmopolitan opportunities fail to be realized.

Brian Lehrer did a segment on the film yesterday on his radio show at WNYC. [You can listen to or download a podcast here.] The segment featured two writers from The Root, an online magazine devoted to African American culture and politics. First, senior writer Kai Wright discussed the impact of the movie twenty years ago and the ways in which the problems it dramatized remain problematic today. Then, political reporter Dayo Olopade talked about what the film signifies for Barack and Michelle Obama, who reportedly saw it on their first date.

The Root has a terrific set of articles devoted to the film's anniversary, including a guide to dressing like it's 1989.

To commemorate the anniversary, Universal has just released a Blu-ray edition of the film. The disc features a new 20th-anniversary documentary and a new audio commentary by Spike Lee. (Click here for an online review of the disc at My preferred online highdef reviewing site,, hasn't published its evaluation yet.) My copy of the new disc hasn't arrived yet, but I suspect that fans or scholars of the film will still want the wonderful Criterion Edition of the film, which is in standard definition. I'll let you know how the two compare in a later post.

This morning we gave our last lecture of the semester in Writing New York. Most years we've taught the course, we end with Angels in America, and hence on an optimistic note (and with a blessing, to boot!). This year, with the financial crisis causing a lot of media hand-wringing about the return of the crime-ridden 70s (a scenario not everyone dreads, it should be noted), we decided to end on an urban gothic note with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns.

As I've written elsewhere, when I was a kid I was a DC kid, and given that I came of age in the mid 80s, the two biggest comics events for me were TDK and Watchmen. Of course when I first encountered them I still lived in a small town in the mountains of northern Arizona and had never been to New York, which is, perhaps fitting: New York was, in my imagination, a city ripped right out of Detective Comics. I might have imagined its geography more like this, though:



The other night I watched a movie from the same era as the Miller novel -- Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys. (Schumacher would go on to make, among other things, the neo-camp be-nippled Batman movies of the mid-90s starring first Val Kilmer and then George Clooney.) It's been quite a while since I'd seen Lost Boys -- probably since I was 16 or 17. I noticed in the background of the comics shop where Corey Feldman and his brother work -- their cover for their real jobs as junior vampire slayers -- a Miller poster I had hanging in my bedroom and that I still have rolled up in a closet somewhere. Maybe it's worth something; I can't even seem to find a picture of it on google images.

When I was about that age I drove with some friends to the San Diego Comicon. (One of my friends had self-published a comic book and was looking for a distributor; didn't pan out as planned on that occasion, but he's since had a fair amount of success with his own publishing company and more recently sold a series of fantasy novels along with movie rights.) The highlight of the Comicon for me was a panel featuring Miller, who must have been around 30 years old at the time. He seemed to be very moody and mysterious. He signed my issues of Dark Knight Returns -- this was, of course, back when it was still only available in its four original installments, not as a single volume the way it's packaged today.

Anyhow, back then I vowed I'd someday teach both TDK and Watchmen in college classrooms. How nerdy was it that I already knew I wanted to be a professor? More nerdy than wanting to teach comic books?

Today's lecture didn't leave any time for discussion, which was a little anti-climactic since it was the last day of class and there're no discussion sections this week.

miller batman-thumb-320x503.jpgThe particular point I'd hoped to discuss has to do with what some critics identified as Christopher Nolan's impulse, especially in The Dark Knight, to draw on what I take as Miller's ambivalence toward his hero's moral and mental outlook. Like Alan Moore in Watchmen, he seems to be asking what the world would be like if someone really dressed up in a funny costume and started to fight crime. In Miller's world, Superman gets coopted by Reagan, much as Moore's Dr. Manhattan becomes a tool of Nixon's military industrial complex. Batman would seem to be an antidote to such fascist impulses, and yet it's clear that Miller's also grappling with the mental trauma at the heart of the Batman origin myth. Batman is damaged goods. His heroism is likewise damaged. Is it necessary? Or only necessary to him, a sort of narcissistic wound? Moreover, Miller seems to link Batman not just to traditions of urban gothic, detective fiction, and gangster noir -- or to the then-recent media sensation of the Bernie Goetz case -- but also to the iconography of frontier violence and vigilante violence we tend to associate with cowboy politicians like Reagan and George W. (Hence the horseback splash above?)

In Nolan's hands, as I noted last summer, this sort of ambivalence -- what does it mean to make a mentally damaged hero a figure of American justice? -- led to all sorts of conflicting readings of the most recent film. Batman tortures the Joker to get information: therefore, Batman is Bush? And the Joker's Al Qaeda? Is the movie, as the original Wall St. Journal op-ed piece that started the firestorm in the blogosphere, a conservative defense of the War on Terror? Or is Nolan exposing the evils that flow from state sanction of a "world without rules"? I suggested in class that Miller was similarly ambivalent about Batman, but that his ambivalence constitutes a critique of the Bush/Cheney War on Terror, not a rationale for it.

Am I right that in questioning Batman, Miller and Nolan are getting at something foundational about American origins in violence? Or is there a more redemptive treatment of what Miller was trying to do with the character -- or the country? Or the city for that matter? 



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To close my second lecture on Kushner's Angels in America, I typically show two film clips, one from Ric Burns's New York: A Documentary Film, and one from the HBO production of Angels. I preface the clips with the idea that they will illustrate the process by which old meanings and materials get reassembled into something new -- a note the play hits over and over -- in this case, a new set of meanings assigned to the angel at Bethesda fountain in Central Park. (I wrote a long meditation on the fountain and its incorporation into Kushner's play last year around this time; it includes -- along with great clips from Godspell and video of the street performer Thoth -- my discussion of a historical flaw the Burns film makes regarding the fountain, as well as my defense of the mistake: Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it's not true!)

The final scene of the play is also about the magic of the theater--the real effects of something artificially staged. "The magic of the theater" is a phrase Harper, the valium-popping Mormon housewife, uses earlier in the play when she encounters a magically speaking mannequin in the Mormon visitors' center uptown. At the conclusion, Prior breaks through the fourth wall to address the audience directly, in a way doing something like what the pioneer woman from the diorama did for Harper.

Here's the fountain scene:

And here's how I read that moment, when Prior ends the play by blessing the audience: above all, it needs to be understood in the context of other blessings mentioned in the play - blessings that come from wrestling, struggling with the Almighty, as the Rabbi and Louis's grandmother say Louis needs to do. This would include blessings raised intertextually: Jacob's inheritance, as well as his blessing and new name received after struggling with the angel and ascending to heaven -- one of Prior's antecedents.

All of these blessings are intensely physical, and bodily issues are ever present in this play, as you might expect from a play dealing with AIDS. There is promise and peril in the exchange of fluids, particles -- little pieces of Louis going up Joe's nose. The experience of watching Angels, especially in the theater, is likewise extremely physical: by the time you get to the Bethesda blessing at the end, your body is aching from laughing and crying so hard--something that isn't totally replicated in the experience of watching it on TV. At least I remember my sides splitting and a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion by the time we got to the end.

I think what Kushner's getting at in having Prior perform a blessing as the play's conclusion is again metatheatrical: rituals and blessings are among the oldest uses of theater, the oldest ways to organize new communities. Rituals like this one promise "more life," which, as Kushner notes in a postscript, is a translation for the Hebrew word for "blessing." I know some people who are offended by the blessing at the end of the play -- that it's foisted on the audience whether or not they want it, that it comes off as condescending to pronounce your viewers fabulous citizens, that in order to do so Kushner had to think pretty highly of his own prophetic calling. But that's not how I see it -- or feel it -- at all. Count me among the converted: I'll take that kind of blessing any day.

First We Take Manhattan

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This morning Cyrus is lecturing on Woody Allen's Manhattan in our Writing New York class. It's one of my favorite lectures of the semester -- one of the real pleasures of team-teaching a course like this. Even better, sometimes, than getting to teach some of your favorite books or other cultural artifacts is getting to listen to someone else do it.

I've seen the Allen film probably a dozen times by now, but I really don't ever get sick of it. For one, it's interesting to return to it each spring with a group of new students -- many of whom haven't seen it before. (I know, it seems amazing! When I was in college one of the first rites of passage was finding the right group of people with whom you could rent -- and then memorize and recite whole chunks of -- Woody Allen's oeuvre.)

cemetery.jpgOne of my favorite viewings of the film, though, came not for the class but during a summer's research trip to LA, when I went with a few friends to see it outdoors at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I wrote about that viewing elsewhere, if you want to read my whole take on the weird LA/NY tension that organized the evening, but for now I want to call out a moment near the end of my post when I misquoted some lines from the film's ending. I wrote:

When he lectures on this movie, my team-teacher asks our students to consider what it means that the film ends where it does. Why go back to Tracy? What does it mean to make her the film's moral center? What does it mean that she refuses to put off her London plans, that she delivers the final injunction to have a little faith in people (even as she acknowledges that everyone gets corrupted sometime)?
From my misremembering of Tracy's line, I went on to speculate on how Tracy's face aims to work for viewers:

Is the return to Tracy too easy, too predictable -- a reaffirmation of traditionalist masculine fantasy in the face of things like the ERA (invoked in Bella Abzug's MOMA fundraiser cameo)? Or can we take it seriously that Tracy's face, which Allen's camera has lovingly preserved for posterity (remember that scene when she cries? The size of those tears!), belongs at the end of his index of things that make life worth living? Here's the list in full, delivered by Isaac to his tape recorder/proxy therapist:


Well, all right, why is life worth living? That's a very good question. Um. Well, there are certain things I -- I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um, for me ... oh, I would say ... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing ... uh ummmm and Willie Mays, and um, uh, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and ummmm ... Louie Armstrong's recording of "Potatohead Blues" ... umm, Swedish movies, naturally ... "Sentimental Education" by Flaubert ... uh, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra ... ummm, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne ... uh, the crabs at Sam Wo's ... tsch, uh, Tracy's face ...

Every one of these items reaffirms not only the film's nostalgic tone, but more specifically its nostalgia for traditional masculinity, bodily pleasure, or male artistic prowess, even as they can be read more innocently as merely celebrating a range of human productions that do indeed counteract the universe's terrifying problems. The film manages to convince its viewers of this second reading, at least if viewers like us, nestled among the graves of dead celebrities, can be taken as representative.
In the comments thread, my friend Wendy, with whom I'd gone to see the film, pointed out my mistake:

I believe Tracy's last lines of the move are "Not everybody gets corrupted. You gotta have a little faith in people," an idea which only reinforces Tracy's role as the film's moral center - and the hope that we all have that cities and lovers will be the same when we return to them, even though we know, really know that they won't. The very act of watching this movie, which won't be corrupted - it will be the same every time we watch it, no matter where we see it - is one way for us to live Tracy's last lines. In this sense the movie becomes our Tracy. That Diane Keaton will always say Van Gogh "Van Gawk" or that the soundtrack to fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge will always be Gershwin is a way for us to have a touchstone that is pure, that is faith-inspiring, no matter how your life has changed since the last time you saw it.
And another LA friend, Ruben, disputed my reading of the tape-recorder-therapy laundry list:

 As for the famous list, I loved it as a younger person but it strikes me as more than a little self-aggrandizing now. I realize that part of the point is that it makes us consider what our own lists might look like but Woody veers dangerously close to those NYRB personal ads where the people define themselves by all the devastatingly perfect and culturally precise things they like to do and places they like to go. In his defense, I remember a specific joke of his about those ads, something along the lines of "Sensitive intellectual would like to get together for discussions of Kafka and sodomy."
Granting that I'd gotten Tracy's line wrong, was I right about the list? Or is Ruben right that it's a pastiche of pseudo-intellectual cliches? I'd be interested in hearing how others -- our students or other readers -- understand the film's final scenes.

p.s. Wendy, who's written for a number of major television dramas, posted her own response to the film a week later. I responded to Ruben's comment -- though perhaps lamely -- in the comments thread there. Isn't the interweb magical? Behold its acts of historical preservation.

p.p.s. Speaking of ephemera: The film was shown on the side of Rudolph Valentino's mausoleum. Not too long ago the blog Ephemeral New York posted on the actor's 1926 funeral procession down Broadway.

Brendan, one of our TAs, sends along a notice of the following event this coming Saturday, sponsored by n+1 and the New School:

"What Was the Hipster?"
An Afternoon Panel, Symposium, and Historical Investigation
--Saturday, April 11, 2009--

Mark Greif (n+1)
Jace Clayton (dj/Rupture)
Christian Lorentzen (Harper's)
+ Special Guests TBA

Free and Open to the Public
Who was the turn-of-the-century hipster? Who is free enough of the hipster taint to write the hipster's history without contempt or nostalgia? Why do we declare the hipster moment over--that, in fact, it had ended by 2003--when the hipster's "global brand" has just reached its apotheosis?

A panel of n+1 writers invites n+1 subscribers and the public to join a collective investigation. Short presentations will be followed by audience debate, comment, and recollection, to be transcribed and published in book form this year.
Saturday, April 11, 2009, 2 pm - 4 pm.
The New School University, Theresa Lang Center, Arnhold Hall
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor.

Admission: No tickets or reservations required; seating is first-come first-served.
I'll be on a walking tour in Chinatown that afternoon, but perhaps someone else will avail himself or herself of the invitation and report back. The announcement has relevance to our Writing New York course material this week, especially today's discussion of Howl. In parsing the poem's invocation of "angelheaded hipsters" "dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," I wondered aloud in lecture what relation Ginsberg's imagery had to Norman Mailer's infamous essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," which appeared in Dissent the year after Howl was published and was collected in Mailer's 1959 book Advertisements for Myself. (The essay used to be on Dissent's website in full, but it looks like it's been removed; here's a meditation on it that followed Mailer's death a few years ago -- written by one of the n+1 panelists, it turns out.)

hrc_mailer3.jpgThe quote I put on the screen contained Mailer's formulation of the idea that white and black outsider cultures had come together, in the Village, to form a new type: the hipster, which Mailer considered synonymous with "the white negro." Here's the quote:

"In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed--the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life. ... marijuana was the wedding ring."
Since we were short on time -- lecture was coming to an end -- I didn't have time to elaborate or contextualize as much as I would have liked. It may not have been clear where Mailer positioned himself in relation to this new cultural type, but in fact he's not being a crank complaining about a phenomenon he finds disturbing. Rather, he identifies himself with the hipster/White Negro he describes. By identifying spiritually with black men's alienation (and with their primitivism and virility, which he also celebrates as psychopathy), he argues, white men can achieve better orgasms and feel more courageous about life in general.

Of course there's a lot in his idea that's offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it's hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it's just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we've examined (Jolson and O'Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It's hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg's angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed's "Waiting for the Man," and Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger." Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn't respect notions of cultural purity?

Bohemian Beginnings

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bleeckerbroadway.jpgMost of lecture today was devoted to the idea of Greenwich Village in the early twentieth century -- and to the group of people the historian Christine Stansell has termed "American Moderns."

I did mention during lecture some earlier stirrings of New York's bohemian subculture, strong enough that they received commentary from outsiders. W.D. Howells pokes fun at middle-class slumming -- young writers and artists who want to make a romantic escape from their parents' stifling genteel culture -- in The Coast of Bohemia (1893). In the 1870s the journalist James D. McCabe, in Lights and Shadows of New York Life, has this portrait of "Bleecker Street":

In many respects Bleecker Street is more characteristic of Paris than of New York. It reminds one strongly of the Latin Quarter. ... It is one of the headquarters of Bohemianism, and Mrs. Grundy [a code word for the epitome of genteel propriety] now shivers with holy horror when she thinks it was once her home. The street has not entirely lost its reputation. No one is prepared to say it is a vile neighborhood; no one would care to class it with Houston, Mercer, Greene, or Water Streets; but people shake their heads, look mysterious, and sigh ominously when you ask them about it. It is a suspicious neighborhood, to say the least, and he who frequents it must be prepared for the gossip and surmises of his friends. ... Walk down it at almost any hour of the day or night, and you will see many things that are new to you. Strange characters meet you at every step; even the shops have a Bohemian aspect, for trade is nowhere so much the victim of chance as here.
Who are these strange characters? He goes on to say they're quite a different crowd than you'll find walking on Broadway, so close by:

That long-haired, queerly dressed young man, with a parcel under his arm, who passed you just then, is an artist, and his home is in the attic of that tall house from which you saw him pass out.  ... If you look up to the second floor, you may see a pretty, but not over fresh looking young woman [an actress], gazing down into the street. ... She is used to looking at men, and to having them look at her, and she is not averse to their admiration. On the floor above her dwells Betty Mulligan, a pretty little butterfly well known to the lovers of the ballet as Mademoiselle Alexandrine. No one pretends to know her history. In the same house is a fine-looking woman, not young, but not old. Her 'husband' has taken lodgings here for her, but he comes to see her only at intervals. ... Women come here to meet other men besides their husbands, and men bring women here who are not their wives. Bleecker Street asks no questions, but it has come to suspect the men and women who are seen in it. [Excerpted in Sawyers, ed., The Greenwich Village Reader]
whitman_pfaffs.jpgThe intersection of Broadway and Bleecker had, even earlier, been home to a bohemian literary scene that met at a cellar pub called Pfaff's. The characters affiliated with the Pfaff's scene fit some of McCabe's character types: artists, actresses, dancers, writers, the most famous of whom was Walt Whitman. (He took a visiting Emerson to Pfaff's for dinner.) A terrific website hosted by Lehigh University and created by Ed Whitley and Rob Weidman offers biographies of over 150 key figures who made their way through Pfaff's, including Howells, Horatio Alger, the famous actress Adah Isaacs Menken, and the actor Joseph Jefferson. The site, The Vault at Pfaff's, also contains searchable digital reproductions of The Saturday Press, the short-lived newspaper edited by Henry Clapp, Jr., a key publication for the Pfaff's crowd. There's enough there to lose yourself in for several hours, to be sure.

[Whitman at Pfaff's, image taken from The Vault at Pfaff's]

Al Jolson's Own Story

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jazzsingersouvenir.jpgI mentioned in lecture this morning that the recent DVD repackaging of The Jazz Singer -- which I highly recommend -- comes with a copy of the original souvenir book sold in theaters for a quarter, a sort of playbill for the movie. The studio really pushes the parallel between Jack Robin's and Al Jolson's stories, not that surprising if you know (as the program also points out) that Samson Raphaelson was inspired to write the original story, and then the Broadway play on which the movie is based, after seeing Jolson in concert and speaking to him backstage. In this and other ways the studio bills the film as an extraordinarily realistic portrait of a second-generation Jewish immigrant's rise from the LES ghetto to Broadway stardom.

I promised to post a few quotes from the Jolson bio in the souvenir program, given that they touch on the point that makes this film controversial in our own day: Jolson's blackface performance. In class today I tried to touch on several ways in which the film self-consciously uses blackface as part of a larger set of coniderations about identity, much the way that the Vitaphone sequences (the synchronized songs and dialogue) thematize "voice" in meaningful ways. This discussion benefits, I think, from the program's biographical note, which makes Jolson's first use of blackface into the turning point of his career as an entertainer, which in its early, "white face" phase (yes, it uses that term), had met with "indifferent success":

The turning tide was a chance conversation one night with an old darky. The man was a southern negro who assisted the comedian when he dressed. Jolson was extremely fond of him and appreciative of his loyalty through the lean days of his vaudeville tours. In Washington [DC, as a child,] Al had acquired a sympathetic interest in negro life and had learned to mimic the accent of the race.

One night when the two were preparing for a performance in a small theatre in Brooklyn, the actor confided to his old dresser his misgivings as to the merits of his act.

"How am I going to get them to laugh more?" he mused.

The darky shook his head knowingly. "Boss, if yo' skin am black they always laugh."

The idea struck Jolson as plausible and he decided to try it. He got some burnt cork, blacked up and rehearsed before the negro. When he finished he heard a chuckle followed by the verdict.

"Mistah Jolson, yo is just as funny as me."

The sketch goes on to explain that Jolson got a raise and widened his tour circuit and that his adopting blackface eventually led to his international celebrity.

What I find curious about this story is that it makes it seem as if Jolson and his stagehand invented blackface, or at least saved it from obscurity. In reality, it was a common element of vaudeville sketches and had been for decades. If it's a mistake for us to read Jolson's use of blackface as anachronistic or idiosyncratic (and to do so clearly would be a mistake: the Spike Lee montage does nothing if not make us aware of how persistent and prevalent the form, and the stereotypes in which is trafficked, were well into the twentieth century) then it seems to be a misunderstanding Jolson helped to cultivate by identifying himself so personally with it.

More on the film's use of blackface in the days to come; tomorrow I think I'll post on possible ways to understand the Kol Nidre performance near the film's close.

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