This year I’m teaching a “Freshman Honors Seminar” on the subject of “Modernist New York.” The class is held in the residence hall where we live, and it is linked to an “Explorations” community. The students live together, intermingled with another seminar/community called “New York’s Writing Women,” which deals with Greenwich Village Bohemia and the Harlem Renaissance. The Explorations program enables us to create programming related to the class: so, for example, we took students in both classes to visit the Tenement Museum last month. In-between our readings of Hart Crane’s poem The Bridge (1930) and John Dos Passos’ novel Manhattan Transfer (1925), I took my students on a walking tour of Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall Park.
Our “textbook” for the class is the very readable cultural history New York Modern: The Arts and the City by William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff. The book works well for my purposes in part because it concentrates on arts other than literature and also because it makes an argument about “New York modern” as a set of styles and perspectives that is both distinct from modernism (because it is rooted in the realism of such writers and artists as Whitman, Wharton, and Eakins) and outlasts it.
The subject of tomorrow’s class is music, and our reading comes not from New York Modern but from Alex Ross‘s history of twentieth-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise (2007), in particular its fourth chapter, “Invisible Men,” which treats U.S. composers during the ragtime and jazz eras. Our listening assignment is drawn from some of the composers whom Ross mentions:
Antonin Dvorak, Symphony “From the New World”
Scott Joplin, “Maple Leaf Rag”
Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Livery Stable Blues”
Will Marion Cook, Overture to In Dahomey and “On Emancipation Day”
Jerome Kern, Show Boat (Act One, Scene One: “Niggers all work on de Mississippi”; Act Two, Scene One: “Dyunga doe! Dyunga doe!”
Charles Ives, Three Places in New England, “1. The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common”