This morning Cyrus and I will kick off the seventh incarnation of our team-taught course Writing New York. Here’s what the kids will be ordering, in case you want to read along at home. They’re listed alphabetically by author but we read them roughly chronologically. We’ll post the full syllabus in the coming days.
Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick
Abraham Cahan, Yekl
Stephen Crane, Maggie
E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime
Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Henry James, Washington Square
Tony Kushner, Angels in America
Lin Yutang, Chinatown Family
Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker
Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York City
Jeffrey Richards (ed.), Early American Drama
Philip Shaw, Patti Smith
Bryan neglected to mention that we’ve also assigned the essays from the little Lost New York collection that we edited this fall to accompany our conference. You can download a copy here.
I’d drop “Chinatown Family” like a hot potato – I honestly thought it was the worst book on the syllabus last year; also one of the worst books I’ve ever read. It’d be interesting to read a bit of Joseph Mitchell though – his writings on old New York (bars, neighborhood characters, the poor, and so on) are incredibly detailed and provide insight on a part of the city that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
One of the worst books you’ve ever read! Wow. Strong language. It may be that you’re asking too much of it — after all, we also read Horatio Alger, one of Lin’s literary forerunners, and he’s not exactly Shakespeare either. For me, audience and context are everything. I appreciate Chinatown Family’s engagement with key issues in mid-20c immigration history & assimilation and esp find its portraits of playground, labor, and inter-cultural relations between Chinatown and Little Italy compelling. Still, if it were in print, we’d probably choose Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea instead. And who knows; maybe that’s where we’ll finally find room to fit Piri Thomas in there. CF is a title we added over time, in part because we were looking for representations of urban enclaves outside black and white NYC.
I think Cyrus has his own take on CF’s value — maybe he’ll chime in after teaching his other course this afternoon.
Is it too soon to say Let the Great World Spin? I don’t think I could drop any but I’d add that or John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer.
I find Chinatown Family thematically interesting thematically, despite the fact that it does not have the most elevated of prose style. I’m interested this year particularly in how its engagement with language and politics of assimilation match up with what we find in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker. We’ll see how the pairing works out this year. It may be that we’ll try Eat a Bowl of Tea next time around — even if it is still out of print.
@Lauren: I haven’t had the chance to read Let the Great World Spin yet, but it’s nearing the top of my list. I like Manhattan Transfer and have taught it in other courses, but I think it may be too long for “Writing New York.” I think it’s definitely a candidate for the version of the course that we’re thinking about for the future, which would span a full year.
May I audit your class?
I’m all for REQUIRING the students to see the whole Speed Levitch doc. I always have it in the back of my mind that I need to, but still somehow have not gotten around to it. I think if you make it mandatory that they see it, even if you don’t have any assignments surrounding it, it would be a good idea. It will save future students from experiencing the excruciating mental pain I experience whenever I remember that I have not seen the whole thing.
I’m screening The Cruise in its entirety this year, though it’s still optional. But thanks for the endorsement, Andrea.
Grieve … why do I imagine you showing up in a pink popped collar, sandals, using the word “bra” and “bro” gratuitously and interchangeably, and raising your hand like Arnold Horseshack to answer every rhetorical question? And all of this to remain anonymous? The real question is: Would you bring snacks for the teachers?
Lauren — I’m still processing Let the Great World Spin, which I really enjoyed. I’m toying with the idea of teaching a post-9/11 novel seminar, and it certainly would belong there. Another post-9/11 novel I’ve thought about putting in WNY: Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days.
Thanks for these comments, folks. Keep em coming.
Hehe – sorry Prof. Waterman, I guess that’s a bit harsh. But I remember just hating the book – it never engaged me at all, and read like a bit-rate Chinese immigrant version of ‘Kavalier and Clay.’ ‘course, I’m not at all familiar with Chinese-American immigrant literature, and there are probably better books out there that depict the Chinese-American condition in 20th century New York City better than ‘Chinatown Family.’ I suppose that’s why it’s easier to read Alger because I know more about his upward mobility/class issues/optimism background, and ‘Ragged Dick’ was a great example of the novels then written to inspire potentially wayward pre-adolescent boys. Sigh..I should give Lin Yutang another shot.
I second Andrea’s requirement for the Speed Levitch documentary. Will you post details of the screening this semester on the blog? (Oh, and you should invite him to teach a session. I don’t care that he lives in San Francisco – have everyone watch the documentary and realize how amazing he is, then invite everyone to chip in for his plane ticket.)
Something else that might’ve been fun would’ve been a walking tour of places that we studied in WNY: start in the Financial District at Melville’s birthplace, wander up to what used to be CBGB (damn you, John Varvatos!), eat at a really old pizzeria, go to a really old record shop, and so on. And because I love New York’s inexhaustible source of restaurants, it’d be interesting to add a bit to the syllabus strictly about the city and food. You could get ideas from ‘Appetite City’ and ‘Gastropolis,’ two equally fascinating books about New York’s relationship with food of all cultures over the course of history.
Whew. This class always gets me going. I miss it!
A post 9/11 seminar would probably be really interesting. In a course like that I would definitely be looking to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – one of my favorites. I haven’t heard of Specimen Days, but I’ll check it out.
Before my classes start on Monday I’m trying to finish up The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Even though it isn’t exclusively about Manhattan, the parts that are about NYC are incredibly interesting and make me think about this blog a lot.
I like the JSF novel quite a bit. I read it right after I turned in the ms for the conclusion to the Cambridge Comp and so didn’t get to include it in my discussion there of nostalgia/counternostalgia in NYC writing, but I think it speaks to that dynamic in interesting ways.
We use Jacobs in WNY in lecture, though we don’t have them read from Death and Life itself. Maybe we should. (About now students go: “Ugh! Your reading list is too long already!”) We talk about Jacobs/Moses, along with some reading by Marshall Berman, in relation to Ginsberg’s Howl.
And you really should read Specimen Days: Walt Whitman turns up in each of three novellas, but in different ways each time.
It will probably be a while before I get to it with a new semester starting, but when I do I’ll let you know what I think.
Pynchon. The list misses the fabulism that the city encourages.(Couldn’t suggest one to take off until I’ve read ’em all.)
@Dan McCarthy. Which Pynchon? V. does have a bit of bohemian life in the city in it, but I’ve never really thought of urban experience as the novel’s primary subject. And the rest of his novels are set in California (Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice), Europe (Gravity’s Rainbow), or the American South (Mason and Dixon).
How about something by Paul Auster for fabulism? Or perhaps Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay (though that novel is probably too long for us to assign in the context of the course). We used to have Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight serve that purpose (at least in part), but we’ve made it optional this year.