Monthly Archives: June 2015

Speaking of New York writers, urban space, and archives…

Hey folks, maybe I’m just having withdrawal from our fine two weeks, but I came across a story that combines the West Village’s literary past with print culture and battles over urban space that nicely suggest many of the themes we covered.

Not only that, but the lyrics below are from the Fales Library’s Tuli Kupferberg archive: A song written by Bob Dylan, protesting Robert Moses’ proposed destruction-by-highway of Greenwich Village.

You can read the full story here: http://gothamist.com/2015/06/26/bob_dylan_robert_moses.php

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You can read the full story here: http://gothamist.com/2015/06/26/bob_dylan_robert_moses.php

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Emma Goldman Lived Here

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goldman

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Flickr Photo Albums

All the photographs are in their albums here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/130726691@N03/albums

If you are using the photographs for press or other reasons, please give credit! Thank you.

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Modernism and Harlem and Post-WWI Radicals

In Monday’s discussion, we got into questioning modernism, and considering the place/time/definition of modernism. In particular we asked what was so “new and improved” about that period,something that got me thinking back to other discussions I’ve had about this question.

81eKXTcXnwLTo me, WWI is a major factor in defining what happens to modernism. The war period is an ambivalent, confused time that deeply affects the work of  a lot of writers. In the September 2013 issue of Modernism/Modernity, which Suzanne Churchill and Adam McKible edited, Barbara Foley argues this in relation to the New Negro movement:

“While it is evident that, in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, the leftist upsurge lost some of its immediate energy, it is also evident that the Bolshevik revolution had a continuing and mounting impact throughout the decade. The proletarian movement of the 1930s cannot be attributed solely to the effects of the Great Depression; its origins in the post–World War I radicalism that was inspired in large part by the establishment of socialism in the Soviet Union cannot be effaced. The routine designation of the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural “flowering” beginning in the 1920s—even if it is seen to continue to 1940, as the Norton Anthology of African American Literature proposes—deflects attention from these crucially important postwar political roots.  Indeed, if anticapitalist radicalism is viewed as central to the New Negro movement from its outset, and the culturalist thrust of much of the “Harlem Renaissance” is seen as a movement within a movement, one largely confined to the mid- to late 1920s, then the entire arc of African American literature is significantly reconfigured” (439-40).

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Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series

This made me think that the New Negro movement (which I always associated with the separate but concurrent upheaval of the great migration instead) had important things in common with other modernisms. I thought about Georg Lukacs, who was also deeply affected by the events during and immediately after the Great War. In History and Class Consciousness, he writes that the years during and immediately after the Great War and the Russian Revolution were intensely destabilizing and at times incomprehensible. I like the way he explains what this meant for him: “Mental confusion is not always chaos. It may strengthen the internal contradictions for the time being but in the long run it will lead to their resolution […] my ethics tended in the direction of praxis, action and hence toward politics. And this led in turn to economics, and the need for a theoretical grounding there finally brought me to the philosophy of Marxism” (Lukacs, HCC xi).

Perry Anderson further explains the linkages between modernist art forms and the destabilized social structure of the first decades of the twentieth century in “Modernity and Revolution”:

“European modernism in the first years of [the twentieth century] flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present, and a still unpredictable political future. Or, put another way, it arose at the intersection between a semi-aristocratic ruling order, a semi-industrialized capitalist economy, and a semi-emergent, or semi-insurgent, labor movement. The First World War, when it came, altered all of these coordinates, but it did not eliminate any of them; for another twenty years they lived on in a kind of hectic afterlife. [. . .] Finally, the prospect of revolution was now more proximate and tangible than it had ever been–a prospect that had triumphantly materialized in Russia, touched Hungary, Italy, and Germany with its wing just after the First World War, and was to take on a new and dramatic immediacy in Spain at the end of this period. It is within this space, prolonging in its own way an earlier ground, that generically “modernist” forms of art continued to show a great vitality.” (326)

And I guess this is what I’m really coming to. Anderson argues that “the imaginative proximity of social revolution” (325) characterizes the modernist period. To define modernism in this way is to see it as a ”periodizing” concept that enables multiple forms produced in the era to be studied.

Unknown-3To me, that means that the work of the New Negro movement fits nicely into the multiplicity that a pluralist modernisms offers. The New Negro anthology is a profoundly utopian work, very much focused on creating a new and better world. And the voices of the writers in that anthology are not separate from other movements of the period–there is a lot of border crossing everywhere.

Anderson argues that “the number of people who can create art in our society, who can find any sort of aesthetic self-expression, is a fraction of what would be possible if society were democratic in a more radical socialist sense” (336). He sees the revolutionary proximity of the high modernist era as enabling a greater number of people to produce art, and that is probably the “great party” or “dog party” that Adam and Suzanne proposed.

And I’ll let Anderson have the last word here. By this, I think he means he doesn’t trust many of the tastemaker scholars who defined modernism for us in the 20th century. But he is also inviting everyone else to the party:

“The really interesting thing about that period is not the completely confected and bogus notion of modernism. What is interesting is how many quite different and incompatible but concurrent aesthetic programs and practices there were. That is the richness of the period from 1900 to 1930” (Anderson 336).

–Noreen O’Connor

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Art societies in NYC

Since people seemed taken with the beautiful building housing the National Arts Club today on Gramercy Park South, I thought I might mention some other important art societies in New York– these for artists, not just art collectors and enthusiasts (like the National Arts Club), in New York: the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League.

The National Academy of Design (NAD) was the arbiter of artistic expression in the United States through the early 20th century. NAD promoted the “academic” tradition in Europe, which during the nineteenth century favored history painting above all others. For a time, the NAD was located just around the corner from Madison Square Park, which we visited today. It’s now located at 5th Avenue and 89th St.

Home of NAD from 1863-1865. located near Madison Square.

Home of NAD from 1863-1865, near Madison Square.

The other art society that might be of interest to some of you, especially those working in the 20th century, is the Art Students League. Pretty much anyone who was anyone in 20c American art either taught or trained at (and probably lived at) the Art Students League, which for much of its existence has been at West 57th St., where it continues to exist today. The Art Students League was friendly to radical politics and artistic experimentation, and functioned as a sort of incubator for many 20c art movements, including those affiliated with (dare I say it?) modernism(s).

Art Students League building on West 57th St. Photo by Jim Henderson.

Art Students League building on West 57th St. Photo by Jim Henderson.

Locations & pics have been posted to Historypin, but I thought I should mention these organizations on the blog since they provide useful context for today’s tour, and I don’t see them included on any of the other walking tours planned for CoP. These organizations contrast with the National Arts Club because they included artists, not just patrons– though the NAD also included many patrons, including, I would assume, many if not all of the members of the National Arts Club. Janice may be able to expand on this last point.

It should be noted that the Art Students League was not the only art school operating in the U.S. during the 19th century. The Art Institute of Chicago– whose curriculum was based on the academic painting tradition– trained many of the artists and illustrators who appeared in New York periodicals in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as did art schools in Cleveland, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Sloan and Glackens took instruction at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), where Thomas Eakins–advocating his brand of realism-observed-from-life rather than the academic tradition, which had students drawing and painting from plaster casts– briefly taught in the late-1880s or early 1890s.

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Intersections: Hazard and other readings

Over the weekend, I’ve been catching up on our course readings and thinking through some of their intersections, particularly in relation to A Hazard of New Fortunes. Although Carrie Bramen notes that the “urban picturesque” emerges in late-nineteenth-century fiction, such as Hazard, it seems to me the picturesque operates somewhat differently in Howells’ text than in the walking-tour sketches Bramen focuses on. While March attempts to manage city space by rendering it “picturesque,” turning streets into scenery through train views and literary sketches, Howells highlights the implications of the kind of aestheticizing spectatorship Bramen traces. Like de Certeau’s visit to the top of the World Trade Center, the Marches’ pastime of looking into buildings and onto streets from elevated trains “transforms the bewitching world by which one was ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before one’s eyes” (de Certeau). The vertical advantage distances the couple from the objects of their observation, expanding their vision of urban life while dislocating them from what they see. In making legible activity on the streets as well as private spaces of city strangers, the L-train, March reflects, enables “some violent invasion of others’ lives.” Still, he aims to repeat its intrusive views through his periodical sketches. After passing the East Side Slums, March determines to “work up some of these New York sights” as literary takes on urban life. Although Conrad believes such pieces could be a means of reform (“If you can make the comfortable people understand how the uncomfortable people live, it will be a very good thing”), March’s only concern is how to achieve the penetrating vantage of the elevated train: “those phases of low life are immensely picturesque. Of course we must try to get the contrasts of luxury for the sake of the full effect.” Reflecting on the same kind of ventures into lower-class space treated by earlier writers like George Foster and, later, Jacob Riis, Howells emphasizes the exploitive potential of his protagonist’s curious gaze, whose anticipated literary expression is paradoxically realized through Howells’ own descriptions of the city.

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“Racial wallpaper” and the power of mapping

In response to Dylann Roof’s killing of nine people in Charleston this past week, Jon Stewart commented what he called the state’s “racial wallpaper” of white supremacy: “The confederate flag flies over South Carolina. And the roads are named for confederate generals.”

To test the truth of Stewart’s statement, Laura Newman Eckstein, a rising senior at Haverford College, created a map of streets named after Confederate generals and African American leaders, respectively:

From

From “The Confederate Streets of South Carolina” at lauraneckstein.com.

While the map raises as many questions as it answers (are the streets in prominent locations, or on back roads? Are they single-block “commemorations,” say, marking the block where a historic figure was born, or miles-long thoroughfares or highways? and so on), it make visible, in a powerful way, what “racial wallpaper” looks like.

At the end of another blog post, this one written by my friend (and South Carolina literary historian) Susanna Ashton, of Clemson, a commenter pointed out that Dylann Roof also happens to live very near a street named “Chain Gang Road.” I used to live on Joe Sayers Avenue in Austin, TX, a street named after a Jim Crow-era governor of Texas (and, I now discover, a major in the Confederate Army). I always hated giving out that address and was glad to leave it behind. But at least it wasn’t “Chain Gang Road.” Can you imagine what it says to choose that name for a road– much less be proud to live or work there? Or possibly, it just got that name because it described what happened there. But the fact that it stuck says a lot, none of which I’d be proud of owning.

I had always assumed that cities that used alphanumeric systems to name streets did so simply out of a desire to impose order on the grid, to make cities easier to navigate. But perhaps it also is an indication of an ideological fractiousness within a city, one that would make attaining consensus on street names impossible. Or it might hide that fractiousness altogether under a veneer of an orderly grid.

Everyone says New York is so easy to navigate, because it’s all numbers: streets going south-to-north, avenues going east-to-west. It may be easy to navigate, but it also “depersonalizes” or maybe even “dehumanizes” the city as well–perhaps for ideological reasons– does it not?

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