Saturday, November 30, 2013

Something I Have Been Turning Over in My Mind, Part 2


           In order not to go completely insane during the year, I have set several goals:  places I wanted to go and when I wanted to be there.   It’s very un-wonderish, I know.  But, really, I think I would definitely go crazy if I just woke up each day and asked Waller Grant where we should go and what we should do.  I am wondering, therefore, if Wonder can be a permanent state of being, or is it something we experience happenstance.  Mixed inside of the bigger goals are often small goals that are less concerned with ‘The Road Trip’ and more associated with repairing my past failings. 

Waller Grant in Jersey City
Here’s an example.  Waller Grant had set a major of goal of seeing New York City.  We originally set the date for around November 23rd, Dr. J.’s birthday.  We kept the goal but, when we looked at weather patterns and the Brooklyn Net’s home schedule, we switched things around.  Those are the big goals.  One of my smaller, personal goals was reading Washington Square by Henry James while we bivouacked in NYC.  Call it professional pride.  It would make sense that I, an English professor, would have read the book and that I would visit the real Washington Square in the city. 
Yet my “relationship” with James is “complicated.”  Robert Russell, my professor at UT from whom I took the second American Lit. survey prejudiced me against James, and I have not been able fully to overcome that prejudice.  One day in class he said, that he always kept a volume of Henry James on the table beside his bed.  If he could not fall asleep and all else had failed, he picked up that book, read two paragraphs, and he was out before he could turn the page. (Some of James’ paragraphs are so long, however, that I have to wonder did Dr. Russell force himself to stay awake past turning the page when he became enmeshed in one of James’ multi-page ponderations.)
I am prejudiced against James, but not too profound in my disregard of him.  I have enjoyed the novellas Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw and a few normal-sized short stories.  But I just don’t have the intelligence or the metabolism for one of James’ big books.  So while I was in New York, Washington Square, at only a couple hundred pages, seemed an appropriate and attainable goal.  It was.  Yet, following our little jaunt into Newport, my hesitation to be enamored by the summer extravagances of the Vanderbilts, et, al., and my recent re-reading of Theophilus North and The Great Gatsby, I have to say that I did not leap into the book believing it would be a warm and relaxing bath.  Still, I was committed.  I needed to read more Henry James, because, well, I should.

Blurry Night at Washington Square
No less a writer than Donald Hall has declared that “everyone likes Washington Square.”  I am not one to contradict Mr. Hall, and I cannot offer myself as the exception that proves the rule.  It is a likeable book.  However, as all good books are, Washington Square is peculiar.  It’s particular oddity is that, at least in my estimation, of the four main characters, there is no one to admire.  We have the inconsistent and drama-inducing aunt, the over-bearing and insufferably intelligent father, the inconsequential daughter, and the near-do-well, unsteady suitor.  James does his little magic by carrying his readers though some really tedious afternoons and evenings in the homes of wealthy.  Oh, the father does insert himself into one middle-class home to brow beat the suitor’s sister, and the aunt and suitor do venture incognito into the dirty streets of New York.  But mostly this is a drawing room drama. 
Each character, in his or her various moments, does command our respect and sympathy.  Yet when it is all over, I could not help but feel that none of the characters suffered in the degree that they ought to have.  The father is a supreme a-hole and shouldn’t receive anyone’s good wishes.  The suitor has the moral substance of a glass of claret.  The aunt would receive proudly and unquestioningly her own space in Dante’s Hell.  The daughter, always more perceptive than anyone credits her for, didn’t deserve her grief, except for the fact that she accepted it.  In other words, I am very happy that this book is not 600 pages; I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with these folks that long. 
Still, I read the book, and I made my pilgrimage to Washington Square, the real place, once again.  It was an early evening.  The family had been walking a good bit of the day—the 9-11 Memorial, Trinity Church, Wall Street, Battery Park.  After a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, we subwayed it back to the East Village. We wandered from Prince Street, strolled around the fountain, celebrated the arch (and the Empire State Building shining through it), admired the fine old houses lining the park, thought of James and Wharton and Stephen Crane and Edna Millay.  It was a lovely, if chilly, walk, and we were glad to see that money had returned to the park’s environs. 
All of this is in counterpoint—you knew there had to be counterpoint, didn’t you?—of our experiences at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island the day or two before.  Have you forgotten why you love the United States?  Have you forgotten why you should love the United States?  The quick antidote to that disease is a visit to these symbols of the open arms of American liberty and freedom.  Since were camped in Jersey City, we worked our way to the ferry on the Jersey side, meaning we travelled first to Ellis Island then to Lady Liberty.  As we have grown to expect, before anyone could board the ferry, we all had to be relieved of our outer garments—which were plentiful since winter had struck—and of our belts, wallets, cell phones, keys, purses, backpacks, and shoes.  No, we could keep our shoes, as the poor fellow from India stripping in front of us learned.

Ellis Island
“Keep your shoes on, sir!”  barked the uniform on the other side of the conveyor belt.  Which just confused the man as he stood staring at his half-empty plastic tray, his two arms half bent, extended forward, holding his tie shoes.  To make matters worse for him, he was also attempting to corral and disrobe two children about waist high, while his wife dealt with the baby in the stroller.  Everything had to go through the x-ray machine.  Except the shoes.  The back pack with baby clothes and formula and god knows what else had to be opened and examined.  The second bag with snacks for the kids pulled out of the stroller and plopped into a gray plastic tray.  And the baby, for a few seconds, held up, tentatively, quizzically, offered to the officer.
 “No baby.  Stroller.”  So the stroller was folded and lifted and then placed on the conveyor. 
Finally, the children and man, one by one, were allowed to go through the body scanner.  Then the man went back for the baby, stepped through again.  At last, the wife, stripped to her silks and simple head covering, hesitated her polite steps through the scanner and allowed the officer’s wand to be waved around her,
We were next.  Without incident.  And on our way to the waiting area for the ferry while the family was still reassembling themselves. 
I am telling this, maybe simply because this is our life now after 9-11.  Over and over in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, any place that has the symbolic power to tempt extremists of various kinds (remember, Oklahoma and Atlanta were home grown terrorists), we have stood in lines, half-stripped, placed our valuables in plastic trays and allowed bored and nervous uniforms to inspect us.    So first, we know the power of our freedom through the negative reactions that it provokes in others.  Freedom, liberty, and our version of capitalism are frightening and horrifying to others.  They want it destroyed.

Liberty at Sunset
But second, positively, we know the power of our freedom because all of us—those from India, and from Germany, France, China, Japan, Columbia, Brazil, and everywhere else in the world—are willing to stand in these lines and be inspected just for the luxury of celebrating these abstractions. In the case of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, we give ourselves over to a joy that is indescribable. Three million people each year visit the Statue of Liberty; three-quarters of a million at Independence Hall.  All endure the search.  God bless America.
Of course, at various times at Ellis and the Statue, I unpocketed my i-phone and took the requisite photos of buildings, statue, skylines, and family.  I pulled out my little Sony video camera and did it again.  Then I became aware that, for me, the more powerful moments were in the selfies that individuals and couples took of themselves, the photos that mothers posed of their children, that fathers snapped of their children and grandchildren, that Dr. J. took of a couple from Texas, who thought he was from Canada because his hat said so.  It was cold, cold, cold this day, but everyone was smiling and laughing in a dozen languages, in scores of language.  How would I know how many?  I’m a typical American and speak only one.  New Yorkers witness this scene in various ways a hundred times a day.  It is why, after disasters like 9-11, Hurricane Sandy, and the Republican led government shut down, we open these sites as quickly as humanly possible.  The world asks . . . the world demands them to be open. 
I don’t know why the determination to visit these symbols surprised me so this day.  I have taught in a community college for thirty-five years.  My students have included Vietnamese refugees, Chinese dissidents, Cubans, Salvadorians, Columbians, Nigerians, Iranians.  I am dean of the division that houses the Foreign Language Department and celebrates professors from ten or more counties.  There they are in Austin teaching.  My division also includes the Department of English for Speakers of Other Languages.  Every day, I witness the dedication of the teachers and the joy of the students as they make their way toward full integration into this country.   Knightsmama has, perhaps, found her calling in teaching English as Second Language, working last year with students from countries as varied as Russia, Iraq, The Congo, and Mexico.  We, I, should not be surprised at the importance the United States has for countless, countless individuals around the world.

The Skyline from Ferry
The counterpoint?  Where is the counterpoint?  It is here.  Washington Square begins, “During a portion of the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practiced in the city of New York, a physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptional share of the consideration which, in the United States, has always bestowed upon distinguished members of the medical profession.”   The book was first published in 1880.  So the book concerns the years, 1840-1870, more or less.  The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, but was a greatly anticipated project from the mid-1870’s.  Ellis Island began processing immigrants in 1892, but in the three and a half decades prior, over eight million immigrated through a station in lower Manhattan.  My point is that while Dr. Sloper and his daughter, wealthy beyond worry, suffered their little family drama, at the edge of Washington Square, New York City was changing.  None of this makes it into the closed rooms of this novel, except at the end, when Catherine is aware that her kind were emigrating up town, but she remains too comfortable to uproot herself. 
Not too far away from Washington Square is The Bowery, where Stephen Crane set his first novel, Maggie:  Girl of the Streets, published in 1893, and where Ragged Dick, of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s first, 1868 novel, occupied himself.  A little further away is the Lower East Side where many of the recent immigrants found themselves in over-crowded tenements.   At Ellis Island, I purchased a book How the Other Half Lives, written by journalist Jacob A. Riis in the late 1880’s.   Riis was also an early documentary photographer.  The edition of the book I purchased includes one hundred of his photographs.  Riis’s journalism eventually led to the creation of the Tenement House Commission in 1884, and inspired mayors like Theodore Roosevelt to make real and lasting changes in the legal and geographical landscape of New York—laws governing rent, sanitation and such, and the creation of building codes and playgrounds.  Roosevelt called Riis “the most useful citizen in New York.” 
The facts are astounding.  Between 1870 and 1880 (the year Washington Square was published) 22,000 tenement houses were added to those already in existence, so that the number of houses exceeded 37,000, sheltering over a million souls.   Rents were high and often families took in strangers to help cover the costs.  Landlords made enormous profits, most over 25% of operating costs, some up to 30% or 40%.  As one reformed landlord stated, “It was just a question whether a man would take seven per cent and save his soul, or twenty five and lose it.”   Riis’ chapters on Italians, Chinese, Jews, Poles, Bohemians, and Blacks are fascinating and moving.  He breaks your heart discussing desperate mothers and abandoned babies.  His discussion of what we could call “tweens,” and what were then called “Street Arabs,” is both tender and affectionate.  But I have to admit that I have spent as much time looking at his photographs as I have reading the text. 

Ragged Captain Crunch in Chinatown
Because I have a great affection for Horatio Alger Jr.’s Ragged Dick, I was drawn to the photographs of the young boys who basically lived in packs on the streets.  Alger’s character is quick witted, optimistic, industrious, while harboring relatively unimportant vices such as smoking and gambling.  In several photographs, Riis caught these boys in a corner—protected from winds—clothed in coarse pants and jackets and barefoot, each one, sleeping, one flopped on the other.  The innocence of their faces still refused to give way to adult angers and resentments and fears.  In one chapter Riis tells of one boy who showed up in the police department and was reluctant to leave given that there he was provided a bed and his breakfast consisted of three slices of bread and an entire egg.  He did not go to church (“We don’t have no clothes for church.”) or school, or purchase bread (We don’t buy bread: we buy beer.”)  Another photograph captures a boy, paused mid-step beside a wood slat wall, carrying a growler, delivering beer, we assume, to some adults.
So there we have the impoverished counterpoint to the abundant wealth of Henry James’ characters.  But I am certain I am uncertain of my point.  I am merely exploring a feeling.  Moral outrage at how James could ignore the lives of the destitute living just a few blocks away is too simple and gratuitous. Each writer, each artist need not be all writers or artists.   But my reality—the reality I am living in now in 21st century America wealthy enough to take a year-off and travel (as Dr. Sloper whisked Catherine away to Europe)—and the reality of the books I have been reading—all of these books do present a “slice of life”—shove me into the corners of some uncomfortable moral reckoning, which at present I don’t appear to be equipped to reconcile. 
On the one hand, aren’t we all Gatsby standing on the dock yearning for the green light, the America where all our dreams are welcomed and fulfilled?  Is there anything wrong with that dream:  we look at life, study it, make our schedule of self-improvement, improve, or so we think, and expect the reward, a good life, a big house, a beautiful spouse, a happy family.   Aren’t many of us more like Nick Carraway or Theophilus North or Catherine Sloper’s suitor, standing somehow in the middle between those who have achieved and those who have not?  We are uncomfortable in the apartments of the half-talents, the strivers, the hopefuls, and we are just as uncomfortable in the Plaza or the posh homes on Washington Square where the wealthy attack any threat, including each other, with the tiny precise scalpels of their good breeding and good luck.  But really aren’t most us like George and Myrtle Wilson, a generation or two out of Riis’s tenements and another generation or two shy of financial security and social standing?  We lack something of Gatsby’s determination and charm, and are certainly bereaft of the Buchannan’s cruelty and deep pockets.  Most of us in America are comfortable, at least compared to the immigrants in New York tenements of the late nineteenth century.  But probably each of us is only one or two disasters away from a twenty-first century version of them. 

Visiting with Our Friend Sarmita in Hoboken
The Great Gatsby begins:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
 ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”  It is good advice.  It is something I hope my sons, who often express dismay that they are wasting a year of their lives in a trailer, will some day believe about this trip.  Maybe Waller Grant and the Caravan is providing them with an advantage.
My mind, therefore, turns toward the question “what advice did my father give me?”  I could list several bits of useful wisdom.  But one maxim demands attention, here, more than others.  He said in one of our heated discussions while I was a teenager:  “The only measure of a man’s worth is the size of his bank account when he dies.”  I think he and Dr. Sloper would enjoy each other’s company.  What do I know:  maybe it is wise advice.  But it is not a lesson I have followed.  Maybe that explains the discombobulation I feel attempting to balance Newport and New York, Fitzgerald, Wilder, James, Crane, Alger, Riis, and Davis in my little pinhead.   It is a moment of slack-jawed wonder for me:  how do we explain the great separations of the rich and the poor?  I don’t easily lay the blame in the characters of the wealthy and the needy.  Alger’s recipe for success—and success for him was respectability, not simply wealth—was something like pluck and luck.  Hard work and a little grace.  For now I will accept that.  But I know the matter is not settled.

Soundtrack.  Counting Crows:  "Washington Square."

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