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Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

The Literary Agent of Yore (Unspeakable Rascal!)

October 14, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Lauren Stout for Lawton Mackall's Bizarre, 1922.

My continuing odyssey across the World Wide Web—I’ll read it all, someday—has yielded these two gems from the public domain, both early constructions of the literary agent as a type; neither, I’m sorry to say, is very flattering.

Now as then, agents get a bad rap. In the popular imagination, they’re usually seen as unscrupulous middlemen, always on the phone, insistently plying their wares. The agent, we’re told, is a necessary evil at best, or, at worst, the first in a line of craven corporate interests designed to suck the marrow from a writer’s work, making it suitable for a wide and churlish readership. In movies, writers are always seeking agents, falling out with agents, or at the very least nervously talking to agents, twisting the phone line in their fingers. And then there’s the editor-agent relationship, in which the agent never wins: he’s either part of a profit-obsessed cabal keeping subversive “new voices” out of print, or he’s a tasteless entrepreneur disturbing the delicate rapport between editor and author.

I’d thought all this was a fairly recent phenomenon—I had always imagined it came from the eighties, when publishers couldn’t conglomerate fast enough and the soul was said to have fled the industry—but these two old books suggest it’s been going on much longer than that. Which makes sense: in publishing, the sky is always falling. Every year is an abysmal year for books and a terrific year for books. Editors no longer edit, except when they do; publishers care only for their bottom line, except when they don’t; the three-martini lunch is always dead, always quietly continuing. That’s what’s fascinating about these excerpts: they’re both about a century old, documenting that same thwarted intersection of art and capitalism.

First, from Arnold Bennett’s Books and Persons, an essay collection composed of work from 1908 to 1911, the parts cited below being from 1908: Read More »

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Crossroads of the World

October 1, 2014 | by

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Times Square from above. Photo: Anthony Quintano, via Wikimedia Commons

In Times Square, surrounded by embattled Elmos and superheroes, several of us stopped at the crosswalk to wait for the light to change. The blue font on the overhead news ticker looked so cartoonish, so sort of jolly, that it took a moment for the words’ discordant meaning to sink in.

It read: THREE WOMEN BEHEADED BY ISIS IN SYRIA.

I stood and stared in horror; next to me was a very old man bent nearly double by kyphosis.

“Was it you?” came a voice. I looked down; there was a guy in a tweed flat cap. “Was it you?” he said again, to the old man. The old man looked up at him in uncomprehending irritation.

“Did you do it?” the guy in the cap persisted, indicating the circling words above us.

The light changed then and, without acknowledging him, the older man began his laborious navigation of the crosswalk. Over his head, Tweed Cap gave me a broad wink. I looked away as quickly as possible.

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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

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Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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Songs of Innocence

September 12, 2014 | by

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Giulio del Torre, Zwei raufende Buben, 1927.

If you live in my building on the Upper West Side, you do not need to own an alarm clock, at least not if you want to wake up at eight A.M. Sleeping beyond that hour is impossible—that’s when the preschool opens its yard for the first playtime of the day.

It is a very lovely way to wake up, if you’re in the right frame of mind. Joyful shrieking, terrified screaming, feuds and rivalries and friendships all at once, magnified by the walls all around them. It is much better to take a Blakean view of it, especially if you work from home, because there are periodic recesses throughout the day, and their collective energy is unflagging.

I always liked the background noise of the playground; working by myself all day, it made me feel less alone. It didn’t really strike me as strange until I conducted an interview in my apartment and, when I tried to transcribe it, realized the voices were obscured by the wall of child-call in the background. Still, I didn’t mind; I threw my windows open and welcomed it, as some people do the constant buzz of public radio. Read More »

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For the 1 Train Dead

August 28, 2014 | by

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Robert Lowell at home.

New Yorkers like to affect jadedness in the face of celebrity; we yawn, we stare fixedly in the other direction, we scorn star-struck tourists  And yet today, I had a celeb sighting so exciting I reacted like a middle-schooler at a taping of Total Request Live.

I had just entered a pleasantly empty subway car, only to discover the cause of its emptiness—a broken AC—too late. I was cursing my luck and considering an illegal dash between cars when I saw him. There, across the aisle, and under a Poetry in Motion poster, was Robert Lowell. To the life: the patrician features, the distinctive nose, eyes that had known suffering and pain as well as realms of genius invisible to the normal run of mortals. He was not a man in the first blush of youth; this was “Day by Day”–era Lowell. He was wearing a rumpled linen jacket and tie. Of course he was.

All thoughts of changing cars having fled, I took a seat directly opposite and stared. There was no question about it: this was Robert Lowell. Maybe a ghost. At the very least a relative. He could certainly have made a good living as a Lowell impersonator, traveling the world and reciting confessional poetry with a Brahman inflection. Well, a living, anyway.

I waited for my chance. I didn’t want to strike too soon, but on the other hand I couldn’t live without knowing. Best-case scenario, he’d break into “Life Studies.”

I timed it carefully. When we were one stop away from my point of departure, I planted myself in front of him. “Excuse me, sir?” I said, my voice quavering. He looked up. His eyes were very, very sad. “Has anyone ever told you how much you look like Robert Lowell?”

For a horrible moment, the lack of comprehension on his face was such that I thought he might not speak English. But then he said, “Robert who?”

There were two French tourists watching the proceedings with interest. Maybe they didn’t realize that other cars were air-conditioned.

“Robert Lowell, the poet,” I said. “It’s a compliment. He was an excellent poet! And handsome! I mean, he had his problems”—I said this in case he should look up his biography and think I had been less than forthcoming—“but who doesn’t?”

“Oh,” he said. “Thanks, I guess.”

I turned my back and stared at the doors for what felt like an eternity. It must have been a hundred degrees in there. Frankly, I thought, if that guy wasn’t Robert Lowell, and either mentally ill or supernatural, it was really weird that he was sitting in this sweltering car. Frankly, it was irrational.

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Fresh Hell

August 22, 2014 | by

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Dorothy Parker

If you wish to celebrate Dorothy Parker’s birthday with a small gift to yourself, you have many options. An Etsy search of the writer’s name will give you letterpress prints and pillows and pins; a locket; earrings, several flasks; a bracelet; a range of portraits, including a cat in a cloche; a sampler; and a choice of two dolls. And the tote bags! Ah, the tote bags. Need I even mention the tote bags? I am not immune; yesterday, I treated myself to a Dorothy Parker cocktail, made with Dorothy Parker gin. At the Algonquin, no less. (There is also a certain charm to “what fresh hell” spelled out in Morse Code.)

Dorothy Parker’s Art of Fiction interview, from 1956, has always been among my favorites. She has no interest in glamorizing her reputation. She has scant regard for her much-vaunted wit. From the interview’s introduction: “Readers of this interview ... will find that Mrs. Parker had only contempt for the eager reception accorded her wit.” “Why, it got so bad,” she had said bitterly, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” I can’t think of an interview more honest, or more generous. She refuses to call herself a serious writer, saying:

There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me—and then they got the shaggy dogs.

And on the vaunted Round Table: “I wasn’t there very often—it cost too much. Others went. Kaufman was there. I guess he was sort of funny.”

Say what she will, no one can take away from the body of her quotables—or, for that matter, an easy cultural shorthand that reduces her to bons mots. But for my money, there’s no quote that sticks with you quite so much as the final lines of that interview:

It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. I can’t stand messes. I’m not being a smartcracker. You know I’m not when you meet me—don’t you, honey?

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