The Great Experiment

Unlike New York, which was founded as a trading post — it still is, in many ways — Philadelphia was founded as a bold experiment in religious freedom, liberty, and tolerance. As the city in which both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and ratified, Philadelphia is at the center of the conflict between what we say we believe as Americans and the way we actually conduct ourselves. This tension defines, within Philadelphia’s borders, this national dilemma. Its history is a microcosm of the country’s.

New York’s history has been explored in film by Ric Burns; Philadelphia has its own Ric Burns in the producers of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of 13 half-hour television documentaries, masterfully directed by Andrew Ferrett. Very recently, the 11th episode of the series, “World Stage: 1872-1899,” was broadcast on Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV; now, like another ten episodes (two are still in production), it’s available for viewing online. The new episode is a portrait of the city’s Gilded Age, featuring familiar and less-than-familiar names such as Caroline Le Count, Dr. Rebecca Cole, Susan B. Anthony, John Wanamaker; a brief history of the 1876 World Fair; and, perhaps inevitably, Philadelphia’s fin de siècle slide into corruption. The series boasts gorgeous photography and insights from a variety of historians and personalities, with a special emphasis on racial conflicts and the important roles that marginalized communities played in the development of the city.

An ongoing project of History Making Productions, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is the brainchild of Sam Katz, and the senior writer and co-producer of the series is Nathaniel Popkin, whose book Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City I recently reviewed. As Mr. Popkin’s book suggests, much of Philadelphia’s physical past still exists through a combination of deliberate planning, benign neglect, and dumb luck, which means that many of the documentary’s re-enactments could be shot on location. It’s a splendid accomplishment, both inspiring and sobering; those of us who already love the city will be reminded of just why we do so. You can watch the entire series here; you can watch “World Stage” below.

Book notes

President Barack Obama presents a National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony in the White House on March 2, 2011. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo.

Philip Roth

I was saddened to hear this morning about the death of Philip Roth yesterday. Roth was among the last of the great writers who defined the American experience of the second half of the twentieth century. I confess I’m no Roth completist, but certainly Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint were among the significant reading experiences of my youth; I also admired his Zuckerman books and his memoirs, and when I read Nemesis, his moving final novel, a few years ago, I noted no falling off of his powers. Also, in 1971, Roth published Our Gang, a Swiftian satire of Richard Nixon which ended with our most disgraced president (to date) running against Satan for the post of Devil in Hell. And this, two years before Watergate broke.

Roth has been in the news since 2016 for his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, an alternate history that explores what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh had won the 1940 presidential election and led America down the path to totalitarianism. (President Donald Trump is apparently making America read again — The Plot Against America, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and George Orwell’s 1984 have been enjoying a resurgence of popularity over the past few years.) But Roth didn’t consider himself a prophet, comparing Lindbergh to Trump in a New York Times interview last January:

However prescient The Plot Against America might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.

If only we still had Roth with us to write a sequel to Our Gang. We could sure use one.

Roth will be missed. The Guardian has this obituary by Eric Homberger and this appreciation by Richard Lea.

Ernest Hemingway

In anticipation of a trip to Paris next month, I’ve been reading A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously-published memoir of his early days in the City of Light in the 1920s. If you haven’t gone back to Hemingway in a while, I recommend picking up The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast; his plain style is still a palate-cleansing relief these days.

I never particularly liked the work of Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway manages to put his finger on why. “When I had come back from trips that I had made to the different political conferences or to the Near East or Germany for the Canadian paper and the news services that I worked for she wanted me to tell her about all the amusing details,” Hemingway writes. “She wanted to know the gay part of how the world was going; never the real, never the bad.” Later, after Stein has called Hemingway and his compatriots a “lost generation” (the phrase that will live in immortal infamy), Hemingway turns this around in his head on the walk home, thinking of the suffering that he and his fellow veterans had seen in the Great War, especially after Stein has berated a garage mechanic. “She had some ignition trouble with the old Model T Ford she then drove and the young man who worked in the garage and had served in the last year of the war had not been adept, or perhaps had not broken the priority of other vehicles, in repairing Miss Stein’s Ford,” Hemingway writes.

But that night walking home I thought about the boy in the garage and if he had ever been hauled in one of those vehicles when they were converted to ambulances. … I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation? … I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be. … The hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels.

Roundup: Eliot, Gaddis, Feldman and Fields

W.C. Fields

This week I took a quick look back at T.S. Eliot and William Gaddis, and looked forward to an unmissable Mother’s Day concert featuring music by Morton Feldman. Who, I’m pretty sure, loved his mother.

I attended a class taught by William Gaddis back in my undergraduate days, and although he has little in common with W.C. Fields, the two men did share a nasal drawl suggesting that they had little patience with the stupidities of the human animal. On Wednesday, June 27, the National Arts Club here in New York will present the eminently worthwhile A Celebration of Comic Genius W.C. Fields. In attendance will be Fields’ granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields, Columbia University Prof. Rob King, and the similarly eminently worthwhile Dick Cavett. You can be in attendance too; the program, which will feature clips from Fields’ career, is open to the public, and it’s free. More information at the National Arts Club web site here.

This might be a good time to remind you that just a few months ago Kino Lorber released restored, blu-ray editions of two early, silent W.C. Fields features, neither of which has been available for some time: the 1926 It’s the Old Army Game and the 1927 Running Wild. True, they lack Fields’ inimitable verbal delivery, but on the other hand, anyone who’s seen his performance in D.W. Griffiths’ 1925 Sally of the Sawdust, based on Fields’ Broadway success Poppy, will note that Fields was an excellent physical comedian as well — and a better actor than he’s often given credit for, among the great screen comedians ranking second only to Chaplin, and even that’s arguable.

I’ll be raising a glass to the Great Man at Cafe Katja later this afternoon. I last wrote about Fields in December 2016; my essay on the comedian is below.

Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. Most of his best films are available on this DVD set from Universal.

This Sunday: Morton Feldman’s “Patterns” at St. Bart’s

Morton Feldman.

You have only a few more days to purchase your tickets for Morton Feldman’s landmark Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), which Stephen Marotto (cello) and Marilyn Nonken (piano) will perform as the last concert of this year’s Great Music at St. Bart’s series this Sunday, May 13, at 3.00pm.

Morton Feldman, the Queens-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, is on anybody’s short list of the great American composers of the 20th century, and I’d rank him way above even John Cage; Tom Service has a pretty good “guide to Morton Feldman’s music” at the Guardian. “My compositions are not really ‘compositions’ at all,” Feldman said. “One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of music.” The 80-minute Patterns is one of his late-period, long-duration compositions; it was immediately followed by Triadic Memories of similar length (and which Marilyn recorded for Mode Records some years ago). In a 2006 essay for the New Yorker, Alex Ross shared an anecdote that I do hope is not apocryphal; comparing Feldman’s burly, loud girth with the not-so-simple elegance of his music, Ross wrote:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. … In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

I told you he was from Queens.

Sunday’s concert begins at 3.00pm; more information and tickets here.  A few years ago, Arne Deforce collected several of Feldman’s own comments on Patterns into a convenient anthology of sorts; that can be found here.

From the archives: “I think this is a shattered time”

William Gaddis. Photograph by William Gass.

As I follow the rather discouraging headlines, I’m reading (among other things, not least the Gospel of Luke, most suitable for these times with its emphasis on the poor, the marginalized, and the sick) Kenneth Paul Kramer’s Redeeming Time, a book-length study of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Last year on May 1 I published the below post, which touches on Eliot’s poem and Gaddis’s pessimism, suggestive of my own, I suppose.

From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”