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Archive for the ‘Interesting People’ Category

An exhibition about the Subject of the Artist School seems like it would be a rather straightforward task: display some advertisements or invitations that were used to promote the evening lectures, include some edited lecture notes compiled by the founding members and guest speakers, and choose some photographs that show the attendees. However, after combing through the archives of New York City’s art museums that own works by the schools founders — David Hare, William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman — and after looking through the papers compiled by these artist’s estates, there is a possibility no physical materials were ever produced during the year of 1948-1949 when the school was in operation. Or, if physical materials were produced, they no longer exist. Very few materials documenting Studio 35 (what the Subject of the Artist School was renamed when New York University acquired the 35 West 8th Street space in 1949) remain. An invitation to one of Studio 35’s lectures is housed in the Louise Bourgeois Archive, while the Dedalus Foundation has a few photographs taken by Aaron Siskind and Max Yavno, photographers who happened to capture the discussions of the school while trying to document the downtown arts scene more generally. A discussion between Julia Link Haifley and artist Grace Hartigan  in 2008, which was later transcribed for the Archives of American Art, at least reveals a few details about the otherwise mysterious Studio 35, including the fact members had to be voted in to the school in order to enjoy the conversations and cheap steak dinners hosted on Friday nights. This likely means no advertisements were ever produced for Studio 35 since members and attendees likely heard about the lectures through word of mouth, when they attended a gallery show or frequented a local hangout like Cedar Bar Tavern. Furthermore, the school was discussion-based. They were not a studio school that produced work nor an exhibition space that would have had a greater chance of being documented.

The transition of the Subject of the Artist School to Studio 35 is one worthy of scholarly research not only due to the well-known names attached to the venture, but also because the school was founded at a pivotal moment in history when the art capital shifted from Paris to New York after World War II.  The founders were among a collective of artists who learned from the stylistic traditions of the expatriates who relocated to New York after the war but were determined to push the medium of painting forward into new territory. The art produced by these artists transitioned from work rooted in Surrealism to new work that would later become recognized as Abstract expressionism. Although the doors of the Subject of the Artist School and Studio 35 did not remain open for long, the conversations that occurred likely influenced the signature styles of the founders and the rise of one of the most important American art movements.

Barnett Newman_Metropolitan Museum of Art

Barnett Newman’s Concord, 1948, which displays the artist’s signature vertical “zips.” Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The challenge becomes how to document the school’s part in this crucial moment in American history when there are few resources to work with. Even when art historians organize exhibitions about performance art, conceptual art, land art or art work that has deteriorated due to the unconventional materials from which it was originally constructed, these professionals often have documentation to display. In the case of my project, I have a few poor photographs and some oral histories, footnotes, invitations and wrinkled letters that mention the mere existence of the school. In order to produce an online exhibition that is both visually interesting and engaging for a general audience, I have had to rely on short gallery advertisements, excepts from experimental magazines like The Tiger’s Eye and VVV magazine, as well as images of artwork produced by the founders during this time period. For my exhibition I will also build my own visual tools, both maps and timelines, to make the context more manageable, especially since there are multiple founders showing at different galleries, producing different works and contributing to different publications simultaneously. As I continue my research in hope of filling a whole in the Greenwich Village Blog still lacking in entries from the 1940s and hope to fill a hole within the art historical literature, I am very much open to suggestions on how to find additional resources and how to go about the final display of my materials.

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My favorite person in the early New York punk scene may be an eight-year-old girl.

Let me explain.

A large part of my research thus far has involved trawling the “vault” of PUNK magazine, whose website includes select scans from the magazine’s back issues. The one thing in the magazine that really grabbed my attention – more so even than John Holmstrom’s illustrated front covers – was a feature called “PUNK of the Month,” in which the magazine took submissions from readers who would explain, through often-sardonic claims of the ways in which they embody the punk rock lifestyle, why they deserved to be crowned punk of the month.

The submissions vary greatly from each other, each of them showing, through both text and layout, the unique style and temperament of the person who submitted it. There are huge disparities in tone above all else, with some “punks of the month” writing in a relatively calm tone while others went straight for the jugular with whatever cynical, shocking, and offensive statements they could come up with. The November 1977 PUNK of the Month, instead of submitting a photo, sent a “blood smear” (maybe fake; maybe not; who knows?) and proclaimed: “Here’s more of me than a picture could ever have.” (This particular submission also employed a non-reclamatory use of a homophobic slur, which just goes to show that even within what is meant to be an anti-establishment, anti-“ism” scene, you still come across a lot of “bro” types who just don’t Get It.)

Don't get in her way! Nellie

Nellie “Live Wire” in PUNK Volume 1 Number 12 (January 1978).

And then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have little girls who love Patti Smith and beat up boys with their hairbrushes.

I admit I was surprised to see eight-year-old Nellie the “Live Wire” in a publication that is known for lewdness, swearing, and all sorts of inappropriate content. I was much more surprised to see how indulgent the magazine was with her submission, captioning her challenging pose with “Don’t get in her way!” Too often do we see adult male fans of rock music – from hardcore punk to pop-punk to alt. rock to emo – dismiss the musical tastes of young girls and even attempt, both consciously and unconsciously, to chase them out of the scene. It’s incredibly important to see that, even from the very beginning, young girls have been fans of punk rock, and it’s important that the magazine that gave the scene its name is not ashamed to acknowledge that.

I hope to find a place for Nellie in my exhibit. I’m not yet sure where I could put her, but the girls of the punk scene are an important part of the development of the punk aesthetic and its journey into the mainstream, so this gem may not be a complete tangent after all.

Sources:

PUNK Volume 1 Number 11

PUNK Volume 1 Number 12

To see the rest of the PUNK vault, click here.

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Washington Place has a distinctly nostalgic feel.  The block between Washington Square East and Greene Street is probably the closest New York University comes to resembling a suburban college campus, with violet and white flags flying on both sides of the street, and the greenery of Washington Square Park as a backdrop.  Many passersby are doubtless reminded of their own college days.  But the block also hints at something older.  The cobblestones that still pave Greene Street, and the architectural details of buildings saved by the Greenwich Village historic preservation movement, transport visitors back to the nineteenth century.  Conveniently, this is when the story of 27 Washington Place begins.

In 1842, Henry James, Sr. purchased a townhouse at 27 Washington Place.*  The birth of his first child, William, on January 11th of that year may have inspired him to find a more permanent home for his family.  However, James had rented in the neighborhood for several years.  He occupied a bachelor’s apartment in the University Building on Washington Square East in 1838, and then—with his new wife, Mary Robertson Walsh—moved to 2 Washington Place.  He knew firsthand that it was a good place for a well-to-do family to settle in New York City.  The former potter’s field at Washington Square had been transformed into Washington Parade Ground, a military parade ground that also served as a public park, in 1828.  Local residents strolled and children played there.  “The Row” of Greek Revival-style homes recently built along Washington Square North was one of the most fashionable addresses in the city.  Its wealthy residents included Mary’s family, in whose home Henry and Mary were wed in 1840. The closeness of 27 Washington Place to the studious atmosphere of the University Building may have also attracted Henry.  (The two buildings were only separated by one house, 29 Washington Place.)  He was a theologian who took his work quite seriously.  Perhaps he had enjoyed the university’s community of scholars and intellectuals as a resident, and hoped to continue to participate in it as a neighbor.

Detail from an engraving of the University Building by Robert Hishelwood, with 27 Washington Place visible behind it.

Detail from an engraving of the University Building by Robert Hinshelwood, with 27 Washington Place visible behind it.

Henry’s second child, Henry James, Jr., was born at 27 Washington Place on April 15, 1843.  Like many of his siblings, he followed his father’s intellectual bent.  Henry James, Jr. would become one of the most important Realist writers of the nineteenth century.  He spent most of his adult life in Europe, but looked fondly upon his childhood home from a distance.  His memories of his grandmother’s house on the Row inspired his short novel Washington Square, published in 1880.  Finally, in 1904, Henry James, Jr. returned to Washington Square.  He was not pleased with the changes that he found.  He shared his resentment in The American Scene

“The gray and more or less hallowed University Building—wasn’t it somehow with a desperate bravery, both castellated and gabled—has vanished from the earth and vanished with it the two or three adjacent houses, of which the birthplace was one. This was the snub for the complacency of the retrospect, that, whereas the inner sense had positively erected there for its private contemplation a commemorative mural tablet, the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable…but that we have only to reflect an instant to see any such form of civic piety inevitably and for ever absent.”

During Henry James’ decades in Europe, New York City expanded northward, and the neighborhood around Washington Square lost its suburban character.  The wealthy and fashionable residents of the Row began to move away.  Meanwhile, many of the immigrants who had fled famine, political and economic strife, and religious persecution in Europe constructed their own communities in neighboring areas of Greenwich Village.  Residential buildings around Washington Square were demolished or transformed into commercial buildings in which workers toiled for long hours at low wages.  Other buildings were subdivided into cramped tenement housing.  Even the houses on the Row became multi-family dwellings in the 1880s.

27 Washington Place was not immune from this change.  By 1894 Joseph J. Asch had acquired it, along with 23, 25, and 29 Washington Place.  Asch demolished the houses in 1900, four years before Henry James’ return from Europe, to make way for a ten-story commercial building.  When the Asch Building was complete, a pair of business partners named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris moved their factory to its eighth floor.  As Henry James glared up at the building that had usurped his birthplace, hundreds of immigrant laborers sweated at the sewing machines of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

The story of the fire at the Triangle factory has been told elsewhere.  It deserves more attention than I can give it here, but in short, these are the facts.  146 people died in half an hour.  They were mostly women, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, some as young as fourteen.  146 people who were trapped in a burning building by locked doors, a small elevator, a broken fire escape, and fire department ladders too short to reach the eighth floor.  Some victims fell from the windows.  Some jumped, rather than burn alive.

It is incredible, almost insulting, that the Asch Building survived the fire when so many people did not.  Yet it did.  The upper floors were rebuilt, and the building was renamed the Greenwich Building.  Frederick Brown acquired it shortly afterward.  New York University began to rent classroom space in the building in 1916, and in 1929, the Brown family gave the building to the university as a gift.  It is now called the Brown Building.  New York University students attend classes there daily, in a world that shares little with those of either Henry James or the Triangle Shirtwaist Company employees, except its location.

In The American Scene, Henry James bemoaned the lack of a physical historical marker at his birthplace to match the one imprinted in his memory.  There is still no historical marker for Henry James on the Brown Building today.  He is commemorated elsewhere.  However, there are three historical markers on the Brown Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, remembering the victims of the Triangle factory fire.  It is a small oversight, perhaps, but Henry James was one man who lived a full life of privilege and fame.  They were 146, poor and otherwise unknown.  How many times in history has the reverse occurred?

The historical markers on the Brown Building. Photo by Harmony Barker.

The historical markers on the Brown Building. Photo by Harmony Barker.

The history of 27 Washington Place serves as a case study in the changing character of Washington Square throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  More than that, it serves as a reminder that, especially in places where space is limited and populations are dense, history marches on.  Henry James might have wished for the Washington Square in his memory to remain unchanged forever, a monument to the great writer and his great works.  Likewise, a witness to the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company might have wondered how the site of such horror could ever become anything else.  But the story of Washington Square, both joyful and tragic, continues to grow and change.

*The house was actually numbered 21 Washington Place when Henry James, Sr. purchased it in 1842, but the street was renumbered two years later.  For the sake of clarity, I have referred to the James house as 27 Washington Place throughout this post.

Sources:

Thomas J. Frusciano and Marilyn Pettit, New York University and the City:  An Illustrated History, 1831-1996.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Luther S. Harris, Around Washington Square:  An Illustrated History of Greenwich Village.  Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Habegger, Alfred.  “James, Henry.” American National Biography Online.  February 2000.  Accessed September 22, 2015.  Available online at http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-00842.html.

Henry James, The American Scene.  London:  Chapman and Hall, Ltd, 1907.  Accessed November 9,  2015.  Available online at https://archive.org/details/americanscene00jameuoft.

“Henry James, Birthplace, Location of.”  Biographical Files; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

Administrative Papers of the Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken 1884-1910; RG 3.0.3; Box 16; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

Records of the Office of the Treasurer, 1910-1963; RG 10.9, Box 47; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

Cornell University ILR School, “Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire.”  2011.  Accessed November 9, 2015.  Available online at http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/index.html.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.  Revised August 1986.  Accessed November 9, 2015.  Available online at http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NHLS/Text/91002050.pdf.

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There is no escaping it.

If you are going to do an exhibit on costume designer and Greenwich Village retailer Patricia Field, you are going to have to talk about Carrie Bradshaw, the character brought to life by Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO’s Sex and the City. No matter what level of research you may conduct on Ms. Field, from a light Google search to a deep dive into the archives of The New York Times, SATC and Carrie Bradshaw are never far behind, and understandably so. One of the most important reasons Carrie, and her friends, were so inspirational to viewers of the show was due in part to their unique style of dress—envisioned and realized by lead stylist Patricia Field from 2000 (the series’ third season) to the end of the show in 2004. While my exhibit will share in-depth thoughts on the “Carrie Effect” and the influence of Field’s lens on early twenty-first century fashion, this blog entry is about another important (and slightly more interesting) character on Sex and the City —New York City itself.

Dubbed by the city’s landmarks Preservation Commission as “delightful and interesting,” Perry Street, in New York’s West Village, is a tree-lined preserve for many historical buildings. All are residential, each more beautiful than the next. One of the most iconic homes on the block between Bleecker Street and West Fourth is No. 66.

Built in 1866 by architect Robert Mook, this Italianate style townhouse is not famous for being the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt or some other gilded name in Village history. Instead, it is known as the fictional home of Carrie Bradshaw. In the mid-2000’s, it was also home to busloads of tourists who crowded the stoop trying to relive their favorite SATC moments, cosmopolitans and all. While Carrie was supposed to live in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side (245 East 73rd Street to be exact), the 4000 square foot brownstone was the actual façade and location used in the show. Originally, the show was shot in front of 64 Perry Street, but the grander stoop of neighbor 66 won out as the favorite spot after three seasons. The setting for many memorable scenes in the show’s eight year run, the house is now listed as the 92nd place to visit in New York City on the blog 1000 Things To See In NYC. It beats out Magnolia Bakery (100 on the list), another Village location immortalized by a visit from Carrie and her friends.

PerryStreet

In 2008, community residents won a campaign to stop Sex and the City tour buses from looping the neighborhood. If you Google the address, the house is actually blurred out on the map, rumored to be part of the $9.85 million sale by an anonymous buyer in 2012. The house was sold again in 2013 for $13.5 million and current estimates list it at $35 million.

The buses may have stopped years ago and the throngs of fans have dwindled, but the house still sits quietly behind a “no trespassing” sign hung over the front steps —a reminder of its famous past. Occasionally, especially on the weekends, you will still see a group of outrageously dressed, selfie-loving tourists stop to relive a Carrie moment. They come from all over the world, some wearing heels and tutus, to pay homage to their anti-hero, and unbeknownst to most, the influences of Patricia Field.

Sources:

Shanahan, Gerry. The New York Times, September 9, 2007.

1000 Things To Do In NYC Blog

Curbed Blog

Zillow.Com

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The University Building in 1891. Courtesy of the New York University Archives.

The University Building in 1891. Courtesy of the New York University Archives.

A researcher first digging into the history of the University Building might wonder if women could only enter as servants or in masculine disguise, like the titular character of Cecil Dreeme, the 1861 gothic novel set in the University Building.  The University of the City of New York did not admit women students for most of the time it was headquartered there.  The building’s most famous residents—Samuel F. B. Morse, Samuel Colt, Winslow Homer—were all men.  Did nineteenth century ideas about men’s and women’s separate spheres truly mean that all women were excluded from the University Building’s intellectual activities?  While that may have been the intent, the reality was more complicated.

Dorothy Catherine Draper is the first woman most accounts of the University Building mention by name.  In 1839, she posed for one of the first clear daguerreotypes taken of a human face.  Tradition holds that this took place on on the roof of the University Building.  Professor John William Draper, Dorothy’s brother, took the portrait.  Despite being an educated woman herself, Dorothy was admitted to the University Building because her brother escorted her there.  No other record of her visiting the building exists after the day her earnest face was immortalized among the earliest examples of American photography.

More women gained access to the University Building in 1860, when the Woman’s Library opened on the third floor.  The New York Times reported, “On Saturday the Woman’s Library was crowded with ladies, and the pleasure and satisfaction they seemed to feel in having a handsome institution of this kind for themselves, were not only plainly apparent, but eagerly expressed.”  This was the first time women were admitted to the University Building to pursue their own studies:  the University of the City of New York would not accept them for another thirteen years.

The Woman’s Library was developed as a philanthropic project to let working class women access books that would improve their minds, further their educations, and help them find employment that paid more than “starving wages.”  It was a subscription library, but membership fees were relatively low.  Members paid $1.50 per year, though women unable to afford that fee could join for free.  The Woman’s Library also had some notable advantages over other libraries in the area.  The Astor Library was free, but its books did not circulate, and it closed half an hour before sunset.  The Mercantile Library opened to women beginning in 1854, but membership cost between two and five dollars per year, and the Apprentices’ Library was not open to women until 1862.

Critics pointed out that the Woman’s Library was not much use to the truly destitute.  As Elbert S. Porter, editor of the Christian Intelligencer, put it, “It is difficult to see how [the Woman’s Library] will materially help the ‘poor sewing girl’ who must work all day and late in the night to get twelve cents for the making of a dozen capes or fifteen cents for the making of a pair of pantaloons.”  Perhaps in response to this argument, the Woman’s Library subscribed to a dozen expensive Parisian fashion magazines.  Members were allowed to cut patterns from them.    Whether these magazines helped “poor sewing girls” to command higher prices for their work, or simply allowed middle class women to improve their own wardrobes, is not clear.  The Woman’s Library moved out of the University Building in 1865, and was taken over by the Working Women’s Protective Union in 1866.

Subscribers to the Woman’s Library provided the University Building’s population with some variety in gender.  However, there is no documentation that they mixed with the college students and lodgers who also occupied the building.  The Woman’s Library could thus exist in the University Building without significantly disrupting the separate spheres.  This is not to suggest, however, that the spheres remained undisrupted.

An artist by the name of Mary L. Stone rented a studio on the third floor of the University Building in 1863.  At first glance, her placement on the third floor might be interpreted as an effort to contain women in one area of the building, but it is more likely that she chose the studio because it was next door to that of her teacher, Edwin White.  In doing so, she followed the footsteps of artists like Daniel Huntington, student and University Building neighbor of Samuel F. B. Morse, who twice served as president of the National Academy of Design.

“Village Children,” by Mary L. Stone. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Stone also became quite successful in her day.  The Ladies’ Repository, a Universalist publication, praised her work in 1868, the year she left her studio in the University Building: “Miss Stone has a great deal of fancy, an excellent eye for grouping and composition, and is rarely at fault in drawing the human figure.”  Her illustrations of Reconstruction-era North Carolina were published in Harper’s Weekly in 1873.  Five years later, the writer and artist Horace J. Rollin named Mary L. Stone alongside Mary Cassatt in a list of women artists “who are worthy of especial mention” in his Studio, Field, and Gallery: A Manual of Painting for the Student and Amateur (1878).  Stone moved to the artists’ colony at Ecouen, France, shortly thereafter.  A New York Times reporter visited the colony in 1881 and wrote that “A large number of Miss Stone’s paintings have found their way to America, and have done much both there and abroad toward upholding the reputation of that country for producing artists of ability.”

Stone’s identity as an artist helped her straddle the line between traditional feminine accomplishment and middle class masculine professionalism.  Art was among the more acceptable educational pursuits for middle- and upper-class women in the mid-nineteenth century.  In fact, when women were first admitted to the University of the City of New York in 1873, it was the only subject they were permitted to study.  The other artists in the building may have raised an eyebrow at Stone renting a studio, but women artists were not a new concept to them.  Her association with Edwin White also granted her legitimacy. 

Yet Mary L. Stone was a woman who directed her own career, and her decision to work in the University Building alongside other serious artists was ultimately her own.  It was a brave choice, and one which seems to have paid off, at least in her lifetime.  For the past century, though, her name has been omitted from the lists of artists’ names who lived in the University Building.  It is time for that to change.  In the twenty-first century, it is time to replace Mary L. Stone among her historical contemporaries.

Like the rain and snow which frequently found its way through the University Building’s poorly-constructed tin roof, women found their way into the building’s history despite considerable barriers.  The stories told in this post are, admittedly, footnotes.  But they are footnotes because they were not considered important enough to be recorded and preserved at the time these women lived.  Taken as a group, they shed light on the ways women in nineteenth century Greenwich Village negotiated social norms and their own educational desires—and that is an excellent topic to study.

Sources:

Draper, John William—history of photography.  Archives H subject files; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

Sandra Roff, “A Room of Her Own:  The Woman’s Library, a Footnote to New York City Library History.” Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Volume 49, Number 4 (2014), pp. 450-468.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/lac.2014.0017.

“Libraries.”  Trow’s New York City Directory.  Vol. LXXVIII. New York:  John F. Trow, 1865.  p. 26.  https://books.google.com/books?id=hY4tAAAAYAAJ.

The New York Times, various issues, 1858-1861, 1881. 

University Building—original correspondence from tenants, 1920s and 1930s; Buildings Collection; RG 1; Box 17, Folder 3; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

“Literary and Artistic.”  The Ladies’ Repository.  Vol. 39.  Boston:  The Universalist Publishing House, 1868.  pp. 398-399.  https://books.google.com/books?id=H4gUAAAAYAAJ.

Horace J. Rollins.  “American Artists.”  Studio, Field, and Gallery: A Manual of Painting for the Student and Amateur.  New York:  D. Appleton and Company, 1878.  pp. 191-195.  https://books.google.com/books?id=Wdc4AQAAMAAJ.

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In the twenty-first century, most people acknowledge the dominant role technology plays in our daily lives, especially in the ways in which we connect to others. The digital age brought forth the transition from hard copy and handwritten documents to electronic forms of communication and record keeping. In addition, social media networks enable us to broadly share personal announcements and to contact family, friends, and sometimes relative strangers with just a few clicks of the mouse. At times I find it difficult to imagine how I lived my life without the technological advancements of the past two decades. Yet, as a graduate student with a passion for nineteenth century history, I am reminded rather frequently of a life before even basic items such as ballpoint pens, mass-market spiral notebooks, and word processing systems.

Based on the ways in which we live our lives in 2014, the diary of George Templeton Strong may not seem spectacular or even unique. I imagine its significance is lost on anyone unfamiliar with it. So who exactly was George Templeton Strong? And why is his diary significant? George Templeton Strong lived in New York City between 1820 and 1875. He attended Columbia College. Soon after, he joined his father’s law practice and practiced as a real estate attorney. He stayed at the firm which was variously called Strong & Bidwell, Strong, Bidwell & Strong, and Bidwell & Strong during his lifetime. (The firm is now Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.)

Image from Mr. Lincoln and New York website. http://www.mrlincolnandnewyork.org/content_inside.asp?ID=47&subjectID=3

George Templeton Strong in November 1860. (Image from Mr. Lincoln and New York website – link below.)

Strong participated in numerous civic activities which led to his prominence in New York City society. He served as a vestryman at Trinity Episcopal Church located in Lower Manhattan and a trustee at Columbia College (now Columbia University). He also spent time as the Treasurer of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which forced him to travel to Washington, DC multiple times during the American Civil War. Along with Frederick Law Olmsted, Henry Whitney Bellows, and Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, he founded the Union League Club of New York in February 1863. The Union League supported the Union war effort and donated funds to the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War.

The brief background information above illustrates the busy and active life Strong lived. Despite his activities and commitments, Strong somehow found time to keep one of the most detailed diaries from his time period. Strong started his diary in 1835 while he attended Columbia College. He continued to write in the diary until June 25, 1875, one month before his death. His original diary consists of more than 2,250 pages and an estimated four million to four and a half million words.   His words provide readers with the intricate details of life in nineteenth century New York City. Strong detailed his daily activities, social obligations, and political opinions. The diary supplies reflections on the events of the Civil War, including the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, and the assassination of President Lincoln days later.

First printing at Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

First printing at Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

Strong’s detailed forty-year account of his life in New York City during such turbulent times serves as an invaluable tool for scholars in a variety of fields. The history of the diary itself also reflects the power of the words within. The diary remained in the Strong family until 1927 when a descendant allowed the American Red Cross to borrow it. The diary remained protected by family members for privacy reasons and because the diary contains strong opinions from a tumultuous time in America’s history. The New-York Historical Society owns the original diary. Macmillan Company published the first printing of the four volume diary in 1952. Allan Nevins, a historian, and Milton Hasley Thomas, a curator, edited the first printing of the diary.

Reading Strong’s diary encouraged me to reflect on the ways he chronicled his life and how individuals document their lives today. In order to preserve his history, Strong had to sit down at a desk every night under candlelight and write using quill pens and then later gold pens. This process seems tedious compared to uploading a photo to Instagram or typing 140 characters in a tweet. Yet, without Strong’s diligence and time, scholars would lack an incredibly important artifact containing distinctive insights into the world of the nineteenth century. The ways in which we record our lives may have changed significantly since Strong wrote in his “minute hand”, but our thoughts and the moments we choose to remember remain the same. On Sunday, April 9, 1865 Strong wrote, “LEE AND HIS ARMY HAVE SURRENDED! Gloria in Excelcis Deo…” I think his exclamation would translate loud and clear in a tweet or Facebook status update today.


For additional information on subjects discussed above, please visit the links below.

Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.

http://www.cadwalader.com/about/history

Mr. Lincoln and New York Project

http://www.mrlincolnandnewyork.org/

Trinity Church

http://www.trinitywallstreet.org/about

Trinity Church Graveyard

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_Cemetery

Union League Club

http://www.unionleagueclub.org/Default.aspx?p=dynamicmodule&pageid=390621&ssid=311686&vnf=1

New-York Historical Society

http://www.nyhistory.org/

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The Hulk passes through Washington Square Park in The Amazing Spider-Man, issue 381, 1993

The Hulk passes through Washington Square Park in The Amazing Spider-Man, issue 381, 1993

Ta-Nehisi Coates hit the nail on the head when he said, “Comics are so often seen as the province of white geeky nerds. But, more broadly, comics are  the literature of outcasts, of pariahs, of Jews, of gays, of blacks. It’s really no mistake that we saw ourselves in Doom, Magneto or Rogue.” Since their inception, comic books have been a place for fantasy, wish fulfillment and political commentary. Much like science fiction, a genre decades old by the time comic books became popular in the United States, comic books often reflected the fringes of American society. They told the stories of outcasts and aliens, people who didn’t step in time with the rest of humanity. It’s unsurprising that someone like William Moulton Marston, psychologist and creator of Wonder Woman, would find himself so drawn to the medium.

This phenomenal development of a national comics addiction puzzles professional educators and leaves the literary critics gasping. Comics scorn finesse, thereby incurring the wrath of linguistic adepts. They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very tokens the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self.”

Front page to The Sound of Her Wings from Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes, Issue 8, 1991.

Front page to The Sound of Her Wings from Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes, Issue 8, 1991.

Marston wrote this for a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, a year after Wonder Woman debuted in her first solo book, Sensation Comics. He was a blacklisted psychologist who lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women, Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway. All three worked, wrote and helped raise their four children. A self-identified feminist, Marston infused Wonder Woman with his politics, hoping to create a new feminine ideal. Perhaps, then, it is even less surprising that Marston’s inspiration was found largely in the radical communities of Greenwich Village.
Wonder Woman was not the only superhero to have passed through the Village. Comic book writers and artists have been sending their characters to the quintessential home of radical counterculture for decades. Wonder Woman herself lived in the Village in the sixties and seventies. Madame Xanadu, a sorceress based on the Arthurian legend of Nimue, had her salon on Chrystie Street. Peter Parker, that most relatable of high school geeks and New York native, swung through the Village regularly. Kyle Radnor, one of the iterations of the Green Lantern, was an artist whose studio was in a Greenwich Village loft. It made sense to place these characters here. Like the folk music that permeated the Village in the 1950’s and 60’s, comic books told stories  that were always meant for the common person, but also for those who didn’t quite feel like they were in sync with the rest of the world. People found shelter in the Village, and it was no different on the pages of Spider-Man or Wonder Woman.

A shadowy figure approaches the Sanctum Sanctorum, home of Doctor Stephen Strange, which first appeared in Strange Tales, issue 116, 1951. The Sanctum existed in multiple dimensions, but the front door was on Bleecker Street.

A shadowy figure approaches the Sanctum Sanctorum, home of Doctor Stephen Strange, which first appeared in Strange Tales, issue 116, 1951. The Sanctum existed in multiple dimensions, but the front door was on Bleecker Street.

Outside comic books, Greenwich Village was home to people like socialist writer Max Eastman, who published Child of the Amazons and Other Poems in 1913. Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland, a utopian novel about an egalitarian world without men, in her magazine Forerunner in 1915. Clearly Amazonian society had been on the minds of many Village feminists, not just Martson’s.
Because of their format, and their intended audiences, comic book creators had room to do the daring, to challenge social mores. Sometimes they didn’t succeed, and often they ended up just reproducing the same prejudices they were attempting to subvert. Despite the efforts of people like Marston, the comic book industry has been dominated by white men, its path dictated by what they think their audience of white teenage males want to see. But comic books still have their roots in counterculture, and are so identified with bohemian Greenwich Village that author Michael Chabon set much of his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Claythere. His characters, Joe, Sammy and Rosa, called the Village home, often finding refuge there through a storm of homophobia, sexism and anti-semitism.
Supergirl is sent to the Village to speak to Madame Xanadu in Wonder Woman, issue 292, 1982

Supergirl is sent to the Village to speak to Madame Xanadu in Wonder Woman, issue 292, 1982

Comic books have certainly changed over the years, and so has the Village, but their shared history continues to draw people for similar reasons. They have the ability to show us our fantasies and desires, reflecting them back to us for better or worse. Idealists, radicals, outcasts and sometimes just lonely kids looking for companionship – those are the people who still hold comic books closest, and comic book creators owe much of that to the influence of the Village.

Related Reading:

Gaiman, Neil. Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1991.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Random House Publishing, 2000.

Daniels, Les. Wonder Woman: The Life and Times of the Amazon Princess: The Complete Story. San Francisco: Titan Books, 2000.

Schwartz, Judith. Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940. Norwich, Vermont: New Victoria Publishers, 1986.

 

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