Endless Nights and Savage Angels: Henry James and Walt Whitman's New York Cityscapes

NEW YORK -MARCH 29: Flat Iron building facade on March 29, 2012. Completed in 1902, it is considered to be one of the first skyscrapers ever built. Photo by © Luciano Mortula /

New York is a symbol that claws its way into the core of stories. It's never just a set piece, never just a grid of architecture. It's a city of multitudes, madness, and muddied values.

Washington Square

Publisher: Doubleday
Author: Henry James
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-02

The Complete Poems

Publisher: Penguin
Author: Walt Whitman
Publication date: 2005-03

Years ago at City College set in the brick and limestone recesses of West Harlem, where corner vendors offered warm nuts on as indigent hotels burned nearby, I took a summer course, Literary New York, with the affable and astute Earnest Hemingway scholar Ira Elliott. In the class held on one of the top floors of a mammoth building built for riot suppression (such as easy site lines for sharpshooters, hallways that could be easily locked down), we poured over the city’s ever-lasting literary symbolism, the powerful traits that feel as real as a bent and broken as a tree growing in Brooklyn or the quiet swing of doors at a posh Bulgari store.

The city has always been a diverse signifier in urban prose, a deep wellspring of fecund and fertile images woven through literature and film. Even while watching reruns of the The Squid and the Whale, one can sense the Prospect Park neighborhoods as a dystopia mired in literature, sport, and endless parking conundrums. The neighborhood is an analogue to the personal breakdown of marriage and childhood: splotchy walled homes and over-lit indoor tennis courts mark and mimic the Raymond Carver-like dissolution of all things formerly trustworthy and stable.

Sometimes the city is simply an ornamental backdrop, innocuous as a diorama cut from cardboard boxes; other times, the city feels palpably gritty and volatile, eruptive and engrossed in ennui. That’s the difference between sitcoms and the harrowing alleyways and blaring taxis of sin-steeped City of Night and the tabloid-world of “eight million stories pictured in The Naked City. Each time the city becomes a stand-in for an author’s impressions, a morphing index and tableax, an extension of an author’s gestalt and worldview. The city is both a projected set-piece and an internalized force.

The city contains identity multitudes -- as murky Metropolis model, Big Apple dream conveyor, and Gotham City mob labyrinth – each plunging into face-offs between the quick and the dead, the fast and the curious, and the flawed good and undeniable evil. The city is never just a neutral space, a grid ringed with steel, glass, and iron enclosures, or merely blank architecture glinting over the East or Hudson river. Authors have a profound psychological attachment to the body of the city, its psycho-geography and pulses, its hulk and materiality. It’s as though the city is biomorphic, alive, trembling, poking up through the narratives as a character itself, eating its way into story cores.

This has been common since the 1800s, when stories like Stephen Crane’s "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" (1893), whose modern equivalent might be the BBC America thriller Copper, evoked the city in gas lit, darkly oil painted, and cut-throat journalistic hues. As a claustrophobic, Dickensian, and “naturalistic” version, the narrative seethes with humanity’s mirth and mud. It's quasi-evil, monstrously indifferent to the battered and hopeless, a toxic terminus of human frailty and filth, engulfing the characters that are unfortunate enough to dwell inside its interiors, which are precursors to the mean streets often salaciously detailed in crime, noir, and pulp genres. Crane offers no lenient gaze: no writerly sheen staves off the grime. No buffers exist between the streets and the souls of the people.

In Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep (1934), the city is not as singular and unified, either as public or rhetorical space. It's divided and fragmentary: it's part Moloch, part Eden, Irish and Jewish, new and old, a fallen city steeped in sin trying to grapple with its conscience. Roth’s shimmering novel details a vast swath of seedy tenement halls, a uterine-like atmosphere seething and brooding with anxiety and identity crises offset by bustling daylight market stalls that line the street.

These form a nexus of immigrant commerce and trade, cackle and banter. The story is like a Lower East Side poem, a modernist piece rendered in proletariat terms about truants and those seeking truth. Roth discerns hope and meaning even in petty gangland youth, who demean the protagonist child, forcing him to toss a piece of zinc into a trolley line, causing hissing sparks and a vision of God.

For Crane, who self-financed his novel, the Bowery overflows with tough, everyday, common-as-mud colloquial speech. The city – rife with loss, damage, and contortion -- steeps in aggression and fracture, like a cocoon of endless night and strife. Much later, those same neighborhoods gave birth to CBGB and punk rock, heroin chic and skinhead romp. Rogue Irish cops gave way to Mayor Koch and cobbled streets turned to graffiti alleys. In Crane’s bitter eye, valor and venality go hand-in-hand. “Damned disorderly brats” reign and buildings heave and moan, quivering and creaking “from the weight of humanity stamping about” in their bowels.

For Roth, whose own background hovered in Marxism, incest, and a City College education too, the city’s foreboding fatalism (steeped in a colloquial soundtrack of languages) is tempered by long resplendent days, where both the verve and the angst of the Jewish community provides a sense of ethnic climate, history, and resonance.

New York is not merely vicious and unbridled, broken and bellicose, but a slightly unkempt mystery, itself teeming with recalcitrant elements– “the old house creaked when the wind elbowed in and out the alley…” The characters’ hues flip – they’re despondent, fervently attentive, and fretful as their hearts are contorted by “dreamlike fugitive sadness” given respite in “the hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude.”

Whether Jewish poet and beat generation guru Allen Ginsberg sought that same beatitude is unknown, but his coterie of pals labored as well in the heart of the nearby neighborhoods beginning in the late '40s. Yet, like Ginsberg later saw both William Blake and Moloch in his visions of New York City, Roth’s tormented protagonist feels like a precursor to their “beat” personas, a piece of raw clay in the hands of a city that breeds beauty and terror, confusion and clarity.

The city of Henry James, perhaps epitomized by Washington Square, contains little of that discourse. In his compressed and restrained narrative, the city is a repository of professional and cosmopolitan mores, a tidy home for the self-edifying bourgeois and stilted upper classes that he undercuts with irony. For example, America is a country where, “to play a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe you earn it…” How very contemporary the barbs feels in an era in which people cannot actually describe the workloads of financers and investors.

Clever main protagonist Dr. Sloper feels utterly modern, as well. According to the narrator, he exudes both scholarly wisdom and yields concrete prescriptions. Like the city itself, there is nothing vague or abstract. “He always ordered you to take something…” while explaining minute matters to patients. This confidence rings familiar in an era of rampant pill popping and herb dosing in which self-satisfied doctors of all stripes offer remedies in liberal intonations. Science and healing are modern marvels; no old world folklore should blemish the treatment.

The city at the heart of Sloper is strikingly whitewashed, teeming with erudition, and almost alabaster ghostly. New York is made for men of the world, an entourage of purloined people of upper crust, upper class gastronomy and economy. There appear to be no margin walkers, even along the grassy waysides of Canal Street. Little dissent percolates in the narrative, and few fringes indicate antithetical values and counterculture.

A reader has to focus intently to imagine the disconnected drudgery of workaday worlds, which can be hardly discerned in the veins of the narrator’s city. The city is defined and finite, coherent and cohesive, life-affirming and righteously riot-proof.

The microcosm of the novel does not teem with riverside tenements but attempts to sketch the corolla of Washington Square, which, at the time, was an unpaved section cloistered near the “spacious”, “august”, and “confident air” of Fifth Avenue. Yet, other murkier nocturnes and dank daylights do exist in the upper blocks of the city, where one passage describes the extended interior giving way to an area where pigs and chickens shit in the gutter.

As David McWhirter alleges, James, who published the novel in 1880, seems blind to the changes underfoot in New York, including bustling ferry services, street railways, and the basic infrastructure of a frenetic Walt Whitman-sized city. The immigrants clawing their way inside the American dream seem absent as well in James’ viewfinder.

To Whitman, New York symbolized acute acceleration, dizzying industry and might, and the city registered “the impalpable sustenance of me from all things.” The city becomes soluble when rendered in Whitman’s boundless ethos.

In contrast, James simulates a museum-like study of a fossilized city bound to some other time. The lives pouring forth within the boundaries are not hemmed in by poverty or class war; they are simply part and parcel of the loneliness that stems from modernity, capitalism, and intellectuality. His New York City offers closure, integrated and dialed-back dynamism. The carnivalesque undertows go missing: the grasp of the city seems clean and calculated.

For James, the territory is a map, a perfunctory sketch, not a throbbing nebula, like Whitman’s Manhattan.

The next column will examine Herman Melville and the Beat Generation.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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