Occupy Literature: New York from Melville to the Beats

No doubt, Occupy Wall Street has seized recent pop-meets-politics discourse and the physical space of New York during the last year, but the placards and ideologies actually resemble much earlier agitprop from the mouth of East Village radicals, like Emma Goldman, that used to hunker down in the shabby streets decrying the unfettered fists of capitalism. Yet even before that era, New Yorkers indulged the insights of Herman Melville, whose writerly eye penetrated the psychology of the lower city with deep focus.

In Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), the color of Herman Melville’s vision of Wall Street, though tempered by “the heat of business” and the fuss and bustle of a finance-based workaday world, is a shabby gray, the color of an oyster stuck in a tidal pool. That New York address embodies business and transaction, the heart of the deal.

The possibilities and virtues of democracy, what Thomas Jefferson dubbed as the “trees of liberty”, are paved over by the restless gloom of Wall Street, the prison of scriveners and copyists that “ verify … accuracy .. word by word.” As a co-worker of Bartleby blandly intones, the regimen is “very dull, wearisome, and lethargic…” Humanity is drained by the monotony, social alienation, and other derisory qualities that neither affirm nor reward the human spirit, which seems to wither without meaningful work.

The city is evoked as a spiritual nemesis to humankind (not unlike London’s “manacled Minds” envisioned by William Blake): it exists as a void and pit where even language offers no refuge, a place vacated on Sunday, when the blocks becomes empty as “Petra” – the Jordan city with beautiful ancient architecture cut into the rock face once defended by Lawrence of Arabia. The city is a place of negative-space where Bartleby sinks into his hermitage, “oblivious to every thing but his own business,” and broods “like a spectator of solitude” over the “ruins of Carthage.”

As a man alone in the middle of this world, Bartleby initially exudes Zen-like industrious. He exhibits an uncanny ability to work endlessly and effortlessly, all while embodying a “great stillness” and an “unalterableness of demeanor ” which ignites in his co-workers a “sudden spasmodic passion” for a fellow “son of Adam.” He is unspeakably perfect as a cog in capitalism, a well-oiled piston, a fluid ghost in the machine.

Yet, inexplicably, Bartleby shuts down his workload and chooses to lurk “beyond obstinancy.” “I prefer not to” becomes his mantra, delivered in a curiously plain cadence. While he may invert the commercial space of his employer (turning the business into a domicile space) and trigger and invoke resistance through stalled copying – depicted by Melville as endless repetitious tasks that erase job pleasure – he soon dies, having dwindled to total anonymity, in a regional prison.

The city has no patience or place for such men. The former dead letter office clerk stands in near stony silence, in “dead-wall revery”, cadaverous as the ancient ruins invoked earlier by Melville to describe Wall Street.

In such New York stories, the city is never a hollow set piece alone or an artless affectation of a mise-en-scene. Place matters. If Bartleby struck his resistant chord in Poughkeepsie instead of the hallowed halls of New York, few readers would respond with the same intensity. Wall Street is not Main Street.

Wall Street, a juggernaut block of egos and money (even to people who have never visited the site), leaks into the fabric of the imagination, pulling and pushing with kinetic force, mustering itself as the key iconographic place in America. It houses capitalism’s engine and compass, for it offers seemingly unshackled profit possibilities. It also seems to tattoo the skin of the American dream with dollar signs and stock and bond imprints.

Los Angeles may have its Nathaniel West and John Fante, and a million young gun writers, but it never delivered Walt Whitman’s yowls and yawps. New York is a membrane molded to the kinetic life that pours across its canyons of buildings, below which humans lumber under the inhuman scale. New York is the terminus and repository — where else does a Hasidic-lined diamond district, Gotham Books, massive Catholic cathedral, Lancome cosmetic headquarters, and Rockefeller Center collide within a few blocks?

As New York entered the trappings of the early 20th century, as it gleamed with urbane robber baron buildings yet witnessed radicalized East Village stump speeches, and as art, commerce, and technology began their diligent dance together, writers took note of the both the glint and the gumption, the high-brow and low-brow cultural milieu.

More than ever, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described in The Crack-Up, the city was increasingly a port of saints and sinners that were “bloated, glutted, stupid with cake and circuses.” New York was a place where the gulfs between rich and poor matched the Hudson River’s scale, where immigrants shifted from their Manhattan ghettos to outer boroughs as they assimilated into an American life transformed.

Visually and topographically, the city began a strange metamorphosis, as Luc Sante has well-observed. The promenades, walkways, and piers were gradually overshadowed by the climbing, vertical, and frenzied heights of skyscrapers etched into the sky. They became permanent fixtures blotting out slanting sun rays and looming above trolleys and El Trains crisscrossing dingy avenues teeming with coughing automobiles as the scent of horse feces replaced the sharp tang of gasoline fumes.

New York was the atomized center of American culture, a direct line to Europe, a colorful, melodramatic megalith. In the mind of many authors, the city was a vivacious amalgam — more savvy, more madly scrambling, and more multicultural than the rest of America at-large, especially years before popular culture, towing homogenization in its wake, began demolishing distinctness and difference. New York was a catalyst, it was a magnet, and it was a labyrinth.

By the time World War II ended, Englishman Cyril Connolly dubbed the city “The supreme metropolis of the present… what London had been and Rome before that. Most of the decisions that counted in the United States – those involving the disposition of money and fame and the recognition of literary and artistic achievement – were made on that rocky island, that diamond iceberg between rivers …”

Simultaneously, a new subculture emerged, forging an alchemy replete with leftism, disaffection, music, and narcotics. In the backdrop of smoke-filled halls of labor, in the GIs fresh from war weary and often ruined cities of Europe, from the boisterous nights at illegal speakeasies and tenement crash parties, from East and West Harlem, from City College to Columbia, from the din of alcoholic jamborees and marijuana-induced theorizing, from the alleyways of migration and freedom, came a cry for new kicks, resembling Hart Crane’s previous demand for “new thresholds”. This generation was less attuned to his brand of counter-cultural artifice, craft, and convention, or his quiet gay angst, and more infused with brash dissatisfied cravings for upheaval and new gestalts.

They came from all fronts of culture, squeezing into the public sphere, almost deafening in later years, though at first no more recognized that the sound of an orange peel tossed onto a dingy carpet. The era of the hipster began its route from backwater harmonica hot-spots to Kerouac’s “goldenhorn age of the band,” from jazz-poem happenings of the ’30s in Chicago, past the solitudes of Maxwell Bodenheim (King of Greenwich Village Bohemians) and Dylan Thomas, and into the musical and lingual phrasing of cantankerous, boisterous youth.

The genesis of the Beat Generation began: its precursors sauntered into the streets, finding voice and identity in the marginalia and shabby neon of all-night cafes. They studied German philosophy at Columbia University and saw visions of God. These youth exuded, as John Clellon Holmes pictured, a “restless exuberance” amid their cynical distaste for the old world order — the suffocating cultural, social, sexual, and legal hierarchies.

The Beat bohemia, more robust, self-germinating, and media savvy than the Lost Generation, spread slowly, at first merely a cluster of students cloistered around the tutelage of Lionel Trilling and others associated with the Partisan Review. Allen Ginsberg, Lucian Carr, and Hal Chase formed a pact heralding a “new consciousness”, attracting the attention of former small-time football star Jack Kerouac, the ascetic William Burroughs, and later the effusive wanderer Neil Cassady.

In 1948, Ginsberg rode the ferry from New Jersey to Battery Park. Anguished by his mother’s instability, yet full of hope and eagerness, Ginsberg was ready to seize the city.

As many have depicted, the currents for this dissonance and rebellion were already sewn throughout America. Marlon Brando embodied insolence in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild Ones, jazz transformed the department store jingle of Benny Goodman and big band romp into nuanced new idioms conjured by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Illinois Jacquet, and Lester Young.

Meanwhile, narcotics wound their way from the periphery of the city (Lower East Side, East Harlem) into the very isles of Broadway, where 24 hour cafes became places of refuge for down’n’out musicians, actors, students, and the subproletariat.

As Ann Charters notes in her introduction to The Portable Beat Reader, the jargon of hipster culture shaped and reinforced self-definition. People mimicked the mouths of hustlers, margin walkers, and fellow travelers, which Allen Ginsberg found himself amid. When Mezz Mezzrow published Really the Blues in 1946, he used the word “beat” to convey tiredness and exasperation mixed with an essence of deadpan humor. “Beat”, as both street slang and ethos as well, was picked up, transformed, and projected into something more puzzling and pop.

Ginsberg and Kerouac both attribute their conception of the meaning behind the wily word to Herbert Huncke, a Times Square junkie from Chicago who embodied a certain existential disaffiliation with the common modes of American culture.

My brother actually befriended him in the ’80s in the city, when he too gave up Chicago for New York’s art-punk living diorama. The Beats seemingly tried to absorb part of Huncke’s manner, his distaste for normalcy, and his blend of petty criminality and unabashed poverty.

His admirers insisted such people emitted or embodied a “special spirituality” that set them apart from the staid mores of everyday American consumerism. They were non-conformists, Dostoyevskian and intuitive, relaying a set of values that would infiltrate the halls of universities from Union Station to the flat pancake prairie of the heartland.

Kerouac published his first book, The Town and the City in 1948. Rather tight and controlled, it read likes a somewhat unremarkable journey of a small-town man entering the avalanche of New York nights. It is linear and echoes the stylistic influence of Proust and Thomas Wolfe. In fact, it became the favorite book of his parish priest. Needless to say, it is safe, tethered to convention, and only hints at the fever that would encompass the Beats.

New York, although a combination of cold, money-centric enterprising and writerly ambitions (and assorted restless drinking bouts at taverns), is not the place of intemperate flux, at least in this initial book, that would become the cornerstone of Kerouac’s work.

The city, and its underworld, would once again witness rebirth in the imagination of not just the Beats and Amiri Baraka, Andy Warhol and Rene Ricard, but also in the work of John Rechy and Patti Smith, Lou Reed and David Johansen, Joey Ramone and Richard Hell, and endless others. The savage angels kept arriving, stoking the fetish for music, art, and literature flickering in the endless nightscapes. Each year, old New York faded behind gentrification or deteriorated due to neglect.

Still, the avant-garde looked back to Bodenheim selling poems on the street corner and knew a different heartbeat existed in the city besides the calling card of corporate commerce. The city has never fully shedded that skin of disaffection and distinctive difference, of hardcore and artcore, of poems flying in the face of futility. Some bit of Hunke, Ginsberg, Whitman, and Bartleby will always remain, despite New York’s glossy recasting.

Those figures keep occupying literature and culture long after their deaths.