Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New
Anne-Marie Cantwell & Diana diZerega
Yale University Press
Late in August
of this year, the prepublication galley copy of a new book found
its way into my hands--an archaeological history of New York
City. At the time, it seemed like the sort of mildly interesting
read one might get around to in the thick of a couple of cold
and dreary, housebound winter days.
In the wake of the events of September 11, however, the book,
with its iconic cover photo--the New York skyline dominated by
the twin towers of the World Trade Center--suddenly, surreally
became itself an artifact of New York's history (although the
final cover design coincidentally, according to the publisher,
features a different view of the city). And the title, Unearthing
Gotham, seemed eerily timely as the news brought footage
of giant machines and small men digging their way through a mountain
of dust and rubble.
To read the book now is to find both unexpected comfort in
historical perspective and powerful resonance in details that
only two months ago would have passed by hardly noticed. In this
highly readable account, thankfully free of the unintelligible
academic jargon that plagues so much writing in the humanities
these days, the authors, Anne-Marie Cantwell and Dianna diZerega
Wall, trace what the archaeological record tells about the peopling
of the area that is now New York City, from the arrival of the
earliest indigenous inhabitants roughly 11,000 years ago through
the growth of a modern city in the 19th century.
When those first hunter-gatherers arrived in the wake of the
retreat of the last ice age, the land that would one day become
a seaside port was far inland still, and would remain that way
for thousands of years yet as the vast, melting ice caps slowly
filled the oceans. One of the most astonishing details of this
distant piece of New York's story is that evidence of these early
Paleoindians--ancient stone tools called "Clovis points"--was
first discovered in the 1950s by the eleven-year-old son of an
amateur archaeologist, sticking out of some newly-disturbed clay
on the site of a trash-strewn oil tank farm on Staten Island.
The amazing coincidence of this find is mirrored throughout the
book in a series of lucky discoveries that helped advance the
archaeological record of the city.
What we know of the millennia of inhabitation by indigenous
peoples is limited, the authors admit, but from the available
evidence, Cantwell and Wall are at pains to point out the inaccuracy
of the myth of a "virgin land," a tabula rasa awaiting
the first European settlers. This region, rich in wildlife and,
increasingly, the abundant resources of the sea, was long-settled
when the Europeans arrived, and there are tantalizing hints from
the surviving artifacts that those who lived here first had rich
and varied cultures.
Nevertheless, New York's modern history would fall into the
hands--or more accurately, be seized by--the waves of European
settlers to come. When the first Dutch arrived in the early 17th
century, the resident Munsee, who did not share the European
notion of private ownership, apparently welcomed them generously,
sharing food and knowledge with immigrants ill-prepared for life
in the wilderness. In turn, the Munsee soon reaped a harvest
of disease, dispossession and death. Smallpox, syphilis and other
European imports decimated the population, augmented by intermittent
incidents of wholesale slaughter of entire communities. To this
reader, it seemed instructive at this time to recall that European
Christians have their own long and shameful history of inhumanity.
With the Europeans came an increasing trove of material possessions,
as well as written records, that make the reconstruction of the
last five hundred years of New York's story far easier for archaeologists.
At the same time, however, New York is a city forever tearing
itself down and remaking itself, and an island almost entirely
paved over and populated by skyscrapers offers limited opportunities
for digging about. Still, the authors offer fascinating insights
gleaned from archaeological excavations to describe New York's
transition from Dutch rule to English colony to modern American
Reading the book now, I was struck by the degree to which
New York, for all its triumphant brashness, is a city with a
history of sorrows, from the destruction of the Munsee to the
suffering of African slaves to the epidemics of cholera and other
Yet there is a strange comfort in recognizing that the span
of any one human life, however fraught with pain and tragedy,
is but an insignificant mark on the long line of history. And
in reading that history as rendered in our material goods, I
was reminded of so much recent news coverage on the detritus
from the World Trade Center--family photographs, business cards,
a shoe--each a pointer to an entire life. In the artifacts we
leave behind, we tell our stories.
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San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets
David Meltzer (Editor)
City Lights Books
If you fancy
the Beat movement because you think you look good in a beret
and goatee or because you like to say 'Daddio' while reclining
in your favorite Starbucks, San Francisco Beat: Talking with
the Poets is definitely not the book for you. While it's
a testament to the Beat movement's shelf-life, it is also a resounding
condemnation of what its editor, David Meltzer, describes as
the contemporary oversimplification of the movement. "The
reclamation and reinvention of the Beats and Beat literature
in the nineties," he writes,
is an international phenomena that at once recognizes the
dissident spirit of the Beats and removes it from historical
complexity, makes it safe, and turns it into products and artifacts.
The more removed from history's discomfort, the easier it is
to imagine and consume history without taking on its weight.
The books of that time recirculate in new hipper covers, along
with all the dreadful accoutrements of the postwar middle-class
suburban diaspora, the kitsch and crapola. It's the "look"
that dot-commers yen to trophy their nouveaux pads with. It's
more to do with style than bile. Fictive history can be owned
and displayed as the fifties' ultimate product: stuff. Both radically
disruptive stuff and suburban kitsch are easily embraced by the
neo-con techno-cart. The pervasive postwar advertising seduction
of selling standardized goods to consumers as an act of claiming
individuality and choice deeply saturated itself into the American
Stick it to the man, Davidio!
The core of San Francisco Beat appeared thirty years
ago as a mass market paperback under the title The San Francisco
Poets. It contained interviews with Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, William Everson and Lew Welch,
as well as a statement from Richard Brautigan (who declined to
be interviewed). Its new form is decidedly bigger and more diverse.
In addition to 1999 interviews with Ferlinghetti and McClure
(the only two original interview subjects who are alive today),
it now also includes recent interviews with eight other poets,
including Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, as well
as two short but informative remembrances of Everson and Rexroth.
The subjects on hand are diverse, ranging from questions that
map the poets' individual artistic growth to more abstract questions
that get at the heart of poetry and what it can and should accomplish
in a troubled world. Ferlinghetti is particularly strident in
his blending of politics and poetry (anyone surprised?), both
in the 1969 and 1999 interviews. Indeed, if anything, he's more
outspoken today. "It's a technophiliac consciousness,"
he says in the more recent interview,
that seems to be sweeping the world. And more than that...it's
that huge all-engulfing corporate monoculture that is sweeping
around the world. It's the most boring culture imaginable. It
makes everything look the same....Countries that were under dictatorships,
like in Central Europe--the first thing they do when they get
liberated is rush to adopt the worst features of American culture--like
the automobile and the television....
San Francisco Beat is often fascinating, and it's hard
to find a single page that fails to rile, rant or cajole us all
to accept a more complicated, self-aware world view. Occasionally,
it's more ranting than cajoling, but hey: if you dig the style,
you have to take the bile, Daddio.
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The World Below
Alfred A. Knopf
The World Below opens poignantly in the past, with a grandmother
traveling by carriage to her grown daughter's funeral and silently
rehearsing the speech she's prepared to ask her son-in-law to
allow her two granddaughters to live with her, rather than with
him. The pace is calculatedly slow, and Miller's writing is beautifully
lyrical and evocative: "Imagine it: a dry, cool day, the
high-piled cumulus clouds moving slowly from northwest to southeast
in the sky, their shadows following them across the hay fields
yet to be cut for the last time this year." The overall
effect is quite striking, and while the story is undeniably sad,
it is oddly soothing in its rhythms.
Only in the next chapter do we learn that much of the novel
is set in the present. Somewhat sadly, the story of the funeral
and the grandmother's over-rehearsed bid to gain custody of her
grandchildren is itself only a brief story told by a woman to
her own grandchildren. The woman who tells it, we learn, is the
older child in the story, and as the novel proper opens, both
she and her sister have died, and her two grown grandchildren
(Catherine and Lawrence) are arranging for the handling of the
At the center of the estate is the grandmother's house in
Vermont, and as it happens, Catherine, a fifty-two-year-old schoolteacher,
is ending her second marriage and looking for a place to recover
emotionally. So--yes, that's right--Catherine inevitably decides
to take a six-month sabbatical from her San Francisco job and
travel East for a round of pensive introspection and, more unexpectedly,
an extended reappraisal of her dead grandmother's own early adulthood.
As Catherine discovers while reading her grandmother's diaries,
none of us, no matter how old or seemingly settled, is without
a treasure trove of guarded secrets or lost desires in what one
character eloquently calls our lost, submerged history.
Miller sets up convenient parallels between Catherine and
the grandmother's stories (Catherine cared for her mentally ill
mother, just as Georgia cared for her cancer-stricken mother,
for instance). But the potential heavy-handedness of these plot
devices is erased by a far more complicated, beautifully nuanced
quality of sadness, of emptiness and unrequited desire that draws
the two separate eras and stories together.
The book won't leave readers without regrets. Gliding through
Catherine's easily read first-person account, for example, one
can't help wishing that Miller had offered more of the omniscient,
complicated narrative she established in the opening chapter
(and to which she returns too infrequently in flashbacks). Catherine's
account is fine, as far as it goes, and she should resonate beautifully
among Miller's loyal readers. But Miller has a sizeable skill
with omniscient accounts, and her even-handed work with the various
complicated characters she offers there is especially strong,
This is a heartfelt, decidedly non-ironized novel, and readers
looking for a good cozy book for winter reading should certainly
be satisfied with it. But readers who pick up on the subtle references
to Thomas Mann's masterpiece, The Magic Mountain (Catherine's
grandmother is sent to a secluded, relatively liberated TB hospital
in the country, for example), will find Miller's work is most
often far more grounded and prosaic than the allusions might
imply. The real beauty of Miller's work lies in her eye for patient
detail, her character development and the sophisticated way she
moves between the book's generations. She does manage to achieve
some stunningly powerful moments of transcendent beauty, though,
and the best may come when the teenaged Catherine discovers a
town underwater (it had been the victim of a dam project) while
fishing with her grandfather.
It's so...weird." I leaned over and watched the shifting
images. "But it's kid of magical, isn't it? And sad."
"Well, of course you're right. It is. Sad, and beautiful
too. As many sad things are."
I looked for a long time. Behind me I could hear the occasional
slow ticking of my grandfather's reel as he gently pulled the
line this way or that. "Think of it, Grandpa," I said.
"Think about the fishes swimming through the places where
people used to live."
It made me think of my mother somehow--the lostness of the
world down there, the otherness of it. It was like being able
to look at memory itself. I felt a kind of yearning for everything
past, everything already gone in my life.
It's a stunning moment, and the image of the underwater town--so
hauntingly beautiful and original--should resonate powerfully
long after the reader has forgotten the references to Hans Castorp
and his happy respite on the magic mountain.
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Half a Life
Alfred A. Knopf
While his travel
books remain his most enduring work, V.S. Naipaul's new novel,
Half a Life, is serendipitously well-timed to introduce
him to the new audience he should receive after being awarded
the Nobel Prize last month. It's short, it's highly readable,
and it explores many of the key issues he has raised over the
course of his twenty-four-book-long career. And perhaps most
promisingly, it opens with the sort of seemingly innocent question
that can carry a reader deep into the text before the answer
is fully given.
Why, Willie Chandran wants to know, is his middle name Somerset?
The short answer (Naipaul takes thirty-five wonderful pages
to answer it adequately) is that Willie's father is popularly
considered the spiritual source for W. Somerset Maugham's The
Razor's Edge, and in recognition of the relative fame and
fortune this brought him (he was, until Maugham met him, in serious
trouble with his family and local authorities), he gave his only
son the middle name 'Somerset.'
Of course, that's only the short answer. The long answer,
if I were the sort of reviewer who gives away a beautifully intricate
novel's details, would include the father's link to Mahatma Gandhi,
his efforts to reject his Brahmin status by marrying outside
of his caste and his son's reactions to his father's perceived
limitations. But I'm not that sort of reviewer, am I?
As strong as the stories of Willie's name and his father's
misguided travails are, they represent only a small part of a
book that falls pointedly into three globe-hopping sections.
The locales will be familiar to Naipaul aficionados: the first
section is set in India, the second is set in London, and the
third section is set in Africa. But it's not merely a change
of scenery that drives the transitions: as he moves the story
from India to London, Naipaul subtly changes his writing style
as well. While the Indian section's voice draws on a metaphor-
and fable-driven oral culture, the London section, in which Willie
attends college and entertains the possibility that he might
become a writer, is marked by a more traditional, detail-laden
literary voice. (Like Naipaul, who also traveled to England for
college, Willie writes stories for BBC radio broadcasts and has
a short story collection published. Click here to read WAG's review of Naipaul's letters
from this period.) Indeed, the London section reads like a portrait
of the artist as a young man: Willie shifts, self-consciously,
from an oral culture to a literary one, and in the process he
learns to speak (and write) in a new 'language.'
In all three sections, Naipaul explores (as he has throughout
his career) how colonialism uncomfortably brings together divergent
cultures (Anglo-Indian, Portuguese-African, etc.) and demonstrates
how hard it is to escape cultural definitions. "It was strange
when you got to see it," Willie says in the African section,
"those two different worlds side by side: the big estates
and the concrete buildings, and the African world that seemed
less consequential but was everywhere, like a kind of sea. It
was like a version of what--in another life, as it seemed--I
had known at home." The central problem for Naipaul's characters
is the trouble they face trying to escape the cultural determinism
forced onto their notion of who, precisely, they are. We are,
happily or unhappily, defined by the society we inherit, and
true individualism--defining yourself without cultural referents
(something Willie wants desperately to do)--is a chimera, it
seems. Culture is fate, and on the individual level, we each
of us can lay claim to only half a life; the other half belongs
indelibly to our inherited culture(s).
That Naipaul can cover so much territory--both thematically
and literally-- without ever making his lean, economical text
feel hurried is a testament to his storytelling skills.
Highly recommended for Naipaul's faithful readers as well
as for novices who, for whatever reason, haven't found their
way to him already (you're in for a misanthropic treat).
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