Wednesday, January 31, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt fourteen)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

So neither did the Varner surrey nor Ratliff’s buckboard make one among the wagons, the buggies, and the saddled horses and mules which moved out of the village on that May Saturday morning, to converge upon Whiteleaf store eight miles away, coming not only from Frenchman’s Bend but from other directions too since by that time, what Ratliff had called ‘that Texas sickness’, that spotted corruption of frantic and uncatchable horses, had spread as far as twenty and thirty miles. So by the time the Frenchman’s Bend people began to arrive, there were two dozen wagons, the teams reversed and eased of harness and tied to the rear wheels in order to pass the day, and twice that many saddled animals already standing about the locust grove beside the store and the site of the hearing had already been transferred from the store to an adjacent shed where in the fall cotton would be stored. But by nine oclock it was seen that even the shed would not hold them all, so the palladium was moved again, from the shed to the grove itself. The horses and mules and wagons were cleared from it; the single chair, the gnawed table bearing a thick bible which had the appearance of loving and constant use of a piece of old and perfectly-kept machinery and an almanac and a copy of Mississippi Reports dated 1881 and bearing along its opening edge a single thread-thin line of soilure as if during all the time of his possession its owner (or user) had opened it at only one page though that quite often, were fetched from the shed to the grove; a wagon and four men were dispatched and returned presently from the church a mile away with four wooden pews for the litigants and their clansmen and witnesses; behind these in turn the spectators stood—the men, the women, the children, sober, attentive, and neat, not in their Sunday clothes to be sure, but in the clean working garments donned that morning for the Saturday’s diversion of sitting about the country stores or trips into the county seat, and in which they would return to the field on Monday morning and would wear all that week until Friday night came round again. The Justice of the Peace was a neat, small, plump old man resembling a tender caricature of all grandfathers who ever breathed, in a beautifully laundered though collarless white shirt with immaculate starch-gleaming cuffs and bosom, and steel-framed spectacles and neat, faintly curling white hair. He sat behind the table and looked at them—at the gray woman in the gray sunbonnet and dress, her clasped and motionless hands on her lap resembling a gnarl of pallid and drowned roots from a drained swamp; at Tull in his faded but absolutely clean shirt and the overalls which his womenfolks not only kept immaculately washed but starched and ironed also, and not creased through the legs but flat across them from seam to seam, so that on each Saturday morning they resembled the short pants of a small boy, and the sedate and innocent blue of his eyes above the month-old cornsilk beard which concealed most of his abraded face and which gave him an air of incredible and paradoxical dissoluteness, not as though at last and without warning he had appeared in the sight of his fellowmen in his true character, but as if an old Italian portrait of a child saint had been defaced by a vicious and idle boy; at Mrs Tull, a strong, full-bosomed though slightly dumpy woman with an expression of grim and seething outrage which the elapsed four weeks had apparently neither increased nor diminished but had merely set, an outrage which curiously and almost at once began to give the impression of being directed not at any Snopes or at any other man in particular but at all men, all males, and of which Tull himself was not at all the victim but the subject, who sat on one side of her husband while the biggest of the four daughters sat on the other as if they (or Mrs Tull at least) were not so much convinced that Tull might leap up and flee, as determined that he would not; and at Eck and the little boy, identical save for size, and Lump the clerk in a gray cap which someone actually recognised as being the one which Flem Snopes had worn when he went to Texas last year, who between spells of rapid blinking would sit staring at the Justice with the lidless intensity of a rat—and into the lens-distorted and irisless old-man’s eyes of the Justice there grew an expression not only of amazement and bewilderment but, as in Ratliff’s eyes while he stood on the store gallery four weeks ago, something very like terror.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt thirteen)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

“It wont be the first time she has made their crop,” the man with the peach spray said. Ratliff glanced at him.

“You ought to know. This wont be the first time I ever saw you in their field, doing plowing Henry never got around to. How many days have you already given them this year?” The man with the peach spray removed it and spat carefully and put the spray back between his teeth.

“She can run a furrow straight as I can,” the second said.

“They’re unlucky,” the third said. “When you are unlucky, it dont matter much what you do.”

“Sholy,” Ratliff said. “I’ve heard laziness called bad luck so much that maybe it is.”

Monday, January 29, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt twelve)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

The men in the lot, except Henry, got to their feet and ran toward the gate. The little boy once more had not been touched, not even thrown off his feet; for a while his father held him clear of the ground in one hand, shaking him like a rag doll. “Didn’t I tell you to stay in that wagon?” Eck cried. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Look out, paw!” the boy chattered out of the violent shaking, “there’s ourn! There he goes!” It was the horse the Texan had given them again. It was as if they owned no other, the other one did not exist; as if by some absolute and instantaneous rapport of blood they had relegated to oblivion the one for which they had paid money. They ran to the gate and down the lane where the other men had disappeared. They saw the horse the Texan had given them whirl and dash back and rush through the gate into Mrs Littlejohn’s yard and run up the front steps and crash once on the wooden veranda and vanish through the front door. Eck and the boy ran up onto the veranda. A lamp sat on a table just inside the door. In its mellow light they saw the horse fill the long hallway like a pinwheel, gaudy, furious and thunderous. A little further down the hall there was a varnished yellow melodeon. The horse crashed into it; it produced a single note, almost a chord, in bass, resonant and grave, of deep and sober astonishment; the horse with its monstrous and antic shadow whirled again and vanished through another door. It was a bedroom; Ratliff, in his underclothes and one sock and with the other sock in his hand and his back to the door, was leaning out the open window facing the lane, the lot. He looked back over his shoulder. For an instant he and the horse glared at one another. Then he sprang through the window as the horse backed out of the room and into the hall again and whirled and saw Eck and the little boy just entering the front door, Eck still carrying his rope. It whirled again and rushed on down the hall and onto the back porch just as Mrs Littlejohn, carrying an armful of clothes from the line and the wash-board, mounted the steps.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt eleven)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

That was the fall before the winter from which the people as they became older were to establish time and date events. The summer’s rainless heat—the blazing days beneath which even the oak leaves turned brown and died, the nights during which the ordered stars seemed to glare down in cold and lidless amazement at an earth being drowned in dust—broke at last, and for the three weeks of Indian summer the ardor-wearied earth, ancient Lilith, reigned, throned and crowned amid the old invincible courtesan’s formal de-function. Through these blue and drowsy and empty days filled with silence and the smell of burning leaves and woodsmoke, Ratliff, passing to and fro between his home and the Square, would see the two small grimed hands, immobile and clasping loosely the bars of the jail window at a height not a great deal above that at which a child would have held them. And in the afternoons he would watch his three guests, the wife and the two children, entering or leaving the jail on their daily visit. On the first day, the day he had brought her home with him, she had insisted on doing some of the housework, all of it which his sister would permit, sweeping and washing dishes and chopping wood for fires which his nieces and nephews had heretofore done (and incidentally, in doing so, gaining their juvenile contempt too), apparently oblivious of the sister’s mute and outraged righteousness, big yet not fat, actually slender as Ratliff realised at last in a sort of shocked and sober … not pity: rather, concern; usually barefoot, with the untidy mass of bleached hair long since turning back to dark at the roots, and the cold face in which there was something of a hard not-quite-lost beauty, though it may have been only an ingrained and ineradicable self-confidence or perhaps just toughness. Because the prisoner had refused not only bond (if he could have made one) but counsel. He had stood between two officers—small, his face like a mask of intractability carved in wood, wasted and almost skeleton-thin—before the committing magistrate, and he might not even have been present, hearing or perhaps not hearing himself being arraigned, then at a touch from one of the officers turning back toward the jail, the cell. So the case was pretermitted from sheer desuetude of physical material for formal suttee, like a half-cast play, through the October term of court, to the spring term next May; and perhaps three afternoons a week Ratliff would watch his guests as, the children dressed in cast-off garments of his nephews and nieces, the three of them entered the jail, thinking of the four of them sitting in the close cell rank with creosote and old wraiths of human excreta—the sweat, the urine, the vomit discharged of all the old agonies: terror, impotence, hope. Waiting for Flem Snopes, he thought. For Flem Snopes.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt ten)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

Approaching the village again, his feet made no sound in the dust and, in the darkness, seemingly no progress either, though the light in Mrs Littlejohn’s kitchen window just beyond the store’s dark bulk—the only light anywhere—drew steadily nearer. Just beyond it the lane turned off which led to his cabin four miles away. That’s where I would have kept straight on, to Jefferson and the railroad, he thought; and suddenly, now that it was too late, now that he had lost all hope of alternative between planned and intelligent escape and mere blind desperate harried fleeing and doubling through the swamp and jungle of the bottom like a spent and starving beast cut off from its den, he knew that for three days now he had not only hoped but had actually believed that opportunity to choose would be given him. And he had not only lost that privilege of choice, but due to the blind mischance which had permitted his cousin either to see or guess what was in the wallet, even the bitter alternative was deferred for another night. It began to seem to him now that that puny and lonely beacon not only marked no ultimate point for even desperate election but was the period to hope itself, and that all which remained to him of freedom lay in the shortening space between it and his advancing foot. I thought that when you killed a man, that finished it, he told himself. But it dont. It just starts then.

Friday, January 26, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt nine)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

They had known one another all their lives. They were both only children, born of the same kind of people, on farms not three miles apart. They belonged to the same country congregation and attended the same one-room country school, where, although five years his junior, she was already one class ahead of him when he entered and, although he failed twice during the two years he attended it, she was still one class ahead of him when he quit, vanished, not only from his father’s house but from the country too, fleeing even at sixteen the immemorial trap, and was gone for thirteen years and then as suddenly returned, knowing (and perhaps even cursing himself) on the instant he knew he was going to return, that she would still be there and unmarried; and she was.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt eight)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

He thought at first that she had merely continued to bump and butt at the door until the latch turned and allowed it to open. But even then he was surprised that the discomfort of her bag had not fetched her, waiting and even lowing, at the lot gate before he arrived. But she was not there, and cursing her (and himself for having neglected to close the gate which led to the creek pasture) he called the hound and took the path back to the creek. It was not yet full dark. He could (and did) see tracks, though when he did notice the prints of the man’s bare feet, the cow’s prints superposed, so he merely took the two sets of tracks to be six hours apart and not six feet. But primarily he did not bother with the tracks because he was convinced he knew where the cow was, even when the hound turned from the creek at the ford and bore away up the hill. He shouted it angrily back. Even when it paused and looked back at him in grave and intelligent surprise, he still acted out of that seething conviction born of drink and exasperation and the old strong uncompromising grief, shouting at the dog until it returned and then actually kicking it toward the ford and then following it across, where it now heeled him, puzzled and gravely alert, until he kicked at it again and drove it out ahead.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt seven)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

“Stop pawing me,” she said. “You old headless horseman Ichabod Crane.”

After the sound of her feet and the closing door had ceased, he could hear the cheap clock which he had brought back with him from his room at the University, loud in the silence, with a tinny sound like minute shot being dropped into a can, though before he could begin to get up the door opened again and, sitting on the floor, he looked up at her as she came back down the aisle. “Where’s my—” she said. Then she saw it, the booksatchel, and lifted it from the floor and turned again. He heard the door again. So she hasn’t told him yet, he thought. He knew the brother too. He would not have waited to take her home first, he would have come in at once, vindicated at last after five years of violent and unsupported conviction. That would be something, anyway. It would not be penetration, true enough, but it would be the same flesh, the same warm living flesh in which the same blood ran, under impact at least—a paroxysm, an orgasm of sorts, a katharsis, anyway—something. So he got up and went to his desk and sat down and squared the clock-face (it sat at an oblique angle, so he could see it from the point before the recitation bench where he usually stood) toward him. He knew the distance between the school and the Varner home and he had ridden that horse back and forth to the University enough to calculate time in horse-distance. He will gallop back too, he thought. So he measured the distance the minute hand would have to traverse and sat watching it as it crept toward the mark. Then he looked up at the only comparatively open space in the room, which still had the stove in it, not to speak of the recitation bench. The stove could not be moved, but the bench could. But even then.… Maybe he had better meet the brother out doors, or someone might get hurt. Then he thought that that was exactly what he wanted: for somebody to get hurt, and then he asked himself quietly, Who? and answered himself: I dont know. I dont care. So he looked back at the clock-face. Yet even when a full hour had passed he still could not admit to himself that the final disaster had befallen him. He is lying in ambush for me with the pistol, he thought. But where? What ambush? What ambush could he want better than here? already seeing her entering the room again tomorrow morning, tranquil, untroubled, not even remembering, carrying the cold potato which at recess she would sit on the sunny steps and eat like one of the unchaste and perhaps even anonymously pregnant immortals eating bread of Paradise on a sunwise slope of Olympus.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt six)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

He taught it for three more years. By then he was the monk indeed, the bleak schoolhouse, the little barren village, was his mountain, his Gethsemane and, he knew it, his Golgotha too. He was the virile anchorite of old time. The heatless lean-to room was his desert cell, the thin pallet bed on the puncheon floor the couch of stones on which he would lie prone and sweating in the iron winter nights, naked, rigid, his teeth clenched in his scholar’s face and his legs haired-over like those of a faun. Then day would come and he could rise and dress and eat the food which he would not even taste. He had never paid much attention to what he ate anyway, but now he would not always know that he had eaten it. Then he would go and unlock the school and sit behind his desk and wait for her to walk down the aisle. He had long since thought of marrying her, waiting until she was old enough and asking for her in marriage, attempting to, and had discarded that. In the first place, he did not want a wife at all, certainly not yet and probably not ever. And he did not want her as a wife, he just wanted her one time as a man with a gangrened hand or foot thirsts after the axe-stroke which will leave him comparatively whole again. But he would have paid even this price to be free of his obsession, only he knew that this could never be, not only because her father would never agree to it, but because of her, that quality in her which absolutely abrogated the exchange value of any single life’s promise or capacity for devotion, the puny asking-price of any one man’s reserve of so-called love. He could almost see the husband which she would someday have. He would be a dwarf, a gnome, without glands or desire, who would be no more a physical factor in her life than the owner’s name on the fly-leaf of a book. There it was again, out of the books again, the dead defacement of type which had already betrayed him: the crippled Vulcan to that Venus, who would not possess her but merely own her by the single strength which power gave, the dead power of money, wealth, gewgaws, baubles, as he might own, not a picture, statue: a field, say. He saw it: the fine land rich and fecund and foul and eternal and impervious to him who claimed title to it, oblivious, drawing to itself ten fold the quantity of living seed its owner’s whole life could have secreted and compounded, producing a thousand fold the harvest he could ever hope to gather and save.

Monday, January 22, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt five)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

She attended the school from her eighth year until shortly after Christmas in her fourteenth. She would undoubtedly have completed that year and very probably the next one or two, learning nothing, except that in January of that year the school closed. It closed because the teacher vanished. He disappeared overnight, with no word to anyone. He neither collected his term’s salary nor removed his meagre and monklike personal effects from the fireless rented lean-to room in which he had lived for six years.

His name was Labove. He came from the adjoining county, where Will Varner himself had discovered him by sheer chance. The incumbent, the Professor at that time, was an old man bibulous by nature, who had been driven still further into his cups by the insubordination of his pupils. The girls had respect neither for his ideas and information nor for his ability to convey them; the boys had no respect for his capacity, not to teach them but to make them obey and behave or even be civil to him—a condition which had long since passed the stage of mere mutiny and had become a kind of bucolic Roman holiday, like the baiting of a mangy and toothless bear.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt four)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

Like her father, she was incorrigibly lazy, though what was in him a constant bustling cheerful idleness was in her an actual force impregnable and even ruthless. She simply did not move at all of her own volition, save to and from the table and to and from bed. She was late in learning to walk. She had the first and only perambulator the countryside had ever seen, a clumsy expensive thing almost as large as a dog-cart. She remained in it long after she had grown too large to straighten her legs out. When she reached the stage where it almost took the strength of a grown man to lift her out of it, she was graduated from it by force. Then she began to sit in chairs. It was not that she insisted upon being carried when she went anywhere. It was rather as though, even in infancy, she already knew there was nowhere she wanted to go, nothing new or novel at the end of any progression, once place like another anywhere and everywhere. Until she was five and six, when she did have to go anywhere because her mother declined to leave her at home while she herself was absent, she would be carried by their negro manservant. The three of them would be seen passing along the road—Mrs Varner in her Sunday dress and shawl, followed by the negro man staggering slightly beneath his long, dangling, already indisputably female burden like a bizarre and chaperoned Sabine rape.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt three)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

“Sho now,” Ratliff said mildly. After they left he drank his coffee again, sipping it without haste, talking again to the three or four listeners, finishing the story of his operation. Then he rose too and paid for his coffee, scrupulously, and put on his overcoat. It was now March but the doctor had told him to wear it, and in the alley now he stood for a while beside the buckboard and the sturdy little horses over-fat with idleness and sleek with new hair after their winter coats, looking quietly at the dog kennel box where, beneath the cracked paint of their fading and incredible roses, the women’s faces smiled at him in fixed and sightless invitation. It would need painting again this year; he must see to that. It will have to be something that will burn, he thought. And in his name. Known to be in his name. Yes, he thought, if my name was Will Varner and my partner’s name was Snopes I believe I would insist that some part of our partnership at least, that part of it that will burn anyway, would be in his name. He walked on slowly, buttoned into the overcoat. It was the only one in sight. But then the sick grow well fast in the sun: perhaps when he returned to town he would no longer need it. And soon he would not need the sweater beneath it either—May and June, the summer, the long good days of heat. He walked on, looking exactly as he always had save for the thinness and the pallor, pausing twice to tell two different people that yes, he felt all right now, the Memphis doctor had evidently cut the right thing out whether by accident or design, crossing the Square now beneath the shaded marble gaze of the Confederate soldier, and so into the court house and the Chancery Clerk’s office, where he found what he sought—some two hundred acres of land, with buildings, recorded to Flem Snopes.

Friday, January 19, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt two)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

“So we went in and give Cain Miz Snopes’s rag and he counted the twenty-four sixty-eight and we got the separator and started back to the wagon, to where we had left it. Because it was still there; the wagon wasn’t the trouble. In fact, it was too much wagon. I mind how I could see the bed and the tops of the wheels where Ab had brought it up close against the loading platform and I could see the folks from the waist up standing in the alley, twice or three times as many of them now, and I was thinking how it was too much wagon and too much folks; it was like one of these here pictures that have printed under them, What’s wrong with this picture? and then Ab begun to say ‘Hell fire, hell fire’ and begun to run, still toting his end of the separator, up to the edge of the platform where we could see under it. The mules was all right too. They was laying down. Ab had snubbed them up pretty close to the same post, with the same line through both bits, and now they looked exactly like two fellows that had done hung themselves in one of these here suicide packs, with their heads snubbed up together and pointing straight up and their tongues hanging out and their eyes popping and their necks stretched about four foot and their legs doubled back under them like shot rabbits until Ab jumped down and cut them down with his pocket knife. A artist. He had give them just exactly to the inch of whatever it was to get them to town and off the Square before it played out.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner, excerpt one)

from The Hamlet: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner:

Varner sucked his teeth and spat into the road. “Name’s Snopes,” he said.

“Snopes?” a second man said. “Sho now. So that’s him.” Now not only Varner but all the others looked at the speaker—a gaunt man in absolutely clean though faded and patched overalls and even freshly shaven, with a gentle, almost sad face until you unravelled what were actually two separate expressions—a temporary one of static peace and quiet overlaying a constant one of definite even though faint harriedness, and a sensitive mouth which had a quality of adolescent freshness and bloom until you realised that this could just as well be the result of a lifelong abstinence from tobacco—the face of the breathing archetype and protagonist of all men who marry young and father only daughters and are themselves but the eldest daughter of their own wives. His name was Tull. “He’s the fellow that wintered his family in a old cottonhouse on Ike McCaslin’s place. The one that was mixed up in that burnt barn of a fellow named Harris over in Grenier County two years ago.”

“Huh?” Varner said. “What’s that? Burnt barn?”

“I never said he done it,” Tull said. “I just said he was kind of involved in it after a fashion you might say.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt eighteen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

In 1961, another important breakthrough came in the awareness of older buildings. The urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She was an “unaccredited journalist-mother, with no college education,” and her book was initially dismissed by many of the most celebrated critics and urban scholars of the day, though it is now seen as a central treatise on how cities work. Perhaps because of her outsider status, Jacobs looked at the smaller details of a city that had not received much attention: the sidewalks, the stoops, the hodgepodge variety of life and trade. Among her arguments for preserving the vitality of the city block was the necessity to save old buildings, which allows for a diversity of industry and aesthetic styles through the “ingenious adaptations of old quarters to new uses.” As if describing the Slip artists’ own repurposing of book depots, sail-making lofts, and ship chandleries into home studios, she goes on, “These eternal changes and permutations among old city buildings can be called makeshifts only in the most pedantic sense. It is rather that a form of raw material has been found in the right place. It has been put to a use that might otherwise be unborn.” Jacobs acknowledged not only the inspired repurposing of the past by artists and others who adopted these difficult or derelict spaces but also the need for a city to have this creative class, who safeguarded stretches of history through their forced ingenuity and also enriched the diversity of a city’s block.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt seventeen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Ironically, this was also the concern of one of New York’s richest men, David Rockefeller, whose Chase Bank had already outgrown its headquarters on Pine Street, just around the corner from Coenties Slip. Now Chase was merging with the historic Bank of Manhattan, begun by Aaron Burr in 1799 under the false pretenses of establishing a water company for New York, and would need even more space, but Rockefeller was reluctant to abandon downtown—“ An area . . . rich in history,” as he wrote—for the new banking capital of Midtown. In February 1955, Rockefeller heard a building was about to be sold next to the Chase headquarters; he managed to delay the sale, raise the necessary capital for a counteroffer, and close the deal the following day. His next order of business was to get permission from New York City to close part of Cedar Street to allow for the construction of a new headquarters on the two-block parcel, and he knew just who to go to. “The key to getting the plan approved was to have the support of Robert Moses,” Rockefeller mused, partnering two of the most powerful men in New York City to reconfigure its path. Among Moses’s many titles, he led the New York City Planning Commission. “Much to my relief, Bob proved to be an easy sale.” Rockefeller’s swift development was also aided by Title 1 of the Housing Act, passed in 1949, which pledged a billion dollars toward urban renewal, essentially allowing governments to seize private property and hand it over to private developers.

Change came swift as a wrecking ball. A photograph of the Mutual Benefit Life building, standing just before a crane, led Walker Evans’s 1956 Fortune magazine black-and-white portfolio “‘Downtown’: A Last Look Backward.” Evans had been a close friend of the poet Hart Crane, one of Indiana’s heroes, and had photographed many corners of America, including sharecropping in Alabama in the 1930s, on assignment with the writer James Agee. (Fortune killed that spread, and it became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Evans was the first photographer to get a solo exhibition at MoMA. At Fortune, where he was staff photographer from 1945 to 1965, he was pretty much allowed to do whatever he wanted. He took the photos, wrote the texts, and edited the layouts of his portfolios. And he was most interested in how the United States was changing—the speed with which whole neighborhoods were transforming or disappearing, and the way that the Depression of the 1930s fueled the explosive ambitions of Manhattan real estate’s precarious recovery. “The financial quarter and its fringes as they have looked for a generation are presented in the pictures on the following pages. In a sense this is a last look backward,” Evans wrote. “A score of new construction projects have been planned downtown. The building boom now commencing will change the face, and a good deal of the atmosphere, of the whole district.” By the time the Coenties Slip artists were first moving into their lofts, the area was already slated for demolition, and the little four-story Georgian-style brick buildings of their street destined for other plans under the watchful eyes of Moses and Rockefeller.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt sixteen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

The 1964 World’s Fair was the brainchild of Robert Moses, who had been working to plan the event as president of the World’s Fair Corporation since May 1960. He tapped Philip Johnson, the architect and onetime MoMA curator, to design the New York State Pavilion; part of this complex included the round Theaterama building. Back in December 1962, the same month that President Kennedy came to New York to attend the official groundbreaking ceremony for the fair’s construction, Johnson commissioned ten artists to make work for its curving exterior walls. Slip artists—including Indiana, Kelly, and Rosenquist—made up almost a third of the young, white, mostly gay male artists chosen to represent the current art scene in New York.

Each was given a few thousand dollars to develop art no bigger than twenty by twenty feet to be attached to the building’s curved exterior like barnacles or—perhaps more aptly—like billboards. (One artist commented that the works would be like a “charm bracelet” around the building.) Abstract Expressionism was no longer anywhere in sight—less than a decade after it had played such a key role in Cold War cultural outreach. Everything at the fair was about spectacle and automation, even the High Renaissance: Michaelangelo’s famous Pieta was flown in and on view at the Vatican’s pavilion, where a conveyor belt whisked viewers past the sculpture, which stood behind bulletproof plastic, flanked by velvet drapery and flickering electric lights.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt fifteen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Indiana couldn’t remember exactly where he first heard the phrase “the American dream,” probably from his parents or from films he saw. But it was “brought into focus” for him on seeing Edward Albee’s one-act play of the same name on Broadway when it was first produced in January 1961 at the York Theatre. The dark plot, of a couple who have murdered their first child and are encouraged to adopt another from the Midwest, named American Dream, does not paint a rosy picture of the country. Albee’s satire, as the playwright explained, was “a picture of our time,” and “a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”

Indiana, like Albee, shared an obsession with the nuclear family’s role in America. Both were adopted, and both infused their art with autobiographical references to their difficult childhoods and complicated families; Indiana claimed that two life-size portraits of his parents were a part of his American Dream series. The American dream directly connected to the extreme emphasis on the successful nuclear family in the period of the 1950s and early ’60s as part of a political tactic to promote domestic stability and stifle communism. Later he described The American Dream I as “cynical” and “caustic,” coming out of his childhood in the Depression, in which the “dream” had been “perverted into a very cheap, tawdry experience . . . life was so mean.” One of the more shattering transitions into adulthood is realizing the limitations of your own parents’ hopes and dreams. Indiana could not shake the futility of his thrice-married father’s ambitions. He worked for Phillips 66 gas stations and left his family to travel to California on Route 66, full of his dreams for “the big house on the hill,” which never materialized. (Rosenquist had painted those same Phillips 66 signs back in the early ’50s in his first round as a sign painter in Minnesota.) For his own take on the American dream, Indiana included signs of transience, passing through, gambling and luck: highways, pinball machines in roadside bars, and one of the eternal through lines in his work, jilted love. In his journals, he called The American Dream I “my Mexacala Rose,” referring to a pop song in which someone bids their love farewell.

Friday, January 12, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt fourteen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

In this moment, Indiana didn’t just find his signature approach; he imprinted it onto his work. And he did so in direct defiance of Kelly. Words became a way for Indiana to go his own way, and he made it clear that this was at the center of the rupture between them. “That’s where my relationship with Kelly deteriorated—he didn’t think paintings should have words.” Kelly had also been upset that Twombly was using Indiana’s studio to paint in 1956; it’s unclear exactly why, perhaps jealousy or anxiety over Twombly’s own influence on Indiana’s work and closeness with Rauschenberg and Johns, but also perhaps because of Twombly’s use of graffiti. Twombly’s canvases went a step further in the way that they incorporated text as a kind of defacement. Among the scribbled words on his painting Academy, made in Indiana’s loft, is FUCK. And much later, Indiana explained that Kelly “abhorred the idea of words in paintings.” Not wanting to give Kelly credit for this turn in his work, Indiana nevertheless insisted that Kelly “had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that my work became exclusively devoted to words.”

And yet, Kelly had himself experimented with words a few years earlier, when he and Indiana were still seeing each other—a chapter in his art that is far less known.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt thirteen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Both Johns and Indiana had seen Demuth’s 1928 painting I Saw the Figure Five in Gold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was an enigmatic “portrait” of his friend the poet William Carlos Williams, inspired by his poem “I Saw the Great Figure,” where Williams describes encountering a fire engine on the rainy evening streets of New York on his way to the artist Marsden Hartley’s studio. It was Indiana’s “favorite American painting” in the museum’s collection, and he would go on to incorporate its floating “No. 5” and star iconography in several paintings of the early 1960s. (Johns also based his earlier 1955 painting The Figure, a single number five against a gray encaustic field, on Demuth’s painting.) Indiana even inscribed his own autobiographical connection to the work, pointing out that it was made the year he was born.

Indiana’s found words also allowed him to commune with the literary greats whose ghosts stalked Coenties Slip and downtown New York, most prominently Melville and Whitman. Indiana and Youngerman had called on Melville’s famous opening lines in the brochure for their failed art school, and Indiana’s herms embody the author’s “silent sentinels,” fixed on the ocean. Indiana extended this citation directly into his paintings. As art historian Jonathan Katz has written, it’s also not accidental that Indiana cites queer literary heroes (Melville, Whitman, Crane, Stein) in a moment when homosexuality was still a public taboo.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt twelve)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Through the photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, she ended up with a part in a short film he was making with the painter Alfred Leslie and a ragtag team of musicians, writers, and poets. Her role was “the wife.” It paid $18 a day. The working title was Beat Generation, after Jack Kerouac’s unpublished play, though for copyright reasons it was eventually changed to Pull My Daisy, the title of a bawdy poem by Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

The novel On the Road had come out two years before, and Kerouac had also written the introduction for Frank’s photobook The Americans, published in the States in 1959. This next project was a much narrower vision of American life, an attempt to capture the giddy, goofy energy and cultural influences of a band of artists and writers, what the critic Jeremy Tallmer called “beatthink” in a 1961 introduction to the film. The plot, such as it was, related to an episode that had really happened at the home of Neal and Carolyn Cassady in San Francisco: a couple, and their wisecracking poet friends (Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, playing themselves), are visited by a bishop. Bohemian life crashes against tradition.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt eleven)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

In the early twentieth century, a local American art scene arrived in New York, commemorated by the critic Paul Rosenfeld, embracing elements that felt homegrown: the sea, the skyscraper, the structural lines of the Brooklyn Bridge. Alfred Stieglitz, with his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, brought together writers and artists in his galleries, the Intimate Gallery, An American Place, and 291. As early as 1893, Stieglitz had photographed Coenties Slip on a slushy winter day, also looking north across the busy intersection at South Street. The broad prows of the great ships cut over the street like a canopy of branches to the streetlamp, which itself resembles a mast. The sidewalk, below signs for sail lofts and sailmakers and paint shops, is crowded with overcoated men, and South Street is clogged with horses and carriages and a lone man shoveling dirty snow. In the far distance, the Brooklyn Bridge stretches against the murky gray sky.

After spending his twenties in 1920s Paris, soaking up the art crossroads there, Stuart Davis tapped into the hectic energy of a city that did not discriminate by subject matter. Besides art, he took his inspiration from “the thing Whitman felt—and I too will express it in pictures—America—the wonderful place we live in.” For Davis, the United States was wood and iron, “Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations; chain-store fronts, and taxi-cabs . . . fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane which brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs . . .” He depicted Coenties Slip in 1931 in his House and Street, a strange and colorful painting that is bifurcated like two movie stills. Front Street is composed of abstracted fire-escape ladders and windows, the Slip as a series of lower brick warehouses, and bright blue triangles against a green column suggest the elevated train tracks. Taller buildings even then rising behind the nineteenth-century buildings are made from patterned lines, stripes, and grids, not unlike samples of the work to come at the Slip by Kelly, Martin, and Tawney.

Berenice Abbott, another artist returning from Paris to New York to document an evolving metropolis, embarked on her decade-long series Changing New York in 1932. She had photographed the downtown waterfront area several times in her New York perambulations: Coenties Slip as early as 1929, and the El at Hanover and Pearl Streets in the spring of 1936 and ’38. Abbott’s Shelter on the Water Front, Coenties Slip, Pier 5, East River, Manhattan, captures a view of the Slip at its seediest, with a group of down-and-out men squatting in front of a ramshackle building and a row of low warehouses, set against the taller skyline. On this early May day, she took pictures with her new medium-format Linhof camera on a tripod while her assistant, in the words of her biographer, Julia Van Haaften, “pacified some drunks outside the East River pier caretaker’s shack.” As Abbott later recalled, “They dragged these alcoholics out of the river every day.” Ship masts can be seen rising behind the structure. The only man who is standing appears to have just hit one of the seated men; another man is prone on the ground asleep or passed out from drinking. Abbott became fascinated by the canal boat culture, and even looked into buying a barge.

Monday, January 8, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt ten)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

The summer before the Youngermans arrived in New York, in August 1956, Jackson Pollock drove his Oldsmobile into a tree in Springs, on the East End of Long Island, killing himself and one of the two women in the car with him. This tragedy launched Abstract Expressionism from art world prominence to market dominance. The Museum of Modern Art, which had been raising funds to buy his landmark painting Autumn Rhythm for $8,000 just before Pollock died, suddenly found that his widow, the artist Lee Krasner, had raised the price to $30,000. The Metropolitan Museum of Art swooped in and bought it instead. It was the end of a certain optimistic innocence for the nascent postwar art boom in the States.

When Youngerman settled at the Slip, he didn’t go to Tenth Street meetings of the Abstract Expressionist crowd at the Club. The group at the Slip didn’t socialize in the same raucous, bellicose way. As Youngerman explained, “There was no Cedar Bar for us. Happily, because the Cedar Bar was the last of the whiskey and cigarettes, all of whom died young except for de Kooning. That was the end of that particular era of living.” Or, put yet another way, “We were all a bunch of Protestants from the hinterlands, as opposed to warm New York Jewish people, like Rothko and Newman.”

Sunday, January 7, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt nine)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

That fall, Twombly asked Indiana if he could borrow his studio to work on paintings for his upcoming show at Stable Gallery. He would paint during the day while Indiana was at his job at Friedrichs; Indiana welcomed the prospect of shared rent. Twombly’s “miserably small” apartment was just a little north at 263 William Street, where he had lived intermittently since 1954. He depended on other artists’ spaces to realize his ambitious work: he had already made a series of paintings in 1954 at Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street loft.

Twombly’s new canvases included thick surfaces covered over in layers of newspaper and wet white house paint mixed with overlaying graphite pencil in scribbled drawings that included words graffitied into the skein of lines like half-emerging messages. Johns and Rauschenberg came by 31 Coenties Slip together to see how Twombly’s paintings were going, and gave “a mind-blowing critique.” As Indiana remembered it, “one squiggle had to go this way, and another squiggle had to go that way. It was very illuminating, and very informing.” When Twombly left behind several of these canvases in Indiana’s studio, Indiana used them for his own monochromatic explorations, tearing off some of the newspaper and painting over other sections to produce a collage effect. Canvas was an expensive and coveted commodity at the time. But when Youngerman arrived from Paris, Indiana realized his Twombly canvases were too close to what Youngerman had been doing for some time, “and with great accomplishment.” Indiana was discouraged from pursuing this direction any further.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt eight)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

In the midst of Kelly’s period of self-doubt, another Paris transplant was searching for a way forward. Some eight years earlier, the artist Betty Parsons had decided to start a gallery in New York. It opened in September 1946 at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street, the city’s original gallery neighborhood, in a small, brightly lit space stripped of all its decorative features and rugs, painted white, with big leaded-glass windows that looked out on a maze of fire escapes. As she later claimed, “The gallery was the first to be painted white and the first to show really big pictures when Pollock broke away from easel painting.”

Parsons’s timing was fortuitous; another enterprising heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, had decided to close her gallery, Art of This Century, and return to Europe, and Parsons inherited many of her artists, including Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Clyfford Still. As the gallerist Leo Castelli once said, “It was the beginning of a great moment in American art that started there at Betty Parsons’s. For the first time a great original art movement took place in America.” Parsons wasn’t shy about her eye, which she also attributed to her own lifelong practice as an artist: “I was born with a gift for falling in love with the unfamiliar. Actually, being an artist gave me a jump on other dealers—I saw things before they did.” She had great self-confidence, part of which came from class. She grew up wealthy (even if it was precarious and lost in the stock market crash), attended finishing school, got married to a man a decade older, got a divorce in Paris (the same city where she had honeymooned) two years later but kept his name, and spent the rest of the decade there. Brancusi cooked her eggs, decades before Kelly and Youngerman’s studio visits, and Berenice Abbott photographed her; a brief stint in California included a job selecting wine (a skill honed in Paris) and parties with Marlene Dietrich. But after divorcing, she was disinherited. She lived with women for the rest of her life. Parsons once told Youngerman, without vanity, as if stating a historic fact: “All [my] sisters were beautiful, but I was the most beautiful.” She enjoyed being mistaken for Greta Garbo, a friend and tennis partner, on the street. She had a deep voice, a thing for berets and pearls, and an aversion to makeup. She carried her watercolors, pens, a vial of corked water, and notebooks everywhere in a little wicker basket, and was constantly drawing or jotting notes or lines of poetry—even in the car. Well into her seventies, she would go skinny-dipping in the ocean on the North Fork of Long Island.

Friday, January 5, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt seven)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Rauschenberg also took the ferry to Staten Island, a favorite boat destination for artists in the neighborhood, spending all day on the beach and finding “castoff clothes, pieces of wood or metal,” buckets of physical stuff that he incorporated into his collages. His studio was “full of things he brought back from Staten Island,” salvaged off the street, spotted in shopwindows, or bought at estate auctions. His fellow artist and partner Cy Twombly had a different take. He fashioned an ephemeral exhibition of plaster sculptures in the sand of a Staten Island beach.

After breaking up with Twombly, Rauschenberg met Jasper Johns in the late fall of 1953, and they soon became partners in life and work. To pay the bills, they began designing window displays at Tiffany’s and Bonwit Teller under the name “Matson Jones.” In 1955, Rauschenberg moved a block east, into the top-floor loft above Johns’s at 278 Pearl Street, a narrow brick building that had once been a factory for American flags—the subject of Johns’s most famous painting—and that was already condemned by the city. They lived there for three years until 278 Pearl was razed along with dozens of other buildings on their block to make room for car traffic once the Third Avenue El had been taken down. (In place of the buildings was “a new, narrow, triangular block filled mostly by a parking lot.”)

Thursday, January 4, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt six)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Manhattan in the 1950s was the height of Abstract Expressionism’s reception and renown, putting the New York School on the world map, and in particular the enclave clustered around the Tenth Street Studios, stretching between Eighth and Twelfth Streets and First and Sixth Avenues in the Village, and the Club on Eighth Street, where painters would come to drink cans of Ballantine and pass bottles of whiskey and talk shop. This community, like Coenties Slip, was born from economic necessity: munitions factories during World War II, the buildings had been recently vacated and were cheap.

Kelly’s friend who he had met in Paris, the expressionist painter Fred Mitchell, had found him a loft space at 109 Broad Street in the financial district, around the corner from Mitchell’s own. Mitchell, who called him “Ellsworthy,” was Kelly’s only real contact in New York.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt five)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

“The war years,” as James Knowlson wrote, “had revealed the concrete reality of waiting.” It was in this environment, in late 1948 and early 1949, that Samuel Beckett wrote En Attendant Godot (later translated into English by Beckett as Waiting for Godot). The existential parrying of the play’s two central characters as they wait for someone who never arrives came right out of Beckett’s own street life and experience in Paris. Godot was finally produced in full in 1953, at Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, directed by Delphine Seyrig’s acting teacher, Roger Blin.

The production went up thanks to the support of Seyrig, who staked an inheritance from her aunt at a moment when she and Youngerman were living hand-to-mouth in Paris, just down the street from where Beckett wrote most of the play. Youngerman didn’t question his wife’s decision. When Miette worried over the use of this money, her daughter replied, “You simply have to read the script,” which she found stunning, bleak, funny, and unlike anything she’d heard before. Her commitment to acting and supporting art transcended superficial comforts—a commitment that would help buoy her and Youngerman when they first moved to New York and were setting up their bare-bones apartment at the Slip.

Opening night was January 3, 1953. Godot went from avant-garde word of mouth to a cultural sensation for the forty-year-old writer; it was a complete game changer, signaling both “the end of his anonymity and the beginning of his theatrical and financial success.” The “talk of theatrical Paris,” Godot seemed to channel the absurd and complex condition of the city after the war.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt four)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Kelly met the composer John Cage and his partner, the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, when they stayed for a time at the same Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris. Kelly was headed to the metro and Cage yelled out to him, “I saw you coming out of the hotel and you look like an American—what do you do?” Kelly answered, “Well, I’m a painter.” Cage had come by Kelly’s room to look at his paintings, and the two kept up a correspondence. Cage and Cunningham gave Kelly “a great feeling that I was doing something that could be important.” It made Kelly impatient to share his new ideas about composition with other artists interested in the same thing. The great paradox of Paris at the time was that the extreme access it offered to artists’ studios was in direct opposition to the insular world of its gallery and museum system.

Monday, January 1, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt three)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Another artist often sighted in the evenings in Montparnasse was Alberto Giacometti. During this period, Simone de Beauvoir described “Giaco” as always being covered in gray plaster: “on his clothes, his hands, and his rich dirty hair. He works in the cold with hands freezing, he does not care.” Giacometti had first made a name for himself loosely associated with the Surrealist movement in Paris, with hybrid sculptures of shapes and animals that threatened to trap or entomb the viewer. After World War II, he began making sculptures that stretched and twisted the human figure into lines of compressed gesture—exclamation points of pain and distorted presence that perfectly fit with the existential reckoning of the postwar world.

In 1951, Giacometti stopped into Kelly’s opening at Galerie Maeght and, looking at the young artist’s paintings, told him, “That’s exactly what I do.” Visiting his big, drafty studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte Maindron, where he worked alone, fifteen hours a day and often at night, Kelly felt a great affinity for the artist who created, in the words of Sartre, “an indistinct figure of a man walking on the horizon.” Sensing that the artist wanted to be alone while he was working, Kelly stayed only a few minutes. “But what he and I did was exactly the same: I mean the spirit of it. His figures were surrounded by emptiness; I lost the figure altogether.”