Salinger, Hersey, and The New Yorker

Salinger on the cover of Time, 1961

A new biography of J. D. Salinger has just been published. Given Salinger’s legendary reclusiveness and his hostility to biographers, that’s a big deal, and the biography (which is admired by some critics and seen more ambivalently by others) appears to provide an illuminating account of Salinger’s early years in New York and the period, after his terrible experience in World War II, when he established the style and the preoccupations for which he became famous.

In some respects, that history makes Salinger a comparable figure to John Hersey.

Read moreSalinger, Hersey, and The New Yorker

“Rainbow-colored lights”

Cornell Capa, Russell Williams and Connie Hill dancing the Lindy Hop, circa 1939 (NY Times)

Music and entertainment play a minor, yet significant role in Petry’s The Street–where, as Lutie notes, they provide a world of “rainbow-colored lights.” They were also, of course, a major part of Harlem social and business life in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s

Read more“Rainbow-colored lights”

Harlem Photography–DeCarava, Levitt, Parks, Siskind

Aaron Siskind, “Harlem” (1940)

As the career of Ann Petry indicates, Harlem in the 1940s was a center of civil rights activism. As her novel suggests, it was also a breeding ground for musical innovation. During the same years, the ghetto life that Petry depicted attracted a number of great photographers.

Read moreHarlem Photography–DeCarava, Levitt, Parks, Siskind

“A fairy tale, a myth of the streets of New York”

That’s what the movie’s screenwriter, Abraham Polonsky, called Body and Soul.

No telling at this point whether campus will be open and we’ll have class to discuss this tomorrow. But we will talk about Body and Soul at some point. In the meantime, you may wish make comments or raise questions about the film here.

Read more“A fairy tale, a myth of the streets of New York”

The Urban Intellectual Roots of Folk Music

The Weavers at Carnegie Hall in 1948 (Getty Images)


Today, the New York Times runs a book review of a new biography of the remarkable and strange Alan Lomax–the son of the pioneering folklorist John Lomax and himself a man responsible for recording thousands and thousands of hours of folk music from the U.S. and around the globe. Working first with his father and then independently, Alan Lomax was responsible for introducing a great deal of folk music and many artists–most famously Leadbelly–to popular audiences. As the review suggests, he was a bit of an obsessive.

Lomax’s life and work makes for a fascinating story. It’s a reminder, too, of the very interesting phenomenon of the folk music revival that began in New York City in the 1940s.

Read moreThe Urban Intellectual Roots of Folk Music

Arthur Miller and the Culture of the Popular Front

Poster advertising the first Broadway production of All My Sons


Arthur Miller is best remembered, of course, as the writer of some classic plays of the American repertory–Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge.  These plays have become stage classics and, in some cases, staples of the high school English classroom.   Although All My Sons was recently revived in New York–in a prodcution with John Lithgow and Katie Holmes–it is a less celebrated play.  But it was Miller’s first big success, and it may reflect more directly than his later work the cultural and political milieu from which Miller emerged. 

That milieu was one of a populist leftism that was critical of the injustice and intolerance of the capitalism and sympathetic to the Communist Party and to the Soviet Union.

Read moreArthur Miller and the Culture of the Popular Front