Monthly Archives: December 2021

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison, “Joan Didion: Only Disconnect”

 

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison’s Essay “Joan Didion: Only Disconnect” is online at

https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/103/didion-per-harrison.html

It complements my post

Joan Didion and NYC

Joan Didion and NYC

 

— Roger W. Smith

Joan Didion and NYC

 

Joan Didion – Saturday Evening Post 1-4-1967

 

Reading Joan Didion’s obituaries this week, I was reminded in particular of an essay of hers I had heard about. I don’t think I have read it before.

Joan Didion

“Farwell to the Enchanted City” (subsequently republished as “Goodbye to All That”)

Saturday Evening Post

January 4, 1967

I desired to read it. I wanted to see what she thought about New Yok City when she first moved there from California, in the late 1950s. About ten years later, I myself first relocated to New York and settled there.

What things about the City attracted and delighted her? Repelled her?

 

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When I moved to New York, it both fascinated (I found it intoxicating) and overwhelmed me with a sort of fear or numbness (emotional deadness). Meaning that it was so impersonal; the buildings were so tall, dominating the streetscapes; there was no nature; the people were all in a hurry and seemingly cold and impersonal, too busy and goal oriented to talk to you.

Everything depended on having money, of which I had very little.

I had been to New York a very few times before. The first time was in 1953 when my parents took me to visit the City for a few days. We stayed in the Edison Hotel in Times Square. (Rooms were four dollars a day.) Still there, I believe. (We must have been able to park our car.) I could not get over the experience of the Empire State Building. Being on the observation deck on the top and looking down at the cars on Fifth Avenue, which seemed like toy cars. The Automat. The little windows where you would put a dime or nickel in a slot and get a piece of pie. My mother wanted to see Greenwich Village. We drove around the crooked streets. I don’t think we ever got out of the car. I recall the cobblestones and that the car was jolting.

We took the Staten Island Ferry to cool off. It was July or August and one of those sweltering NYC hot spells.

 

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As a young man and adult, I grew to love and appreciate — so much — New York. See my post

“I went to the school of New York.”

“I went to the school of New York.”

for one way in which this was true.

The art movie theaters. The bookstores. Libraries. Most of all, the intellectual energy and appetites of the people I got to know.

In Massachusetts, as a young man, I would have been embarrassed to go to a movie by myself. In Connecticut, where I worked briefly, I was once asked to leave a folk music coffee house because I was sitting at table by myself. In NYC, no problem. I went to movies almost always by myself. Good way to spend an evening or a Sunday afternoon if you felt lonely.

Sit at a restaurant table by oneself? No problem. It was the same with half the other customers.

I would go to Central Park on Sunday afternoons and sit on a park bench feeling a bit lonely but like I was an amorphous participant in something. The bars were an oasis. A glass of beer twenty cents. Every third one free. The bartender was your and everyone’s friend.

One day in a subway station, I asked some people a question of some sort (maybe directions). They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college who lived in Flushing, Queens about this.

“Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” he replied.

Indeed.

Wonderful people. So full of energy. So interesting. Except when I first came the people on the subway all seemed so pale and sickly to me.

 

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So what was Joan Didion’s experience?

Read her famous essay (attached).

It’s really about her — instead of, at bottom, the City. It is very self-centered. It is surprising how much it seems to be built upon – – to be a tissue of — generalities. Of musings, inner thoughts. It does not convey much INFORMATION, substance.

You learn hardly anything about what New York was like when she was there.

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“Joan Didion: Only Disconnect”

From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison

I do not find Joan Didion appealing. … I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator’s having pleated instead of gathered her new diningroom curtains. … more …. of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America’s finest woman prose stylist. … her subject is always herself. …

Didion uses style as argument. … for Didion, only surfaces matter. … Didion tells us, many times, and in many ways, that her mind “veers inflexibly toward the particular.”

To what in particular?

 

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Enough said. Read Joan Didion’s essay if you feel like it.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  December 25, 2021

 

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Facebook comments

December 25, 2021

 

Pete Smith

Interesting thoughts. But don’t most writer’s thoughts relate largely to themselves? Think of Truman Capote’s short stories, like Dazzle. Or Melville, talking as himself (Ishmael) throughout Moby-Dick. I don’t object to your objecting to Didion but were she still alive she might have the same complaints about those of your posts, including this one, that borrow heavily on your own experience. I think this is what makes your posts interesting, and don’t see why it wouldn’t also apply to Didion’s writing.

 

Roger W. Smith

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison’s essay is dead on. You should read it. You are wrong about my writing. Of course everyone writes about and from the perspective of themselves and their own experience. This post insofar as it relates to me is built on experiences I had that readers can relate to.

 

Pete Smith

Roger, I think your reply was hidden for some reason but you missed my point. I was not criticizing you for writing about your own history or own perspective; I was basically saying that that is what everyone usually does and that I found it odd that you were criticizing Joan Didion for doing so — and I was acknowledging that this did not mean you had to like her writing. . . .

 

Roger W. Smith

I was criticizing her writing — from a certain point of view (view of her writing); which of course does not mean that writers should not write about themselves. Harrison’s essay articulates what I was trying to say; I had not read it before. By the way, Melville created a character, Ishmael, that was sort of his alter ego, but to say+ that amounts to writing about oneself is not correct. I guess the best way to put it is that Didion’s writing seems overly self-absorbed and there is something missing content- or sustenance-wise that a reader wants to be able to take away. I read some Didion before, including one of her novels. I was sort of impressed then, but now have come to the opinions of my post.

 

Pete Smith

All I meant was that Melville’s writing, like Truman Capote’s and like much of yours, was based on his own personal experience — in his case, whaling. I can understand your comment about Didion’s self absorption but when she’s writing a book all about the tragic and terrible year of her husband’s death, I would guess it would be difficult for any passionate observer to accuse her of self-absorption.

 

Roger W. Smith

I have not read [Joan Didion’s] The Year of Magical Thinking. I began this post with one essay of Didion’s which disappointed me and, based upon which, I drew inferences about her writing which seem valid. She always wrote about herself in a way that Melville didn’t.

 

Pete Smith

Got it, but of course you understand that I wasn’t suggesting in any way that Melville and Didion wrote about themselves in the same way.

 

Roger W. Smith

No, I don’t think that (your first sentence).

 

Ella Rutledge

I’m no fan of Didion’s either. The only thing of hers I have read is The Year of Magical Thinking. (I think a negative review at amazon.com

called it “A Lifetime of Magical Thinking.”) She is a member of the NY literati and so they all praise her writing because she writes from their point of view. You, Roger, on the other hand, document and record NYC life from an “everyman” perspective. I hated that book. So shallow, so limited, in its view of grief, grieving, loss, death, faith, belief in anything other than the material world, of which she constantly reminded us with references to the best hospitals (reached by helicopter), the best doctors, Brooks Brothers suits, Hollywood and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Death is final and any tendency to hope for anything beyond is “magical” (or in her view deluded) thinking.

 

Roger W. Smith

Thanks very much for the incisive comments, Ella, What you say about The Year of Magical Thinking confirms what I have said. I based my comments (mainly) on the essay I read this morning and on Harrison’s devastating article about Didion. And, yes, I did see what I felt was a distinction between my own writing and hers — or do now — it wasn’t my main point, and I was thinking about her writing, not mine, but when I read her essay about leaving New York, I felt empty; and I realize now, in retrospect, that that is more or less how I felt years ago when I read “Play It As It Lays.”

Vivaldi was a violinist.

 

 

 

 

Antonio Vivaldi’s father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, … was a barber before becoming a professional violinist, and was one of the founders of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia, an association of musicians. He taught Vivaldi to play the violin and then toured Venice playing the violin with his young son.

In September 1703, Antonio Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at an orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. While Vivaldi is most famous as a composer, he was regarded as an exceptional technical violinist as well. The German architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach referred to Vivaldi as “the famous composer and violinist” and said that “Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy [an improvised cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such a fashion.” — “Antonio Vivaldi,” Wikipedia

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2021

This is what Robert Moses did to the Bronx.

 

 

 

photos by Roger W. Smith

 

These photos of mine illustrate that the affected areas of the Bronx are not “walkable.”  As I experienced in a walk from Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx all the way back to Manhattan’s East Side.

Imagine if Moses had managed to do the same thing (he came very close to succeeding) to the Village and Soho, ruining much of Lower Manhattan. I shudder to think of it when I contemplate how much I enjoy walking from the Battery uptown, or walking downtown along Broadway.

 

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The Cross Bronx Expressway was the brainchild of Robert Moses. But historically it has been blamed for bisecting the Bronx roughly in half causing a migration of middle and upper class residents to the north and leaving the south portion to become an underserved slum of low-income residents. It displaced as many as 5,000 families when an alternate proposed route along Crotona Park would have only affected 1-2% of that amount. Robert Moses is accused of favoring “car culture” placing an importance on building highways instead of subways in order to grow the city. The construction of large highways like the CBE shelved greater NYC Transit projects including the Second Avenue Subway. Not only did it have these ill effects, but to this day the expressway remains a headache for commuters with stacked and entangled roadways such as the Highbridge and Bruckner Interchanges.

The Sheridan Expressway [in the Bronx] is the work of Robert Moses as well and to this day remains unchanged from its original construction. Not only has it become an eyesore for the Hunts Point community which falls directly under several lanes of highway overpass, but according to a recent NYC Department of City Planning report, its surrounding areas are “congested, confusing, and unwelcoming.”

5 Things in NYC We Can Blame on Robert Moses

 

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Jane Jacobs was the key figure in organizing opposition to and defeating Robert Moses’s plans to extend Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park in Manhattan; to designate the West Village as a “slum,” which would have meant essentially razing the neighborhood; and, most importantly (and most frightening), to build a Mid-Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed the character of much of Lower Manhattan and, in the final analysis, of Manhattan itself. It was the beginning and then the apotheosis of Moses’s downfall.

As one film critic has observed, “Jane Jacobs was the David to Robert Moses’s Goliath.” She succeeded against what seemed to be impossible odds.

 

from a previous post of mine

good riddance to urban renewal

good riddance to urban renewal

In my opinion, [Jane Jacobs] is up there with some of the great thinkers and writers who very simply take a fresh look at prevailing opinions and wisdom, go back to square one — or “first principles” — and, in plain language, without overtheorizing — looking with their own eyes — get us to see the world anew. It’s sort of like an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon.

How did she manage to defeat Robert Moses? At the outset, I am sure it would have been regarded as quixotic to try. If Moses had rammed an expressway through the Village and Soho, it would have ruined Manhattan — is the word rape too strong?

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

    December 2021

“It was their whiteness.”

 

‘Is My Little Library Contributing to the Gentrification of My Black Neighborhood’

 

The New York Times has — since its inception, I would imagine — been regarded as the exemplar of responsible, objective journalism.

Of course, this pertains to news, but there must also be a high standard when it comes to the editorial/opinion pages.

How did this racist “guest essay” get published? Or, I should say, what is it doing there?

Let’s forget for a moment the anti-white racism. What about the value of this op-ed as an opinion piece, as a piece of writing?

I am sure the Times gets loads of op-ed submissions, and that it is not easy to get published there. This piece is a very weak, jerry-built screed — built on pernicious premises:

A library is not so much a marker of wealth and whiteness as it is an affirmation of community. …

… I saw a young white couple stopped at the library. Instantly, I was flooded with emotions — astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!

What I resented was not this specific couple. It was their whiteness. …

It raises “issues” that should not be issues.

It is an insult to the Times‘s readers.

 

Roger W. Smith

   December 2021