Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New York's Literary Failing

We’re down to the last summer Fridays, and this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were eager to take advantage of the free afternoon. We thought about going to the Met’s Big Bambú exhibit, but thanks to its wacky hours—we would have had to have picked up tickets at noon—we missed out.

(For some reason the Met thought it would be a good idea to release tickets twice a day, in person, at the museum. Dear Met: you are not Shakespeare in the Park. If you have an ongoing exhibit, why not let people reserve their free tickets online for a fixed date in the future? Hm?)

Anyway, so there we were, looking for something to do. We were both in a museum-going mood, so I scoured a list of museums in New York, looking for an exhibit we’d missed or simply a museum we’d never been to. And I put together a few options: the American Folk Art Museum in Midtown; Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (to see Herman Melville’s grave, of course); or the Queens Museum of Art in Corona Park, with a stop in Flushing for Vietnamese food. The last possibility won.

To anyone who hasn’t been, I would recommend a visit to the Queens Museum of Art. First reason, for literature lovers: when it was first constructed, Corona Park replaced the valley of ashes (remember T. J. Eckleburg?) in The Great Gatsby. Another reason, for those of you who grew up in the mid-nineties: you’ll recognize the unisphere near the museum from the final scenes of Men in Black. In addition: the museum is largely a tribute to the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964—the building was the New York City pavilion in ’39—and some of the information on the Fairs is amazing. Easily the best thing about the museum, however, is the Panorama.


All five boroughs of New York, scaled down to fit inside one large room, with models of every building in the city built before 1992 (including, eerily, the World Trade Center towers). I was able to find my current apartment building, my old one, my boyfriend’s parents’ building, and on, and on. It’s an incredible thing to see. You should go. Now.

But to go back earlier that day: looking at the list of museums in the city, I was struck by how few literary museums there are here. In fact, there’s only one one that comes to mind—the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx—and even then, it pales next to many of the literary museums in the country.

Why is this the case? My boyfriend noted that there are gestures to memorializing the literary all around the city—the plaques, the bars where your favorite poets drank, and the the landscape of the city itself, preserved, as Corona Park’s ashy past was, in its literature. We considered the constant destruction and reinvention that New York passes through, sometimes depriving us of the buildings that might otherwise house these museums. (On this walking tour of Melville’s New York, for example, the best you can do in many cases is to see “how the boarding house in which Herman Melville was born probably looked” or to stare at the place where Melville’s house once stood, at 103 Fourth Avenue.) When apartments and buildings do survive, my boyfriend noted, they’re often occupied by new tenants.

It’s still surprising, though. Compare us to Moscow or St. Petersburg, where it seems that every building in which Pushkin ever took tea has been converted to a museum, and where statues of him dot many street corners. Or even just hold us next to Concord, Massachusetts. While certainly a hotbed of literary production, does it really make sense that Concord should outnumber us four to one in literary museums? (That’s not counting the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.) Or that Lenox and Pittsfield, in the Berkshires, should boast both Arrowhead (Melville’s house) and the Mount (Edith Wharton’s home), with the Homestead (Emily Dickinson’s house) just a short distance away?

New York has managed to restore some wonderful historical buildings (the Dyckman Farmhouse and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, for example), sustains incredible museums in many different areas, and is one of the most vibrantly literary cities in the world. So why have we failed so spectacularly to unite these three strengths? The Queens Museum of Art’s Panorama preserves the New York of 1992, but what will preserve—beyond their books themselves—the New York of Melville, Walt Whitman, Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Ralph Ellison?

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