New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Men of Letters

The Gray Chrysanthemum

In his eight decades, Sadakichi Hartmann fried eggs with Walt Whitman, discussed verse with Stéphane Mallarmé, and drank with John Barrymore, who once described him as “a living freak presumably sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly.”

Critic, poet, novelist, playwright, dancer, actor, and swaggering egotist, Hartmann might lift your watch (he was a superb amateur pickpocket) but his opinion was not for sale. Such a man evoked diverse opinions. Gertrude Stein said, “Sadakichi is singular, never plural.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens (whose equestrian statue of Sherman stands near the Plaza) wrote to him, “What you think of matters of art I consider of high value.” W.C. Fields said, “He is a no-good bum.”

Sadakichi Hartmann was born November 8, 1869 on Deshima Island, Nagasaki, Japan. His father was a German merchant, his mother Japanese. His father disowned him at fourteen, shipping him to a great-uncle in Philadelphia with three dollars in his pocket. Sadakichi observed, “Events like these are not apt to foster filial piety.”

While working at menial jobs, he educated himself at the Philadelphia Mercantile Library and published articles, poems, and short stories in Boston and New York newspapers. He crossed the Delaware to Camden to introduce himself to Walt Whitman. In 1887, he published a New York Herald article quoting Whitman’s opinions about other writers, which Whitman denounced for misquoting him. Undaunted, Sadakichi expanded the article to a pamphlet, Conversations with Walt Whitman. He later studied in Europe, meeting Liszt, Whistler, Mallarmé, and Verlaine, glimpsing Ibsen and exchanging letters with Anatole France. (He later sold France’s letter to an autograph hunter, exacting dinner for two at Maxim’s with two bottles of Pol Roger).

At twenty-three, he wrote his first play, Christ, drawn from Hartmann’s private non-historical and non-Biblical ideas, particularly a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. When Christ, which he claimed had been compared to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, was published in 1893, James Gibbons Huneker, the American aesthete, called it “the most daring of all decadent productions.” It was banned in Boston: the censors burned nearly every copy and jugged Sadakichi in the Charles Street Jail.

While working as a clerk for McKim, Mead & White, he described Stanford White’s drawings as “Rococo in excelsis. To be improved upon only by the pigeons, after the drawings become buildings.” White dispensed with his services. Thereafter, Sadakichi kept the pot boiling with hundreds of German-language essays for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung.

In 1901, he published a two-volume History of American Art, which became a standard textbook. The History remains worth reading as an intelligent evaluation of American art’s first four centuries, marked by Hartmann’s insight into the modernist movements. His judgments are nearly clairvoyant: he analyzes the work of Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, all then nearly unknown. He also discusses Alfred Stieglitz as a photographer. Sadakichi was the first American critic to seriously discuss photography as an art form. Hartmann later contributed his most incisive writing to Stieglitz’s Camera Notes and Camera Work.

By 1906, he was famous, in Huneker’s words, as “the man with the Hokusai profile and broad Teutonic culture.” He stole a taxicab and somehow won acquittal in Jefferson Market Night Court by proving he did not know how to drive. When Moriz Rosenthal, a pianist who had studied under Liszt, enriched the Hungarian Rhapsodies by improvising a series of rapid scales during a Carnegie Hall concert, Sadakichi roared from the gallery, “Is this necessary?” As the ushers tossed him out, Hartmann shouted, “I am a man needed but not wanted!”

From 1907 to 1914, he lived intermittently at the Roycroft Colony, an artistic commune at East Aurora, New York, where he ghostwrote books for its founder, Elbert Hubbard, a soap salesman who had become rich by marrying the boss’ daughter. Hubbard had fallen in love with William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Though utterly untalented, he saw himself as a Renaissance man just like Morris and attempted to recreate the Morris enterprises at Roycroft by spending money. Hubbard rationalized his ghostwritten books by arguing that all great art was collaboration.

In 1915, Sadakichi entered 58 Washington Square South, then known as Bruno’s Garret. Guido Bruno, its proprietor, was an exotically mustached émigré whose bluff, plausible manner and florid speech unsuccessfully concealed an instinct for the main chance. Bruno realized tourists would flock to gape at bohemians in their search for what some called Greenwich Thrillage. He promoted his Garret through flamboyant magazines, all featuring his name in the title: Bruno’s Weekly, Bruno’s Scrap Book, Bruno’s Review of Two Worlds, Bruno’s Bohemia, Bruno’s Chap Book, Bruno’s Review of Life, Love, and Literature and, simply, Bruno’s. In The Improper Bohemians, Allan Churchill described Bruno’s Garret as a layman’s dream of the artist’s life, where “artists’-model types of girls and hot-eyed young men who declared themselves poets, writers, and painters…behaved during working hours like artistic freaks,” declaiming verse and splattering canvases before tourists, herded from the Fifth Avenue bus, while Bruno collected admissions at the door.

The impresario proclaimed Sadakichi a genius. In Bruno’s Chap Book for June 1915, nine years before the Nouvelle Revue Française organized the first Western haiku competition, Sadakichi published “Tanka, Haikai: Fourteen Japanese Rhythms.” Five months later, Bruno proclaimed Sadakichi king of the Bohemians.

In 1916, Sadakichi went west. He revisited his first play’s subject in a novel, The Last Thirty Days of Christ, which envisioned Jesus as a mystic and philosopher misunderstood even by his disciples (anticipated Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ by a generation). It was praised by Ezra Pound and eulogized by Benjamin De Casseres as one of the most strikingly original works of American literature. He played the Court Magician in Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s Arabian Nights fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1924) for $250 in cash and a case of whiskey every week.

In 1938, Sadakichi moved to a shack on an Indian reservation in Banning, California. He still swaggered despite age, asthma, and a bad liver. (“My ailments are exceeded only by my debts.”) After Sadakichi collapsed on a bus, a doctor asked his symptoms. Hartmann replied, “I have symptoms of immortality.”

Though he still contributed to Art Digest and several European reviews, he generally lived on handouts cadged from admirers as tribute to his increasingly outrageous personality. John Barrymore, when asked why women still found Sadakichi, “this fugitive from an embalming table, so attractive,” replied, “Because he looks like a sick cat. Women are nuts about sick cats.”

Sadakichi’s friends in Los Angeles centered around the Bundy Drive studio of John Decker. They included Barrymore and Hearst editor Gene Fowler, then enjoying a wildly successful stint as a script doctor. This audience welcomed Sadakichi’s stories, all told with sly self-mockery and perfect timing. Fowler, according to his valentine, Minutes of the Last Meeting, he first spoke with Hartmann over the telephone in 1939. A few days later, while Fowler was at his office, a studio policeman said a crazy old man was asking for him. “When I told him he smelled of whisky,” the guard reported to Fowler, “he said I ought to be smelling his genius.”

Fowler went outside. The old man stood nearly six feet tall and weighed 132 pounds. Despite the heat, he wore a threadbare, baggy gray overcoat with an old sweat-stained fedora pushed back on his shock of gray hair, which had inspired Barrymore to nickname him the Gray Chrysanthemum.

He announced, “Where I come from and where I go doesn’t matter. For I am Sadakichi Hartmann.” (I’m condensing Fowler’s version here. Fowler extended his hand, saying, “Sadakichi, I am happy to know you.” The critic replied, “Is that remark a sample of your brilliance? You may live another century, Fowler, but you will never meet another son of the gods like me. You have something to drink?”

Fowler stammered, “As a matter of fact, I’m not drinking and—”

“What have your personal habits to do with my destiny?”

“I hadn’t expected a thirsty guest,” Fowler explained.

“You should always have something on hand to offset the stupidity of this place.” As Sadakichi helped himself to Fowler’s scotch, he said, “Be careful that you do not fall in love with your subject—in love with my wonderful character and genius. It will blind you, and your writing will suffer.”

Later, when an automobile accident interrupted Fowler’s work on the biography—it left him with “two split vertebrae, three cracked ribs, a skull injury, and wrenched knees. Otherwise I was as good as new”—Sadakichi complained that Fowler was malingering so as “to avoid becoming famous.” (“He suddenly realizes that I am much too big a subject for his limited talents.”)

Once, Fowler took Sadakichi to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. At the entrance, Sadakichi saw a wheelchair. He sat in it and motioned Fowler to push him about the gallery. He commented loudly on the paintings: van Eyck’s Virgin and Child (“Painted on his day off”) and a Rembrandt portrait of his wife Saskia (“Second-rate…he had begun to lose his mind when he painted it”). A curator bustled up, and Sadakichi asked him where the washroom was. The curator gave him directions. “Bring it to me,” Hartmann commanded.

Fowler recalled an attempt to have Hartmann examined by a physician. The doctor recommended that he be operated on for his hernia. Sadakichi resented this proposal—understandably, since in those days such ruptures could be repaired only by first removing the testicles. Decker urged the old man to bid the glands farewell. (“They have served their purpose and undoubtedly merit an honorable retirement.”) “Ghouls!” Sadakichi cried and turned his rage on the doctor. “Why don’t you men of medicine do something worthwhile instead of castrating a genius!” (Barrymore, weighing in, sustained Hartmann’s objections. “After all,” said he, “it is hard to cast aside comrades of happier times.”)

“Other people,” said Sadakichi, “talk and talk about dying. I’m doing it!” So he did, on November 21, 1944.

New York Press, May 1, 2001

March 10, 2009   Comments Off on The Gray Chrysanthemum

The Way of the Perfect Samurai

He wrote near the end that his life was divided into four rivers: writing, theater, body, and action. He memorialized all of it through photographs. Some were conventional. When Yukio Mishima came to New York with his wife for a belated honeymoon in 1960, they were photographed on the Staten Island ferry and before the Manhattan skyline, like any tourist couple.

A bodybuilder for the last two decades of his life, his love of self-display crossed into exhibitionism. Thus, the beautiful, homoerotic photographs: Mishima in a fundoshi, a loincloth, kneeling in new-fallen snow with a dai katana, the great sword of a samurai, or posing as Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian (complete with arrows). He even posed for Barakei (roughly, “Death by Roses”), a magnificently produced luxury book of extraordinary nude photographs, and somehow was disturbed by the consequent letters received from various admirers requesting still bolder portraits—after all, he was a family man with a wife and two children.

Perhaps the four rivers joined in his most famous photograph: Mishima stripped to the waist, his chest bulging with muscle and gleaming with sweat, his brows knotted and eyes glaring, wielding a massive, two-handed, three-foot-long dai katana. It was an elegant weapon, made by the legendary 17th-century swordsmith Seki no Magoroku, and kept razor-sharp. About his head is a hachimaki, a white headband bearing the Rising Sun and a medieval samurai slogan, “Serve the Nation for Seven Lives.”

Yukio Mishima first came to New York in 1951 at twenty-five. Within the previous two years, he had published two outstanding novels, Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors. The critics hailed him as a genius. He spent ten days in the city, going to the top of the Empire State Building, seeing Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art, catching Call Me Madam and South Pacific. New York did not appeal to him: he found it, according to biographer John Nathan, “like Tokyo five hundred years from now.”

Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka, the eldest son of a middle-class family. Before he was two months old, his paternal grandmother took him from his parents and kept him until he was twelve. Her ancestors had been samurai, related by marriage to the Tokugawa, who were shoguns. She was chronically ill and unstable, yet she loved theater and took him to the great classics, such as The 47 Ronin, a magnificent celebration of feudal allegiance, of loyalty and honor even unto death, and perhaps the most stirring Kabuki play.

Through her family connections, Mishima entered the elite Peers’ School, and by fifteen he was publishing in serious literary magazines. He took the pen name Yukio Mishima to escape his father’s persecution (his father, a Confucian, considered fiction mendacity and destroyed his son’s manuscripts whenever possible). In 1944 he graduated as valedictorian and received a silver watch from the Emperor. His luck held: he failed an army induction physical and thus survived the Second World War.

From the beginning, Mishima’s productivity was stunning: in 1948, he published thirteen stories, a first novel, a collection of novellas, two short plays and two critical essays. On November 25, 1948, after retiring from a nine-month career at the Finance Ministry, he began his first major novel, Confessions of a Mask. Mishima brilliantly evokes his closeted protagonist’s awareness of being different and sense of unique shame. Within two years, Mishima revisited this theme in Forbidden Colors, now noting homosexuality’s ubiquity. Spending all that time in gay bars, taking notes, can do that to you. Besides, homosexuality occupies a different place in Japanese culture than it does in ours. During the two centuries before Japan reopened to the West, some of its most flamboyant heroes were bisexual picaros whose panache and courage on the battlefield were equaled by delicacy and endurance in a diversity of intimate situations.

In July 1957, after Alfred A. Knopf published his Five Modern Noh Plays, Mishima returned to New York. (He told his biographer John Nathan that Knopf dressed “like the King in an operetta, or a whiskey trademark.”) Mishima was interviewed by The New York Times, met Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, and their friends, saw eight Broadway shows, and went several times to the New York City Ballet.

He returned to Japan to find a wife, which was not as easy as one might think. Although marriages were still often arranged, and he was one of Japan’s most distinguished men of letters, Mishima’s affect was apparently not particularly attractive. (A weekly magazine had polled Japan’s young women on the question, “If the Crown Prince and Yukio Mishima were the only men remaining on earth, which would you prefer to marry?” More than half the respondents preferred suicide.) Nevertheless, his marriage to Yoko Sugiyama proved successful. They stopped in New York on their belated honeymoon, where he saw two of his plays performed in English at the cutting-edge Theatre de Lys. They had two children and he was an attentive, devoted father.

The family lived in a house Mishima had ordered built in the Western manner. It has been described as Victorian colonial, perhaps because the language lacks words to better describe it. “For Mishima,” Nathan explains, “the essence of the West was late baroque, clashing colors, garishness…” He describes him assuring “his horrified architect,” that ‘I want to sit on rococo furniture wearing Levi’s and an aloha shirt; that’s my ideal of a lifestyle.'”

From 1965 to 1970, he worked on his four-volume epic, The Sea of Fertility (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel). “The title,” he said, “is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name.” It is his masterpiece, as he knew it would be.

At first glance, in taking the theme of the transformation of Japanese society over the past century, Mishima is revisiting the tired, even trite conflict between traditional values and the spiritual sterility of modern life. One might better define this work as a lyric expression of longing, which he apparently believed the central force in life: that longing led one to beauty, whose essence is ecstasy, which results in death. His fascination with death is erotic: he was drawn to it as most of us are drawn to the company and the touch of the beloved.

In his essay “Sun and Steel,” he wrote of “a single, healthy apple…at the heart of the apple, shut up within the flesh of the fruit, lurks the core in its wan darkness, tremblingly anxious to find some way to reassure itself that it is a perfect apple. The apple certainly exists, but to the core this existence as yet seems inadequate… Indeed, for the core, the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light… Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls to pieces; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.”

Mishima stood about five feet, two inches. He glowed with charisma and an undeniable, disturbing sexuality. Every memoir testifies to his extraordinary energy. He was brilliant and witty, even playful. He had self-knowledge and a keen irony, and his own absurdities were often its target. He became politically active on the extreme right and in 1968 organized the Shield Society, which became his elegantly uniformed private army.

Both Japanese and Westerners testified to his extraordinary empathy—his ability to understand and respond to others. Thus his genius for conversation: the man who loved discussing the Japanese classics, Oscar Wilde, or the dozen shades of red differentiated in the Chinese spectrum could also discuss weightlifting or kendo or a thousand other subjects, each gauged to his listener. He could make his companion feel that he or she was the most important person in the world to him, which was a useful gift for a man who understood that he lived behind masks, or in a series of compartments, and that no one knew him whole.

In November of 1970, Yukio Mishima was forty-five. He’d published thirty novels, eighteen plays, twenty volumes of verse, and twenty volumes of essays; he was an actor and director, a swordsman and bodybuilder, a husband and father. He spoke three languages fluently; he had gone around the world seven times, modeled in the nude, flown in a fighter jet, and conducted a symphony orchestra. During the previous evening, he had told his mother that he had done nothing in his life that he had wanted to do.

On November 25, twenty-two years to the day from beginning Confessions of a Mask, he led a party of four members of the Shield Society to a meeting with the commanding general of the Eastern Army of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. He had finished revising the manuscript of The Decay of the Angel only that day; it was on a table in the front hall of his house, ready for his publisher’s messenger.

At army headquarters, with only swords and daggers, Mishima and his men took the commanding general hostage. They demanded that the troops be assembled outside the building to hear Mishima speak. A little before noon, with 800 soldiers milling about, Mishima leaped to the parapet of the building, dressed in the Shield Society’s uniform. About his head was the hachimaki. He began speaking, but the police and television helicopters drowned out many of his words. He spoke of the national honor; and demanded the army join him in restoring the nation’s spiritual foundations by returning the Emperor to supreme power.

He had once said, “I come out on stage determined to make the audience weep and instead they burst out laughing.” It held true now: the soldiers shouted that he was a bakayaro, an asshole. After a few minutes, he gave up. He cried out three times, “Heiko Tenno Banzai” (“Long Live the Emperor”), and stepped back.

He loved Jocho Yamamoto’s classic Hagakure, an 18th-century instruction manual for the warrior. Jocho states, “The way of the samurai is death…the perfect samurai will, in a fifty-fifty life or death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death.”

Mishima had fantasized about kirigini—to go down fighting against overwhelming odds, sword in hand. Now he kicked off his boots and removed his uniform until he wore only a fundoshi. He sat down on the carpet and took a dagger, a yorodoishi, in his right hand. He inhaled deeply. Then his shoulders hunched as he drove the blade into his abdomen with great force. As his body attempted to force out the weapon, he grasped his right hand with his left and continued cutting. The blood soaked the fundoshi. The agony must have been unimaginable. Yet, he completed the cut. His head collapsed to the carpet as his entrails spilled from his body.

He had instructed Morita, his most trusted follower, “Do not leave me in agony too long.” Now, Morita struck down with Mishima’s dai katana. He was inept: the beheading required three strokes. Then Morita took his own life.

Mishima’s motives remain the subject of speculation: madness, burnout, or fatal illness. Some whispered that he might have enjoyed the pain. Others suggested he and Morita had committed shinju, a double love-suicide. Some argued esthetics. A reading of Sun and Steel suggests that suicide was the logical completion of his search for beauty. Others take him seriously. Perhaps it was a matter of honor, and his death the most sincere protest he could muster against modern life.

To this day, thousands of Japanese observe the anniversary of his suicide.

New York Press, May 9, 2000

February 15, 2009   Comments Off on The Way of the Perfect Samurai

The American Byron

On May 15, 1877, fifty thousand people marched to Central Park’s Mall to dedicate J. Wilson MacDonald’s statue of a great poet. The National Guard escorted the dignitaries: the Cabinet, the Army’s general-in-chief, the governor, the mayor. Brass bands thumped away until 3:00 PM. Then the venerable William Cullen Bryant, poet (“To a Waterfowl” and “Thanatopsis”) and editor of the New York Evening Post, introduced Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, who in unveiling the statue hailed as “the favored of all the early American poets” its subject, Fitz-Greene Halleck.

From Halleck’s first major publications in 1819 until long after his death in 1867, America’s critics sang his praises. Even Edgar Allen Poe, who rarely praised anything, and whose savagery as a literary critic endures in the nickname “Old Tomahawk,” called Halleck’s verse “the noblest…in all American poetry.” But by the 1930s Halleck had been, as the intellectuals might say, decanonized: purged from the body of work that provides the common currency of literary discourse. The AIA Guide to New York City now describes the statue as “the prissy and pretentious bronze of a self-styled poet.”

Fitz-Greene Halleck (originally spelled Hallock; he changed the spelling when he was fourteen years old) was born in Guilford, Connectcut on July 8, 1790. His father, Israel Hallock, had been a Loyalist, serving as a sutler for the British cavalryman and war criminal, Banastre Tarleton, whose valor was equaled only by his zeal for burning American homes. Israel loved music and literature and was proud of having read every book in Guilford’s library.

Halleck was educated in the local public schools. Like his father, he was an omnivorous reader. According to John Hallock’s The American Byron, he once set his room on fire reading by candlelight. A woman who watched him speak at the age of seven described him as intelligent, gentle, and lovable. It was around this time that he seems to have begun writing verse. (A schoolmate remarked, “He couldn’t help it.”) One notebook of juvenile verses dated 1802 is augustly entitled, “The Poetical Works of Fitz Greene Hallock.”

When Halleck finished his schooling, at fifteen, Andrew Eliot, a kinsman, hired him as a clerk and taught him double-entry bookkeeping. Within a few months, Halleck’s abilities and character led Eliot to entrust him with managing the store. He joined the local militia company and, despite his dislike of flag-waving patriotism, took his duties seriously enough to be promoted to sergeant.

Halleck’s horizons broadened in 1808 when he first went to New York on business. He caught a play at the Park Theatre near City Hall, the kind of thing he later described as a departure from “Connecticut principles.” He remained living at home for three more years, but the die was cast. He earned money for the move by teaching arithmetic, writing, and bookkeeping to his neighbors. In May 1811, Greenwich Village became his home; within several months, Jacob Barker, a banker with offices on South Street, hired him as a clerk. Halleck worked for Barker for the next twenty-one years.

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, he enlisted in the Iron Grays, a local militia company. Samuel Swartwout, Halleck’s commanding officer, would later win distinction as America’s first public official to embezzle over $1 million. Halleck served as a part-time soldier in and around the Village and the Battery until the news of peace reached New York in February 1815.

Although Halleck was discreet, his correspondence betrays a strain of misogyny: he seems to have cordially disliked women and believed that most of his male friends had married only for money. By contrast, Halleck’s relationships with men, as reflected in his letters and verse, were often quite passionate, even making allowance for the florid terms in which the 19th century portrayed male friendship.

His most emotional poems were all addressed to men: a dashing Cuban guest in Guilford, a French roommate in Greenwich Village. The closest relationship in his life began in 1813 when he met Joseph Rodman Drake, a native New Yorker who was studying medicine. Accounts of their first meeting all agree that Halleck, who found Drake “the handsomest man in New York,” grasped his arm and said, “We must know each other.” Soon they were inseparable. Their intimacy survived Halleck’s lone journeys to the Southern states and even Drake’s marriage.

Between March and June 1819, Drake and Halleck published a series of anonymous essays and verses in the New York Evening Post called “The Croaker Papers,” after their pseudonyms, Croaker and Croaker Jr. (Drake and Halleck, respectively). The Croakers captivated local readers, poking fun at prominent figures and offbeat local customs. Today, with their subjects forgotten, the Croakers seem tedious and their satire irrelevant. Yet they were extremely popular in their day and, once the authors’ identities were revealed, made them both well known. Collections of the Croakers remained in print for another fifty years.

In late 1819, Halleck published “Fanny,” his longest poem, a mock-epic considered “an amusing satire on the fashion, follies, and public characters of the day,” renowned for its “sparkle of wickedness and fun.” Two editions sold out within eighteen months. Now Halleck was famous.

Drake’s health failed during the spring of 1820. Halleck watched over him “with more than a brother’s love” until he died on September 21, 1820. At the graveside, Halleck murmured to a friend, “There will be less sunshine for me hereafter, now that Joe is gone.” Fifty years later he still grieved. Halleck intermittently wrote verses to commemorate his beloved friend. One of them, “On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake,” which is considered his finest work, remained a popular high school recitation piece into the 1920s.

Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee
Nor named thee but to praise.

When Halleck published an edition of his poems in 1827, including “Alnwick Castle,” “Burns,” and his Byronic verses on the Greek War of Independence, “Marco Bozzaris,” he came to rank among the city’s leading writers, a peer of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant. Yale elected him an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, and Columbia College gave him an honorary degree. His works were reviewed across the country and in Europe; he was constantly anthologized.

All the while, Halleck maintained a successful career as a business executive. In 1832, John Jacob Astor hired him as his confidential secretary after Jacob Barker’s bank failed. Astor was then the richest man in America. Within months, Halleck became Astor’s chief executive officer, conducting the day-to-day management of Astor’s business affairs across the United States. Astor found Halleck supremely efficient: he paid the poet $5,000 a year at a time when a skilled laborer’s annual income might be $350.

In some respects, Halleck was a surprisingly modern figure: his apparent lack of prejudice may reflect his revulsion to the Puritan heritage of his birthplace. The surviving papers of many leading New Yorkers, such as Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, show strong—even violent—distaste for the Irish, Catholics, Native Americans, nearly any foreign-born immigrant, and Negroes. Halleck’s do not. Moreover, Halleck apparently had many friends and acquaintances outside his worlds of business, society, and literature. Dr. Thomas Nichols wrote in his autobiography of “walking on Broadway one day with the poet Halleck,”

when he stopped, turned back, took off his hat to, and shook hands with, this negro, then a white-headed old man. After a few words with him, he rejoined me and told me his story.”

Apparently, Halleck had realized moments after passing the old man that he was a friend and gone back to greet him.

Above all, Halleck possessed the evanescent quality of charm. Indeed, one difficulty in describing his personality is that many of his friends called him charming without ever elaborating upon what he did that made him so.

Wealth and literary fame made Halleck a public figure: he was naturally among the leading New Yorkers who signed the city’s letter of welcome to Charles Dickens, dated January 24, 1842. Dickens described Halleck as “a merry little man” (odd, considering that at five-nine, Halleck was tall for the time). Perhaps Dickens was preoccupied. He was obsessed with the United States government’s refusal to recognize foreign copyrights, owing to which American publishers routinely pirated his enormously popular books without paying a cent in royalties. This subject seems to have dominated Dickens’ dinner conversation, and there is childlike hurt and disappointment in his complaint that Halleck had nothing to say to him about international copyright law.

When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he was worth roughly $20 million. In his will, he appointed Halleck a trustee of the Astor Library, leaving him only an annuity of $200. Halleck’s friends were more appalled than he; the poet expressed gratitude for having been remembered at all. At sixty, though, he could no longer afford to live in New York. He returned to Guilford, where he lived frugally with his sister Maria in a rented house.

Few Guilford residents knew Halleck, but many disliked him. He was known to drink. He disliked Puritanism (his poem “Connecticut” is an extended attack on the harshness and bigotry of the Puritan fathers) and took no part in politics. (He boasted that he had never voted for a president and claimed he had voted only twice—“once for an assistant alderman and once for a ten dollar bill: both of which proved counterfeit.”) Also, he was a bachelor. Many locals believed that men had a duty to marry and propagate. Even Halleck’s elegant wardrobe, accumulated over the course of his forty years in New York, seemed to them evidence of extravagance and degeneracy. And as he composed verse aloud while walking, there were those who thought he was out of his mind. A visitor once observed that Halleck’s polite greetings to passersby were often snubbed. The poet seems to have taken it all humorously, believing, perhaps, that good manners were their own reward.

Halleck visited New York several times every year. In October 1867, he did so for the last time. A “whoreson cold” that had been dogging him deteriorated into pneumonia. On November 19, 1867, during a conversation with his sister, she turned away for a moment, and when she looked back he was dead. Three days later, he was buried beside his father’s grave in the Guilford cemetery. Only a few friends from New York learned of his death in time to attend the service. Fewer locals came. Most stayed away, believing that to be seen at the funeral of a man who had been known to knock back a few now and then might lead to gossip.

In 1870, Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts traveled to Guilford to dedicate a monument to Halleck. A century later, the Guilford library committee decided not to name a room at the public library after him because of his reputation for drinking.

New York Press, April 8, 2003

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on The American Byron

Pluck and Luck

In 1928 Herbert Asbury published The Gangs of New York, his masterwork on nineteenth-century New York’s virile young ruffians. That same year Herbert R. Mayes published Alger: A Biography Without a Hero, the first biography of Horatio Alger Jr., whose works—countless moralizing books for boys—presented his view of the same class at the same period.

Asbury’s book was founded on the general knowledge and gossip he’d picked up as a New York reporter, research among old newspapers and court records, and numerous interviews with those who had participated, or known participants, in the crimes and adventures that he recounted. Mayes claimed his book was based on exclusive facts derived from a diary that Alger had started at Harvard and maintained throughout his life. Vaguely inspired by the debunking biographies of Lytton Strachey, the book portrays Alger as a skirt-chasing sexual athlete.

The critic Malcolm Cowley inquired about the diary, murmuring that Mayes’ facts were so exclusive that they could not be documented at all. But no one else questioned them. Once Mayes became editor of Good Housekeeping and a director of The Saturday Review, his biography became the accepted truth: the basis for all future critical discussion and analysis of Alger and his works. The Dictionary of American Biography, Stewart Holbrook’s Lost Men of American History, and John Tebbel’s 1963 biography, From Rages to Riches, all rely on Mayes.

Tebbel even claimed he had verified Mayes’ sources. He was being less than truthful. Mayes admitted in the 1970s that his book is a work of fiction, largely invented by the author. There were no sources to verify. The diary did not exist.  Nonetheless, in 1978, on the occasion of the book’s golden anniversary, Mayes published a new edition, featuring a new self-debunking introduction. Mayes delighted in committing and then safely revealing literary fraud. Evidently, he also liked the income derived from a successful book.

Alger, who had himself written for money, would have understood.

Alger’s name is wedded to a particular image of the American dream: that anyone can rise from rages to riches through his own efforts. It is derived from the writings of Herbert Spencer, a 19th century English agnostic philosopher who was once taken very seriously indeed. Spencer, who, before Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, had come to believe in the evolution of animals by natural selection, believed this notion equally applicable to the social sciences. Spencer’s American disciples, particularly the sociologist William Graham Sumner, popularized his ideas as Social Darwinism.

The crude product of subtle minds, Social Darwinism applied natural selection—the notion of “the survival of the fittest”—to nearly every area of human life. Social Darwinists believed that even as the physical order was fixed by certain natural and implacable laws with which men ought not to interfere, so was the social order.

Sumner preached that the rule of life was “root, hog, or die.” He opposed anything—the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, government regulation of economic activity, even private charities such as soup kitchens for the homeless—that might interfere with his notion of social evolution. Slums, low wages, and other indices of human misery were not to be reformed. Those living in squalor deserved no better: it was a symptom of their unfitness. Sumner lacked the common touch, but then, as a tenured Yale professor, he didn’t need it.

The image of the Horatio Alger novel far more effectively advocated this kind of rugged individualism. He published upwards of 125 novels during his lifetime (about half a billion of his books have sold since the 1860s) and some 500 short stories. Another 280 serialized novels were never put into book form.

One wonders how much of his output was actually read. Despite the collective reputation of Alger’s work as inspiring tales of hardworking, go-getting young entrepreneurs, his stories are often far from preaching a virile gospel of success through struggle. Rather, they often seem like the passive romantic fantasies of a lonely mid-Victorian pederast.

Born on Friday the 13th in January 1832 in Revere, Massachusetts, Horatio Alger Jr. was the first son of a Unitarian minister. Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa with Harvard’s Class of 1852, he spent the first few years of his working life as a starving freelance journalist before returning to Harvard for his divinity degree, which he received in 1860.

Pleasant-faced, gray-eyed, balding, and mustachioed, Alger was soft-spoken and shy. Twice rejected by the Union army for chronic chest trouble, Alger wrote novels instead. The New York Weekly serialized Marie Bertrand, a romance, in 1864. A year later, he published Frank’s Campaign. This was his first book for juveniles: a tale of how a boy ran the family farm while his father served in the Union army, outwitting the villainous squire who held the mortgage, and succeeded in all he undertook.

In November 1864, he was called to the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of Brewster, on Cape Cod. Until March 1866, the Rev. Horatio Alger Jr. preached the Gospel (he was a superb public speaker), visited the sick, and comforted the aged. He took a very special interest in the boys of the parish, taking them on walks in the woods, playing ball, and organizing games, entertainments, and festivals. This idyll ended on March 20, 1866 when, according to Edwin S. Hoyt in Horatio’s Boys, a parish committee heard a report that Alger had buggered the son of an influential parishioner and at least one other boy.

The parish minutes read, “We learn from John Clark and Thomas S. Crocker that Horatio Alger Jr. has been practicing on them at different times deeds that are too revolting to relate.” Alger did not deny the charges, saying that he had been “imprudent” and that he considered his connection with the parish severed. That afternoon, he caught the next train out of town. The former minister was neither arrested nor indicted, and the charges were quickly forgotten. No one would uncover the facts of his departure from Brewster for a century.

Alger traveled directly to New York with a carpetbag of manuscripts and a desire to dedicate his life to writing and to boys—an interest he had announced to an acquaintance, William Taylor Adams, who wrote books for juveniles under the pen name Oliver Optic. Adams, who also edited Student and Schoolmate, which Stuart Holbrook characterized as “a goody-goody periodical for boys,” seems to have taken this statement at face value. Soon after his arrival, Alger promised Adams a new serial novel for Student and Schoolmate, set among the homeless waifs, bootblacks, and newsboys of New York in whom Alger took a keen interest. Within a few days, he delivered three chapters to Adams.

This was Alger’s first success, Ragged Dick, the story of a youth attempting to survive on the streets of New York City. Student and Schoolmate flew off the stands. At the end of the following year, when A.K. Loring published the serial as a book, it became a runaway nationwide bestseller. Alger endlessly reused this story over the next thirty-two years, usually changing only the titles, the names of the characters, and sometimes the setting.

Contrary to popular belief, the protagonists of these books are not so much adventurous youths rising to riches as male Cinderellas, sycophants pleasing their employers to gain lives of modest comfort. As Michael Moon notes in his essay, “The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes,” mere luck, rather than an increased understanding of the world, sets the Alger hero on his way. Alger’s protagonists are attractive adolescents—“well-formed and strong” or “well-knit,” with “bright and attractive faces”—who, through chance encounters, usually involving some spontaneous display of strength and daring, are befriended by older, wealthier men. Often, the relationship seems based upon a quick physical assessment. The lads become protégés and flourish under their mentors’ genteel patronage. Intriguingly, Alger heroes only rarely make their fortunes by marrying the boss’s daughter.

Within five years of his arrival in New York, Alger had published seven serial novels in Student and Schoolmate alone. He usually wrote several books simultaneously. He would churn out a few pages of one before boredom set in; then he would turn to another and then another before returning to the first. He worked fifteen hours at a stretch, often living on coffee to stay awake as the prose gushed from his pen. He wrote quickly: Frank and Fearless, 80,000 words long, took two weeks. On finishing, according to Holbrook, he took a walk around the block and returned to start Upward and Onward, polishing that off in thirteen days. His life became his books: Fame and Fortune, Rough and Ready, Rufus and Rose, Strive and Succeed, Tattered Tom, Paul the Peddler, Phil the Fiddler, Slow and Sure, Try and Trust, Bound to Rise, The Young Acrobat, Sam’s Chance, Risen from the Ranks, and dozens more.

Of course, none of these books is any good. His writing is clichéd and pompous. Heroes invariably assume manly stances and villains charge like bulls to no avail. Characters are interchangeable: there is no difference between Tom Temple and Tom Thatcher or between Tom Thatcher and Walter Sherwood. Though later novels are set in the Wild West, San Francisco, Australia, or England, the stories never change. His Native Americans and Asians are stereotypes, his Negroes subhuman.

Moreover, his work was amazingly sloppy. He forgot whether his current hero was Andy Gordon or Andy Grant or Bob Burton or Herbert Carter, and sometimes a single hero might bear five or six different names in a manuscript. With age, he became intellectually flaccid: Brave and Bold, though a novel of a factory boy, fails to show its hero doing a day’s work in a factory or even to identify the factory’s product.

Yet these incredibly bad works were incredibly good magazine serials, as Edwin Hoyt noted: each episode rises to a climax, leaving ’em panting for more. Alger slowed only slightly with age, still producing three books or more a year until his health began falling during the winter of 1898. He was planning to visit his sister in New England when an attack of asthma overcame him. He died on July 18, 1899.

But death had no dominion over his product. His publishers hired Edward Stratemeyer, the future creator of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, to squeeze new Alger novels from the plot outlines and incomplete serials left in the dead man’s bottom drawer. Alger remained a bestseller until World War I, when changing tastes in children’s books marginalized him.

As literature, Alger’s work is trash. As propaganda, its effect was stupendous. The influence of his books and, more importantly, the code they were believed to preach, may have affected more Americans in his day than did those of any other contemporary writer. Not bad for a child molester.

New York Press, February 5, 2003

February 9, 2009   Comments Off on Pluck and Luck

Albert Jay Nock, Superfluous Man

In 1910, Albert Jay Nock, then forty, joined the American Magazine. His writings, unusually good, were his best credential. Otherwise, no one knew much about him. Writing about Thomas Jefferson years later, he would characterize him as “the most approachable and the most impenetrable of men, easy and delightful of acquaintance, impossible of knowledge. In a sense Nock was describing himself.

His secrecy achieves epic grandeur in his brilliant autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). He does not disclose the place and year of his birth (Scranton; 1870), the names of his parents or the occupation of his father (Joseph Albert Nock, an Episcopal clergyman, and Emma Jay, a descendant of John Jay), the name of his college (St. Stephen’s, now Bard), his twelve years as an Episcopal priest, his failed marriage (he left his wife after his second son was born in 1905), or his brief career in minor league baseball. He felt such information was unnecessary. Memoirs, the book’s publisher noted, was a “purely literary and philosophical autobiography.” A reader might know Nock’s mind through his work without needing to know him.

To our culture, Nock’s secrecy is unnerving. When he worked for The Nation during World War I, he refused to provide his superiors with his home address. During the early twenties, when he was editing The Freeman (a peer of H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, Harold Ross’ New Yorker and Frank Crowninshield’s Vanity Fair for consistently brilliant writing), his editorial staff believed, according to his literary editor, Van Wyck Brooks, that Nock could be contacted outside the office only by leaving a note under a certain rock in Central Park.

Nock read by the age of three. He taught himself in his father’s library until he was eight, when he began studying Latin and Greek with some slight assistance from his father. At fourteen he began formal classical studies while developing his taste for German beer and the local “alfalfa-fed” girls. Then he went to St. Stephen’s. According to Nock, the college was, outside of certain Jesuit institutions, “possibly the last in America to stick by the grand old fortifying classical curriculum.” At graduation Nock felt himself prepared for living, albeit in proud ignorance of the natural sciences since Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Pliny, or any history since 1500, including that of the United States. His education, he believed, had left him without a “lumber of prepossession or formula to be cleared away.”

Nock then bounced among universities, receiving an advanced degree almost by accident, and played minor league baseball. He was ordained in 1897 and served in various parishes until he left the priesthood in 1909. As a journeyman muckraker in New York, Nock wrote memorably about William Wirt’s experiments in progressive education in Gary, Indiana and the lynching of an African-American millworker in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. He knew offbeat reform politicians, including New York Governor Martin Glynn and Mayors William J. Gaynor of New York and Brand Whitlock of Toledo, Ohio.

In 1915, during the first year of WWI, Nock traveled to Europe as an agent of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. According to Michael Wreszin’s The Superfluous Anarchist, Nock was to investigate State Deptartment employees’ surreptitious cooperation with British agents. Apparently, Bryan had no one else he could trust. However, Nock returned to America on Bryan’s sudden resignation on June 9, 1915. What he found and would have told Bryan is unknown.

Nock then worked for The Nation, which so strongly opposed American intervention that the government closed it down. In 1920, he organized The Freeman, which he intended as a radical publication.

Great editors inspire great magazines. Nock claimed only two gifts as an executive. One was judgment of ability: he claimed, “I can smell out talent as quickly and unerringly as a high-bred pointer can smell out a partridge.” The other was his belief that “a good executive’s job is to do nothing, and [one] can’t set about it too soon or stick to it too faithfully.”

Nock never gave orders, assigned subjects or set general policy. He sought merely writers (1) with a definite point of view, (2) stated clearly, (3) using “eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English.” He told one would-be contributor, “Now you run along home and write us a nice piece on the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, and if you can put it over those three jumps, you will see it in print. Or if you would rather do something on a national policy of strangling all the girl-babies at birth, you might do that—glad to have it.”

Nevertheless, the paper had a distinct point of view. When The Nation welcomed The Freeman to “the ranks of liberal journalism,” Nock replied that he didn’t want to seem ungrateful, “but we hain’t liberal. We loathes liberalism and loathes it hard…”

Within two years, success became a bore. On February 10, 1924 after an extended sick leave and a dispute with his backers, Nock announced the magazine would fold with the issue of March 4, 1924. A day later, he sailed for Brussels, his favorite city, where he largely remained for fifteen years.

In 1926 Nock published Jefferson, the first of three biographical studies that occupied him for the next thiteem years. Richard Hofstadter, the author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics,dismissively suggested Nock had created a Jefferson with the inner vision, aspiration and values of Albert Jay Nock. Nonetheless, the critics found it “provocative and insightful” and “sparkling, charming, witty, and all the other adjectives inevitably called forth by Nock’s inimitable prose style.”

After lecturing on education at Bard and the University of Virginia, Nock published The Theory of Education in the United States (1932). Education, to Nock, was a preparation for living, to see things as they are. Getting a living is merely a question of training. Few are educable; all can be trained. Certain intellectual and spiritual experiences are open to some and not to others: to Nock, this was simply a fact of nature, such as one’s height.

Nock argued that the distinction of education and training had been destroyed because the meanings of equality and democracy had been perverted. The first now meant “the rabid self-assertion…of ignorance and vulgarity.” Similarly, as he later wrote in Memoirs, “…the prime postulate of democracy is that there shall be nothing for anybody to enjoy that is not open for everybody to enjoy. Hence, despite human experience, everybody must be educable.”

Nock’s intellectual framework shifted in 1932 when the self-professed radical and Jeffersonian stopped believing in the improvability of man. This was catalyzed by Ralph Adams Cram, a distinguished architect, whose essay, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings,” appeared in the September 1932 issue of The American Mercury.

Cram’s reputation as an architect (he redesigned the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights) obscures his social criticism. In his essay, he argues that most men do not behave like human beings because they are not human. They are Neolithic barbarians with delusions of grandeur. In Cram’s view, the doctrine of progress—that the most recent stage of human development is superior to earlier stages—is unsupported by recorded history. Cram argued that anthropologists had erroneously categorized all men as human.

Nock soon professed his new faith. He wrote of momentary distress at seeing a man scavenging in a garbage pail. A few minutes later, he was undisturbed at seeing a dog do the same thing. Then he realized his erroneous presumption: that the man was a human being, rather than merely a man. Now, he no longer found any anomaly in a man’s behaving as a brute and not as a human being. To Nock, the distinction between the mob (which he called “mass-men”) and the few who were a glory to the human race (which he called the “Remnant”) was greater than that between the mob and certain higher anthropoids.

Oddly, he claimed he no longer hated anyone or lost patience with anybody. He wrote in Memoirs, “One has great affection for one’s dogs, even when one sees them reveling in tastes and smells which to us are unspeakably odious… One can hate human beings…but one can’t hate subhuman creatures, or be contemptuous of them, wish them ill, regard them unkindly… If cattle tramp down your garden, you drive them away but can’t hate them, for you know they are acting up to the measure of their psychical capacity… The mass-men who are princes, presidents, politicians, legislators, can no more transcend their psychical capacities than any wolf, fox, or polecat in the land. How, then, is one to hate them, notwithstanding the appalling evil they do?”

In this frame of mind, he wrote Our Enemy, the State (1935). Nock saw the state as antisocial, commandeered by one group or another of “mass-men” to legalize their appropriation of the product of others’ work without compensation. Revolutions merely reapportioned “the use of the political means” for such exploitation. He argued that most liberal reforms, such as the income tax, merely enhanced state power to further exploitation. If “Communism, the New Deal, Fascism, Nazism, are merely so many trade names for collectivist Statism,” he asked, why should one think more of Roosevelt than of Hitler?

From 1933 to 1939 Nock contributed a current affairs column, “The State of the Union,” to The American Mercury. He consistently assaulted the New Deal’s swineries, both foreign and domestic, and after 1936 argued American foreign policy was conducted to provoke war. In 1941, he published “The Jewish Question in America,” a two-part article in the Atlantic Monthly. Wreszin calls it “subtle and restrained.” Indeed, the prose is elegantly polished; the tone is serenely analytical; the venue is respectable; and the argument favors excluding the Jews through apartheid. Nock claims, as Wreszin says, “that he wished to launch a meaningful dialogue whereby intelligent Americans might probe the bigotry that infested not merely the lower orders but all society…” He claims to be charting “quicksands and rock formations so the piers of some future structure might be secure.”

He argues that Jews, being Orientals, cannot understand or communicate with Americans, who are Occidental. He suggests the Jews have failed to know their place, and anticipates seeing the “Nuremberg Laws reenacted and enforced with vigor.” Finally, Nock dismisses criticism by claiming Jews would be peculiarly unable to understand his meaning.

Thereafter, fewer editors accepted Nock’s articles. He began appearing in Scribner’s Commentator, an odd mixture of general essays and Nazi apologia, until it folded after Pearl Harbor. Finally, he was reduced to reviewing books in the Review of Books, published by Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council, a front for the few rightists openly opposed to the war after Pearl Harbor.

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man appeared in 1943 to great praise. Clifton Fadiman, that most energetic of second-rank men of letters, wrote, “I have not since the days of the early Mencken read a more eloquently written blast against democracy or enjoyed more fully a display of crusted prejudice. Mr. Nock is a highly civilized man who does not like our civilization and will have no part of it. He is a rare bird, one of an almost extinct species, and as he very properly puts it, a superfluous man. We are not apt to see his like again.” The New York Herald Tribune’s Isabel Paterson wrote, “Whether for instruction or for entertainment, this is a unique book, of instant timeliness and permanent value.”

In Memoirs, published two years before his death, Nock wrote of being asked what he thought were the three most degrading occupations open to man. He replied that the first was holding office in a modern republic. The second was editing an American metropolitan newspaper. As for the third, he was unsure whether it was pimping or managing a whorehouse. He died on August 19, 1945, ten days after the bombing of Nagasaki.

New York Press, January 21, 2001

January 21, 2001   No Comments