Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).
Tag Archives: Carson McCullers
While the classes that I taught in New York in 2012 revolved around Sherill Tippins’ February House, this year I decided to take a different approach with classes: to investigate Southern writers who lived and wrote in New York at some point in their lives. Since this program was founded because of Carson McCullers’ journey to New York City at age 17, I felt that a class that explored McCullers alongside other writers who undertook similar journeys might be, simply put, fun. Because the trip participants are all “Southerners” (if not by birth, then by current residency), I figured we’d all be able to tell about our own journeys as well. We’re reading Capote, Williams, McCullers, Walker—more canonical authors—alongside contemporary authors Karen Russell, Donna Tartt, and Allan Gurganus. Thus far, we’ve discussed the ways that the traditional southern gothic writers described New York and the South in their work, comparing and contrasting the ways these two places intersect and divide.
So, that’s my lens—that’s what I’m thinking about, as a Southerner visiting New York City. And thus far, I’m puzzled. So puzzled that I’m experiencing a little writer’s block. I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, to understand one’s own culture, one has to leave it. And then miss it. And then see it everywhere, even when one is estranged from it. And then understand that leaving it doesn’t necessarily make anything any better. It’s not that there’s no place like home–it might be that there is just no place to call home. Ever.
For instance, in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae Golightly from Tulip, Texas—the wild thing that stole turkey eggs and ran through brier patches. Even in New York, she cannot escape that identity. In Carson McCullers “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” Ken is also an ex-pat Texan, working on a novel about his gritty hometown. The New York literary life eventually drives him mad. In Williams’ “Happy August the 10th,” Elphinstone has filled the bookshelves with such titles as Notable Southern Bullshit, as described by her roommate Horne, a woman whom Elphinstone both loves and despises. In the end, both characters view the city’s buildings as tombstones: “…she watched the city’s profile, creep with understandable reluctance into morning, because, my God, yes, Horne’s comment did fit those monolithic structures downtown, they truly were like a lot of illuminated tombstones in a necropolis” (472). All of these characters are at home in New York, and yet, out of place. They are successes but failures; they are with companions but alone; they are caught between past and present, also between places. New York City cannot save them.
I don’t want to make this the bluest—or the mean reddest—post ever written, but I can’t help but reflect on what feelings of homelessness can do to folks: put them continually on the run and in search of home in people and places (like Capote’s Holly) or make them crazy and violent (like McCullers’ Ken), or if they are perceptive, make them begin to change and to seek different meanings of home (like Williams’ Elphinstone who we think might make amends with Horne despite her now bleak view of the city itself). One thing is certain: this feeling of searching for a home (of a certain sort of homesickness, which McCullers wrote about so often) is not unique to out-of-place Southerners who must flee their region. While some suggest it’s made worse because of the slow—snail’s pace—progress in the South, finding your “place” (considering all the metaphorical meanings of that word) is exhausting, even in one of the most progressive and culturally diverse cities in the world.
When you’re trapped on a train for 30+ hours, you have plenty of time to think and reflect. When will my next hot shower be? Next hot meal? Will I ever see my dogs again? My friends and family? Who will panic first: me, one of my students, the four-year-old sitting five rows up? What did I forget? Who did I forget to buy a souvenir for? Did I lose any weight from all of that walking? Was this really the right time to quit smoking? (Turns out “no” on that last question, so don’t get too excited). But of course, as a writer, I was mostly thinking about what my last post would look like—how I would sum up this trip, how I would convey what I’ve learned and experienced overall. And this is how it turned out—a return to an old lesson again.
I was nervous about this trip when we started talking about it last August, but by May, when everyone had paid his/her money and it was absolutely official, I was physically ill with anxiety. There was the planning: excruciating for someone as disorganized as I can be. There was the fact that I had never spent more than three days in New York City, and now I was going to have to navigate it…with 21 other people. 21 other people that I didn’t know that well: 19 students, 2 faculty members. It turns out that this is the lesson. It’s never about the place; it’s always about the people. No matter where you are, people have the potential to ruin your experience or to enhance it. I’m not talking about the helpful (and sometimes rude) strangers I encountered. I’m talking about our group—our family of 22.
I was also privileged to catch up with two old friends while I was on this trip, one that I hadn’t seen in months and one that I hadn’t seen in several years. Sitting on a rooftop in Williamsburg, I confessed to one of these friends that I didn’t feel very open anymore—that maybe this inability to be “open” was dragging down my self-esteem a good bit. She calmed my fears by telling me that this was common with folks our age—she’d heard plenty of people in their mid-thirties and forties express this sort of anxiety. I was still thinking about that conversation, along with the rest of the trip, as I struggled to survive the long road home. I sort of knew that, once I got back to Georgia, I was going to realize that I now feel more open. And that this wasn’t only because of three weeks spent immersed in the arts in New York City, but that this was actually mainly because of three weeks spent with an open and endearing group of people.
Let me tell you about them. On our second day there, one student expressed that her favorite thing about the city was that she didn’t feel like a minority there, that no one asked her “what are you?,” that she felt accepted and a part of something. On the third day, one faculty member laughed the entire time we had to pay INDIVIDUALLY for 22 Metrocards, which saved me from a near-panic attack and taught me not to worry so much about the details. Another student—of legal age—remarked that he had been to only one bar in his life before this trip and now he was out with his peers every night. My other colleague researched and led us on a lovely tour of Greenwich Village and the East Village, reciting poetry to us at nearly every stop (my favorite was a recital of the Ramones at the old CBGB’s). More than once at a museum, I overheard an art student explaining the significance of a painting to an English student. On my own, I conversed with art and English students about the importance of Jack Kerouac, the real “story” of hip hop, the experience of eating Ethiopian food and soup dumplings. We talked about music, about writing, about reading, about art and photography, about shoes and shopping, and sometimes just plain old life B.S. I did plenty of eavesdropping, and on their own, this group talked about relationships, their families, their goals and pursuits, their adaptability to what was around them. The students seemed to fall in love with the city—or at least certain aspects of it. They seemed to fall in love with each other, mostly metaphorically, and treated each other with respect. Then one of them literally fell in love with a New Yorker, and I wondered if he’d get on the train with us. And then two of the students didn’t. They didn’t get on the train. They found an apartment in two days. They stayed in New York City to pursue life dreams (or just some summer fun), very Carson-esque, even if they don’t realize it right now. All of this—ALL of it—comes with openness, an openness to the place and an openness with other people.
It occurs to me that, in 1940s Brooklyn, this is what the February House was all about. A grouping of artists that lived together, discussed life, became inspired and reflective because of these discussions. Sure, there was competitiveness, disorder, arguing, even some loneliness and some lostness, but as author Sherill Tippins sums up, each of them had been inspired either to create or did create some of the greatest work of their lives. And they formed lasting friendships, lasting memories. So, now, left to look at the trinkets brought back with me from the great city of New York, I am most moved to consider the people that lived with me for three weeks and inspired me to cultivate their openness. To lose the anxiety and just adapt. To live fully with curiousity. Thanks, y’all.
The first time I visited Nyack, I felt a little like I was going home. I can understand why Carson McCullers—who loved her Georgia home, even if she took issue with its social policies—would want to live in this little gem outside of New York City. Today, visiting again, it was confirmed for me: Nyack feels like my home region, which is comforting. Let me tell you why. (I’m about to embark on a list of stereotypes here—of both the South and NYC—the type that I usually question).
People are friendlier up there. I chatted with a shop owner; I petted a frisky dog; I enjoyed a homemade donut on a quiet street. The pace is slower. There was no rush to jump on the subway or push through a crowd; in fact, the bus was late, and the streets were uncrowded (although we did have to run to catch the train back to the city). It’s quieter. While I noticed the occasional booming car stereo, that was just it: it was so quiet that I noticed the music. The landscape is like home. That is, my childhood home of Greenville, SC, in the piedmont on a tiny river. While, in Nyack, the hills are more mountains and the tiny river is the Hudson, I was still reminded of Greenville and the surrounding western North Carolina mountains. True, the cityscape of Manhattan is beautiful in its way, but it was refreshing to look out and see green and blue.
Basically, what I’ve done here is undermine some of my previous posts. I’m arguing that the South is friendly, slow, quiet, and green, while New York City is disaffected, fast-paced, noisy, and concrete. But Nyack stands out as special to me—maybe because Carson chose to spend most of her life there—but also because it lets me see that “the North” and New York City cannot be collapsed; the North is as diverse as any other region—as NYC itself. Spending time in Nyack also made me realize that I uphold some of the stereotypes about my home region as positive and as true.
Then this street sign reminded me that not all of the South has always been “friendly, slow, quiet, and green.” We have a violent and uncomfortable legacy to discuss and to make sense of, and we must continue to address our regional history and its consequences as much as possible. But, maybe in that moment especially, standing on a street corner in Nyack, NY, I was suddenly not homesick. Not a bit.
I’ll go ahead and say it: I like to analyze anything–any subject–that lends itself to analysis, typically through the lens of “themes” or “categories” or some focus that lets me organize my analysis. It’s an annoying and unbreakable habit. For my blog posts, the subject of analysis is New York City and my perceptions of the place. I’m a scholar of southern literature, so we talk about place A LOT. So now, I want to talk about what this “place” means to me while I’m visiting. I’m also here with a group of students taking photography and writing courses, so I’m trying my hand at photography—trying to un-adeptly snap pictures of interesting subjects—and sharing in their experiences since I’m forcing them to blog, too.
My students are supposed to post their pics and thoughts to this blog, while also reading Sherill Tippins’ book, February House, about a group of artists (including Carson McCullers) living together in early 1940s New York. In that book, poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten are working on an operetta/libretto about Paul Bunyan. Because they are writing during war time (and maybe because Auden refuses to go back to England and serve), Auden centers the piece on the identity of America: what will this country become? How will this country avoid great wars? What does it mean to be a modern, progressive, industrial America? With what responsibilities does that present us? Essentially, what is our moral code or role—more importantly, do we have one?
Over 70 years later, I’m going to get serious and use Auden and the other great artists living in the house on 7 Middagh Street as inspiration. Through my posts, I’m going to try and understand what New York can tell me about American identity—just as I’ve so often tried to understand what the South can tell me about it. I’m hoping to offer a way of looking at the city through my (amateur) photographs and analyzing place through my writing. I’ll take it a day at a time, with a new theme/category/focus for each post. I hope you’ll all indulge me, forgive me if I get too formal and academic (dare I say it: boring), and definitely forgive the poor photography from the bad camera. I’ll try to keep it brief and light…most days 🙂
Just to give a little background: the CSU NY Arts Immersion Program has been going strong since 2005, and over 100 students have attended throughout the years. Former Carson McCullers Center director Cathy Fussell established the program in order to let students follow in the footsteps of the famed Columbus author, Carson McCullers (1917-1967). When she was just 17, McCullers left her Columbus home (pictured here and now the Center) to study creative writing in New York City. By 1940, after the publication of her first novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers had made New York her permanent home, and by 1944, she was living in the community of Nyack just outside the city. Through her many interactions with other writers, artists, and the locals, McCullers found inspiration and the creative community she was seeking in New York. She went on to write several novels, plays, poetry, short stories, and non-fiction pieces. Here’s hoping you have similar experiences on your journey!