On one unseasonably warm day in December 1975, two candidates vying for the mayoralty of Clyde Hill, WA, a 3200-strong suburb sandwiched between Seattle and Bellevue, met in the office of the King County Superintendent of Elections. Against all odds, the normal course of count and recount in the scheduled November election had exhausted itself and the true result seemed to be a tie.
It’s probably more symptom than cause of anything in particular, but I find it hard to ignore the ways in which close elections, and the mechanisms used to finally decide them, have become critical historical focusing points of late. Among the notables:
Amid a helter-skelter spurred by a poorly designed iPad app, Pete Buttigieg claimed an uncertain victory in the Iowa caucuses and punched his eventual ticket to the top of the Department of Transportation, which spends more in a year than Mitsubishi, Goldman Sachs, Cisco, or Pepsi earn in sales.
Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s embattled Secretary of State, made his staff recount the votes in the 2020 election by hand, a savvy bit of political theater which led to only the minutest change in the final margin of victory, as all recounts do.
Memes and forum-level jousting about the timing of ballot dumps in Michigan led, among other things, to a Trumpist insurrectionary siege of the Capitol just six weeks ago.
But set that all aside for a second and put yourself in the mind of a Pacific Northwest voter in late 1975. Richard Nixon had only a few years prior taken 49 states to win a second term, including your own of Washington, where an incumbent Governor Daniel Evans cruised his way to an 8-point reelection.
Elsewhere, Saturday Night Live had premiered, Queen had released “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bill Gates had written down the name “Micro-soft” for the first time, and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had just sank in Lake Superior, though you’d have to wait a few more months to hear a killer ballad about it.
Close elections were not really part of your world – Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman could even easily fend off a recall election brought that same year by disgruntled city unions. Such thinking is probably what led Miles Nelson, one of the two would-be mayors in the Superintendent’s office that day, to asses that his would-be constituents “didn’t know there was a choice. They didn’t vote intelligently”. Probably for the best, then, that it was Nelson who called “Heads” while the flip was up and won the gavel in Clyde Hill.
Incumbent head honcho Liberino Tufarolo, who had called “Tails,” was despondent after the loss was settled, and slipped out of the room “quietly commenting that maybe it was time for someone else to take over.” New Mayor Nelson was all smiles, picking up calls from media colossi like the New York Times, NBC News, and People magazine as well as from local dailies in Maine and eastern PA.
In a way, this story has a fair ending, since neither man tried his hands at Clyde Hill politics again – Nelson followed his predecessor into retirement after finishing his term in 1979. But I think the story resounds today for what it has to say about the media and local government.
Dr. Hajnal has an easy partial fix to this phenomenon: aligning the scads of important but boring municipal elections on the calendar with the important and exciting presidential elections. And while I’m sure that’s a prudent and effective way of engineering higher turnout in critical local votes, I’ve got a better idea: make the TV trucks show up.
By way of example, the 94th District of Virginia represents Newport News, a stone’s throw from where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. In 2017, the election of a representative to the state’s House of Delegates was decided – you guessed it – by the drawing of lots from a film canister.
A Republican, David Yancey, won what ended up being quite the consequential draw, for it allowed Republicans to retain control of one chamber of the state legislature. Amid the frothy media blitz which covered the drawing, and the two Trump years which followed, Democrats pressed enough interest into normally low-turnout House of Delegates elections to take the majority, securing trifecta control of Virginia politics for the first time in twenty-five years. Shelly Simonds, who had drawn the short straw in 2017, beat Yancey by 16 points in their rematch.
We are without a doubt in the midst of a crucial realignment period for both parties and politics more broadly in this country, with no one really sure who is calling the shots anywhere. These battles will be fought less in the normal battlegrounds of Florida retirement communities or Rust Belt suburbs and increasingly in the loci of dynamic change like Seattle, paired with Denver as the two fastest growing cities north of Tennessee.
The population of metro Seattle has already increased by 300% since Miles Nelson’s election as Mayor of Clyde Hill. As the city continues to add residents in perpetuity, voters in these after-thought municipal elections will end up wielding significant power. So much of success is just showing up – future you doesn’t want to find yourself quoting Fry from Futurama:
Consider me unconvinced, however. Usually the combo of a funny Greek-derived word and random sampling is enough to win me over, but I find it sort of solving the problem downstream to do away with elections entirely. There’s not a lot any one of us can do to change the course of our country, or save the planet, or arrest some giant machinations of capital and illicit power, but your neighborhood is just the right size for you to make an impact in. Even as we turn the page from a contentious election and look forward to going back to brunch, please, remember to vote.
This essay is the first in a new series I’m calling Local Notes, where I’m excavating the hidden stories driving life all around us. These posts will appear first on my Substack, which you can visit here. Though this post focuses on Maryland, we are not limited in our geographical scope and so look forward to posts from points further abroad in the future.
The builders have picked up their shovels in Maryland. Cajoled, at long last, by the recent bounding pace of economic growth in the state between D.C. and Baltimore, these planners, developers, architects and contractors have brought something not seen in quite some time to the Old Line State – a renovation of the built environment, new neighborhoods, lecture halls, office parks, and glitzy, pedestrian shopping centers presenting a bold vision of what a suburban built environment ought to be. And now this rolling stone of bricks and draft plans presents me, whose vision of Central Maryland was frozen in the lows of recessionary apathy, with a jarring experience of coming home again.
As in the rest of the country, the years between 2015 and the outbreak of the pandemic were quite the economic boon for Maryland – jobs, wages, homeownership, and employment all ticked up smoothly.
This phenomenon was no less present in the low-scale urban, suburban and exurban areas of Central Maryland, which for the purposes of this piece I’ll describe as a rough rectangle finding its southwestern edge at the border with Washington DC, its eastern edge on the Chesapeake Bay (and in particular the seat of Annapolis in the southeast), its northeastern border on the exterior of Frederick, MD and its closure around Baltimore in the northwest.
I lived most of my life as a kid within the interior of this imaginary polygon, though this is not an unusual circumstance – construed liberally, 75% of Maryland’s population can say the same. And today, many of the friends who grew up here with me have dispersed themselves within this shape to start their adult lives.
I have friends in new build high-rises in the inner ring of booming Frederick; friends in the legacy core of high-profile Bethesda, profiting from a commercial mix tilting more and more towards our tastes; friends roosting in the good, old bones of Baltimore’s neighborhoods; and friends in Takoma Park and Silver Spring and Columbia and Annapolis and Ellicott City. My parents gave up the exurbanity of Fairland Road, where my sisters and I were raised, for the newfound vitality of Laurel, where developers have erected a new town in a shockingly small amount of time.
It was not as a matter of course that these new high-rises and renovated shopping districts would be available for the generation of Maryland millennials aging into their prime years of household formation. Rather, it was only the sustained pressure of a half-decade of post-Recession economic growth that would force builders back onto their job sites in a major way.
I think that surveying the structure and distribution of this growth, and particularly of its impact on the built environment, is a worthwhile exercise. That’s what I’ll attempt to do in this essay – give a sense for what’s changed about incomes and labor, how, and what it’s meant.
I’ll pay special attention to housing, a topic so dismaying in Marin County and Cheviot Hills and the Upper West Side which obtains an entirely distinct valence in Central Maryland: housing as opportunity, independence, mobility, deliverance.
I want also to convey in this piece the true Unheimlichkeit that this economic growth has foisted upon me, by now an itinerant visitor stopping by semi-annually, on remand from the coastal cities where I’m doing my best to ply a trade and build a career.
It’s that unhomey alienation which crops up every time I take a familiar left turn and run for the first time into a pristine, pedestrianized shopping center, full of fast casual eateries and breweries.
It appears when I end up on a night out at one of the casinos never found in the state before 2011, towering like they do in Macau over the rest of the low-slung environment.
It manifests every time I lay my head down to sleep in a cozy family home whose foundation was for many years mere fallow field, the road thereto previously little more than a dead end.
Hitting Rock Bottom
After the turn of the millennium, the economy of Maryland grew like the rest of the nation’s, with real state-level income growing from $251bn in 2000 to a peak in 2008 of $316bn.
Critical to this Goldilocks 3% annual GDP growth, as elsewhere, was a red-hot housing market. The first half of the below chart illustrates the effect of that red-hot housing market on home prices.
What did everyday homeowners do in response to this major shift in the market for their largest asset? To understand that, we need to look towards one curious feature of the Bush-era economy, namely the outsized influence of an unfettered financial capitalism.
Loosed from its regulatory shackles in the 1980s, the industry’s traders and structurers in Manhattan were by the turn of the century releasing truly creative financial products into the world. Case in point: the home equity line of credit.
HELOCs, as their friends call them, allowed existing homeowners to profit from this bubble in home prices by borrowing against the juiced-up value of their own homes. HELOCs distinguished themselves from more prosaic products, like second mortgages, by allowing the borrower to open a revolving line of credit, like a consumer credit card, with a credit limit equal to the value of their home.
The greater acceptance of HELOCs by homeowners and banks nationwide constituted a tremendous expansion of credit to consumers, an expansion which attained the heights in 2005 of financing $3 out of every $100 of household consumption. As HELOC usage grew, so did the dependency of the whole domestic economy on the continued strength of the housing market. That’s the tough thing about collateralized debt – the value of the collateral ain’t everything, but it’s the only thing.
On the other side of the equation, the years-long rise in housing prices naturally impacted the companies whose work consisted in building houses. One of the more remarkable testaments to the strength of the residential real estate market in the early aughts can be found in the annual reports of NVR, Inc.
In 2005, NVR reported “the most profitable year in the Company’s history,” making $698mm in profit on $5.3bn in revenue, all the result of “the largest ever volume of new orders and settlements.”
Fortune, a one-trick pony magazine if there ever was one, ranked NVR’s equity as the best investment among the list of Fortune 500 companies over the preceding decade. Times were good for Ryan Homes and its managers.
By the end of 2006, however, the company was cautiously less ebullient, understanding a cyclical shift that economic and financial commentators would take many more years to fully chart out. NVR wrote that it found itself “confronted with the challenges of a marketplace where increased demand and strong price appreciation of the last several years gave way to more difficult market conditions.”
As elsewhere, the parabolic swing up in home prices was met with the rowdy pop of the housing bubble. Already unstable by the end of 2006, growth in home prices evaporated and in 2007 and 2008 a distinct decline took over.
And while homebuilders (and their investors) are used to weathering the cycles of modern capitalism, this time was different: indeed, the years following 2010 were the worst in Maryland for new housing starts since the 1950s.
NVR managed to turn a profit in 2008, the only publicly traded homebuilder to do so, but the effects of the downturn are easily heard in the tone of the introduction to their annual report:
Potential homebuyers were faced with several headwinds, including tighter lending standards, higher unemployment rates, dwindling investment balances, and news of a deepening recession. As a result, consumer confidence fell to historic lows and the demand for new homes weakened significantly. In addition, the housing market continued to experience high inventories of both new and existing homes, as well as high foreclosure rates. All of these factors contributed to the downward pressure on housing prices in all of our markets; and consequently, downward pressure on our profitability.
— from the 2008 Annual Report of NVR, Inc.
Meanwhile for Maryland’s homeowners, you can extract from the chart of home prices above their experience as the crisis ebbed on pretty clearly – a distinct feeling of hitting rocks all the way down.
No less acutely felt was the impact of all those outstanding HELOCs in a regime of sinking prices – in September of 2008, Louise Story could already write for the NY Times a gauzy piece about the excesses of the lending market titled “Home Equity Frenzy Was a Bank Ad Come True”.
“Little by little, millions of Americans surrendered equity in their homes in recent years as home prices seemed to rise inexorably from one peak to the next,” she wrote.
I graduated high school and skipped town in that year of bottoming out, unaware except in a peripheral sense of what was happening to the lives around me. Many of my friends’ parents were employed in the federal government – for them, shutdown shenanigans and raise freezes would be the most keenly-felt impact of the recession, at least for the time being.
(To go long on a parenthetical, the biggest news stories I remember from the recession years are the Tim Tebow playoff game, the BP oil spill, and the Bin Laden raid. A ruder, fuller awakening would only come about once my childhood home had been lost to the trauma of the recession, my parents taking one of the few available bad options to get out of a bad mortgage.)
The same suburban built environment in which I had come of age, I had to assume, would persist – all Reagan-era malls, fast-food franchises, and unending corridors of subdivisions.
This is not to say that there was no commercial development in the decade approaching the Great Recession. In 2005, a developer razed 8.5 acres of a light manufacturing district immediately off the vital US Route 29 and built Westech Village Corner, there siting 12 “retail commercial businesses,” including an IHOP, a TGI Fridays, and, critically for your correspondent, a Panera Bread. When a Chick-fil-A arrived a few years later, it caused a sensation.
In elementary school, we debated, along with the rest of Maryland’s chattering class, the merits of infrastructure development under the guise of new highways and new transit lines. And when the corrections came, Maryland’s government took the shovels out – I can recall the installation of an overpass at Briggs Chaney Road, and my mighty alma mater, Paint Branch High, was torn down and replaced over the course of my time there. Ours was the last class to graduate from the old building of nooks and crannies, which had opened to serve freshmen for the first time in 1969.
But I hope by the enumeration of these examples to illustrate the meagerness of these changes – one shopping plaza, more parking lot than anything else, a new high school, some highway construction, all over the course of a long decade.
I imagine this pace to be pretty typical of exurban/semi-rural non-residential construction – the settled patterns of low intensity comings and goings around Central Maryland never necessitated a crush of new building. Prudent administrators could look 5 years out, pick the handful of projects most useful, and steadily apply their hand to the completion thereof.
This two-track approach – a volatile, hot residential market partnered with a smoother, slower business and infrastructural construction market – suited the labor market, anyway. Construction employment rose by 50,000 jobs after 2000, accelerating as the housing bubble blew bigger and bigger.
Construction employment didn’t stop crashing until home prices did, and even then, the lows stuck around longer than they did in the housing market.
We have then in the first 15 years of the century dynamics similar to those going on around the rest of the country. Economic growth
Emerging from the Rubble
Among the first movers in the wave of new building which came over Central Maryland following the worst of the Great Recession was the University of Maryland. Wielding remarkable power over the town of College Park, home to the state system’s flagship college, UMD’s administrators directed the expansion of the campus through the recession.
Legacy infrastructure, generally dating back to the post-GI Bill expansion of the 1950s, was remodeled and renovated. New residence halls opened in 2011 and 2014, breaking a streak active since 1968 of no new on-campus housing.
In the pre-recession years, a handsome and cavernous hall known as the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, devoted to the music and fine arts departments, had been the campus’ major addition. In the years following, however, expansive new academic buildings, all glass and steel cantilevers, opened to house departments of journalism, computer science, and biosciences.
At the opening in 2019 of the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering, luminaries including the Governor and head of the Maryland Senate came to toast the new spirit of construction which had taken College Park by storm.
Crucial to the university’s larger impact, however, was the East Campus Development Initiative. Promulgated in the university’s 20-year facilities master plan, released in 2011, the initiative set to wholly make over the area of campus east of high-traffic US Route 1. East Campus, per the plan, would “undergo more changes than any other [area] on campus.”
The plan, devised in partnership with the city and private developers, was to “transform” what was then an “industrial, back-door service area” into “the new face of the campus”. Boosters from across the DC Metro area got their wishes granted as the University vowed to put new housing and mixed-use building at the forefront of the redevelopment efforts.
Looking out from the terrace, one can see multiple signs of College Park’s transformation that extend beyond the hotel.
On the edge of campus across Route 1, construction is underway on the Brendan Iribe Center, a $31M gift from the Oculus VR founder. The 215K SF computer science facility is expected to open next year.
In the parking lot behind the hotel, a nondescript one-story brick building will soon be home to a WeWork co-working space, the company’s first Maryland location. Ulman said he will soon announce a Fortune 100 company opening a 7,500 SF innovation lab in College Park.
That the efforts of the highly resourced, highly motivated leadership of UMD were critical to revitalizing building in College Park is unsurprising, and moreso part of a common pattern. James and Debra Fallows, who set out in 2012 to chronicle changes in small town life all around the states, cited the presence of a major research university as one of their ten leading signals of civic success.
“Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence,” wrote James Fallows for The Atlantic in 2016. “In the short term, they lift the economy by bringing in a student population. Over the longer term, they transform a town through the researchers and professors they attract: When you find a Chinese or German physicist in the Dakotas, or a Yale literature Ph.D. in California’s Central Valley, that person probably works for a university.”
Certain others of the Fallows criteria are characteristic of the College Park boom, namely the presence of real public-private partnerships (#3), a culture of openness to outsiders (#9), and big plans for the future (#10). And indeed, the future these signals forecast came into being sooner than could have been expected.
A healthy mix of new commercial and residential development hit the city of College Park in the years following the university’s push, mostly concentrated on that key US Route 1 corridor.
And in the case of a parcel known as the Cafritz development, named for a Coolidge-era Russian émigré who ended up a Maryland landholding baron, development finally came to what once was the largest undeveloped property in all of surrounding Prince George’s County. That changed when a new shopping center anchored by a Whole Foods Market arrived in 2017.
The vaunted developmental benefits of the Amazon subsidiary were lost neither on local politicians nor the Washington Post, who ranked the successful completion of the Cafritz development among the broader surge of building up and down Route 1:
‘This opening is the realization that the county is competitive with the region,’ County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said. ‘It symbolizes change.’
The opening means Prince George’s, the most affluent majority-African American jurisdiction in the United States and one long ignored by big-name chains and businesses, is no longer an afterthought, Baker said…
The Riverdale Park store’s opening follows the December debut of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino resort in the southern part of the county and a wave of redevelopment in its northern end in Laurel. New residential and commercial projects are in the pipeline for New Carrollton, in central Prince George’s. And the Route 1 corridor, where the Whole Foods is located, is experiencing a construction boom from the District line to the Capital Beltway.
– from “Whole Foods debuts in Riverdale Park, another symbol of Prince George’s progress,” by Luz Lazo, Apr. 2017
What’s more important for our story is that this construction boom did not remain limited to the Route 1 corridor. Instead, this new ethos of concrete, steel and glass spread in a creep all over Central Maryland, radically changing the built environment and the experience thereof, remapping the contours of settled, suburban daily life.
The New Build
Breweries in Columbia
Columbia, MD is a fairly well-studied place in the history of urban design. Its Wikipedia page boasts that it was among the first planned communities in the US, which is true; the town is the brainchild of James Rouse, a visionary builder who caught on quick to the potential of Edina, MN’s new “weather-conditioned shopping center”. He opened the nation’s second shopping mall in Glen Burnie, MD in 1958 and only a few years later struck on the idea of building a whole town from scratch, which was sort of a thing at the time. In 1963, after buying up some land in pastoral Howard County on the low, Rouse presented his plan for Columbia to the Board of Commissioners.
Fast forward a half-century, and Columbia routinely ranks around the top of those “Best Cities to Live In” lists you read in the magazines at dentists’ offices. In Central Maryland, its main pull is the Mall at Columbia, which began a period of rapid expansion in 2014. Hewing closer to James Rouse’s initial vision for a true town center, Howard County execs tapped GGP, Inc to build out a pedestrianized expansion, which opened to great fanfare.
Across the way, however, there were stirrings of divergences from Rouse’s master plan, a rebellion of business activity spurred by – what else – local legislative decisions to loosen alcohol laws. A month before the Baltimore Sun covered the expansion at the Mall at Columbia, the paper covered a topic whose import would be more speedily and broadly felt in Columbia – “Your Guide to Howard County’s New Breweries”.
“The state,” wrote reporter Julekha Dash, “now allows breweries to sell pints and growlers of beer to take home. Before, breweries could only sell four sample beers that had to be consumed on-site. Howard County also modified its zoning regulations to allow breweries to operate in industrial areas, unleashing pent-up demand for craft brews.”
Would-be brewers and customers alike rejoiced, spawning a new industry in and around the planned community. Jailbreak Brewing was toed up on the starting line in 2013 and hence claimed first-in-the-county status; within a year, they had to double their square footage to accommodate demand, and by 2017, they were confident enough in their prospects to open an adjoining kitchen at a cost of $500,000. By that time, other breweries were joining the battle for craft-thirsty customers, and the market was hot enough for a whiskey distillery to enter, like Gustavus Adolphus striding into Breitenfeld atop a company of Swedish lancers, opening its doors late the year prior.
Journalists and commentators remain curiously incurious on the source of the newfound millennial taste for craft beers. Recall the Fallows’ commentary on the importance of breweries for the future health of a city: “A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young (except for me) customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.” But whence such interest?
Was it like the famous case of brussels sprouts, where actual changes to the germ line made them tastier? Or was it something else entirely, something uncaptured by changes to the DNA of hops, barley, wheat, or malt? Why would Anheuser, Busch, Coors and friends maintain a stranglehold on the whetting of American thirsts for a century and relinquish that grip the minute a hazy enough IPA entered the market?
Reviewing a smattering of trade and trade-adjacentpublicationson the subject reveals that the institutional brewers themselves have no clue. I think the answer lies in mere timing. The millennial coming of age was different from the one experienced by our Generation X parents, for whom the essential 20th-century structures of American life remained in ganzen und größen in place: college, marriage, family, suburbs, etc. If revolutions (of any kind) are precipitated by the broken expectations of elites, there wasn’t much expectation-breaking on offer in either the Clinton boom years or the 9/11 years to seduce the young Gen X’ers away from their well-trodden paths.
The Great Recession changed that. The experience of our parents was an often ruinous one, but for young millennials, who had little to ruin, the experience was culturally freeing, a smashing of the conformity cemented into place by the Reagan revolution. Economic cataclysm may have even been the first actor in this drama – when incomes and career progressions were depressed enough to make family formation a less and less appealing option (especially in the eyes of the highly-educated cohort of millennial women), extended adolescence appeared as a matter of course. Twenty years of spendthrift television production shifting to the cities didn’t hurt, but there was now truly wider room for new tastes, a cosmopolitanism whose greatest expressions gave us Portland, OR and Williamsburg, NYC and Ballard, Seattle and Austin, TX, four cities whose common amenity would be hard to pick out if it weren’t so obvious: the ability to easily drink creatively concocted and marketed beers among similarly desirous young people.
I was walking in Denver’s River North Arts District, an exemplar of the kind of thing I’m talking about, when I realized that capital had caught on to this revolutionary trend in tastes fully. I stood in a reclaimed industrial space whose floorage had been parceled out to local artisans – jewelers, clothiers after an irreverent mold, rugmakers and knick-knack peddlers. A women’s World Cup final had just concluded, which meant that it was a simmering July heat which filled the air, the kind that primed my fellow twenty-something tourists to don e-scooters and see the city at a breezy, 15-mph eye level. Through the hot air pumped surgically chosen pop music and down the street waited four or five watering holes boasting food trucks and stouts and sour beers and farm-to-table whiskeys and in my mind I, examining without intent a crafty pen or paperweight, recognized for the first time that I was being pandered to. And I went on happily shopping and sipping and eating the whole rest of the day.
Brewers in Columbia caught hold of that trend in 2014 and haven’t looked back. In 2019, the Maryland Assembly voted to open yet more room for the expansion of the local craft beer industry. NPR, covering the changes, wryly remarked on the deeper history of beer in Maryland:
There’s something strangely ironic about the arbitrarily low cap on craft beer production and sales in Maryland, especially if we examine the state’s historic defiance to Prohibition. Maryland was the only state to resist all attempts by Congress to close off and dry up the flow of alcohol around the country. The city of Baltimore played a major role in the bootlegging era. Maryland’s moniker “The Free State” was born out of this insubordination.
One hundred years later, major shifts in Maryland’s political structure and leadership, coupled with the rapid growth and influence of the craft beer industry, have fueled the changes being seen today in the Free State.
– from “New Beer Laws In Maryland Mean More Craft Beer In More Places,” by Esther Ciammachilli, Dec 2019
The changes involved in that 2019 law are minor, procedural, but they are representative of the mood.
What does this expansion feel like, on the fingers of the would-be Yelp Elites and Google Local Guides? A better reportage than I could put together was given by the writer Nicole Dieker, who described for Vox in 2019 the experience of moving from Seattle back to Cedar Rapids, IA as “the best $5,929.10 [she] ever spent”.
I especially love, in a way that makes me laugh when I think about it, that I am currently living out my teenage dreams: the industrial-chic apartment, the coffee shops and literary festivals, the rehearsal rooms. I thought I’d have to leave the Midwest to find all that — but I only found my heart’s desire, to borrow from another famous Midwestern story, when I came back to my own backyard.
– from “The best $5,929.10 I ever spent: moving back to the Midwest,” by Nicole Dieker, Mar 2019
I find that similar feelings accrue when grabbing a growler of something delicious from Crooked Crab to share at home with my parents, to whom the taste of an IPA is alien. It’s a happy, urbane surprise resting on the back of titanic capital movements over the past decade, each of which conspired to attract and keep in Maryland its population of potent young people. It’s working.
Frederick, the Newly Millennial Town
Frederick, MD is growing new millennials at a rate double that of the rest of the state. From 2010 to 2018, the town’s stock of millennials increased by about a fifth, while Maryland’s grew only by about a tenth.
It’s worth stopping here to ask ourselves what we might expect the downstream impacts of a change like that to consist of a priori. What are the salient features of millennial life, and thus, by generalization, of millennial populations?
To start at the beginning, per the Institute for Family Studies, it was in 2018 that the proportion of US births by millennial women peaked – 88 out of every 100 new babies that year were born to millennial parents.
The cohort forming and expanding their families is in the market for good jobs to work at and comfortable places to live. And it was to the provision of those needs that the boosters of Frederick decided to devote their attention. The rewards are plain to see in the transformation of what was once a sleepy town far away from the main thoroughfares of the Northeast Megalopolis.
Frederick’s origins date back to 1745. Roger Taney, who decided Dred Scott, is buried in a cemetery downtown. The city was briefly the locus of the famous struggles by Abraham Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, as secessionist assemblymen fled the statehouse in Annapolis for the presumed securer site in Maryland’s northwest. The trick didn’t work, and Lincoln tossed them (and a sitting Congressman!) in jail as a consolation prize. But that was sort of the end of history for Frederick for a while – the town’s population wouldn’t crack 40,000 until 1990. In the thirty years since, however, the citizenship has nearly doubled again, for want of the sort of jobs attracted by Frederick’s peculiar brand of infrastructure.
Give credit to the town’s developers for being clear-eyed about where they came from: they admit, in an article titled “Why Frederick is Turning Investors’ Heads,” that their beloved burg has grown “from a sleepy small town to the second largest city in the State”. A powerful biomedical industry, powered by federal funds, has been key to this renovation.
More to the point, Fort Detrick, which was founded in the 1930s and used to host the US’ biological warfare program, anchors a regional economy dense in biomedical and pharmaceutical businesses. AstraZeneca, ThermoFisher Scientific, and Kite Pharma are among the blue-chip pharma names demanding thousands more well-educated researchers in Frederick.
Among a certain stratum of economic and urban commentators, this is basically a dream scenario. “Biomedical” has been a watchword in urban (re)development for the length of the 21st century, the idea being that this subsector of the economy will be so powerful in its demand for just the perfect employees, so alluring in its capacity for installing an educated tax base, that would-be Austins and Portlands and Madisons would be foolish not to prioritize its needs in planning for the future.
Frederick is reaping the fruits of its investments in biomedical industrial development. High-value-added manufacturing and businesses of other adjacent subsectors are piling in as well, stoking the fire of economic growth, and, more importantly, bringing more millennials to town. Where to put them all?
A precious crucible of growth, however, lay in older beams. Washingtonian looked at Frederick’s growth in 2016 and, in an otherwise thrillingly gossipy article, attributed it to older millennials returning to a cheap urban core ready for move-ins.
Today the city seems to have hit a cultural sweet spot, appealing to a mobile young workforce that puts a premium on quality of life—a 20-minute drive from the Appalachian Trail, the county also boasts a long network of bike paths. ‘Just look at how people want to live,’ says Gardner. ‘If you want a bikeable, walkable community connected to an urban core, the city of Frederick is the place to be.’
Walking Frederick on a summer weekend can give anyone struggling to keep a toehold in the District a case of rowhouse anxiety: A six-bedroom Civil War–era house with crown molding and hardwood floors recently sold for less than $300,000. ‘I’ve told friends from high school, “Come back or you’re going to miss it,”’ says Brennan Gmeiner, 25, who returned home after college to work for a financial-services company.
– from “Frederick Could Be an Urban Suburb of DC–Unless Its Good Ol’ Boy Past Gets in Its Way,” by Miranda Spivack, Sep 2016
Frederick and Columbia found a pathway towards small-town urban revitalization in appealing to millennial tastes. What lessons does this successful strategy offer to the rest of Maryland, and other similarly situated places in the US? Look out for the conclusion to this Local Note, and hopefully an answer to that question, in Part IV.
Triumph of the New Urbanism
It was in Fulton, MD, that a generation of Central Maryland band and orchestra students picked up their first instruments; there in that town could be found the only Music & Arts store for miles, the natural home for the rental of violins, clarinets, and, appropriately for your correspondent, trombones as well.
Fulton, a western-lying drag along US Route 29, was apart from its instrument rentals distinguished mostly by the presence of a tremendous water tower, prominent in a very rural sense above the flow of cars pumping south from Columbia and north towards Baltimore. This is altogether to say that in Fulton very few people lived. Even in 2010, the Census could only find 2000 souls living in its borders.
The decade following 2010, however, brought dramatic changes in population growth to this southern slice of Howard County. The agent of that change was largely the developer Greenebaum Enterprises, who began work on the land that would become Maple Lawn, Fulton’s major development, all the way back in 1986. The development of 600 acres of lush, empty Howard County hillside into suburban sprawl became a long game; it was only in 2004 that the first homes in Maple Lawn were completed.
That incubation period allowed a distinct architectural flavor to filter into the eventual developments at Maple Lawn, one which privileged narrow streets, a denser core, and walkable connections from residential neighborhoods to commercial developments. In this respect, Maple Lawn was emblematic and even quietly representative of the push towards the New Urbanism of the late aughts.
New Urbanism is a sort of architectural movement so privileged in the minds of its adherents as to deserve a Congress. The Congress of the New Urbanism, who do terrific work, describe their mission as one of championing “walkable urbanism”.
We provide resources, education, and technical assistance to create socially just, economically robust, environmentally resilient, and people centered places. We leverage New Urbanism’s unique integration of design and social principle to advance three key goals: to diversify neighborhoods, to design for climate change, and to legalize walkable places. We build places people love.
– from “Who We Are,” Congress of the New Urbanism, accessed 2/8/21 (emphasis original)
What’s tough about executing on the undeniably attractive elements of New Urbanist design is the extent to which its antagonist features are embedded within the developmental institutions of modern American life. Ask any urban planner on Twitter and you’ll be treated to a standard litany of curses: parking minimums, minimum lot sizes,setbacks, and the truly detested “neighborhood character” stipulations. Each of these are legalistic notions privileged by existing planning processes which serve to deter the kind of human-scaled urban design New Urbanists see as key to the healthier development of our cities and towns.
Therefore all the greater the surprise that a few of Central Maryland’s latest developments have managed to buck institutional constraints and densify construction, introducing New Urbanist principles into popular, well-traveled new builds along the way.
Case in point: in 2014, a developer named Federal Realty finished up work on one of their biggest projects, a 24-acre build-up known today as Pike and Rose. The new plaza was eventually to offer high-scale shopping and eating amenities in close quarters with high-rise urban construction – today REI and Target anchor a center self-identifying as the “premier destination for shopping, living, dining, and working in North Bethesda, MD”.
Federal Realty broke ground on the development in 2004, contravening some traditional timelines of New Urbanist work as being entirely post-Recession; still, the Washington Post acknowledged in their review of the new center’s opening the debt it owed to the changing tastes of a generation:
If strip malls represent the zenith of the American love affair with the car, new walkable urban-suburban communities exemplify the new love of walking, biking, ride-sharing and relying on public transportation. The replacement of acres of parking lots and shops with ‘surban’ developments is more than a fad; it’s a re-imagination of how people prefer to live.
Transforming the former strip malls along Rockville Pike in North Bethesda into the Pike & Rose development may seem like a natural outgrowth of the contemporary taste for citylike neighborhoods, but Rockville-based developer Federal Realty Investment Trust, owner of the property since the 1980s, began planning the redevelopment more than a decade ago.
– from “Pike & Rose: A community grows on Rockville Pike,” by Michele Lerner, Oct 2017
Similar developments cropped up elsewhere around Montgomery County, most notably in Wheaton, MD. Previously distinguished by an escalator deemed the longest in the Western Hemisphere, Wheaton got some high-rise, high-density build of its own in 2013, when Patriot Realty united plans for the introduction of a new Safeway grocery store with the addition of 900 residential units into a 17-story megastructure towering over southern Maryland.
When developers tried to run the same play with Maple Lawn, they were met with consternation. A group of existing homeowners, fearful of what growth would bring, got together under the name Smart Growth Fulton to broadcast their grievances on a larger scale, a form of organization usually referred to by its critics as NIMBY-ism – that is, “not in my backyard”. In one of the worst justifications for opposing the project, Katherine Taylor, the lawyer representing the NIMBY interests in pre-build Fulton, got the Baltimore Sunto credibly quote her saying that somehow “high density [was] typically less environmentally friendly” (for the record, there is nothing less environmentally-friendly than single-family housing). The Iager family, stewards of hundreds of acres in the region since the Van Buren administration, beat Smart Growth Fulton’s challenges back in court and were finally able to rezone the land up to levels sufficient for actual development.
Fitting with the New Urbanist ethos, an early brochure for Maple Lawn boasted the goals of offering to residents “an eclectic mix of local, high-quality dining establishments, boutique shops and service retailers…without the congestion of traffic.” Maple Lawn’s residential architecture, freed from the minimum lot size requirements which breed a stultifying similarity among usual-build subdivisions, diversified rapidly. Among its most popular incarnations was the flavor of home construction led by Williamsburg Homes, who built “Victorian-looking townhouses and estate houses with mansard roofs reminiscent of Second Empire 19th-century France architecture”.
One Washington Post story was so enamored of Maple Lawn’s approach as to declare that “if it weren’t for the 21st-century sedans and minivans, the houses in the Howard County planned community of Maple Lawn could be mistaken for another era’s.”
More to the point, this radical shift in (sub)urban planning has yielded the communal benefits desired. Today, Maple Lawn – a community wholly non-existent before John Kerry’s presidential run – “hosts the Maryland HalfMarathon, a music festival in October, and a large street festival in July”. Shed your cynical lens a second and recognize in this kind of organizing the end, desired effect of higher-density building – that is, the disabusing of a pattern of thought present in the mentalities of many suburban dwellers, that living close to your neighbors was ever a bad thing.
No, I and those leading the New Urbanist wave in Maryland must say to that thinking – close quarters breed familiarity, friendliness, and, eventually, family out of sometime strangers. New Urbanism won its way into Maryland through the action of ideological partisans with points to prove about urban planning and zoning reform. It’ll win its place for good by the undeniable effects of its good government.
Because it’s been so much Maryland to start at Local Notes, I wanted to share some of my favorite readings from the past few weeks on local goings-on around the world. Hopefully we’ll be able to visit some of these places in the near future and discuss them ourselves.
A passel of local government actions seems to have mandated more residential construction over crisis-plagued California, from San Francisco to the South Bay and Beverly Hills to Santa Monica. Here’s hoping the groundswell for action continues in whatever form of gubernatorial administration endures into next year.
Rep. Marcia Fudge is the Biden administration’s pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and this article from the unsurpassed CityLab presents some of her ideas for what she’d like to get done upon confirmation. If she can get even one of President Biden’s major initiatives passed, the result will be massively advantageous to the state of housing in this country. Here’s hoping!
This Economist article is worth it for the description of would-be real-estate tycoons in Hegang, China, located in the deserted border zone with Russia, trying to flip new developments on the quick. If any readers of Local Notes have heard of Hegang prior to this article, please let me know – I’d be shocked.
Not a Local Note, but a clip from the episode of Family Guy I watched after Patrick Mahomes got drubbed in the Super Bowl made me laugh, so I thought I’d share:
He was sat in an obscure corner of the world,
In Memphis (of late), and left alone to read
Obscure histories, of the fishing of sea-bream,
And grouper, of the proper ecological relations,
Of sponge, tortoise, and the sunlight which scatters
Thru the unlanc'd emeraldry of sea-skin,
Their holy bilayer. This curriculum
Like most, went totally unfulfilled, unrepentant though he stayed
Thereto. Power, charm, height were promised
Him at the outset of this,
An odyssey in Aramaic, but the cashing-in thereof
Proved plus dificcile than expected,
And there is your general lesson.
By whom were such promises forsworn, whose
Was the setting hand which him there
In prematurely (truly) aging Memphis him set?
Keen, but too late arrived. This door
Now shall close. For you alone stood it
Ajar and now nevermore shall its threshold
Suffer the calls of prostrating neighbors.
If geopolitics ever found itself in need of a fabulist, it could do worse than to give Peter Zeihan a call. To be fair, geopolitics today does need a fabulist – one of the wittier passages in Zeihan’s recent book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, concerns the moment in 1990 or so when all notions of narrative were left by the wayside:
With the Soviet fall, American president George HW Bush sensed history calling. He used his unprecedented popularity in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the First Iraq War to launch a national conversation on what’s next. What do the American people want out of this new world? He openly discussed a New World Order, his personal goal being a ‘thousand points of light,’ a community of free nations striving to better the human condition in ways heretofore unimaginable. Bush’s background – he had previously served as vice president, budget chief, party chief, ambassador, House representative, and intelligence guru – made him the right person with the right skill set and the right connections and the right disposition in the right place in the right job at the right time. So of course the Americans voted him out of office, and all serious talk of moving the Order onto newer footing for the new age, more relevant for the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era, ceased.
Peter Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p. 14
Since that magical moment when the Wall fell, Zeihan argues, geopolitical thinking has cast about fruitlessly for a new framework to latch onto, foisting Thucydidean notions of rise and decline onto China and America, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey. This, he holds, is foolish. “The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular,” he notes [emphasis original], contrasting the post-Soviet era to the period of hyperpower competition. The impact this disengagement will have is scarcely visible, yet of the utmost importance: “Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.”
From this launching point Zeihan develops a global theory of novel national competition, assessing and assigning winners and losers country-by-country. His analysis is anchored in a startlingly broad reading of history and geography. Among his most admirable guiding notions is the one given above, namely that freedom of the seas eliminated the previously insuperable problems of food and energy security. Relieving these pressures enabled population growth in the Hejaz, economic integration in southeastern Brazil, and industrialization on the Pearl River Delta. Once the American guarantee is withdrawn, however, the fight for basic provisions will drive great powers to the brink.
Among the best determinants of success in a newly competitive world will be demographics, and Zeihan deftly weaves throughout an analysis of age and sex distributions to explain who will rise and who will fall. Another major factor is the degree of industrialization. The most industrialized countries with the healthiest demographic balances (lowest dependency ratio), Zeihan forecasts, will be the best equipped to handle the return of national competition. The final components of the success function are concerned with resource endowment and geography: proven reserves of oil and gas, fertile soil and navigable inland waterways all propel nations up his list. Most dramatically, a full reckoning of these factors leads Zeihan to anticipate a total breakdown of China as we know it.
Even as things stand today, Zeihan begins, China is militarily constrained by the First Island Chain, the set of landmasses including the Sakhalin Peninsula, the Japanese home islands, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the Philippines. In the early modern period, following the pioneering missions of Zheng He, this geography was hostile enough to turn imperial China entirely inward, forestalling the development of a major ocean-going naval tradition.
Many of those conditions prevail today, preventing the Chinese from projecting force away from their eastern seaboard. Their contemporary attempts at the development of a large navy are mostly laughable, Zeihan assesses:
China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.
Zeihan, p. 126
This is an old argument which holds up well – I myself was first taught it by Arthur Waldron at Penn. John Foster Dulles advanced it in the fifties.
Turn the clock forward past the end of the American guarantee, however, and Zeihan figures we’ll bear witness to the emergence of a new Warring States Period. He writes,
If the almost magical confluence of factors that enabled China’s rise shifts out of alignment, China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power. And since those factors were always and still remain beyond China’s control, the question isn’t if, but when.
Zeihan, p. 103
China, he finds, simply got too old before it became sufficiently rich. “Demographically, China is in a state of not-so-slow-motion collapse,” he says. This, too, is an old and well-studied fear. What’s more, its riches are predicated on freedom of the seas and hyperglobalized capitalism, which will be the first casualties of the removal of the American guarantee. He even finds the potential for breakaway regionalism in Sichuan, in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Guangdong, leveraging arguments I found novel about the hushed-up discovery of oil in the Sichuan Basin.
None of this is totally objectionable, even if it is sensationalistic. His bear China case counters some of the more pearl-clutching fussiness which has come out of intelligentsia publications like the London Review of Books of late. Zeihan’s other predictions, however, may beggar belief.
Sclerotic old Japan, he thinks, will prosper as the new East Asian hegemon. The Middle East from Tabriz to Kuwait is merely Turkey’s for the taking. Germany and Russia will enter a new period of intense and potentially hot conflict, leaving France to rule the rest of the continent, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. Brazil has peaked, as has Saudi. The real cheap buy is Argentina, which he bizarrely claims has “had a couple of decades to re-consolidate internally”.
Notably absent from this analysis are the minor states of India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. The utter blindness with respect to South and Southeast Asia is the book’s most obvious flaw. The reader is left to conjecture that, under Zeihan’s hypothetical assumptions, these countries devolve into mere poverty and irrelevancy, but it would be nice to see a mention thereof.
The next most obvious flaw comes out in Zeihan’s style, which I can only at the best of times describe as colorful. He is callous in reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender.”
He seems to delight in what will become of the Persian Gulf once the Saudis are left to fend for themselves against the Iranians and others, an arrangement which he holds as “the geopolitics of arson”: “In a straight-up land war, a coalition of the kids from Stranger Things and It would rip [the Saudis] apart…”
Discussing relations across the English Channel in the era to come, he writes, “Yet Britain is an experienced sea power that can apply diplomatic, economic, financial, and military pressure nearly anywhere it wants without fear of reprisal—and it has centuries of experience applying that pressure to Europe. Payback’s a bitch.”
He compares the governance of the Chinese Communist Party to “watching a game of drunken giant jenga,” and offers in this manner an assessment of China as a whole: “China fails on all counts. Allow me to detail the full unfurling fucking disaster.”
There’s no problem with a good dose of levity in world affairs: comparing the spending habits of the Greek economy pre-crisis to those of “a Saudi prince on Instagram” is well put. But prudence dictates restraint when discussing the Fat Boy and Little Man, and after 400 pages, his juvenile style grates even on the ears of your Twitter-obsessed reviewer.
Zeihan’s editors are also guilty of missing errors, both typographical and historical in nature. The most offending comes in one of Zeihan’s assertions regarding Turkish strength, which he explains through a kind of geographical impregnability. Couching this in the history of navigation, he writes,
Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads…The city has fallen to hostile forces only twice in the past thousand years – once when the Crusaders sacked it in 1204, practically burning it to the ground, and again when the Turks conquered it somewhat more gently in 1453.
Other errors seem borne less of inaccuracy and more of an inadequately deep interpretation. About Germany, Zeihan writes, “For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.” This is a minor beef, but Karl Marx did not live in Germany after 1849, when he was only about 30, and much of his writing was done in London.
About continuity, he writes, “The French have arguably the longest tradition of operating as a cohesive culture vis-à-vis their location of any people on Earth,” a statement I imagine would go unappreciated by the people of Tamil Nadu or the Yangtze River basin.
Zeihan commits a more lacunary error in discussing the Turks of the early modern period when he writes,
The sprawling [Turkish] empire became the largest on Earth of its time, and if a European coalition had not stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one power would have dominated all of Europe and all of the Middle East.
Zeihan, p. 269
I am as big a fan of Eugene of Savoy as the next guy, but especially given Zeihan’s focus on seapower, it’s surprising that the spotlight is given to Vienna and not Lepanto here, where in 1571 the Venetians at the height of their power began the rollback of Turkish Mediterranean gains.
The typographical error I noticed is also minor, but funny to report: the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is referred to as Mato Grosso do Sol, which I suppose should cheer the sunny dispositions of all two and a half million Sul-mato-grossenses.
A number of books I’ve read recently have engaged with many of the same issues. The human cost of the failure of marginal lands was a thrilling study in Geoff Parker’s Global Crisis.The national world tour made Gaston Dorren’s lively and lovely Babel a great read. The notion of the American guarantee as critical to geopolitical harmony is a core undercurrent of Adam Tooze’s magisterial The Deluge, while cool-headed reckoning with the fortunes and vagaries of demography was among the many strengths of Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada. And lastly, the place of pride given to an analysis of international shipping was a powerful component of Pettis and Klein’s argument in Trade Wars Are Class Wars. That one book should fold all these elements in together is worthy of praise. More praise ought be given for the stance taken against the literature of the Thucydides Trap, exemplified by Graham Allison’s recent blockbuster Destined for War, to which Disunited Nations is most directly responding. Zeihan’s efforts help put those rather antiquated notions to bed.
And sometimes Zeihan can poignantly hit the nail on the head. He fits the word “thalassocracy” into a discussion of resurgent Japanese militarism. Reading contemporary French race relations against the American system, he writes,
In many ways, the French system takes the two types of racism most prevalent in the United States and applies the worst of both. In the American South, racism takes the form of, ‘We will mingle, but we are not equal.’ In the American North, it is in the vein of, ‘We are equal, but we will not mingle.’ In France, the targets of racism are out of sight and out of mind, consigned to ghettos and at the back of the line as regards government services.
Zeihan, p. 217
But in the end, this book is a mess. Zeihan is a writer who privileges animation at the cost of sober study, whose search after contrarianism yields unsupportable conclusions. I found it revealing that the first person named in his acknowledgements is a hedge fund manager. (I won’t mention just how silly it is to write “…there are very few direct [footnotes] in this book…if I cited every obliquely contributing thought, each page would have a book’s worth of citations.”)
While I’m sure the people of NMS Capital are smart as they come, hedge funders are structurally contrarian – there’d be no reason for their clients to pay them fees otherwise. This kind of thinking is well applied to small-scale medium-term subjects, like looking for mispricings in sovereign debt curves, but less so in the evolution of literally planetwide systems. I’ll applaud Peter Zeihan for attempting to handicap a future radically different from the boring fare on usual offer at Foreign Affairs and The Economist, but bold attempts do not great books automatically make.
I have been overthinking recently about place in movies, specifically American movies, and more specifically about the death of place in American movies. By what means was cinematic place killed? By my reckoning, it was the overweening dominance achieved of late by just two places, New York and Los Angeles, which have come in the cinema of today to stand in for all of the geographic diversity of vaguely urban American life.
I am as guilty as the filmmakers I malign – NY and LA are the two cities I have (thus far) decided to make my vaguely urban American life in. And while I understand my path to be typical of my generation’s trek back to the city, from which our parents and grandparents fled with such rapidity in the heady high modernist days of urban renewal and interstate highways, that typicality does not excuse the duty of cinema to show life in all its forms. This duty is being prorogued, and what we have instead upon us is a deluge of mediocre visions of boho-artistic or high-achieving life in inner ring Brooklyn or in Silver Lake, visions whose production costs swallow up all the air from the rest of the goings-on around the country.
(As an aside, the slimness of the novelties of this latest round of urbanization are noteworthy: when the teeming southern Europeans came, they built Pittsburgh and Cleveland and St Louis and Milwaukee. When the Sunbelt rose, Phoenix and Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles and San Diego were called into being out of nothing. What have we accomplished, with our aesthetics of gentrification? The Manhattanization of Austin? Of Boulder or Colorado Springs? Seattle? Maybe Boise will be our great legacy.) (As a second footnote, is Kate Wagner our first great millennial architecture critic? I think so.)
So as to be not totally unfair, I want to acknowledge the countless recent movies which take as their subject an unsung city. Lady Bird aches for Sacramento, even as the action of the film eventually takes its heroine away to Manhattan.
But the reader will note the easy parallel among all those movies – they are essentially fugues for the cities they depict, weepily elegiac for their long dead glories. Perhaps the only truly celebratory new take was Baby Driver‘s, which did not shrug away from an clear eyed vision of 2010s metro Atlanta.
Instead we are besieged by visions of the twin coastal megalopoleis. Marriage Story is a bad offender in this trend but more symptom than cause. Funnily, it may have been another Baumbach feature, Frances Ha, that paved the way instead.
Another blaring symptom is given by Joker, so rooted in New York as to unblinkingly feature a whole scene on the Metro-North regional railroad. The shift in superhero depiction from the Gotham-cum-Chicago setting of The Dark Knight to the ebullient Queens-iness of Joker is a good illustration of the boot on our necks. Ebert touched on the placelessness of Dark Knight in his review, in 2008:
The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue.
(And as to the assignation of blame? The Avengers, naturally, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it. I think you can practically pick out Doctor Strange‘s Upper West Side apartment from the street signs.)
Are there other movies besides comings-of-age and superhero films? Few, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood fits the bill. Despite centering on a character who rather prominently lived in Pittsburgh, the film is at least half set in the alleyways of Manhattan! Lulu Wang’s lovely, lovely The Farewell cannot shake the trend, nor can Uncut Gems. I will note that a common thread here is the semi-autobiographical nature of these movies, many of which are from young directors. This applies for Greta Gerwig as well as Lulu Wang and the Brothers Safdie. Baumbach, too, is a New Yorker by birth.
But this begs the question of why so many stories from New Yorkers are being privileged in film to the exclusion of stories about anywhere else. The Coens deserve commendation here – hailing from St Louis Park, they set Fargo and A Serious Man in their backyard. Moreover, they take on American regionalism with real zeal: their Western movies (Raising Arizona, less Buster Scruggs and True Grit) care about the West. O Brother Where Art Thou is inextricably Southern. And their NY/LA movies deal handily with their settings as well, whether the monumental studio lots of Hail Caesar or the cramped clubs of Greenwich Village in Llewyn Davis. It’s great stuff! (Is Kelly Reichardt the next one up in the regionalist film tradition? Maybe so, maybe so.)
What is it that we’ve lost? The ancien régime I long for is mostly represented by the filmography of John Hughes, which I spent this month watching in part. Of course, Ferris Bueller may be the greatest movie to sing the city in which it makes its scene, but all the rest of his movies quiver with a peculiar Chicagoland energy which we have lost. These are worlds which stitch between on the one hand, Michigan Ave and the El, and on the other, the leafy courts of Winnetka and Glen Ellyn. Families at work and at school and at home are represented, a far cry from the strange undomesticated childlessness which predominates in today’s films on New York. Pretty in Pink‘s country club and record store and high school are all easily slotted into the viewer’s mental model of the complete community on display.
When we only tell decline-and-fall stories about the whole of the country wedged between the Hudson and the Aqueduct, we do a disservice to the perpetuation of the national community. I was set off on this rant by seeing an ad for a recent animated TV series, Central Park. It concerns a park conservator and stars Hamilton luminaries like Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr and veterans like Kathryn Hahn and Stanley Tucci. Apple outbid Netflix and Hulu for the rights to develop it. Fred Armisen guest stars in two separate roles. It is also about the fifth-largest park in New York City.
At any rate, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and want instead of bemoaning our modern cinema to highlight the different approaches towards one city – Memphis – taken by a set of films. I was turned onto Jim Jarmusch by Richard Brody’s June 2019 review of The Dead Don’t Die, and recently got the chance to watch his 1989 film, Mystery Train. Mystery Train‘s lovely conceit of foreigners visiting Memphis propels the story across an anthology in three chapters.
The first third, featuring a young Elvis-obsessed Japanese couple, luxuriates in its alienness. The perpetually mean-mugging boy smokes cigarettes and pomades his hair from the train station to Sun Studios to the mysterious hotel at the center of the film. His poor girlfriend helps him lug their suitcase with a makeshift bamboo handle around the city, arguing about which rock n’ roller was best. They have sweet moments holed up in the hotel – the boy likes to take pictures of the hotel rooms they stay in, because those are the parts he won’t remember, the girl lights his cigarettes and paints him with lipstick.
The latter stories are less compelling, but the hotel’s employees who recur are keenly felt. A fidgety bellhop in misfit uniform tries to carry on a conversation with the laconic manager, played by a massive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in an even louder red suit. All told, Mystery Train exposes us to the daily experience of life in a place whose time has passed, but through fresh eyes, unleavened by the common narratives we as Memphis-adjacent American viewers internalize.
I do have to wonder if at the time of release the idea was as preposterous as it is today. Jarmusch cannot, of course, show a bustling town up on its toes, full of industry – even his Memphis is hollowed out – but in 1989, Elvis was only a dozen years dead. Imagine someone making a movie like this about Detroit, set as we are today nearly a decade from its legendary municipal Chapter 9 filing. What dissonances would arise in the minds of American viewers?
The other two films are more mainstream. John Grisham’s legal thrillers first hit the screen with 1993’s The Firm, where Sydney Pollack guided a red-hot Tom Cruise from Harvard to Memphis. Four years later, Francis Ford Coppola played a variation on that theme, breaking out Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor for The Rainmaker.
Of the two, Rainmaker is more soulful, with a heartfelt story of an underdog seeking justice against a family wronged by a health insurance giant. Rainmaker‘s story resonates even a quarter-century later, testament to the paralysis of our politics. That Donny Ray, the sick young man whose case Baylor takes on, dies halfway through the movie is a heartrending development, but one deftly parlayed into raising the stakes of the more standard courtroom drama which follows. Claire Danes sparkles throughout, even if the violent scene between Baylor, Danes’ Kelly Riker, and her abusive husband beggars some disbelief. In truth, the many plot threads never come quite so neatly together, because there’s too much going on – we haven’t even addressed the FBI raiding Mickey Rourke’s office – but the whole thing works.
I don’t think Rainmaker overly cares about being set in Memphis, but it pays effective lip service – Baylor graduates from Memphis law in the first scene, and the Rays’ house, where sick young Donny is mostly confined, is appropriately Upper South. By contrast, The Firm goes full bore into being a Memphis movie. It gives all the flashy landmark shots you could want. Cruise’s Mitch McDeere and his wife Abby, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, are early on paraded through a lush patrician party set atop the Peabody Hotel. A critical sequence towards the end takes place on a funny piece of public transit, the Mud Island Monorail. There’s really effective contrast drawn between McDeere’s life in a cramped Boston tenement and the amply-acred Tennessee house he’s set up with once the action gets going.
The Firm is a giddy hook of a movie, which pulls you along somewhat breathlessly. An incredible performance by Gary Busey at the start of the second act winds the movie into its whodunnit phase, and while each and every one of McDeere’s machinations to stop the bad guys weren’t perfectly clear to me, the climactic scene between him and a fresh-off-Goodfellas Paul Sorvino delivers a scrumptious finale.
How to weigh these movies against each other? Perhaps we can take an archaeological approach and excavate the class relations each of these movies plays with. Mystery Train concerns itself with showing the ordinariness of life in a hallowed city – its characters are hotel managers, convenience store owners, tour guides, diner employees. Rainmaker is sympathetic to the lower class but occupies itself with the halls of power, and Rudy Baylor is successful insofar as he transcends his lower-class status and beats the moneyed interests in their own arena. The Firm could have said “greed is good” – there are offhand remarks about Mitch McDeere’s family poverty, but it’s unimportant, and the rewards to the work Bendini, Lambert, & Locke perform occupy the bulk of the movie. The battle in the movie is over the discovery of those gains being ill-gotten, not about the morality of the affluence in the first place.
What’s more, I don’t think The Firm has a single black character. Mere demographics usually present a hollow argument, but the population of Memphis today is undeniably 65% black. Rainmaker at least features a stellar (and uncredited!) Danny Glover as the sympathetic judge, while Mystery Train is replete with black figures making their way in the city. This is, I believe, a rather disqualifying assessment for Pollack’s movie, and Coppola’s Rainmaker scarcely better. Hopefully the next Memphis flick will do better.
Wanted to pass along some beloved excerpts from John Ashbery, who I try my utmost to imitate. Nothing is like his poetry.
An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs, recollections of the Fall—tell me, has anyone made a spongier representation, chased fewer demons out of the parking lot where we all held hands?
Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me. I was touched by your care, reduced to fawning excuses. Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire, the clock ticked on and on, happy about being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though it had happened long ago in ancient peach-colored funny papers wherein the law of true opposites was ordained casually. Then the book opened by itself and read to us: “You pack of liars, of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity. Look, here is where I failed at first. The client leaves. History goes on and on, rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread, shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”
In the next sleeping car was madness. An urgent languor installed itself as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’ truant exchanges, brandished my intentions for once? But only I get something out of this memory. A kindly gnome of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it, life stays frozen in the headlights. Funny, none of us heard the roar.
“I came to believe that entering Ashbery’s often incomprehensible work requires us to set the goal of comprehension to the side and to linger patiently in the poems’ pleasures,” Goldman writes – beautifully, I think.
Orpheus liked the glad personal quality Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness. Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth. Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather, Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not? All other things must change too…
…Meaning also that the “tableau” Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example, Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting; It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal, Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt, Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow, Powerful stream, the trailing grasses Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks, “I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me, Though I can understand the language of birds, and The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me. Their jousting ends in music much As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.”…
“Syringa,” by John Ashbery in Poetry, Apr 1977
Goldman chronicles Ashbery’s own grappling with his status as a “difficult” poet. When after a seminar he asked his friend Richard Howard how it had gone for his students, Ashbery was told, “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.”
Goldman adds a flourish on that anecdote: “Here, as in Ashbery’s description of his reputation as ‘a writer of hermetic poetry,’ his work’s difficulty is framed as impenetrability, as inaccessibility: it withholds its meaning from the reader. But the fact that the work is difficult does not mean that is inaccessible—not if we try to see open doors where Howard’s students saw keyholes. Rather than suspect Ashbery of deliberately concealing his poems’ true meaning, we might begin from the premise that Ashbery left doors open everywhere in the particular modes of strangeness he chose.”
So what if there was an attempt to widen the gap. Reel in the scenery. It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.
We got the room in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost. What was I telling you about?
Walks in the reeds. Be contumely about it. You need a chaser.
In other words, persist, but rather a dense shadow fanned out. Not exactly evil, but you get the point.
“Climate Correction,” by John Ashbery in Harper’s, Sep 2018
By the by, I have learned that there is no currently appointed poet laureate for the great “state of California,” as Gov. Newsom would say. The post is irregularly filled, and this lacuna is no great chasm; still, this is a different state of affairs than the one prevailing when Charles Garrigus held the post, as he did from 1966 through to the end of the millennium.
The position has been extant since 1915, when the state commanded within its borders just a hair above three millions. Our last poet laureate was Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford’s GSB and former executive at General Mills, who went on to become Chairman of the National Foundation of the Arts. As poet laureate, he was the first to undertake a tour of all of California’s 58 counties.
‘We’re going,’ they said, ‘to the end of the world.’ So they stopped the car where the river curled, And we scrambled down beneath the bridge On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.
We tramped for miles on a wooded walk Where dog-hobble grew on its twisted stalk. Then we stopped to rest on the pine-needle floor While two ospreys watched from an oak by the shore.
We came to a bend, where the river grew wide And green mountains rose on the opposite side. My guides moved back. I stood alone, As the current streaked over smooth flat stone.
Shelf by stone shelf the river fell. The white water goosetailed with eddying swell. Faster and louder the current dropped Till it reached a cliff, and the trail stopped.
I stood at the edge where the mist ascended, My journey done where the world ended. I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky, The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.
“The End of the World,” by Dana Gioia in Interrogations at Noon, 2001
Waiting for the sink to fill and foam with the soap of permission, I know it’s only ordinary tasks that tremble with any hope of permission.
How do I know, for certain? The aspiration’s fixed, and how Could this wet bowl be other than a stage prop of permission?
Young lovers play at being disobedient, like constellations In a galaxy that flutter in a dance that says we elope with permission.
I held out as long as I could. Poignant thrusts and I grope. How even after fucking starts, it all rolls to a stop for permission.
A spigot leaks. I tease the parched trees round my house with playful arcs Of water every other day. Even on webs, spiders grope for permission.
Did anyone ask the cop how horny he felt in his patrol car? Who says That punishment awaits those who are given enough rope of permission? Don’t laugh, my friend: ‘The protestors clashed with lightly armed police.’ Lightly? In swearing to uphold the law, they mock the trope of permission.
“Hasty Deceptions of a Dishwasher,” by Bill Mohr in Ghazals, 2015
…This is what you wanted to hear, so why Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers It is true, but underneath the talk lies The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
These then were some hazards of the course, Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later, The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time…
I was asked, after posting my translation of this story, whether I could offer readers a link to the original. Hoping ardently that I’m not running afoul of any copyright laws for posting a 117-year-old story, here it is in full.
Das Wunderkind kommt herein – im Saale wird’s still.
Es wird still, und dann beginnen die Leute zu klatschen, weil irgendwo seitwärts ein geborener Herrscher und Herdenführer in die Hände geschlagen hat. Sie haben noch nichts gehört, aber sie klatschen Beifall; denn ein gewaltiger Reklameapparat hat dem Wunderkinde vorgearbeitet, und die Leute sind schon betört, ob sie es wissen oder nicht.
Das Wunderkind kommt hinter einem prachtvollen Wandschirm hervor, der ganz mit Empirekränzen und großen Fabelblumen bestickt ist, klettert hurtig die Stufen zum Podium empor und geht in den Applaus hinein, wie in ein Bad, ein wenig fröstelnd, von einem kleinen Schauer angeweht, aber doch wie ein freundliches Element. Es geht an den Rand des Podiums vor, lächelt, als sollte es photographiert werden, und dankt mit einem kleinen, schüchternen und lieblichen Damengruß, obgleich es ein Knabe ist.
Es ist ganz in weiße Seide gekleidet, was eine gewisse Rührung im Saal verbreitet. Es trägt ein weißes Jäckchen von phantastischem Schnitt mit einer Schärpe darunter, und sogar seine Schuhe sind aus weißer Seide. Aber gegen die weißseidenen Höschen stechen scharf die bloßen Beinchen ab, die ganz braun sind; denn es ist ein Griechenknabe.
Bibi Saccellaphylaccas heißt er. Dies ist einmal sein Name. Von welchem Vornamen »Bibi« die Abkürzung oder Koseform ist, weiß niemand, ausgenommen der Impresario, und der betrachtet es als Geschäftsgeheimnis. Bibi hat glattes, schwarzes Haar, das ihm bis zu den schultern hinabhängt und trotzdem seitwärts gescheitelt und mit einer kleinen seidenen Schleife aus der schmal gewölbten, bräunlichen Stirn zurückgebunden ist. Er hat das harmloseste Kindergesicht von der Welt, ein unfertiges Näschen und einen ahnungslosen Mund; nur die Partie unter seinen pechschwarzen Mausaugen ist schon ein wenig matt und von zwei Charakterzügen deutlich begrenzt. Er sieht aus, als sei er neun Jahre alt, zählt aber erst acht und wird für siebenjährig ausgegeben. Die Leute wissen selbst nicht, ob sie es eigentlich glauben. Vielleicht wissen sie es besser und glauben dennoch daran, wie sie es in so manchen Fällen zu tun gewohnt sind. Ein wenig Lüge, denken sie, gehört zur Schönheit. Wo, denken sie, bliebe die Erbauung und Erhebung nach dem Alltag, wenn man nicht ein bisschen guten Willen mitbrächte, fünf gerade sein zu lassen? Und sie haben ganz recht in ihren Leutehirnen!
Das Wunderkind dankt, bis das Begrüßungsgeprassel sich legt; dann geht es zum Flügel, und die Leute werfen einen letzten Blick auf das Programm. Zuerst kommt »Marche solennelle», dann »Rêverie«, und dann »Le hibou et les moineaux« – alles von Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. Das ganze Programm ist von ihm, es sind seine Kompositionen. Er kann sie zwar nicht aufschreiben, aber er hat sie alle in seinem kleinen ungewöhnlichen Kopf, und es muss ihnen künstlerische Bedeutung zugestanden werden, wie ernst und sachlich auf dem Plakaten vermerkt ist, die der Impresario abgefasst hat. Es scheint, dass der Impresario dieses Zugeständnis seiner kritischen Natur in harten Kämpfen abgerungen hat.
Das Wunderkind setzt sich auf den Drehsessel und angelt mit seinen Beinchen nach den Pedalen, die vermittels eines sinnreichen Mechanismus viel höher angebracht sind als gewöhnlich, damit Bibi sie erreichen kann. Es ist sein eigener Flügel, den er überall hin mitnimmt. Er ruht auf Holzböcken, und seine Politur ist ziemlich strapaziert von den vielen Transporten; aber das alles macht die Sache nur interessanter.
Bibi setzt seine weisseidenen Füße auf die Pedale, dann macht er eine kleine spitzfindige Miene, sieht geradeaus und hebt die rechte Hand. Es ist ein bräunlich naives Kinderhändchen, aber das Gelenk ist stark und unkindlich und zeigt hart ausgearbeitete Knöchel.
Seine Miene macht Bibi für die Leute, weil er weiß, dass er sie ein wenig unterhalten muss. Aber er selbst für sein Teil hat im stillen sein besonderes Vergnügen bei der Sache, ein Vergnügen, das er niemand beschreiben könnte. Es ist dieses prickelnde Glück, dieser heimliche Wonneschauer, der ihn jedes Mal überrieselt, wenn er wieder an einem offenem Klavier sitzt – er wird das niemals verlieren. Wieder bietet sich ihm die Tastatur dar, diese sieben schwarz-weißen Oktaven, unter denen er sich so oft in Abenteuer und tief erregende Schicksale verloren, und die doch wieder so reinlich und unberührt erscheinen, wie eine geputzte Zeichentafel. Es ist die Musik, die ganze Musik, die vor ihm liegt! Sie liegt vor ihm ausgebreitet, wie ein lockendes Meer, und er kann sich hineinstürzen und selig schwimmen, sich tragen und entführen lassen und im Sturme gänzlich untergehen, und dennoch dabei die Herrschaft in Händen halten, regieren und verfügen … Er hält seine rechte Hand in die Luft.
Im Saal ist atemlose Stille. Es ist diese Spannung vor dem ersten Ton … Wie wird es anfangen? So fängt es an. Und Bibi holt mit seinem Zeigefinger den ersten Ton aus dem Flügel, einen ganz unerwarteten kraftvollen Ton in der Mittellage, ähnlich einem Trompetenstoß. Andere fügen sich daran, eine Introduktion ergibt sich – man löst die Glieder.
Es ist ein prunkhafter Saal, gelegen in einem modischen Gasthof ersten Ranges, mit rosig fleischlichen Gemälden an den Wänden, mit üppigen Pfeilern, umschnörkelten Spiegeln und einer Unzahl, einem wahren Weltensystem von elektrischen Glühlampen, die in Dolden, in ganzen Bündeln überall hervorsprießen und den Raum mit einem weit übertaghellen, dünnen, goldigen, himmlischen Licht durchzittern … Kein Stuhl ist unbesetzt, ja selbst in den Seitengängen und dem Hintergrunde stehen die Leute. Vorn, wo es zwölf Mark kostet (denn der Impresario huldigt dem Prinzip der ehrfurchtgebietenden Preise) reiht sich die vornehme Gesellschaft; es ist in den höchsten Kreisen ein lebhaftes Interesse für das Wunderkind vorhanden. Man sieht viele Uniformen, viel erwählten Geschmack der Toilette … Sogar eine Anzahl von Kindern ist da, die auf wohlerzogene Art ihre Beine vom Stuhl hängen lassen und mit glänzenden Augen ihren kleinen begnadeten weißseidenen Kollegen betrachten …
Vorn links sitzt die Mutter des Wunderkindes, eine äußerst beleibte Dame, mit gepudertem Doppelkinn und einer Feder auf dem Kopf, und an ihrer Seite der Impresario, ein Herr von orientalischem Typus mit großen goldenen Knöpfen an den weit hervorstehenden Manschetten. Aber vorn in der Mitte sitzt die Prinzessin. Es ist eine kleine runzelige, verschrumpfte alte Prinzessin, aber sie fördert die
Künste, soweit sie zartsinnig sind. Sie sitzt in einem tiefen Sammetfauteuil, und zu ihren Füßen sind Perserteppiche ausgebreitet. Sie hält die Hände dicht unter der Brust auf ihrem graugestreiften Seidenkleid zusammengelegt, beugt den Kopf zur Seite und bietet ein Bild vornehmen Friedens, indes sie dem arbeitenden
Wunderkinde zuschaut. Neben ihr sitzt ihre Hofdame und darf sich nicht einmal anlehnen.
Bibi schließt unter großem Gepränge. Mit welcher Kraft dieser Knirps den Flügel behandelt! Man traut seinen Ohren nicht. Das Thema des Marsches, eine schwunghafte, enthusiastische Melodie bricht in voller harmonischer Ausstattung noch einmal hervor, breit und prahlerisch, und Bibi wirft bei jedem Takt den Oberkörper zurück, als marschierte er triumphierend im Festzuge. Dann schleißt er gewaltig, schiebt sich gebückt und seitwärts vom Sessel herunter und lauert lächelnd auf den Applaus.
Und der Applaus bricht los, einmütig, gerührt, begeistert: Seht doch, was für zierliche Hüften das Kind hat, indes es seinen kleinen Damengruß exekutiert! Klatsch, klatsch! Wartet, nun ziehe ich meine Handschuhe aus. Bravo, kleiner Saccophylax oder wie du heißt – ! Aber das ist ja ein Teufelskerl! – – –
Bibi muss dreimal wieder hinter dem Wandschirm hervorkommen, ehe man Ruhe gibt. Einige Nachzügler, verspätete Ankömmlinge, drängen von hinten herein und bringen dich mühsam im vollen Saale unter. Dann nimmt das Konzert seinen Fortgang.
Bibi säuselt seine »Rêverie«, die ganz aus Arpeggien besteht, über welche sich manchmal mit schwachen Flügeln ein Stück Melodie erhebt; und dann spielt er »Le hibou et les moineaux«. Dieses Stück hat durchschlagenden Erfolg, übt eine zündende Wirkung. Es ist ein richtiges Kinderstück und von wunderbarer Anschaulichkeit. Im Bass sieht man den Uhu sitzen und grämlich mit seinen Schleieraugen klappen, indes im Diskant zugleich frech und ängstlich die Spatzen schwirren, die ihn necken wollen. Bibi wird viermal hervorgejubelt nach dieser Pièce. Ein Hotelbedienter mit blanken Knöpfen trägt ihm drei große Lorbeerkränze aufs Podium hinauf und hält sie von der Seite vor ihn hin, während Bibi grüßt und dankt. Sogar die Prinzessin beteiligt sich an dem Applaus, indem sie ganz zart ihre flachen Hände gegeneinander bewegt, ohne dass es irgendeinen Laut ergibt …
Wie dieser kleine versierte Wicht den Beifall hinzuziehen versteht! Er lässt hinter dem Wandschirm auf sich warten, versäumt sich ein bisschen, auf dem Stufen zum Podium, betrachtet mit kindischem Vergnügen die bunten Atlasschleifen der Kränze, obgleich sie ihn längst schon langweilen, grüßt lieblich und zögernd und lässt den Leuten Zeit, sich auszutoben, damit nichts von dem wertvollen Geräusch ihrer Hände verlorengehe. »Le hibou« ist mein Reißer, denkt er; denn diesen Ausdruck hat er vom Impresario gelernt. Nachher kommt die Fantaisie, die eigentlich viel besser ist, besonders die Stelle, wo es nach Cis geht.
Aber ihr habt ja an diesem hibou einen Narren gefressen, ihr Publikum, obgleich er das erste und dümmste ist, was ich gemacht habe. Und er dankt lieblich.
Dann spielt er eine Meditation und dann eine Etüde – es ist ein ordentlich umfangreiches Programm. Die Meditation geht ganz ähnlich wie die »Rêverie«, was kein Einwand gegen sie ist, und in der Etüde zeigt Bibi all seine technische Fertigkeit, die übrigens hinter seiner Erfindungsgabe ein wenig zurücksteht. Aber dann kommt die Fantaisie. Sie ist sein Lieblingsstück. Er spielt sie jedes Mal ein bisschen anders, behandelt sie frei und überrascht sich zuweilen selbst dabei durch neue Einfälle und Wendungen, wenn er seinen guten Abend hat.
Er sitzt und spielt, ganz klein und weiß glänzend vor dem großen, schwarzen Flügel, allein und auserkoren auf dem Podium über der verschwommenen Menschenmasse, die zusammen nur eine dumpfe, schwer bewegliche Seele hat, auf die er mit seiner einzelnen und herausgehobenen Seele wirken soll … Sein weiches, schwarzes Haar ist ihm mitsamt der weißen Schleife in die Stirn gefallen, seine starkknochigen, trainierten Handgelenke arbeiten, und man sieht die Muskeln seiner bräunlichen, kindlichen Wangen erbeben.
Zuweilen kommen Sekunden des Vergessens und Alleinseins, wo seine seltsamen, matt umränderten Mausaugen zur Seite gleiten, vom Publikum weg auf die bemalte Saalwand an seiner Seite, durch die sie hindurchblicken, um sich in einer ereignisvollen, von vagem Leben erfüllten Weite zu verlieren. Aber dann zuckt ein Blick aus dem Augenwinkel zurück in den Saal, und er ist wieder vor den Leuten.
Klage und Jubel, Aufschwung und tiefer Sturz – »meine Fantaisie!« denkt Bibi ganz liebevoll. »Hört doch, nun kommt die Stelle, wo es nach Cis geht!« Und er lässt die Verschiebung spielen, indes es nach Cis geht. »Ob sie es merken?« Ach nein, bewahre, sie bemerken es nicht! Und darum vollführt er wenigstens einen hübschen Augenaufschlag zum Plafond, damit sie doch etwas zu sehen haben.
Die Leute sitzen in langen Reihen und sehen dem Wunderkinde zu. Sie denken auch allerlei in ihren Leutehirnen.
Ein alter Herr mit einem weißen Bart, einem Siegelring am Zeigefinger und einer knolligen Geschwulst auf der Glatze, einem Auswuchs, wenn man will, denkt bei sich: »Eigentlich sollte man sich schämen. Man hat es nie über. Drei Jäger aus Kurpfalz, hinausgebracht, und da sitzt man nun als eisgrauer Kerl und lässt sich von diesem Dreikäsehoch Wunderdinge vormachen. Aber man muss bedenken, dass es von oben kommt. Gott verteilt seine Gaben, da ist nichts zu tun, und es ist keine Schande, ein gewöhnlicher Mensch zu sein. Es ist etwas wie mit dem Jesuskind. Man darf sich vor einem Kinde beugen, ohne sich schämen zu müssen. Wie seltsam wohltuend das ist!« – Er wagte nicht zu denken: »Wie süß er ist!« – »Süß« wäre blamabel für einen kräftigen, alten Herrn. Aber er fühlte es! Er fühlte es dennoch!
»Kunst …« denkt der Geschäftsmann mit der Papageiennase. »Ja freilich, das bringt ein bisschen Schimmer ins Leben, ein wenig Klingklang und weiße Seide. Übrigens schneidet er nicht über ab. Es sind reichlich fünfzig Plätze zu zwölf Mark verkauft: das macht allein sechshundert Mark – und dann alles übrige. Bringt man Saalmiete, Beleuchtung und Programm in Abzug, so bleiben gut und gerne tausend Mark netto. Das ist mitzunehmen.«
»Nun, das war Chopin, was er da eben zum besten gab!« denkt die Klavierlehrerin, eine spitznäsige Dame in den Jahren, da die Hoffnungen sich schlafen legen und der Verstand an Schärfe gewinnt. »Mann darf sagen, dass er nicht sehr unmittelbar ist. Ich werde nachher äußern: ‚Es ist ein wenig unmittelbar’. Das klingt gut. Übrigens ist seine Handhaltung vollständig unerzogen. Man muss einen Taler auf den Handrücken halten können … Ich würde ihn mit dem Lineal behandeln.
Ein junges Mädchen, das ganz wächsern aussieht und sich in einem gespannten Alter befindet, in welchem man sehr wohl auf delikate Gedanken verfallen kann, denkt im geheimen: »Aber was ist das! Was spielt er da! Es ist ja die Leidenschaft, die er da spielt! Aber er ist doch ein Kind?! Wenn er mich küsste, so wäre es, als küsste mein kleiner Bruder mich – es wäre kein Kuss. Gibt es denn eine losgelöste Leidenschaft, eine Leidenschaft an sich und ohne irdischen Gegenstand, die nur ein inbrünstiges Kinderspiel wäre? … Gut, wenn ich dies laut sagte, würde man mir Lebertran verabfolgen. So ist die Welt.«
An einem Pfeiler steht ein Offizier. Er betrachtet den erfolgreichen Bibi und denkt: »Du bist etwas und ich bin etwas, jeder auf seine Art!« Im übrigen zieht er die Absätze zusammen und zollt dem Wunderkind den Respekt, den er allen bestehenden Mächten zollt.
Aber der Kritiker, ein alternder Mann mit blankem, schwarzem Rock und aufgekrempelten, bespritzten Beinkleidern, sitzt auf seinem Freiplatz und denkt »Man sehe ihn an, diesen Bibi, diesen Fratz! Als Einzelwesen hat er noch ein Ende zu wachsen, aber als Typus ist er ganz fertig, als Typus des Künstlers. Er hat in sich des Künstlers Hoheit und seine Würdelosigkeit, seine Scharlatanerie und seinen heiligen Funken, seine Verachtung und seinen heimlichen Rausch. Aber das darf ich nicht schreiben; es ist zu gut. Ach, glaubt mir, ich wäre selbst ein Künstler geworden, wenn ich nicht das alles so klar durchschaute …«
Da ist das Wunderkind fertig, und ein wahrer Sturm erhebt sich im Saale. Er muss hervor und wieder hervor hinter seinem Wandschirm. Der Mann mit den blanken Knöpfen schleppt neue Kränze herbei, vier Lorbeerkränze, eine Lyra aus Veilchen, ein Bukett aus Rosen. Er hat nicht Arme genug, dem Wunderkind all die Spenden zu reichen, der Impresario begibt sich persönlich aufs Podium, um ihm behilflich zu sein. Er hängt einen Lorbeerkranz um Bibis Hals, er streichelt zärtlich sein schwarzes Haar. Und plötzlich, wie übermannt, beugt er sich nieder und gibt dem Wunderkinde einen Kuss, gerade auf den Mund. Da aber schwillt der Sturm zum Orkan. Dieser Kuss fährt wie ein elektrischer Stoß in den Saal, durchläuft die Menge wie ein nervöser Schauer. Ein tolles Lärmbedürfnis reißt die Leute hin. Laute Hochrufe mischen sich in das wilde Geprassel der Hände. Einige von Bibis kleinen gewöhnlichen Kameraden dort unten wehen mit ihren Taschentüchern … Aber der Kritiker denkt: »Freilich, dieser Impresariokuss musste kommen. Ein alter, wirksamer Scherz. Ja, Herrgott, wenn man nicht alles so klar durchschaute!«
Und dann geht das Konzert des Wunderkindes zu Ende. Um halb acht Uhr hat es angefangen, um halb neun ist es aus. Das Podium ist voller Kränze, und zwei kleine Blumentöpfe stehen auf dem Lampenbrettern des Flügels. Bibi spielt als letzte Nummer seine »Rhapsodie grecque«, welche schließlich in die griechische Hymne übergeht, und seine anwesenden Landsleute hätten nicht übel Lust, mitzusingen, wenn es nicht ein vornehmes Konzert wäre. Dafür entschädigen sie sich am Schluss durch einen gewaltigen Lärm, einen heißblütigen Radau, eine nationale Demonstration. Aber der alte Kritiker denkt: »Freilich, die Hymne musste kommen. Man spielt die Sache auf ein anderes Gebiet hinüber, man lässt kein Begeistrungsmittel unversucht. Ich werde schreiben, dass das unkünstlerisch ist. Aber vielleicht ist es gerade künstlerisch. Was ist der Künstler? Ein Hanswurst. Die Kritik ist das Höchste. Aber das darf ich nicht schreiben.« Und er entfernte sich in seinen bespritzten Hosen.
Nach neun oder zehn Hervorrufen begibt sich das erhitzte Wunderkind nicht mehr hinter den Wandschirm, sondern geht zu seiner Mama und dem Impresario hinunter in den Saal. Die Leute stehen zwischen den durcheinandergerückten Stühlen und applaudieren und drängen vorwärts, um Bibi aus der Nähe zu sehen. Einige wollen auch die Prinzessin sehen: es bilden sich vor dem Podium zwei dichte Kreise um das Wunderkind und um die Prinzessin, und man weiß nicht recht, wer von beiden eigentlich Cercle hält. Aber die Hofdame verfügt sich auf Befehl zu Bibi; sie zupft und glättet ein wenig an seiner seidenen Jacke, um ihn hoffähig zu machen, führt ihn am Arm vor die Prinzessin und bedeutet ihm ernst Ihrer königlichen Hoheit die Hand zu küssen. »Wie machst du es, Kind?« fragt die Prinzessin. »Kommt es dir von selbst in den Sinn, wenn du niedersitzest?« – »Qui, Madame«, antwortet Bibi. Aber inwendig denkt er: »Ach, du dumme, alte Prinzessin …!« Dann dreht er sich scheu und unerzogen um und geht wieder zu seinen Angehörigen.
Draußen an den Garderoben herrscht dichtes Gewühl. Man hält seine Nummer empor, man empfängt mit offenen Armen Pelze, Schale und Gummischuhe über die Tische hinüber. Irgendwo steht die Klavierlehrerin unter Bekannten und hält Kritik. »Es ist wenig unmittelbar«, sagt sie laut und sieht sich um …
Vor einem großen Wandspiegel lässt sich eine junge, vornehme Dame von ihren Brüdern, zwei Leutnants, Abendmantel und Pelzschuhe anlegen. Sie ist wunderschön mit ihren stahlblauen Augen und ihrem klaren, reinrassigen Gesicht, ein richtiges Edelfräulein. Als sie fertig ist, wartet sie auf ihre Brüder. »Steh nicht so lange vor dem Spiegel, Adolf!« sagt sie leise und ärgerlich zu dem einen, der sich von dem Anblick seines hübschen, simplen Gesichts nicht trennen kann. Nun, das ist gut! Leutnant Adolf wird sich doch vor dem Spiegel seinen Paletot knöpfen dürfen, mit ihrer gütigen Erlaubnis! – Dann gehen sie, und draußen auf der Straße, wo die Bogenlampen trübe durch den Schneenebel schimmern, fängt Leutnant Adolf im Gehen ein bisschen an auszuschlagen, mit emporgeklapptem Kragen und die Hände ein den schrägen Manteltaschen auf dem hartgefrorenen Schnee einen kleinen niggerdance aufzuführen, weil es so kalt ist.
»Ein Kind!« denkt das unfrisierte Mädchen, welches mit frei hängenden Armen in Begleitung eines düsteren Jünglings hinter ihnen geht. »Ein liebenswürdiges Kind! Dort drinnen war ein verehrungswürdiges …« Und mit lauter, eintöniger Stimme sagt sie: » Wir sind alle Wunderkinder, wir Schaffenden.«
»Nun!« denkt der alte Herr, der es nicht über ‚Drei Jäger aus Kurpfalz’ hinausgebracht hat und dessen Auswuchs jetzt von einem Zylinder bedeckt ist, »was ist denn das! Eine Art Pythia, wie mir scheint.«
Aber der düstere Jüngling, der sie aufs Wort versteht, nickt langsam. Dann schweigen sie, und das unfrisierte Mädchen blickt den drei adligen Geschwistern nach. Sie verachtet sie, aber sie blickt ihnen nach, bis sie um die Ecke verschwunden sind.
For the Christmas 1903 issue of Vienna’s Die Presse, the Nobel laureate-to-be Thomas Mann contributed this lovely short story, about a wintertime concert given by a prodigy pianist. “Das Wunderkind” was the title it carried when published as a novella in 1914. Mann himself wrote in 1910 that it was his “most beloved” work. I wrote this translation some years ago for a contest, which I didn’t win, but enjoyed what I had written so much that I wanted to present it here.
The prodigy enters! — the hall grows quiet.
It grows quiet, and then the people begin to clap, because somewhere a man, born to power and leadership, has been the first to strike his hands together. The people still have heard nothing, but they applaud, in some part because a tremendous publicity machine has worked ahead for the prodigy’s sake, and the people are already infatuated, whether they know it or not.
The prodigy comes out from behind a magnificent curtain, completely decorated with the wreaths of empire and flowers of mythology. He nimbly ascends the steps to the stage aloft and steps into the applause, as if in a bathroom, a little misted, wetted by a little shower, yet still in a friendly element. He proceeds to the edge of the stage, smiles as if he should be photographed, and thanks the crowd with a shy and lovely ladies’ greeting, although he is a boy.
He is from head to toe clothed in white silk, his clothes spreading a certain feeling through the hall. He wears a little white jacket of fantastic tailoring with a sash underneath, and even his shoes are made of white silk. But against the white silken pants, his naked little legs stand out sharply, brown all over — he is a Greek boy.
He is called Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. This is, first of all, his name. Whether “Bibi” is a shortening or a diminutive of a real first name, no one seems to know, excepting the impresario, but he considers it a trade secret. Bibi has smooth, black hair that hangs down to his shoulders and parts sideways, with a small silken ribbon tied around the thin brown ends. He has the most harmless face a child’s yet had in the world, an unfinished nose and a mouth, devoid of opinions; the area under his inky mouse’s eyes is already a bit dull and limited to just two trains of character. He looks 9, counts himself 8 and is presented as 7. The people themselves know naught, even if they actually believe it. Maybe they do know better and believe him nevertheless, as they have gotten used to doing in such cases. A little lie, they think, belongs to such beauty. Where, they think, remains the uplifting and raising of daily life, if one cannot even bring a little good will with one, to let 5 be just so? And they had this all worked out in their minds!
The prodigy thanks everyone, until the greeting cracklings lay themselves down; then he goes to the grand piano and the people throw a last glance to the program. First comes “Marche solennelle,” then “Rêverie,” and then “Le hibou et les moineaux” — all by Bibi Saccellaphylaccas. The whole program is by him, they are all his compositions. Indeed, he cannot even write them down, but he has them all in his strange, tiny head, and such behavior must be granted to a kind of artful meaning. So honest and objectively is the program recorded onto the pamphlets, which the impresario took the liberty to write up. It seems that the impresario has wrested at least this concession, after many struggles.
The prodigy sits himself on the swivel chair and fishes with his little legs for the pedals, which, by means of an ingenious mechanism, he can raise to his liking so as to better reach them. The piano is his own, and he takes it everywhere. It rests on wooden horses and its polish has been punished by the many trips, but that only makes the thing even more interesting.
Bibi sits his white silken feet on the pedals and produces a subtle expression, looks straight ahead and raises his right hand. The hand is that of a little, brown, naive child, but the joints are strong, unchildlike, and show hard-worked knuckles.
Bibi makes such an expression for the people, since he knows that he must undertake a little conversation with them. But for himself, it is a particular and secret pleasure, a pleasure that he could never describe to anyone. It is this tingling happiness, this secret blissful shower, each time trickling over him, whenever he sits at his vacant piano — he will never lose this feeling. Again the keyboard presents itself, the black and white octaves, under which he can so oft lose himself in adventures and deep, exciting fates, and which time and again so clean and unaffected appear, like a newly cleaned chalkboard. It is the music, the complete music, that lies before him! It lies before him submissive, like an alluring ocean, and he can plunge himself and blessedly swim, carry himself and let himself be carried away, and in the storm completely go under and nevertheless hold on to the sovereignty in his hands, governed, owned. He holds his right hand in the air.
The hall is breathlessly silent. Such is the tension before the first tone… How will it begin? And thus it begins. And Bibi summons with his pointer finger the first tone out of the grand piano, a completely unexpected, empowered tone in the middle position, something like a trumpet’s shock. Others fit themselves in, an introduction arises — thus one resolves the parts.
It is a palatial hall, lying in a fashionable inn of the first rank, with rosy, carnal paintings on the walls, with Rubensian pillars, mirrors enveloped by flourishes and an immense number, a true modern system, of electric gas lamps, which in flowering sprouts, in complete bundles everywhere arise, and which tremble an extended, thin, golden, heavenly light of day through the room…. No seat is unfilled, indeed in the aisles themselves and in the back of the room people stand. In front, where seats cost 12 Marks (due to the impresario’s allegiance to the principle of awe inspiring price), the distinguished society strings themselves along; it is in the highest circles that a lively interest in the prodigy avails. One sees many uniforms, many chosen tastes of toilette… Even a number of children is there, who in a well-behaved way let hang their legs from the seats and with dulled eyes regard their gifted, white silken colleague.
At front left sits the mother of the prodigy, an extremely obese woman with a powdered double chin and a plume on her head, and at her side the impresario, a man of oriental type with great golden buttons on his out-stuck collars. But in the middle of the front sits the princess. She is a small, wrinkled, shriveled, old princess, but she supports the arts, insofar as they are of the delicate variety. She sits in a deep velvety chair, and at her feet, a Persian rug is spread out. She holds her hands tight under her bust on her gray striped silken dress, declines her head to one side and provides a picture of settled peace, all the while watching the working prodigy. Near her sits her lady-in-waiting, who may not even once lean herself on the princess.
Bibi finishes with great pomp. With such strength this tot handles the piano! One cannot trust one’s eyes. The theme of the march, an enthusiastic melody full of momentum, breaks into full harmonic features once more, broad and boastful, and Bibi throws his upper body with each stroke back, as if he marches triumphantly in pageantry. Then he mightily ends, throws himself sideways off the chair and, grinning, lies in wait for the applause.
And the applause breaks out, unanimously, enthusiastically, the audience so moved: But see, what dainty hips the child has, all the while executing his little ladies’ greetings! Wait, I’ll wave my handkerchief. Bravo, little Saccophylax, or whatever you’re called! But that is truly a devil of a fellow!
Bibi must three times come out from behind the curtain, before they let peace. Some stragglers and latecomers push from behind towards him and fit laboriously into the full hall. Then the concert takes its transition.
Bibi whispers his “Rêverie,” a song consisting totally of arpeggios, above which sometimes a piece of a melody, with weak wings, can arise; and then he plays “Le hibou et les moineaux”. This piece has resounding success and a sparkling effect. It is a true child’s piece and wonderfully clear. In the bass one can see the eagle-owl, sitting and sullenly folding into itself with its veiled eyes. Meanwhile in the treble the sparrows schwirrr naughtily, anxiously, as they try to tease the eagle-owl. Bibi was four times applauded to the rafters after this piece. A hotelier with blank buttons takes up three great laurel wreaths to him on the stage and holds them in front of Bibi, while Bibi greets and thanks. Even the princess joins in the applause, tenderly moving her flat hands together without ever causing sound.
How well this little savvy runt understands to drag out the applause! He holds himself behind the curtain to be waited for, regards with a childish pleasure the sateen edges of the wreaths (even though they have long since bored him), greets haltingly and lovely and lets the people time to let off steam, so as not to let the valuable noise of their hands perish away. “Le hibou” is my trump card, he thinks — naturally having learned such an expression from the impresario. Afterwards, the Fantasia, which is really much better, especially the parts where it goes that half-tone higher. But you all have devoured a fool with this “hibou,” you audience, even though he is the first and the dumbest of all my creations. And so he thanks lovingly.
Then he plays a Meditation and then an Étude — it is an orderly, extensive program.The Meditation goes just the same as the “Rêverie,” with similarly few objections to it, and in the Étude Bibi shows all his technical accomplishments, which in any case stand a bit behind his present tasks. But then comes the Fantasia. It is his favorite piece. He plays it each time a little differently, handling it freely and surprising himself occasionally through new incidences and phrases, if he has a really good night.
He sits and plays, small and dulled white, in front of the great black grand piano, alone and ordained on the stage above the blurred mass of humanity, who even together only a dull, barely movable soul have. This soul is the one he must make effects on, with his separated and elevated soul…. His smooth, black hair has, together with the white bow at the end, fallen into his forehead, his bony, trained wrists work, and one sees the muscles of his brown, childish cheeks shuddering.
Occasionally there come seconds of forgetfulness and aloneness, where his strange, flat rimmed mouse’s eyes to one side slide, from the audience away onto the painted hall’s walls to his side, always seeing past, trying to lose themselves in one of those eventful widths of vague duration in life. But then his gaze jerks out of the corner of his eye back onto the hall, and he is again in front of the crowd.
Moans and exultations, rises and deeper falls — My Fantasia! thinks Bibi, full of love. But hear, now the section comes, where it raises a half-tone! And he lets the shift play, as the piece raises a half-tone. Are they noticing?God forbid! They don’t notice at all! Circumventing, he performs a beautiful batting of his eyelashes to the ceiling, so the audience will have something to look at.
The people sit in long rows and all watch the prodigy. Even they think all sorts of things in their common brains. An old man with a white beard, a ring with a seal on his first finger and a bulbous swelling on his bald spot, a protuberance, if you will, thinks so: Actually they should be shamed. They have never done better. Three hunters from the Palatinate, brought all the way out, and now they sit like gray-haired men and let themselves be deluded by this three-cheese-high wonder. But one must consider, that it could come from high. God distributes his gifts, there’s nothing we can do about it, and it’s no shame to be an ordinary man. It’s something like with the Christ child. One may bend themselves before a child without having to be ashamed about it. How strangely soothing that is! He dared not think: How sweet he is! “Sweet” would be shameful for a strong old man. But he feels it! He feels it regardless!
Art… thinks the businessman with the parrot’s nose. Sure, it brings a bit of shimmer into life, a little kling-klang and some white silk. But that doesn’t really cut through to the heart of it. There are fiftyplaces sold at 12 Marks: that alone makes 600 Marks — and then there’s still all the rest. Consider the rent for the hall, lighting, printing in discount, but that’s still a happy thousand Marks net. That you take home with you.
Now, that was Chopin, that he just played the best, the piano teacher thinks, once a randy woman in her years, and now one who only hopes for the chance to be let to sleep and who chases the focus of the mind. A man could say, “That wasn’t really direct.” I would afterwards comment, “It is a little direct.” That sounds good. Anyway, his hand poses are completely untaught. You should be able to hold out a silver piece on the back of your hand … I’d take the ruler to him.
A young girl, looking as if made of wax and located in that taut age, wherein one can easily resort to delicate thoughts, thinks secretly: But what is that?! How he plays! It is really a passion that he plays! But that is just a child?! If he were to kiss me, it would be as if I kissed my brother — it would be no kiss. Is it then just a detached passion, a passion of itself and without earthly object, only a soulful child’s piece? Oh, were I to say this loud, someone would prescribe me cod liver oil. Ah, so is the world.
Near one buttress stands an officer. He watches the successful Bibi and thinks, You are something and I am something, each of his own type! Then he pulls his heels together and pays the prodigy the same respect he does to all the powers that be.
But the critic, an old man with a coatless, black robe and crumpled, spattered trousers, sits in his free seat and thinks, They look at him, this Bibi, this pest! As an individual, he is not yet grown but as a type, he is all there — the type of the artist. He has in himself the sovereignty of the artist, the artist’s indignity and charlatanism, his holy spark and scornfulness, and that artful secretive smolder. But I can’t write that; it’s too good. Ach, believe me, I myself would have become an artist, if I hadn’t seen so clearly through it all…
Then the prodigy is done, and a true storm raises in the hall. He must again and again and again come out from behind his curtain. The man with the bare buttons hauls new wreaths up to him, four laurels, a lyre made of velvet, a bouquet of roses. His arms were not quite enough for the donations all to reach Bibi, so the impresario himself goes to the stage in an attempt at helpfulness. He hangs a laurel wreath around Bibi’s neck and strokes tenderly the prodigy’s hair. And suddenly, as if overwhelmed, the impresario bends himself down and gives the prodigy a kiss, straight on the mouth. But then the storm swells into a hurricane. That kiss drove like an electric shock in the hall, running through the masses like a nervous shiver. A great involuntary noise ravished the people. Loud calls on high mixed themselves into the wild crackle of the hands. Some of Bibi’s ordinary friends under him waved with their handkerchiefs… But the critic thinks, Naturally, the impresario kiss was going to happen. An old, yet effective ploy. God alive, if one couldn’t see so clearly through it all!
And then the concert comes to its end. It began around 7:30 and exits at 8:30. The stage is full of wreaths and two small flower pots now stand on the lamp boards of the grand piano. Bibi plays as his last number his “Rhapsodie grecque,” which at the end devolves into the Greek hymn, and his present countrymen would not have so good a mind to sing a long, if it weren’t such a posh concert. They compensate for that at the end by raising a tremendous amount of noise, a hot blooded round, a nationalist demonstration. But the old critic thinks, Certainly, the hymn had to happen. One plays these things in another region, one lets no enthusing medium go untried. I will write that it was unartistic of him. But maybe it was artful. What is an artist? A buffoon. Criticism is the highest form. But I can’t write that. And he departs in his crumpled trousers from the hall.
After nine or ten eliciting calls the overheated prodigy stops going behind the curtain. He goes to his mother and the impresario, underneath, in the hall. People stand between the rows and applaud and push forwards, trying to catch a close view of Bibi. Some also want to view the princess — so forms before the stage two dense circles, one around the prodigy, and one around the princess. No one knows properly who belongs to one, the other or both. But the lady-in-waiting attends to the matter of Bibi for the princess. She tugs and pulls at his silky jacket, being cordial to him, then leads him by the arm in front of the princess and indicates to him the hand of her queenly highness. “What are you doing, child?” asks the princess. “Do you come here of your own accord, as you were just sitting down?” “Just so, madame,” Bibi replies. But inwardly, he thinks, Ach, you dumb, old princess…! Then he turns himself shy and untactful and goes back to his people.
Outside at the wardrobes there prevails a dense throng. One holds his number aloft and then receives in one’s open arms pelts, skins, and leather boots over the table. Somewhere the piano teacher talks criticism among acquaintances. “It was a little direct,” she says loudly and looks around her.
In front of a great mirror, covering the wall, a distinguished young woman’s evening coat is laid out by her brothers, two lieutenants. Her steel blue gaze and clear, purebred face make her unsurpassingly beautiful, a true noblewoman. When she is clothed, she waits for her brothers. “Don’t stand so long in front of the mirror, Adolf!” she says quietly and annoyed to one of them, who cannot bear to separate his gaze from the image of his simple face. Now, that’s good enough! Lieutenant Adolf’s coat may be buttoned in front of the mirror, with your benevolent permission! Then they go out into the street, where the arc lamp murkily shimmers through the snowy fog. On the walk, Adolf begins to kick, and with popped collar, dance a little on the solidly frozen snow, agitated by the cold.
A child, thinks the unkempt girl, with her freely hanging arms accompanying one of the gloomy youth behind her. A charming child! Back there, inside, was a commendable… And with louder, more monotonous voice she says, “We are all prodigies, we creators.”
Now! thinks the old man, who is still not over coming out for the three hunters from the Palatinate and whose protuberance is now covered by a cylinder, what exactly was that? A form of Pythia, it seems to me.
But the gloomy youth, who understood the girl as she spoke, nods slowly. Then they fall quiet, and the unkempt girl looks to the three noble siblings. She despises them, but she looks on at them, until they disappear around the corner.
The arduous discovery of the properties of the quaternions by William Rowan Hamilton has always stuck in my mind as among the most romantic of modern math’s encounters. Until the fall of 1843, Hamilton was set to work extending the complex numbers, by then a regular feature of the theory of equations. As he would later write in a letter to his son,
Every morning in the early part of October 1843, on my coming down to breakfast, your brother William Edwin and yourself used to ask me: “Well, Papa, can you multiply triples?” Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head, “No, I can only add and subtract them.”
Lucky for us, the mathematician was no more than a few weeks from perspiration paying a handsome dividend of inspiration. The image topping this post is an inscription, set by the city of Dublin, on Brougham Bridge, which reads,
Here as he walked by on the 16th of October 1843 Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = −1 & cut it on a stone of this bridge.
I used to read fondly about the Hamilton Walk some lucky mathematicians and quaternion admirers went on annually, along the foggy span of the Royal Canal, retracing his eureka moment.
Imagine my surprise, then, when in the course of reading Tristan Needham’s peerless Visual Complex Analysis, I read a note on the history of the quaternions which alluded to prior discovery.
As is well known, the quaternion rule was discovered in algebraic form by Sir William Rowan Hamilton in 1843. It is less well known that three years earlier Olinde Rodrigues had published an elegant geometric investigation of the composition of rotations in space that contained essentially the same result…
Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 44
Rodrigues was an interesting figure in his own right. His mathematical discoveries were noteworthy, but the greater part of his writings were political. He was a noted follower of the Comte de Saint-Simon, whose philosophy, Saint-Simonianism, counts among its descendants the utilitarianism of Mill, the anarchism of Proudhon, and the positivism of Auguste Comte. Despite all that, Rodrigues was said to be Saint-Simon’s favorite.
His works on math, though, are what we’re dealing with here. They shift the perspective on quaternionic discovery. Far from being the classic eureka moment of 1840s Irish mathematics, the near-simultaneous discovery sets up a new battle in the mold of the great Newton-Leibniz Calculusschlacht.
Of course, that would be the case, had both Rodrigues and Hamilton not been preempted by – who else? – Gauss:
Hamilton and Rodrigues are just two examples of hapless mathematicians who would have been dismayed to examine the unpublished notebooks of the great Karl Friedrich Gauss. There, just like another log entry in the chronicle of his private mathematical voyages, Gauss recorded his discovery of the quaternion rule in 1819.
Klein himself was among the greatest of the many great mathematicians working in Göttingen and others of the first-class German universities in the tail end of the long nineteenth century; he studied under Lipschitz and taught, among others, Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro (developer of the theory of tensor calculus), Walther von Dyck (formalizer of the modern notion of group), and Max Planck. In 1875 he married Hegel’s granddaughter, Anne, and in 1895 he hired David Hilbert as a professor at Göttingen. His was the recommendation that the basis of secondary-level mathematical education be analytic geometry, which endures today in the common Algebra -> Geometry -> Pre-Calculus sequence.
Aside from the Klein bottle, Klein is best known for his lectures at Erlangen, the first place he held a professorship (at 23!), wherein he motivated a new synthesis for modern mathematics and established new directions for mathematical research – this is the famous Erlangen Program. Needham puts it well:
…[A] geometric property of a figure is one that is unaltered by all possible motions of the figure…in answer to the opening question of “What is geometry?”, Klein would answer that it is the study of these so-called invariants of the set of motions…Klein’s idea was that we could first select a group G at will, then define a corresponding “geometry” as the study of the invariants of that G.
Needham, Visual Complex Analysis, p. 32, 33
Amid all that work, Klein found the time to edit Gauss’ journals. May we all be so productive. In his preface, he noted one of two things “which bestow upon the journal incomparable biographical value” :
What we win for ourselves here is an unadulterated, personable insight into the scientific development of the young Gauss in the years 1796-1800.
[Diese] ist der unmittelbare, sozusagen persönliche Einblick, den wir gerade für die entscheidenden Jahre 1796-1800 in den wissenschaftlichen Werdegang des jungen GauB gewinnen.
Klein, Preface to Gauß’ wissenschaftliches Tagebuch, 1796-1814, p.2
The reader at this stage may have noticed the regrettable error in my research – the copy of Gauss’ journals I could find on the internet only went through 1814. The note in which he sets out the defining relations for the quaternionic algebra appeared in 1819. Try as I might, I ended up there, and so cannot get to the text of what Gauss did find.
There are no mountains
On the sky-rim here, no.
Not much offered to the gauzy eye,
Squat and squinting,
On the lookout for orogenies
And irruptions. It’s a flat place.
For the Puritans, the most attractive features of this,
The nearer coast, was respite, a chance to get away from it all,
Arable land less the masses which tended to teem. What they
Wanted was mostly a place to die alone, together, or to wait
At any rate, for the date of biblically preordained death. By accident,
The soil left them too much surplus and toleration ended up as
A sound manner to run a society, but it needn’t have turned out
Like this. They could’ve taken their time,
Subsisting on chaffish maize
And melting into their rocks,
Plymouth and otherwise.
Maybe they could’ve
Had their time taken away from them.
You’ve a preference?