Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Knowing Our Place

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome back Matthew Fleagle, who works as a technical writer at a small software company in Seattle, Washington. Fleagle wrote recently and quite eloquently on this page about longtime New Yorker contributor Joseph Mitchell. Below, he offers us the results of his interview with another New York author [and occasional blogger], Robert Sullivan.)

Author Robert Sullivan (photo © Myrna Copaleen)

Manhattan-born Robert Sullivan is well known as the author of several non-fiction books, including 1998’s The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and 2004’s best-selling Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

Reading those works made me certain that Sullivan must be a fan of Joseph Mitchell, a favorite New York writer of mine. So when, not long ago, I was putting together a two-part article about Mitchell for January Magazine, I sought out Sullivan for some insight -- in the process discovering that he himself had a new book being readied for release: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In this latest offering, Sullivan laces up his history boots and seeks out some less-remembered landscapes of the American Revolution, places in New York and New Jersey where General George Washington and his ragtag Continental Army waged a long and mostly losing war against the British.

But this is not an account of the American Revolution; it’s a personal re-enactment of parts of the story as they reveal themselves in the folds of the land. Sniffing out rivers and mountains that are almost invisible in the urban topography of today, Sullivan connects the stations of his journey of rediscovery by means of several different narrative tools -- crossing a river and crossing time, signaling from hilltops, and re-entering the past through today’s local weather -- and comes home to his writing desk with a rucksack full of the kind of historical treasures that made me a fan of his books in the first place. To me, My American Revolution is about how we as a culture remember events that are sacred to us, and how the land remembers, and about how our memory succeeds and fails in connecting us with the past.

Sullivan is a contributing editor to Vogue, but his writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ and Rolling Stone, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. I consider Sullivan a kind of kindred spirit, the way he sees historical layers beneath current landscapes, and I wanted to find out ... well, how he got to be that way and how he views his writing processes. What follows are the results of our recent conversation.

Matthew Fleagle: In My American Revolution, you quote the 19th-century author Thomas F. DeVoe as saying that his fascination with history is a “dreadful disease” and you refer to his “history problem.” When did you realize that you, too, had a history problem? Was history your thing as a kid, or did the love of it dawn on you gradually?

Robert Sullivan: I always remember liking history, or what I thought of as history, as a kid. Specifically, I liked watching old World War II movies with my pop. He was in the army; I got to hear a little critique of how things were in the army in the movies versus in real life. I think asking about history and politics was a way to sit at the table, to talk with older relatives. When I was a newspaper reporter, after college, I got to cover small towns and then big cities in New Jersey, and the history of these places was not just interesting but important, crucial to understanding what was going on at the moment.

I would hate to think how many dozens of bad “Talk of the Town” pieces I submitted to The New Yorker before having my first one accepted a little over 20 years ago, but I know that most of them were obsessive looks at the history of people and places in the city, things that seemed to be fading away -- and now of course are gone. I remember a guy from North Carolina who raised chickens in an automotive garage in Hell’s Kitchen, all the birds sleeping in the rafters, as protection against roving bands of rats. He was a wonderful guy, gentrified away -- even the name Hell’s Kitchen is gone -- and the garage is gone, replaced by a mania for locally harvested eggs.

MF: I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of your previous books, The Meadowlands and Rats. The former book found you digging for Jimmy Hoffa’s body in a garbage dump, while Rats had you spying on rodents in a Lower Manhattan alley for a year of nights. Before this new book is over, you’ve retraced a 30-mile rebel march from Princeton to Morristown, New Jersey, in freezing weather, aggravating your back in the process. You do history with your boots on. What pushes you outside?

RS: Probably typing pushes me outside. I would rather be out walking than trying to come up with a paragraph -- until that is, I have a paragraph, and I begin to rework it, an act that causes me to lose track of time. I guess I feel as if the land is charged, as if street corners are filled with ghosts -- that you can hear things and see things and get help imagining things in the landscape. If I stand on a chair in our apartment, I can just see one patch of New York Harbor, one little dollop of blue or gray or gray-blue or steel-blue, depending on the sky. I can see far-off hills in New Jersey, I can see the shape of the city through the tops of buildings. It seems as if the physical shape of the city has made us who we are, causes us to go where we go in the ways that we do. There are stories outside, in other words. I’m sure this sounds crazy, but to me it seems as if the world is always talking.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze.

MF: My American Revolution seems to be less about the events of the American Revolution than about how we remember or misremember -- or even fail to remember -- those events, how we carry them forward through time. And you seem at least as interested in the ways we get it wrong -- such as Emanuel Leutze’s painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River -- as in how we get it right. Why is this so interesting to you? Is there really any hope of getting history right? At least in any way that’s meaningful to you?

RS: I don’t know if people get things wrong, when it comes to history, or if all of human history is like a giant game of telephone. How can you transmit an idea without tainting it? On the flipside, what are the essential elements of stories that are passed on despite our deficiencies and failures, and misunderstandings or varied perspectives? I think the book is about the history of histories, a history of various remembrances, and styles and methods of remembering. Or maybe the book is an art project -- something I’m hoping will cause people to consider or reconsider their engagements with the past.

A [historical] re-enactment is a way of engaging with the past that, once you examine one in depth, begins to seem a lot like a ritual, and when I took apart the annual re-enactment of the Crossing of the Delaware in New Jersey, I realized it began with having a lot to do with the Leutze painting, and ended up having even more to do with the river. The river makes the call every year as to whether the re-enactment will go on or not go on. So an important player, to look at it from the river’s point of view, is the Delaware watershed, which is to say rain in the Catskill Mountains.

Which brings me to the idea of the seasons being re-enactments. I can look at the winter stars and see the stars that Washington saw. (In fact, the stars on the U.S. flag are rooted in the sighting of a comet at around the time of the Boston Massacre, a comet that was perceived as a good omen for Americans.) The revolution I am referring to in the title is not the one that people think of as the war, but the revolution of the planet that causes a year, that brings us remembrances and understandings. The revolution is everywhere, all the time.

MF: You point out that while more of the Revolutionary War action happened in New York and New Jersey than anywhere else, this history has been neglected in favor of places where the rebels didn’t get their butts kicked so much. Why is that? Do you think that this points to an immaturity in Americans as history-keepers? How much of a barrier is “defeat” to Americans’ willingness to explore Revolutionary history where it really took place, or are there other things keeping them ignorant of it? By contrast, you’ve said you like reflecting on defeat and loss. Can you elaborate on the value of such reflection?

RS: Butts kicked is right, and butt-kicking is always something that people would just rather move beyond. I would argue that there are good reasons, as far as personal emotional maintenance, to look at losses and defeats, but those are hopefully pretty clear to most people. I know that if you go to a military college you are taught to examine, closely, losses as a matter of prevention -- officers-to-be go on site visits to look for lessons in the landscape.

New York is where the Continental Army faced off with the British for the first time after the signing of the Declaration of Independence; Washington lost. After that he avoided facing off with them. The evacuation -- or retreat -- of the American army from Brooklyn to Manhattan is a somewhat storied logistical feat that impressed even the British, a whole lot of local boats orchestrated by a bunch of seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, in a difficult tidal stretch that is difficult to maneuver at certain points in the tidal cycle to this day. (I’ve done it!) After being chased out of New York, through the New Jersey Meadowlands (with Tom Paine embedded), he made it to the other side of the Delaware, until the famed Christmas 1776 crossing. After that, the troops encamp in the Watchung Mountains.

From this ridge of the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey, General Washington could keep tabs on British troop movements back in 1777. Through the haze, you can see today’s New York City skyline. (Source: W2LG’s Blog)

The Watchungs are little known, and yet military strategists and American history-interested geologists will tell you that they were the strategic key to the war, the mountains that allowed Washington to win by not losing. What I got to see in my modern-day excursions is that the strategy of the landscape still matters and is surprisingly relevant. The New York landscape is a good place to think about these things, because we don’t have preconceived notions about what happened here during the Revolution. Or as many. Also, it is less cluttered with valiant biography. The war was won by the hills on a golf course in the Bronx that allowed a few riflemen to hold back the British army. The war was won by local boats and the typical late-summer winds and the tides. The war was crowd-sourced, by many Americans familiar with their places.

I was in Boston the other day talking about the Revolution, and someone thought I was going to say that New York’s landscape is somehow more important than Boston’s or Philadelphia’s landscape. This is not my point. I am one of a small number of New Yorkers who are touting their second place-ness, their non-center on the world. My point is that every place is very important, a point I take from a lot of people, especially Thoreau, who said that you ought to know the piece of land you are standing on. He was quoted by Emerson as saying, “I think nothing is to be hoped from you, if this bit of mould under your feet is not sweeter to you to eat than any other in this world, or in any world.”

MF: How do you feel about the timing of a book on the Revolutionary War? I’m thinking that the United States has recently been at war longer than at any other time in its history. How do you understand Americans’ view of American wars?

RS: I guess I see the Revolutionary War as a struggle against an empire. I see that there were British generals who seem to have understood the American reasoning, but that the system itself -- the empire -- could not negotiate in subtleties. I see that, logistically speaking, a faraway country had to work against a small local force that eventually gained more and more support from local militias. I see that General Washington complained about the British prison ships in Brooklyn throughout the war -- 11,000 people died there, more than died in all the battles of the Revolution, their bones in a crypt in a now-trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn. I think that Americans think that wars did not happen here. But of course they did. They always have -- long before the Revolution, of course.

MF: I want to pause to ask about you and the writing craft. Your publisher called the Meadowlands book “a grunge north Jersey version of John McPhee’s classic The Pine Barrens [1968].” And in fact the books have some obvious parallels -- an infertile woodland within sight of the Empire State Building, a toxic swamp within sight of the Empire State Building -- as well as some less-obvious parallels, such as how you encountered and hung out with the old canoeist the way McPhee tagged along with the old Piney in his book. How much have McPhee and other literary journalists informed your passion for searching out and writing about the strange corners of your world? Besides McPhee, if he is one, who do you see as your influences, and what is it about their work that has stuck with you the most? How much do you let your literary heroes guide your hand?

RS: As is the case for many people, I imagine, John McPhee is a huge influence on me. I had been a newspaper reporter when I read his books. I wanted to try and write about things that I could not write about as a reporter, whole landscapes, regions. I was driving around the country a lot with my girlfriend, who became my wife, and just getting blown away by the country -- by everywhere, basically. I still feel that way, which is perhaps a sign of lasting immaturity. But when I sat down to write a book on the Meadowlands, I went and re-read a bunch of books that I loved that I thought applied to a book about a place. I was looking to quantify what exactly it was that I loved about these books. I had been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, after seeing his boyhood home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I read somewhere that before he sat down to write his first book, he outlined a bunch that he liked. I did the same, with a whole bunch of books by my favorite writers -- Graham Greene, John McGahern and Colm Tóibín. In the case of McGahern and Tóibín, I was especially interested in how they used dialogue in a spare and resonant way -- I was on the lookout for exchanges such as these in the world, life being like art, I suppose.

There are obvious parallels between The Meadowlands and The Pine Barrens, because when I was looking for a form to put my Meadowlands thinking and reporting into I tried to find the form of an intimate exploration of a place, such as The Pine Barrens. Additionally, my wife had given me a copy of Great Plains, by Ian Frazier, which I loved. I thought I could see influences between the two books, and then influences back to Joseph Mitchell, who had written similarly interesting and intimate profiles before them at The New Yorker. I was worried about being too close to their styles, except that, as opposed to exploring places that were pristine and faraway, I was exploring a landscape that was disgusting and close.

I am jealous of both McPhee’s and Frazier’s exacting and careful styles -- they both have a patience that I will never manage. I can’t seem to stay on one point. Then again, I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about a writer who seems to have fascinated Mitchell, at least -- James Joyce. Joyce, I would argue, uses a lot of tangents and gorgeously spiraling narrative trajectories to arrive at a few simple points. My wife gave me a bunch of her favorite books when we were married -- Edward Abbey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Wallace Stegner -- and she sat and listened to The Meadowlands read aloud after I wrote it and just before I handed it in. I guess I am always hoping I will somehow impress her.

MF: How’s that going? Is it working yet?

RS: We are still married, is all I will say. She is a tough editor, and listens to way too much material that is, as a result of being aired, discarded, and we are still married. For this book we worked together, as seen here and here.

MF: Bruce Barcott called you “the rare non-fiction writer who maintains a catholic curiosity,” and I don’t know another writer who can pack so many diverse subjects into one narrative so seamlessly. Do you see yourself as part of any particular tradition as a writer, or as a trailblazer of a new writing ethos?

RS: I am always working on “seamless,” because I have a hard time seeing how things do not relate to each other. One of my theme songs is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, containing the line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God ...” And you can take God or leave Him, but either way the big point is that the world is charged. It matters. It hears us and we hear it. Likewise, I see that individuals are defined by their community, by their associations. A place is us and we are a place. I also think a lot of things are sad and hard, as in difficult. I can’t imagine any tradition that would have me, and I am not so much trailblazing as trailing, always behind. I would like to have worked on anonymous texts in a Medieval Europe, maybe, where people didn’t know the author’s name, like the old “Talk of the Town” section. I could have been a copyist on a little island off Ireland or Scotland, if I was born a few centuries ago and had better handwriting.

MF: Is there any particular idea about “writing and history and place” that is trying to get out of you that you can identify? Does My American Revolution continue any kind of rational path in your publishing history? Or could any of your books have been your first book?

RS: My American Revolution is for me the end of a progression. It’s a little bit of a do-over, covering actual ground I covered in The Meadowlands. But this time I am going farther back in the story of the region, and this time I feel as if I have even better proof that places are important to us. You might not believe it, but when I am reading back pages, I really don’t want to hear too much about myself, except as a foil; but in this book I tried to link my own concerns about history and the past (and fatherhood, frankly, and what comes after) into the places that we all pass through in the world. That person in Boston said, “Oh, you are trying to say that New York is the center of the universe.” But no! As I say, I am trying to say the opposite -- that nowhere is the center of the universe, and thus everywhere becomes the center. Thus, the question becomes, “Can you see the universe, or any piece of it?”

MF: OK, back to our story. I found myself seeing this book in several ways that I’d like you to comment on. Maybe I’m all wet, but the first thing that struck me was that this book was like traveling a long river with many tributaries feeding into it, some of which you pursue a long way upstream and some not. The modern re-enactor St. John Terrell is a tributary we follow quite a ways, as is your patriotic friend Duke, who builds and launches an unlicensed, working replica of a Revolutionary War-era military submarine. By contrast, Anna Strong’s laundry, which signaled rebels about secret meetings, is a small creek that we merely wave at in passing. Your book is full of these historic and present-day characters whose stories feed the main story. How did you choose which streams to explore in the book? Did you withhold some of the more interesting tributaries for later books?

RS: I withheld many tributaries for sanity, for the sake of keeping the reader awake. I wish the book were shorter. I always hope to write short, and don’t -- a bad sign. The book starts with a river; crossing a river is crossing time, literally. There are things I missed: George Washington’s surveyor, a genius. I found out about him when it was time to shut the typing down. Books will kill you, and they will kill your family. If you are smart at all, you end them.

MF: How is crossing a river “literally” crossing time?

RS: A river is literally time, in my mind. In the Hudson, here in New York City, the river is yesterday’s rain in the Catskill Mountains upstate, and tomorrow’s Atlantic Ocean. The river is by definition change. Like time, it never stands still.

MF: I get it. Another way I saw My American Revolution was as the telling of a dream of loss or longing. You spend much of this book alone. A few friends and neighbors helped out or tagged along a few times, but this felt very much like a personal odyssey. The part where you run in circles in the snow until you are exhausted, trying to connect in some physical way with the not-very-good poet Philip Freneau, who froze to death nearby, I found particularly moving. It is one of the most beautiful moments in your book, I think, but it’s so far from the library, from the paths of scholarship. Do you see history as a lonely enterprise? There seems to be a kind of implicit sorrow in your tale that more people don’t appreciate the traces of history that are still present, just off the beaten path.

RS: I guess history is lonely sometimes. More often I find it inspiring to look back to see people struggling and even triumphing over the things we all struggle with. I see little happinesses, in letters, in pictures of the winter evening that, say, the Continental Army danced in the mountains of New Jersey, General Washington present -- a great dancer, apparently. Sorrow is not completely sorrowful for me. The heart is some kind of instrument, and as I see it you have to use all the notes in order to know the instrument’s full range. I feel bad for the kids who don’t grow up hearing sad old songs, who are sheltered entirely from disappointment. When things get bad in their adult lives, they will have a lot of catching up to do.

To answer more concisely, I find Freneau’s story to be incredibly sad, and at the same time beautiful, and I almost like his last poems.

MF: Finally, I saw your story as a hero’s journey, with a final redemption through reconnection -- specifically, a connection with the next generation (i.e., the future). I won’t spoil the ending, but I have to admit I got choked up there in the final pages where time is running out for the man who has become unstuck in time, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, and who is desperately trying to re-tether himself by signaling home. When you started your research, did you know that the hilltops and the signals would play the role they did?

RS: I wrote the first chapters over and over, screwing them up each time, but I kept plotting out my advance after each failure. Finally, I put the introduction aside and started marching ahead, crossing the Delaware and then marching through the mountains, at which point I knew that the signals on the mountains were my goal. I was so happy when I got to the end and was able to write the story of our signaling. I knew exactly what I was going to say. My editor helped me work the book over a couple more times -- I have always had amazing editors -- but the ending we kept as it was.

MF: At the end of the book you gripped the attention of a whole school full of kids. How has your recent book tour compared to that?

RS: I was not at the school -- I was 18 miles away, in the hills -- so I can’t really say. (I face the same situation vis-à-vis most history.) But the book tour is sort of sporadic -- little forays out into New England, and now the South and Texas. Sometimes I feel as if I am peddling false goods. Oh, you thought I was talking about the Revolutionary War. No, I was talking about the revolution of the earth around the sun, a calendar, a year! But people get it. In fact, people I read to make me feel not so crazy after all. It’s not just me. Places matter to everyone.

I’ll say it again, I don’t want people to think I am saying New York is better than any place else. I have been all over the country and I know that we are full of great places. I want people to explore their own places, to celebrate -- wherever they live -- the past, and thus more thoroughly the present. Huzzah!

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Anonymous James said...

"I have a hard time seeing how things do not relate to each other."


I've had my eye on My American Revolution for a while now--every time I'm in the book store, I turn it face out. Time to open it up.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 12:43:00 PM PST  

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