At rest in the park

Peter has been reading Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Disappointment Artist, and he reported to me yesterday morning that, according to Lethem, Montgomery Clift is buried in Prospect Park. Not only that, but I walk past his grave whenever I take the dog to the Nether Mead.

Forgotten New York confirms it. When the park was laid out, it surrounded a Quaker cemetery but didn’t absorb it, and the cemetery survives, like a mitochondrion inside a eukaryote. It’s still private property. Since it was nice here yesterday, I took my camera and walked around the barbed-wire perimeter. Just up from a baseball field, in a sort of alcove under some trees, there’s a decent sight line, but not a great one. A sleeping man in a camouflage shirt, boots, and a trucker’s hat roused himself for just long enough to assure himself that my presence was no more than documentary. No sign of Clift per se. (The whole thing is completely invisible in Google Earth, by the way, because their satellite pix were taken in summer, and the tree canopy covers it.)

Since I had the camera out, I also took this, an exposed cross-section of the layers that compose our street. We have no running water during the day this week, which is so nineteenth-century it’s eighteenth-century.

Byron’s lapdog

In the department of hitherto-unnoticed nineteenth-century antecedents to indie-hipster pop songs of the early twenty-first century, today we consider the fetching and puzzlingly mild Swedish rocker Jens Lekman.

Lekman sings a song titled “When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog,” on an album of the same name, in which he imagines a relationship with his beloved somewhat like the elegiac, cross-species love in David Garnett’s novel Lady into Fox (which you should drop everything in order to read, if you haven’t already):

You can take me for a walk in the park
I’ll be chasing every single lark
I’ll be burying all the skeleton bones
Peeing on every cold black stone

As it happens, this trope has been deployed elsewhere—notably, in the out-of-control screed that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in the Atlantic in 1869, when she heaped shovelful after shovelful of sexual condemnation onto Byron and championed his wife. In Stowe’s narrative, after Lady Byron concludes that her husband is not only incest-prone but also insane, she has a moment of regret before she leaves him—and his sister—forever:

On the day of her departure she passed by the door of his room, and stopped to caress his favorite spaniel, which was lying there; and she confessed to a friend the weakness of feeling a willingness even to be something as humble as that poor little creature, might she only be allowed to remain and watch over him. She went into the room where he and the partner of his sins were sitting together, and said, “Byron, I come to say good by,” offering at the same time her hand.

Note that sometime in the course of the intervening century and a half, the Romantic poet-figure went from having the dog to being the dog.

Note: Peter adds that I ought also to have referenced Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Dame Muriel

Kill Fee reminds me that I posted an essay on Muriel Spark last year, and that now is the time for me to re-link to it. Here are the New York Times (“bleak and side-splitting”) and the Guardian (“curiously posh-Scottish camp”) obituaries, and here’s Stacey D’Erasmo’s 1997 interview.

UPDATE: Maud Newton has a great round-up of Spark criticism, including excellent essays by Ben Anastas and James Wood.

Sunset Park

Yesterday afternoon, instead of being a productive scholar, I biked down to something called the Old Glory Look Out, at about 81st Street and Shore Road in Brooklyn. There was an Asian family fishing, and another person on bicycle with camera, who dismounted to photograph a grocery cart abandoned beneath the pedestrian bridge. I felt it would be a little excessive for me to document it, too, so instead I took some photos of the water, but they’re too much in the style of 1970s greeting cards to post. On the way home, I also snapped these:

Sunset Park, looking east.

Green-wood Cemetery, through the cast-iron fence on McDonald Avenue.

A building going up across the street from the cemetery.

Mad, mad words

Not long ago, I told Peter that I was mad—mad—I tell you . . . under circumstances I no longer recall (general bleariness from overuse of, probably). As I said the words, it occurred to me that they sounded awfully nineteenth-century, as if from a speech Edwin Forrest might have delivered.

They weren’t in my Bartlett’s, and Google was useless, not because the phrase doesn’t appear, but because it appears too often. This morning, for example, there are 866 webpages using the phrase, and although the number confirms that the phrase is a common property now, the results fail to indicate whom it was stolen from originally.

I found the answer in the Chadwyck-Healey for-pay database Literature Online, by using the exact phrase search, a function they make hard to find. (To get to it, you have to search for a phrase within quotes, and when that search fails, click a special button that only then pops up.) The wonderful thing about the database is that all the texts are dated; I think Donald Foster first explained to me the advantage of this, when I interviewed him, many years ago.

Anyway, the phrase seems to have come from Within an Inch of His Life, a melodrama by James A. Herne first staged in 1879. I hope it won’t disappoint anyone too grievously if I confess that I was able to resist reading the thing through. Here’s the money shot:

Jules de Dardeville. You wanted to be free that you might prevent me from breaking the chains in which you held me. At our last meeting, when I thought you were crushed by grief, and was softened by your hypocritical tears—your anger, which I mistook for love—I was weak enough to say “I marry Dionysia only because you are not free.” Then you cried “Oh, God! How lucky it is that thought never entered my brain before!” What thought? Come! Answer me! Confess!

Genevieve, Countess de Clairnot. Confess?

Jules de Dardeville. Aye! That thought was murder!

Genevieve, Countess de Clairnot. I was mad—mad—I tell you, with jealousy and anger! I have outraged and destroyed my husband’s honor! But to murder him! Bah! You accuse me of what you know to be a lie!

Jules de Dardeville. Then, madam, as you say—if you are innocent, who could be guilty?

[Countess sinks in chair with horror]

Jules de Dardeville. [Bitterly] You act your part well!

I don’t hear any silent finger-quotes around the Countess de Clairnot’s use of the phrase—she seems to be doing her best impression of sincerity—so I’m guessing this is the primal scene. (Of course, if anyone should find the phrase in print in 1878, please write!) Edwin Forrest appears to be not guilty.

UPDATE, 19 April 2008: The resourceful Paul Collins has pushed the date of origin back to 1855.