Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town

May 14, 2009

There are a lot of nots and a couple of could-bes in Thousands of Broadways. An essay in nine parts, it's neither autobiography nor a study or history of the poet's hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey, a seaside resort community that saw better days in the 19th century.

In fact, we learn more about Long Branch, about nostalgia, about family history, about memory, in Robert Pinsky's fine and clever poetry (see Memoir or The Night Game, among others, in the collection The Figured Wheel) than we do in this book, which had a trial run as the inaugural Campbell Lecture Series at Rice University in 2005. In the second chapter he writes, as if explaining to a reasonably impatient editor or audience member: "My subject here is the American town as it lives in a few specific, impressive works of art."

It's hard to imagine what his three nights of listeners made of the lolling riffs on Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, William Faulkner's The Hamlet, Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, and Preston Sturges' films The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. The digressions on Faulkner and Sturges seem to stir an interest in Pinsky, but usually his half-hearted focus leaves him simply trying to sound clever: "The comic vibration between 'simple' and 'eternal' is also a gulf, with a component of rage at a folksy simplicity in love with itself."

Pinsky is a former US Poet Laureate, and his Tanner lectures at Princeton University, published as Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (2002), were pompous and even more annoying than this rambling series, so what is it about public pronouncements that makes Pinsky turn from the classics-loving bard into the Boston University bore? If Long Branch is so interesting, so typically different, why not write about it? Has the poet really exhausted his curiosity about his "bar-keeping grandfather Dave Pinsky" who "had been a bootlegger during Prohibition: a small-time gangster"?

In the final chapter, after I had given up on him making sense of his book, he seems to have given up, too, on putting off that task and he starts describing a non-imaginary place, as if it came to him: now where was I? "My own town of Long Branch may not exactly fit the subject of provincial American towns, because it is so extraordinary a place. Or is that feeling part of my chauvinism, or nostalgia?"

He passes on directly answering that question, but at least starts evoking Long Branch by referring to an actual history and retelling the town's invasion in the summer of 1924 by the Ku Klux Klan and of the assassinated President James Garfield in 1881: "The handsome, charismatic Garfield was shot in a Washington train station on July 2, planning to spend the summer with his family in Long Branch. Suffering from his wound and likely killed by the stream of doctors poking at it, each eager for prestige and each with unwashed hands, Garfield lingered in the White House through record heat ...

"Finally, in early September, the President's mattress was carried from the White House into a railroad carriage fitted with special springs. In Long Branch, hundreds of men worked all night to lay a railroad spur from the Elberon Station to the door of the Francklyn cottage on the ocean-front, five-eighths of a mile away. People came from the hotels with coffee and sandwiches for the workers." Very nice!

Except in this final chapter, readers will learn next to nothing about America or its Main Streets that they didn't already know or conjure up from the movies. For an authentic American small-town experience, try Pinsky's poems.

Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town

By Robert Pinsky. University of Chicago Press 106pp, £11.00. ISBN 9780226669441. Published 15 April 2009

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