I fell in love with the grand reading room of the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library long before ever setting foot in the place. The occasion was Damon Knight's Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, the first biography of America’s great chronicler of strange phenomena.
Fort, who died in 1932, tirelessly collected reports of spontaneous teleportation, poltergeists, downpours of frogs (the one in the film Magnolia is a nod to Fort) and mysterious objects hovering in the pre-Wright Brothers sky. He wrote about them with tongue in cheek, to mock scientific confidence in the fundamental rationality of the universe. It would be fair to call him a surrealist historian. Fort’s irony went right by me at the age of 12, but I had a typical prepubescent interest in the paranormal (fueled in part by rumors that The Exorcist was so scary that it had actually killed members of the moviegoing public or driven them insane) and Fort’s biography was shelved somewhere along that stretch of the Dewey decimal system.
Fort's interest in anomaly notwithstanding, it was Knight’s description of an ordinary scene in the eccentric writer’s daily life that burned itself into my memory as vividly as any episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The passage is bit long, but as the evocation of a place and a mood it is magnificent:
“In the reading room of the New York Public Library, that mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o’-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like mouldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, These are books that no one has opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust. White book dust, bone dust: garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested, it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt where, in the years from 1905 to 1920, Charles Fort sat? Many people must have wondered why he was here behind his tall stack of books: but one does not ask. Perhaps there is another like him there today, silent and determined under the green-shaded lamp.”
Finally able to do research there 20 years later, I was disappointed to find the main reading room somewhat less gloomy than depicted. (A later visit to the manuscript archive proved more satisfactory on that score.) I was there on a hunch that there might be a review of C. L. R. James’s World Revolution in a Canadian Marxist splinter group’s newspaper from the 1930s, as indeed there was. Knight was right about dust -- the brittle paper flaked with every turn of the page. It was an experience of deep connection, both with the history I was there to study and with the countless geniuses and cranks who had worked at the reading room’s long tables down the many years.
In 2012 it looked for a while as if Fort’s specter might end up homeless. Efforts were afoot to transform the library -- to remove books from the shelves in its vast basement and send them to New Jersey, and replace the reading room itself with something more cheerful and revenue enhancing. A tourist-friendly spot, where you could get a coffee, perhaps, and check your email.
Plans to renovate the 42nd Street library only became public knowledge when Scott Sherman revealed it in a cover story for The Nation, where he is a contributing writer. Following his lead on the story, I wrote this column on the impending disaster. Anthony Marx, the library’s president, responded with an article designed to mollify scholars -- who, as my reply indicated at the time, were not falling for it.
The more the word got around, the greater the outcry. There were letters. There were petitions. The library was flash-mobbed by a group called Books Not Billionaires. The architecture critic for The New York Times weighed in on the plan and found it wanting, not to say atrocious. By May 2014, the plan was dead.
Now in Sherman’s book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, published by Melville House, we have the full story -- or as much of it as can be told at this time, given the refusal of some parties to be interviewed. The title might sound a little bit portentous, but it isn’t: Patience and Fortitude are the two famous marble lions outside the library’s main entrance. The sculptor did not christen them. The names are part of the building’s lore, coined by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and adopted by patrons.
Sherman’s deeply researched but swiftly paced account of the rise and fall of the Central Library Plan (as it was called) doubles as a record of how deeply the institution became rooted in the city’s history and folkways since it opened its doors in 1911. None of which, it seems, counted for much in the scheme that was in place on the library’s centenary.
From thousands of pages of documents he obtained under New York’s Open Meetings Law, the author reports that the CLP, “conceived in the boom years preceding the recession of 2008, was a mystifying combination of austerity and devil-may-care overreach” that “was pushed along, in absolute secrecy, not by professional librarians but by a tight, core group of wealthy trustees from the worlds of finance and real estate.”
Sherman credits the trustees with having had good intentions, but it is worth stressing that he found none of the pseudopopulist rhetoric about “democratizing the library” during the planning phase. That was secreted only when necessary, like ink from a frightened squid. Once details of the plan were made public and subject to debate, the rationalizations collapsed -- as the 42nd Street structure itself might have, given the deep architectural flaws in the proposed renovation.
Patience and Fortitude makes clear that if the library had a golden age (a decade or so on either side of World War II, by the author’s reckoning) it has nonetheless had a long history of fiscal turmoil, and of leadership that was better suited to facing the challenges before it at some times than at others. What became an issue for the first time only in the most recent crisis was the fundamental understanding of the 42nd Street library as a world-renowned cultural institution that occupies some prime real estate, rather than the emphasis being the other way around.
Stone lions alone cannot defend such a unique location. Patience and Fortitude show how writers, teachers, students and scholars intervened before things reached the point of no return. Scott Sherman’s book is certain to find appreciative readers, because it is one for readers, who desperately need an advocate once the money starts talking.
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If you can remember the 1960s, the old quip goes, you weren’t really part of them. By that standard, the most authentic participants ended up as what used to be called “acid casualties”: those who took spiritual guidance from Timothy Leary’s injunction to “turn on, tune in and drop out” and ended up stranded in some psychedelic heaven or hell. Not that they’ve forgotten everything, of course. But the memories aren’t linear, nor are they necessarily limited to the speaker’s current incarnation on this particular planet.
Fortunately Stephen Siff can draw on a more stable and reliable stratum of cultural memory in Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience (University of Illinois Press). At the same time, communicating about the world as experienced through LSD or magic mushrooms was ultimately as difficult for a sober newspaper reporter, magazine editor or video documentarian as conversation tends to be for someone whose mind has been completely blown. The author, an assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio, is never less than shrewd and readable in his assessment of how various news media differed in method and attitude when covering the psychedelic beat. The slow and steady buildup of hype (a word Siff uses in a precise sense) precipitated an early phase of the culture wars -- sometimes in ways that partisans now might not expect.
Papers on experimentation with LSD were published in American medical journals as early as 1950, and reports on its effects from newspaper wire services began tickling the public interest by 1954. The following year, mass-circulation magazines were devoting articles to LSD research, followed in short order by a syndicated TV show’s broadcast of film footage showing someone under the influence. The program, Confidential File, sounds moderately sleazy (the episode in question was described as featuring “an insane man in a sensual trance”) but much of the early coverage was perfectly respectable, treating LSD as a potential source of insight into schizophrenia, or a potential expressway to the unconscious for psychoanalysts.
But the difference between rank sensationalism and science-boosting optimism may count for less, in Siff’s interpretation, than how sharply coverage of LSD broke with prevailing media trends that began coming into force in the 1920s.
After the First World War, with wounded soldiers coming back with a morphine habit, newspapers carried on panic-stricken anti-drug crusades (“The diligent dealer in deadly drugs is at your door!”) and any publication encouraging recreational drug use, or treating it as a fact of life, was sure to fall before J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye. Early movie audiences enjoyed the comic antics of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s detective character Coke Ennyday (always on the case, syringe at the ready), or in a more serious mood they could go to For His Son, D. W. Griffith’s touching story of a man’s addiction to Dopokoke, the cocaine-fueled soft drink that made his father rich. But by the time the talkies came around, the Motion Picture Production Code categorically prohibited any depiction of drug use or trafficking, even as a criminal enterprise. Siff notes that in the 20 years following the code’s establishment in 1930, “not a single major Hollywood film dealing with drug use was distributed to the public.”
Not that depictions of substance abuse were a forbidden fruit the public was craving, exactly. But the relative openness of the mid-1950s (emphasis on “relative”) allowed editors to risk publishing stories on what was, after all, serious research on a potential new wonder drug. Siff points out that general-assignment newspaper reporters attending a scientific or medical conference, unable to tell what sessions were worth covering, could feel reasonably confident that a title mentioning LSD would probably yield a story.
At the same time, writers for major newsmagazines and opinion journals were following the lead of Aldous Huxley, the novelist and late-life religious searcher, who wrote about mystical experiences he had while taking mescaline. In 1955, when the editors of Life magazine decided to commission a feature on hallucinogenic mushrooms, it turned to Wall Street banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson. He traveled to Mexico and became, in his own words, one of “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushroom” -- and if not, then surely the first to give an eyewitness report on “the archetypes, the Platonic ideals, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life” in the pages of a major newsweekly.
Suffice it to say that by the time Timothy Leary and associates come on the scene (wandering around Harvard University in the early 1960s, with continuously dilated pupils and only the thinnest pretense of scientific research) it is rather late in Siff’s narrative. And Leary’s legendary status as psychedelic shaman/guru/huckster seems much diminished by contrast with the less exhibitionistic advocacy of LSD by Henry and Clare Boothe Luce. Beatniks and nonconformists of any type were mocked regularly in the pages of Time or Life, but the Luce publications were for many years very enthusiastic about the potential benefits of LSD. The power couple tripped frequently, and hard. (Some years ago, when I helped organize Mrs. Luce’s papers at the Library of Congress, the LSD notes were a confidence not to be breached, but now the experiments are a matter of public record.)
The hippies, in effect, seem like a late and entirely unintentional byproduct of industrial-strength hype. “During an episode of media hype,” Siff writes, “news coverage feeds on itself, as different news outlets follow and expand on one another’s stories, reacting among themselves and to real-world developments. Influence seems to flow from the larger news organizations to smaller ones, as editors at smaller or more marginal media operations look toward the decisions made by major outlets for ideas and confirmation of their own judgment.”
That is the process, broadly conceived. In Acid Hype, Siff charts the details -- especially how the feedback bounced around between news organizations, not just of different sizes, but with different journalistic cultures. Newspaper coverage initially stuck to the major talking points of LSD researchers; it tended to stress the potential wonder-drug angle, even when the evidence for it was weak. Major magazines wanted to cover the phenomenon in greater depth -- among other things, with firsthand reports on the psychedelic universe by people who’d gone there on assignment. Meanwhile, the art directors tried to figure out how to convey far-out experiences through imagery and layout -- as, in time, did TV producers. (Especially on Dragnet, if memory serves.)
Some magazine editors seem to have been put off by the religious undercurrents of psychedelic discourse. Siff exhibits a passage in a review that quotes Huxley’s The Doors of Perception but carefully removes any biblical or mystical references. But someone like Leary, who proselytized about psychedelic revolution, was eminently quotable -- plus he looked good on TV because (per the advice of Marshall McLuhan) he smiled constantly.
The same hype-induction processes that made hallucinogens seem like the next step toward improving the American way of life (or, conversely, the escape route for an alternative to it) also went into effect when the tide turned: just as dubious claims about LSD’s healing properties were reported without question (it’ll cure autism!), so did horror stories about side effects (it’ll make you stare at the sun until you go bling!).
The reaction seems to have been much faster and more intense than the gradual pro-psychedelic buildup. Siff ends his account of the period in 1969 -- oddly enough, without ever mentioning the figure who emerged into public view that year as the embodiment of LSD's presumed demons: Charles Manson. You didn't hear much about the drug's spiritual benefits after Charlie began explaining them. That was probably for the best.
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