INTERVIEW WITH ERIC DARTON
by Ayla Zuraw-Friedland
Eric Darton was born in New York City in 1950. His books include Divided We Stand: A Biography of the World Trade Center
(Basic Books, 1999, 2011), and Free City, a novel, (WW Norton, 1996). The final two books of his five-volume cultural
memoir Notes of a New York Son, 1995-2007 were published in November, 2013.
Darton has taught in the Goddard College MFA in Writing program and served as thesis-writing coach at New York
University’s Urban Design and Architecture Studies MFA program. Currently he teaches “Our World Trade Centers”
at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies (Empire State College) and
“Signifying City: Freedom, Love and Power in the Writing of Baldwin, Berman and Others” at
the Joint Board of IBEW Local 3.
Darton has been an editor of Conjunctions, American Letters & Commentary and Frigatezine.
His website: www.ericdarton.net has more information on his work, as well as selected downloads.
Darton’s literary blog, Book of the World Courant is at www.bookoftheworldcourant.net.
His essay on James Baldwin and pedagogy may be found http://www.tupeloquarterly.com,
where he is a senior editor.
How do you feel growing up in New York or “the City” has influenced your writing, aside from obvious subject matter?
Every little organism experiences life in the big organism differently. I had a great early childhood – the city was,
almost literally, my oyster. Around the age of reason, though, a serious reversal in my personal circumstances shifted
my sense of well-being. The city became not just a place of nurturance, but also of loss.
But by the time hard times hit, the cultural die had been pretty much cast. I’d grown up in Greenwich Village, and where
we lived wasn’t arty, it was a northern spur of Little Italy that was mixed residential and industrial, so the music,
the rhythms of non-English and machines noise conditioned my idea of sound. It gave my spoken, and later,
my written language, a kind of layering that on the one hand similar to, but different from, the complexity of the countryside.
And I heard lots of Puerto Rican Spanish too, without having any idea what it signified, and Yiddish, and Russian
from my father’s friends and, of course, Black English. So because of what you’ve heard, you end up writing with a
very odd style, somewhere between Romantic flow, a Kazaksky and a bop. At bedtime, I’d be read books that basically
reflected Anglo-American structure. So there’s the mongrel mix. At least some of it.
I used to say I grew up working poor but not working-class, but then I came on a term Margaret Mead used to describe
her background that feels more accurate: proletarian intellectual.
And then there was the moment itself. This was the fifties and there was just a tremendous post-war energy to the
city that came straight out of the ground, through the soles of your feet, spiraling up your legs and into your whole
self. Think Coney Island. And the Metropolitan Museum. And jumping off high rocks at the northern tip of the island
into very dangerous waters. All of it accessible by subway, bus or bike – no need for cars. In conditions like these,
you don’t learn to appreciate diversity, you grow up to embody it.
How do you manage to go so easily between writing books that seem to be of such different genres? That is, from poetry,
to short fiction, to non-fiction research, etc.
Well I think I jumped the gun and partly answered that above. The trick is how to shift modes without
becoming schizophrenic. But it isn’t so much a trick as a practice of learning the constraints and
freedoms of a particular form. And what is qualitatively possible within them. The constraints and freedoms
of jazz improvisation and classical interpretation are quite different, but they are inherent in the form itself.
And there are some people who can do both, either by natural inclination, or as a result of a lot of practice in
That said, I don’t write much poetry, unless it’s required for one of my fictional characters. I started as a poet
though and a poem I wrote while working as a dishwasher in a hospital when I was sixteen got published
in Evergreen Review. I was over the moon. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Robbe-Grillet and, wow! Darton. But oddly,
post-adolescence, I lost my gift for poetry, though thankfully not my ear. I hope to get back to poetry one
day though, to a deeper kind of evocation through concision. And allusion. Which alone among the forms used in
the West, poetry makes possible. Though I think most poets still feel compelled to write far too directly about a subject,
and therefore fail to allow it to emerge.
To me the various genres are simply divergent modes by which one big reality reveals itself. If you practice them in a
dynamic relationship with one another, they cross-inform.
On a surface level, writing history limits my ability to improvise. So I have to take the associative part to another
level if it my mind and the work aren’t going to get stuck in the thingtual. Writing history can be just as playful as fiction,
it’s just that you have to let the history play you.
What I can no longer avoid though is that I enjoy writing fiction far more than anything else. That’s my pleasure center.
It’s where the eros lives. Somehow I do nonfiction as a kind of duty, out of a sense of obligation to whom or what
I’m not sure. Though I do try to find some joy in it. I suppose either I’m trying to balance my energies, or honor
my ancestors and their vicissitudes. There’s probably some residual, nearly vestigial, impulse to enlighten
humanity and “improve” the world through knowledge, which I don’t really believe is possible.
There is an ego element too, maybe. After all, with rare exceptions the “real” is much more highly valued than
the “imaginative” in our culture. My dreams are worth very little. The Pharaoh doesn’t really care about his dreams
either, or my read on them. Whereas cultural criticism – if it serves to make people feel more powerful and intelligent,
or can be used for political leverage – has much more traction. This insistence on Truth is part of our inheritance from
the Greeks, through Western philosophy as a whole. It’s why we invented monotheism, so we could have perfect a truth that
lives somewhere outside of ourselves and dictates an ideal and therefore impossible mode of being.
This ever-present schism between our actuality and perfection creates great fear, individually and socially. Which is
one reasons we have to stimulate or narcotize ourselves with ideas, when reality speaks powerfully to anyone who’s willing
to engage their sensory apparatus or even scan the historical record for comparisons to the present moment.
Divided We Stand, my 1999 book on the World Trade Center was a huge flashing red warning light to anyone
who was remotely awake: about the buildings’ vulnerability, our country’s terribly menacing amnesia and awful
drives for domination, but folks just drew a blank. They respected the scholarship and the formal qualities of
the book without allowing its analysis to penetrate at all. Then came 9/11 and a brief moment of semi-awakening
until Morpheus took us under his wing again – allowing us, in our strange, delusory slumber, to start dropping
bombs on people half a world away, the vast majority of whom had done us no harm. Or only the unwitting harm of
being not us, and therefore objects of hatred and fear.
What was it like to become the focus of such enormous and far-stretching media attention for your
book, Divided We Stand, in the wake of 9/11? Did it have personal repercussions as well as professional?
It was a deeply mixed bag. One the one hand, as a teacher, I’d often said that you don’t know what the world will
make of your book once it leaves your hand. Just write it, don’t try to control its destiny. And suddenly, there I
was living my own lesson in spades. It was very odd having one’s book become a kind of relic, the mortal remains of
a now-sacred thing. Both materially and psycho-spiritually, for a time, the book was the closest thing people had to
the WTC itself. And they’d ask me to sign it like it was a piece of an I-beam.
The media attention gave me an opportunity – since for about five minutes the news wasn’t being packaged – the story
had just blown a hole in the shrink wrapping of the spectacle – to, again, hold up a sign that said STOP! What I meant
was, let’s take this awful thing in, let’s feel our way, let’s deal with our suffering internally rather than
immediately acting out. I could feel the wars coming in the NYT headline: “America Attacked!” the morning after.
Having lived through the sixties, I knew how violent our country is.
So foolish me tried to stand in front of the tank, and unlike the guy at Tiananmen Square, I got flattened. With
combined pneumonia and psychic overload.
Divided We Stand sold a lot of copies, I don’t know how many, but tens of thousands, until the anthrax scare, and
in particular, Judith Miller’s WMD book bumped it off the hit parade. It was amazing how fast public attention turned
from the macro to the micro – from the pulverized to powder. So, did the public mind jump, or was it pushed? I can’t
rightly say, but in the biological warfare hysteria, the nascent opportunity for any serious discussion of 9/11 simply
vanished. The moment passed, ungrasped. Again.
Even after I was officially pronounced cured of pneumonia, I still felt horrible. So I sought out a good acupuncturist,
started doing qi gongs and eventually found myself practicing an internal martial art with Daoist roots.
After twelve years in this practice, I feel a lot more vital and grounded than I did before 9/11. Ba Gua Zhang,
which is both a meditation and a martial art, has also had a tremendous effect on my writing and on my understanding
of practice qua practice. I think the strength in my work comes increasingly from a more rooted, yet paradoxically more
ductile and mobile place. I’m less interested in manipulating situations, nailing things down, and more interested in
seeing what arises on its own. In short, duh, I trust the material more – and the process itself.
There’s a Chinese saying: “paint the clouds to evoke the moon.”
What Ba Gua Zhang opened up to me as a writer was the idea that obliquity and indirection give a different kind of
access to emotional life and to reality as a whole.
So now I’ve got two available modes: direct and indirect, orthodox or guerrilla-style. It all depends on the situation
and the type of language energy called for. My characters can talk about something and it can allude to something else.
I may not know myself what they mean to say.
Silence can become a kind of speech. And vice versa. Which is different from the notion of, say positive and negative
space, or, as we say it, showing rather than telling. It becomes a question less of that not this, than of how one shows.
You can read the Chinese character for, say, jade. But how it’s brushed, and the context in which character stands,
will reveal something far richer in meaning than the literal. Of course, I always had a capacity for obliquity in
me – most of us do to some extent – but practicing an “internal” form outside of writing affirms and strengthens
that tendency within the writing.
Do you have a favorite place in New York that you like to spend time? How has the city changed in your lifetime?
Well, really, more and more my apartment. Which has something to do with the ever-increasing intensity and
assaultiveness of Manhattan. Also, I enjoy my space and derive some sense of peace from being here. Don’t need
stimulus from outside quite as much. This is the up side of aging.
That said, the Staten Island ferry is still my favorite place, if one can call a ferry a place. You come and you go.
And the bay, the atmosphere, and the views, even the smell of the water, and the people are different every time.
The ride is also the exact right length of time, though it varies depending on tides and currents. It is also a way
to remind myself that New York grew out of the water, that everything I see around me, my own being included, was
nourished by it. All of it, the crassness and subtlety. None of it would be here but for the sea that met the land to
make this amazing harbor and its estuaries. When New York is gone, it’ll still be there.
Ishmael, in the first pages of Moby Dick, goes on at some length about how taking to the sea is the only thing that
can right his temperament when it goes out of whack. I’ve never taken a ferry ride to and from Staten Island that didn’t
shift my mood in a positive way. But of course, it’s much less passionate. Much less at stake. The pilot has yet to come
down from the bridge and nail a sixteen dollar gold piece to the mast.
I could go on forever about the wonderful places that remain in New York. My local café, for instance, somehow manages
to absorb tides of global anomie and still feel like a camp fire. It is still possible to walk around neighborhoods
like Astoria and not feel the kind of mindless intensification of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.
We are moving into a generation of New Yorkers and Americans that do not remember 9/11. How do you think
this will change how your work is received, and how people write about New York City?
That’s a difficult question, because every time I try to predict the future, I make an ass of myself,
though I’m hardly alone in that.
What does remembering 9/11 mean, really? Since we really don’t have any sort of collective understanding
of what it signified, there’s no reason for us to remember it. Abstracted out of its historical process,
an even simply has very little meaning to attach to. And 9/11 was no more contextualized historically than
the WTC had been. One result of which is that, according to a survey done by a European paper in 2006, many
Americans could not recall which year 9/11 happened in.
Arguably the year is not so important, but it suggests that our perception of history is, essentially, an
orphanage for events – one where the inmates never grow up and go out into the world.
I have no idea how my work will be received in the future. I doubt very much that in a hundred years anyone
will be reading my work because it was written by me. They might come upon a surviving copy
of Divided We Stand and find the subject interesting, and its organization clear. They may recognize a
fellow mind at work trying to figure out reality. All of which makes me happy because I love the idea of work
that remains useful regardless of who made it. My grandfather was very careful with his tools. They are still in
good working order. If my daughter needs a brace and bits, she knows where to find them.
Culture is always transforming in remarkable ways. People reach for things they think will help them on their
journey, or that satisfy a particular need, or desire, (you can’t always tell which until later), or that
inform their survival in some way. If a book gives you something you can use, that’s the key to its survival.
I might write beautifully, but if my book isn’t perceived as useful, its aesthetics will not win it longevity.
If your book addresses an ongoing emotional or practical need, it may be around a while.
But here’s the rub, how are we writers to know whether or not it does? All we can do is write as honestly as
we are able and hope our language carries with it a bit of truth.
Of course people may stop reading altogether. And even if some people continue to write and read literature,
I have to assume that reading as we used to know it is essentially over. The social forces that gave rise to
the novel, and the era of mass literacy, and things like a "public" have shifted. And the West is no longer
dominant. It’s not that other cultures don’t have literary traditions or capabilities. China, for example
had – has – a tremendous literary culture, but it never commodified literature the way the West did or sought
mass literacy, until recently and then, for other purposes. In late medieval Europe, the book was one of
capitalism’s first real products.
It’s that the book and what it represented did a certain thing at a certain time in a certain way, and that
time is passing. One could argue that it has passed. A book is deeply relational, because it gestures to the
unity of things via partialities. It’s descriptions or misdescriptions resonate with our own experiences of
the world and its energies. Whereas digital media, I’m sorry, appears to be holistic, but it’s really totally
refracted and abstract. There’s no coherence whatsoever, except the ones we impose. It’s like seeing familiar
patterns in the white noise. Two generations of that and no one will remember the schemata on which the
projections are based. Which makes it amazing that Arab Spring happened despite texting.
Whatever befalls what’s left of literary culture, I figure that some people will realize that reading and
writing give access to reality in a unique and important way and will therefore continue to seek and maintain
that access. But the very forces of change from which a literate public arose will, in time, sweep it away.
There will be other forms. We are a very inventive bunch. I worry about the tendency we human beings have to
degrade our spirits than I do about whether a particular cultural form survives.
Tell us a little about your latest work. What are you working on now?
As the blues song says, there are two trains running: The first, G*d help me, is a blog, albeit a
literary slash pedagogic blog. Last year, when my former student Jessamyn Smyth, a tremendously talented
writer and teacher, became editor of the newly-founded Tupelo Quarterly, www.tupeloquarterly.com, she
asked me to contribute a piece. Amazingly, she remembered that I’d spoken to her years before about wanting
to write on language and power, and she suggested I might contribute an editor’s feature that addressed those
themes. Her prompt was all it took to trigger something which had been building up for years. Once I started
writing what became Book of the World Courant went spriral. It wouldn’t stop. And soon the accumulated
material had way outstripped a quarterly’s capacity to publish it.
So I rolled it into a weekly post: www.bookoftheworldcourant.net
The other project is very old school: a book. Though the subject is quite different, it resembles
Divided We Stand in the sense that it converges all my themes. The nutshell version is that it
is a study of the literary, political and philosophical writings of James Baldwin. He and my father had
a friendship in the ‘40s, and Baldwin’s mentor, the painter Beauford Delaney, was a mutual friend who
witnessed my parents’ civil wedding. So there’s a personal element.
And then there’s Baldwin’s extraordinary writing in a multiplicity of genres. I’ve seen the power of what
his language can do to embolden writers and its effect on readers in general: the courage it can give people
to accept some aspect of their internal strength and beauty in the face of self-hatred and shame. Or their
social marginalization or oppression. Baldwin radically problematizes the question of how live with –
and come to love – one’s self. He sees this as the predicate to living with and loving, others.
Part of what hooked me in my earlier book is that I knew, just knew, that people really didn’t get the
twin towers – what the buildings were saying, what they signified, the symbolic investment the culture had
made in them, and also that at some point this unawareness would end up costing us a great deal. Similarly,
I know too that Baldwin has been absolutely misrepresented – even, and most especially by those who have
Widely read and lauded, his work remains essentially illegible. And not because the texts are “hard” to read.
Rather because his thesis is deeply threatening. People focus on the passion, the righteous wrath, the blackness,
the gayness. True true. All true. But what Baldwin thought was astonishing – and he described clearly, and
empathically the pathology at our culture’s heart, in terms far more radical and challenging to our nation’s
emotional a priori than many whose politics seemed more radical. So America – which had produced him and whose
dynamic he absolutely called into the open – had to turn him from a supreme diagnostician into a set of
adjectives, the coup de grace being genius. But that epithet – the "g" word – only obscures his ideas,
alienates them from us as tools of self-protection and self-revelation.
It may sound grandiose, but I think I have an idea of what he was talking about and I’m obligated by what
his work has done for me to try to guide people toward its fundamental coherence. The catastrophe he warned
about is upon us with all four feet, and though they can no longer save our political structures, his ideas
may yet deepen our awareness of who and what we are.
Funny note: I began working on the book in earnest last year when I was sixty-three, which was Jimmy’s age when he died.
So the idea is to keep breathing air. And inhaling and exhaling words.