Essays, Reviews & Interviews
“Paterson: Alexander Hamilton’s Trickle-Down City,” The Nation, February 21, 2017.
The real Alexander Hamilton’s “American values” were more like those of Pence and his boss than the ones endorsed by the musical. One wouldn’t know it from the play—or, for the most part, from its source, Ron Chernow’s feted 2004 biography, which the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, famously picked up at an airport bookstore—but Hamilton was a professed enemy of equality and a fervent believer in the transfer of wealth and power from ordinary people to the elite: a bastard, as the first line of the musical calls him, in more ways than one. At Hamilton’s urging and under his supervision, the drivers of the American Revolution, spying the democratic promised land in the distance, slammed on the brakes, executed a nimble three-point turn, and sped off in the direction they had come—back toward empire, exploitation, and arbitrary rule.
“When the North Almost Seceded,” The Boston Globe, October 28, 2016.
It will be interesting to see whether the rhetoric and the arguments offered at the Worcester Disunion Convention are echoed, 160 years later, by those supporters of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who have spoken so apocalyptically about the consequences of the other candidate’s election — or by those who never quite explained what they meant by “Bernie or bust.” “The vast antagonistic powers are brought into collision,” Higginson declared at the end of his speech at the Worcester Disunion Convention. “The earthquake comes — and all we disunionists say is, if it is coming, in God’s name, let it come quickly!”
“Let’s Not Forget Socialism in the Resurrection of Socialist Art,” The Nation, May 12, 2016.
The exhibit would not be possible, the introductory panel says, without “the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.” That serves, in effect, as a trigger warning: The reputation of a radical and prophetic artist, once hounded out of work by the forces of reaction, is being restored at just the moment when the political faith he subscribed to has come back into vogue. Here, and not only here, it is watered down in the process. “Human rights” appears several times, while “socialism,” a word and philosophy that Gropper was proud of, is nowhere to be found. One panel refers without elaboration to his “lifelong interest in the failure of democracy.” Asked how she went about presenting Gropper’s radical politics in a way that would be accessible for a general audience, the exhibit’s curator told me it required “walking a fine line in terms of celebrating somebody who did cross all of the lines.”
“Will the Los Angeles River Become a Playground for the Rich?” The Nation, March 10, 2016.
“LA is America—only worse,” Andrew Kopkind wrote in these pages after the Rodney King riots of 1992, quoting activist and Mother Jones cofounder Paul Jacobs. That’s true not only of the city’s social tensions, but also of its relationship to the natural environment. Smog-befouled Los Angeles, the Eden that paved over its garden, is a symbol of the patterns of development that have led to rising seas, intense droughts, and furious storms. The late-1930s decision to euthanize the river rather than revive it represents the more general choice that the United States took in the 20th century: growth over sustainability, industry over ecology. This explains the allure of the plan to restore the Los Angeles River: If you can green it there, you can green it anywhere. The lost future may yet be regained.
“Humans of the Iowa Caucus,” The Nation, February 1, 2015.
While Marco Rubio spoke on campus, under a banner proclaiming him the harbinger of a “new American century,” a group of engineering students played beer pong on a snow-covered lawn. Asked whether they had strong opinions about the candidates, one went inside to bring out their spokesman. “Tony Stark for president in 2028!” the 23 year-old shouted, barging out the door. “I’d be totally down to support Rubio—his wife looks real nice—if he stopped talking about Jesus,” Stark said, his friends nodding. “There are people in the country who might not be Christians, who might be Muslims, and that’s my biggest thing about the election this year. It’s turned into, ‘We hate Mexicans because they’re crossing the border,’ ‘We hate Muslims, so we just gotta get rid of them and then we’ll be good.’ That really bothers me.” At a frat across the street, someone jumped off a balcony onto a beer-pong table, shattering it to a frenzy of cheers.
“Henry James, Photography and New York,” Raritan, Winter 2015.
It is a commonplace among Jamesians that in his later years the author became more amenable to the idea of art photography, the primary evidence for such an argument being his collaboration with the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn to produce frontispieces for the New York Edition, a twenty-four volume series of the author’s collected works published between 1907 and 1909. Stieglitz, for his part, pushed the boundaries of his medium—and modern art generally—by pioneering and promoting a photography committed to individual expression and formal experimentation. What has passed unnoticed is how each of these developments—James’s liberalizing attitudes toward photography and Stieglitz’s innovations in it—were related both to New York City and to each other in a complex tangle of history, aesthetics, and commerce. Which is to say, of influence.
“An Interview with Sanford Levinson,” Boston Review, December 29, 2015.
When the country’s most prominent critic of the Constitution writes a commentary on the most famous defense of that Constitution, it is an event. When the publication of that commentary comes at a time when the system of government that Constitution provides is, by all accounts, under serious strain, it is an event very much worth noting.
“A Tale of Two Citations,” The Baffler, December 15, 2015.
Given the state’s constant delegitimization of itself in ways blatant and deadly as well as obscure and small, how can anyone be surprised that demagogues are finding an American audience receptive to the notion of taking back the government? Imagine what could happen if those whose very lives are threatened by the exercise of illegitimate power were joined in protest by those merely robbed or annoyed by it. “Dealing directly with the authorities was not particularly difficult,” Kafka writes in The Castle, “for well organized as they might be, all they did was guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters, while K.”—the endlessly fucked-with protagonist—“fought for something vitally near to him, for himself.”
“The Constitution Requires Inequality,” The Boston Globe, December 13, 2015.
Today, many people argue that campaign finance reform is the primary reason the wealthy so thoroughly control the government. But a careful reading of Federalist No. 10 ought to disabuse them of that notion. According to Madison, representative government is superior to democracy — a form of government, he says, that is “incompatible with . . . the rights of private property” — because it filters the public will through the medium of allegedly disinterested leaders. For the founders, only the rich were truly above corruption by “partial considerations.” The same argument has been somewhat less eloquently stated in our own time by noted political theorist Donald Trump.
“Fog of War: Inside the Strange, Compelling World of Civil War Reenactments,” Brooklyn Magazine, September 4, 2015.
Michael Falco and the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry were marching up a knoll in the middle of an empty field, blind to the Union soldiers waiting for them on the other side. When the Rebels reached the crest, five hundred Yankees fired off their muskets all at once. Falco’s friends dropped all around him. “Seeing men piled up in heaps is just disconcerting,“ Falco recently recalled with a shiver. “For three seconds, I was freaking scared.” It was his first period rush.
“Stereoscopes Could Change How We See the World—Again,” The Boston Globe, August 16, 2015.
…there is much more to the relevance of the stereoscope in 2015 than nostalgic fetishization of the artisanal. At a time when photography has become cheapened by its proliferation, the rebirth of the stereoscope — both in its original Victorian iteration and in the form of new technologies built on its basic platform — may help to revitalize what made photography so precious and so powerful in its early days, when it introduced an entirely new way of seeing people, places, and things. But that potential also carries some risks.
“The Blue and the Grey Zone,” The Baffler, Summer 2015.
A few hours later, as I stood outside the museum, I met a young reenactor and volunteer named James, a descendant of both slaves and slave owners, who offered a different account of the war’s legacy. James told me that just two days earlier he had been walking to work—“wearing a shirt and tie, mind you”—when, immediately in front of him, one white man robbed another and took off. The victim yelled “Thief!” but instead of chasing the assailant, two cops standing nearby shoved James up against a brick wall, assuming he was the perp.
“Reenacting the Civil War, to me, is a blow to the myth of white supremacy in this country,” James said. “It gives you a different image. The USCT were black men with rifles, and they changed the world.”
“The Obsessively-Detailed Map of American Literature’s Most Epic Road Trips,” Atlas Obscura, July 20, 2015.
The above map is the result of a painstaking and admittedly quixotic effort to catalog the country as it has been described in the American road-tripping literature. It includes every place-name reference in 12 books about cross-country travel, from Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012), and maps the authors’ routes on top of one another. You can track an individual writer’s descriptions of the landscape as they traveled across it, or you can zoom in to see how different authors have written about the same place at different times.
Most interestingly of all, for me at least, you can ruminate about what those differences say about American travel, American writing, American history.
“A Road Trip That Predates Cars: A Long-Forgotten Cross-Country Travel Book From the Summer After the Civil War,” The Boston Globe, May 31, 2015.
The book itself is something of a travel guide to Manifest Destiny: Conceived as national policy more than two decades earlier, it finally became a reality after the Civil War. Bowles’s passages on the Indians, excerpted below, make clear that one of the primary motives behind their near-extermination was a desire to make the passage west safer and more economical. Implicated in the very idea of the American road trip, then, are some deeply unsettling notions about what Bowles calls, in a standard formulation of his time, “the subjugation and civilization of the continent.” Though it has been out of print for 150 years, “Across the Continent” remains a powerful read today, not least because of the challenging questions it poses about the classic American association of freedom with the road.
Review of D.W. Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral Historic Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century, In These Times, May 13, 2015.
As the book goes on, more such tales of landlord villainy emerge. Noelia Calero, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan-born woman who has lived with her family in hipper-by-the-hour Bushwick since she was 6, tells Gibson that her landlord destroyed their bathroom and kitchen to intimidate them into leaving so he could jack up the rent. Gibson meets Calero in housing court, where she is fighting her landlord’s abuses. “Housing court, to me, is all about landlords and whoever has money, and forget everybody else,” Calero says, summing up the workings of power and property in New York. Asking Calero to “enjoy that process,” as Matt Krivich and others do, is farcical.
Review of Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, The Nation, April 21, 2015.
In a 2012 essay, George Scialabba suggested reconstituting the committees of correspondence that organized the American Revolution, hoping they “might help restore some substance to this society’s hollow democratic pretensions.” On the day I began reading Foner’s book, a week before the Greek elections, a representative of Syriza visited The Nation’s offices and spoke of the “solidarity networks” scattered across his country; Podemos, the ascendant Spanish party, has “circles.” But as a name for what is needed today, we could do worse than “vigilance committees”—and for a guide to how they worked at a time when nothing else would, we could do no better than Eric Foner. In Gateway to Freedom, he quotes an abolitionist editor describing fugitive slaves as “self-emancipated persons.” Foner plans to retire from teaching at the end of the next academic year, but his books will continue to be read as long as Americans, perilously free, journey north.
“The Echoes of Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps,” The Boston Globe, April 19, 2015.
Lerner’s narrator in “10:04” also spends a lot of his time in Marfa listening to a recording on YouTube, originally made by Thomas Edison, of Whitman reading from his 1888 poem, “America.” But he doesn’t mention that both that recording and an actor’s reading of “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from “Drum-Taps” were featured in an award-winning Levi Strauss & Co. television advertising campaign a few years ago. One would hardly blame Whitman for this appropriation were it any more difficult than it is, while reading the latter poem — which implores American youth to seize pistols and axes and embark on a global campaign of marching through mountain passes, felling primeval forests, damming rivers, piercing the earth with mines, and upheaving virgin soil — to imagine a Levi’s ad executive reading along and whispering to herself, “Yes, yes, this will do just fine.”
“Twilight of the Idols: On Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” The Nation‘s 150th anniversary issue, April 6, 2015.
Liberals today ridicule the Tea Party’s crude take on American history—which Strunsky’s words evoke—as obviously bowdlerized and wrong. But An Economic Interpretation shows why it is no accident that Constitution-worship has always been the first and last resort of homegrown scoundrels. “The system isn’t broken. It’s fixed,” read a sign at last year’s racial-justice protests. Charles Beard will be there waiting should “radical thought and radical youth” summon the courage to interrogate that last great golden calf: the legitimacy of the Union itself.
“The Jewish Abolitionists,” The Forward, January 30, 2015.
During the mini-Civil-War known as “Bleeding Kansas” in the mid-1850s, three Jews accompanied John Brown on his raids against pro-slavery settlers. The archives of the American Jewish Historical Society contain a 1903 letter in which one of them, the Viennese-born August Bondi (another veteran of the 1848 revolution), recalled an exchange between himself and Theodore Wiener during one of the posse’s first attacks. As they followed Brown up a hill to assault a Border Ruffian camp, Bondi wrote, “Wiener puffed like a steamboat, hurrying behind me. I called out to him, ‘Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt.’ [‘Now, what do you think of this?’] His answer, ‘Was soll ich meinen, sof odom muves.’ [‘What shall I think of it? The end of man is death.’]”
“In Any Way Abridged: This Long-Lost Constitutional Clause Could Save the Right to Vote,” The Nation, January 21, 2015.
An important tool remains unused, all but forgotten in a dark and dusty corner of the shed. Dating back to Reconstruction, it has the great merit of being already enshrined in the Constitution. According to Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, any state that denies or abridges the right to vote for any reason must have its congressional representation reduced in proportion to the number of citizens it disenfranchises. Arguably the most radical clause in the Constitution, it was designed to remake the government and the country. It has never been enforced.
Review of The New Republic‘s centennial anthology, The Nation, November 24, 2014.
Given that Bill Clinton will be headlining The New Republic’s gala this month—and that Credit Suisse is the magazine’s “centennial sponsor”—it is not surprising that the 1990s are alloted 124 pages to the 1930s’ meager nineteen. But one wonders at Foer’s eagerness to pronounce as “befouled” the politics of Edmund Wilson circa 1931—“the hour,” as Wilson writes, “when the planless society, the dehumanized urban community [was] bankrupt.” Perhaps Foer files Malcolm Cowley, along with Henry Wallace, among “our more disgraceful contributions to American life,” intentionally excised. That would be graceless. But typical. “The New Republic raked FDR on a regular basis,” Foer complains, “even when it should have been nodding its head in agreement with his policies.” Foer glosses the magazine’s neocon 1980s and 1990s as “a period when it gleefully attempted to overthrow the oppressive orthodoxies of liberalism.” Race isn’t considered until the March on Washington. Without explanation, the volume skips from 1966 to 1974.
“A Memorial to Sacco and Vanzetti, Made By the Creator of Mount Rushmore, Hides in Plain Sight,” The Boston Globe, November 23, 2014.
The Boston area has done its best to forget the whole affair. The site of the execution in Charlestown is now occupied by Bunker Hill Community College. In Braintree, a plaque on a corner next to a parking lot commemorates the original victims of the robbery, whom, it says, ‘history has forgotten.’ The old Norfolk County Jail in Dedham, where Sacco was imprisoned for nearly seven years and Vanzetti for part of that time, was converted a decade ago into—what else?—luxury condominiums.”
“Burning Down the House: On the Chelsea Hotel,” The Nation, July 7, 2014.
The hotel’s purchase and renovation has not happened in a vacuum. Successful artists and the tourists who nibbled at Bard’s bait often put down roots in the hotel or its environs, occupying space and locking up capital—cultural and financial—then unavailable to younger artists who had not yet found success, as well as to those who never would but nonetheless provided “added color and dimension to life,” as Lough condescendingly writes. In his Guardian piece, Byrne referred to “those of us who managed years ago to find our niche” as incidental exceptions to the atrophying of culture in New York City, obscuring the reality—obvious to those of us without $4 million penthouses—that they, and not “figures like Mayor Bloomberg,” are the arboreal giants jealously blocking their own progeny from the sun.
Review of Terry Golway’s Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, Public Books, June 1, 2014.
No politician or reformer felt threatened by Tammany because it was a harbinger of what was to come. Rather, Tammany was despised by the elites—and is rightfully disparaged now by the inheritors of a history they wrote—because it had imported to the United States that structure of political and economic relations which the reformers believed had never existed in the New World and therefore did not require a revolution to overthrow. Golway’s defense of feudalism is worth reading, not for what it says about “the creation of modern American politics,” as promised in the subtitle, but for what it says about the liberal imagination today.
“Mandela’s Jews,” Tablet, November 26, 2013.
While most South Africa Jews took the silent, implicitly conservative position of the Board of Deputies, the great majority of white South Africans involved in “the struggle” were Jewish. Many were Communists. Most were lawyers. A few had money. But all faced what has been described as a “double marginality”: not fully accepted as white, while also alienated from an organized Jewish community beholden to the powers that be.
“The Shady Ties Between de Blasio and the Clintons,” CounterPunch, October 25, 2013.
The Facebook page for last Sunday’s “Democratic Unity Event” for Fried at Adler’s palatial home in New City, a secular community a few minutes’ drive from New Square, said “Everyone is welcome,” and the open door on a drizzly Sunday morning seemed to emphasize the point. In her rousing speech (“We need someone who’s gonna take us out of this darkness and into the light!”), Kristen Stavisky, Adler’s successor as Democratic county chair, named and drew applause for all the “electeds” in the room—all the public officials, that is, including sitting judges, willing to attend a fundraiser in a disgraced ex-convict’s home: David Carlucci, state senator; James Skoufis, assemblyman; Ellen Jaffee, assemblywoman; Christopher St. Lawrence, Mayor of Ramapo (whose town hall was raided in May by the FBI, investigating the construction of a widely-scorned baseball stadium midwifed, according to Skriloff and others, by Adler); Louis Falco, Rockland County Sherriff; and many more. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent a staffer. When Adler took the floor he especially called out New Square’s Spitzer, standing just to the side, for recognition. “I can tell you that I’ve personally spoken with the governor,” Adler told a captivated room. “The governor will be in to campaign on this. Senator Schumer will be in. Senator Gillibrand will be in. The entire state delegation is going to be down here.”
“Should voters decide if we go to war?” Salon, September 21, 2013.
In his Pulitzer-winning “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” Stanford historian David Kennedy calls Ludlow’s war referendum plan “a transparently silly idea, accurately likened by critics to convening a town meeting before authorizing the fire department to put out a blaze.”
Rather, imagine this scenario: There is a town whose fire department, acting essentially on its own volition for as long as anyone can remember, takes its expensive, taxpayer-bought engines out on long joyrides once every couple of years. The ostensible point is to extinguish fires in distant counties, but sometimes it’s not so clear who started the fire, how the fire affects the town, or, sometimes, whether there is even a fire at all. The department does this at immense cost to the people of the town, who have great unmet needs — including some small fires that deserve the fire department’s attention—and have grown weary with the department’s expeditions.
The townspeople begin to realize that their founding charter — which is the whole reason they became a town in the first place and basically the only thing holding the place together — says that the town council is supposed to decide what the fire department can and cannot do. The fire department itself is just supposed to, you know, put out fires. But the top people on the town council are best buds with the top people in the fire department, plus the town council needs the fire department in case the council knows of any fires — or, “fires” — that need putting out. If you’re a town council, the fire department is really important to have on your side; if you’re a fire department and you love expeditions — how could you not, with those awesome machines — it’s super helpful when the town council just looks the other way.
Before the fire department even realizes it — probably it is busy planning the next expedition — the people of the town realize, hey, maybe those relations have something to do with the town council conveniently forgetting about the power they’re supposed to have over the fire department. Motivated by a healthy skepticism about the department’s intentions — which the guys who wrote the town charter hoped the town council would take care of, but apparently they didn’t foresee all the ways in which the council itself might fall prey to the fire department’s possibly self-interested machinations — the people decide to have a town meeting so that when the fire department says they’re going to go put down a fire in some distant county, from now on the people themselves will make sure that the fire was actually set by the enemies of the people of the town, that the fire actually could possibly hurt the people of the town, and, of course, that there really is a fire.
Is that such a silly idea?
“Bob Dylan’s World,” Slate, May 24, 2013. An interactive map of every place-name mention in Dylan’s lyrics.
Bob Dylan’s music, it’s often said, happens in a world of its own—where the highway is for gamblers and you’re always 1,000 miles from home. It’s a surreal, ethereal realm, lawless but for chance, allusion, and rhyme.
Review of Greg Bellow’s Saul Bellow’s Heart, Tablet, May 17, 2013.
Interestingly, Greg, Adam, and Daniel all seem to believe that much of the psychological drama in the Bellow family—among Saul’s siblings and his sons—can be attributed to birth order. So, it may be helpful to note here that Bellow’s fame, already growing after The Adventures of Augie March, exploded after the publication of Herzog in 1964—the same year Daniel, his youngest son, was born. By the time the newly rich writer, urged by his third wife, moved into a fancy co-op on Lake Michigan, Greg already possessed enough of what he thought were his own opinions to dislike the white plush carpets, the 11 rooms “filled with fancy furniture and modern art.” Reminding the reader he was “raised by a frugal mother and a father who had no steady income,” Greg says that he “found the trappings of wealth in their new apartment so repellent that I complained bitterly to Saul,” who replied that he didn’t care about the new shiny things so long as he could still write—which he could. “As I always had, I accepted what he said about art at face value,” Greg admits, but he stopped visiting the new place. After the marriage deteriorated and Saul moved out, 3-year-old Daniel, in the words of ex-child-therapist Greg, “took to expressing his distress” by peeing on the carpets. “I have to admit that the yellow stains on them greatly pleased me,” Greg writes—for once showing off the Bellovian touch.
Review of Mason B. Williams’s City of Ambition: The Making of Modern New York, The Nation, May 6, 2013.
Williams writes that Stieglitz’s photograph of the New York skyline “captured the ebullient commercialism of the early twentieth century,” but that the city before and during World War II was one of “decidedly public ambitions.” Had public works and relief financing been more stably established before and especially after the war, it is probable that the very idea of such spending would not have been discredited. Instead, for the past three or four decades, New York has reverted to the status it had in Stieglitz’s time as a city of mostly private ambition and achievement. Williams claims that the physical legacy of the New Deal in the city consists of “mute testaments to an era of tumult and creativity, and to a conception of government which reached its apotheosis in interwar America and which shaped New York City profoundly.” But by neglecting to chasten his enraptured narrative with any semblance of sobriety, given the 1970s and its aftermath, Williams ignores the sense in which that legacy could very well consist less of monuments to a “conception of government” than of tombs.
Manhattan was born free, but almost everywhere north of Houston Street, it is in chains.
Review of Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, The Nation, March 4, 2013.
Last March, after a US soldier methodically shot and killed sixteen Afghan civilians, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeated that hoariest of maxims, “War is hell.” The saying is often attributed to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose Union troops blazed a path of total destruction from Atlanta to Savannah near the end of the Civil War. But because it conveniently obscures any sense of agency, the notion that war is hell has long provided cover for the most ghastly and gratuitous wartime acts. Responding to one veteran’s outrage over American massacres of South Vietnamese civilians, an army officer replied that it is “indeed unfortunate…that some incidents occur within combat zones.”
Yes, one can describe as hellish a war in which American soldiers forced a woman into a bunker and buried her alive; tied another to an armored vehicle and dragged her around her village; used unarmed civilians for target practice; mashed the head of a 5-year-old with a rifle butt; emptied an entire clip into a man fishing in a lake; mounted heads on pikes to terrify the villagers; threw a naked woman, presumably raped, onto a pile of nineteen other women and children, then sprayed them with M-16 fire. But to speak of some “indeed unfortunate” incidents that “occur” is obscene.
“Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and Why American Politics Still Needs Radicals,” The Nation, December 10, 2012.
Most viewers see in Lincoln a lesson for the contemporary Washington crowd to set aside their differences and just get along. Doris Kearns Goodwin called the parallels between the Thirteenth Amendment fight and the negotiations over the upcoming fiscal cliff downright “eerie,” while Spielberg modestly suggested that releasing the movie after a contentious election season might have a “soothing or even healing effect.” Ross Douthat, responding to Bady’s Jacobin essay, argues that the film shows how “a moderate and a radical can work together— if the moderate is willing to be more intransigent than usual, and the radical is willing to not say everything that’s on his mind.” That this supposed “harmony” makes Lincoln “a crowdpleasing film,” as Douthat writes, I do not dispute.
David Brooks, to whose sniffling centrism Lincoln might as well be dedicated, believes the film to be a reminder of “why we love politics,” and urges young people to get involved. “You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty,” Brooks writes. “But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others—if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.” Ah, yes, that’s what ails Washington: too few slippery bamboozlers.
“Hunting Covered Bridges in the Quebec Countryside,” The Montreal Review, September 2011.
After getting slightly lost in Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, we rounded the last curve on a small dirt road and, to whoops and hollers (disproportionately mine, I admit), finally pulled up to examine our first bridge. Sam read from a brief history of the town and the bridge that I’d pulled off a local website.
Built in 1884, the Des Rivières Covered Bridge is painted barn-red, the typical uniform for most North American spans. The interior is dark, all wood, weak light shining thinly through cracks in the walls and from the far end, like a short tunnel. The floor of the bridge consists of dusty wooden slats, some more stable than others, with noticeable grooves from one entrance of the bridge to the other, where vehicles have worn down the wood over the last century. Spare boards thrust into spaces where the wall beams fall just short of their intended marks make the construction feel spontaneous. Through a small cut-out window in one of the walls, you can watch the stream humming along, dipping below some willow trees on the bank, and disappearing from view – precisely what you would have seen in the same spot more than 125 years ago.
We returned to the car, opened some lawn chairs from my trunk, and enjoyed thick slices of mango in the sun.