Writing the Dead

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How should we speak of a vanished culture? We are losing things every moment: people, pets, minor objects and major opportunities, brief moments, long memories. A word slips away, and we wait all day for it to return to our tongue; the keys vanish, only to turn up, four hours later, still in the door.

In her often-read villanelle “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop writes that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” She recalls the “hour badly spent,” her mother’s watch, two cities, houses—all gone, the lost currency of an ordinary life. To live is to practice losing, the poem seems to say. We practice this art every day, albeit without ever perfecting it. “It’s evident,” Bishop concludes,

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

That last line speaks to the paradox that we experience around loss. It is regular, it is inevitable. And yet as writers and artists, we are constantly grappling with how to document personal loss. Bishop’s imperative—Write it!—is the end of the poem but the beginning of our work.

When the subject is not just a personal loss but the loss of a culture, the stakes are higher; the writing, I would argue, even more difficult. This is especially true if the writer has a direct connection to the culture that he or she is writing about. There, private loss meets public obligation. We write about a lost place, culture, or sub-culture that we know out of an uncomfortable mixture of authority (“I can write about this”) and responsibility (“If not me, then who?”). With the dual pressure of writing about something so large and yet so personal, it is hard to write clearly. “It’s easy for essayists to fall into the tired trap of wistfulness and nostalgia,” says Amy Butcher, the editor of Defunct, a magazine that hosts writing about vanished parts of our world. Writing for Essay Daily, she tells us that, “the work must move beyond the reminiscent voice and melancholic yearning to … the place where something meaningful is imparted upon a reader.”

Moving beyond the reminiscent voice, beyond melancholic yearning. How much writing about lost places, lost cultures, meets these criteria?

I grew up in an often-eulogized place—the Borscht Belt, a.k.a. the Jewish Catskills. During their mid-century heyday, the overwhelmingly Jewish hotels of Sullivan and Ulster counties defined the area in the East Coast imagination, provided jobs (though never as many good jobs as people thought), gave many entertainers their starts (though the comedy was rarely as funny or innovative as people seem to think), and fed thousands of people enormous portions of food (which was exactly as rich and gluttonous as people remember).

As I have written about before, the Borscht Belt had a long decline, which meant that the reminiscences about the good times and the melancholy of the present were the main texts of my childhood. As a teenager, I worked for three years at The Nevele, one of the most prominent Borscht Belt hotels, where on a daily, even hourly basis people talked about “how it used to be,” before flipping the switch to discussing what it would take to “make it great again.” Rarely, if ever, did people speak directly or thoughtfully to the present moment. Working at the hotel, I often felt as if I were standing on an ice floe, floating further and further from safety, while the rest of my fellow migrants told me that a rescue boat was right over the horizon. Meanwhile, the ice was melting.

By now, I have been a teacher of creative writing much longer than I was a pool lifeguard. I have come to believe that one of the main jobs of literature is to see the present moment—whatever that moment may be, in the context of the text—with focus and clarity. Good writing doesn’t constantly look back or look ahead. Each word is a world, and a good writer puts that world in front of you when you read.

But I have also come to realize that very few texts about my childhood home fit that criteria. There is simply not much good writing about the Jewish Catskills, especially considering how important the place was for a very bookish set of people for so many years. In fact, most texts about the Catskills fall into very flat categories of writing about the good old (live) days or the sad current dead ones.

The first group of texts resides firmly in the land of nostalgia—elegiac stories of the days when the cars lined Route 17 all the way back to the Red Apple Rest. These texts—ranging from memoirs to documentary films to “Do You Remember?” posts on Facebook—are warm and good-hearted and limited. The recent film Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort is a good example. It well-made and loving and resolutely uncritical. It remembers the good times and endless food and celebrity sightings. And here is where we often fail when we write about a vanished culture. We do not want to speak ill of the dead. But in remembering only the good times we let so many stories go unspoken. What about the workers, with their long hours, their subservient jobs, their limited opportunities? (This—and not “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”—is what makes Dirty Dancing an interesting film.) What about the lonely people in the crowd?

The second group of texts is lovely in its own way, like a funeral train. These focus on the bodies, so to speak. The grand architecture of the Borscht Belt left a lot of bodies behind. Photographers like Marisa Scheinfeld, in her “Echoes of the Borscht Belt” exhibition, have documented the decay of the infrastructure of the great hotels: the empty swimming pools, the crumbling walls, the moldy sofas.

Photo: Marisa Scheinfeld

Projects like these have the benefit of focusing us squarely on the present, unlike the nostalgic remembrances that dominate discourse about the Jewish Catskills. But, whether as text or image, projects like these can be seen as what Abigail Jones, writing about Scheinfeld and others for Newsweek, calls “ruin porn”: a form of voyeurism-as-art. Whether focusing on Catskills hotels, or post-Katrina New Orleans, or Detroit’s abandoned houses, “ruin porn glamorizes urban decay, turning real-life tragedies into spectacles,” Jones writes.

Scheinfeld’s photos are beautiful and compelling, and draw attention both to the immensity of the architecture necessary to sustain the Jewish Catskills and how quickly nature will reclaim human development once it’s abandoned. But glamorization of the dead present is much like sentimentality about the past: it can become a way of not looking clearly and directly. Once again the image flattens; important questions go unexamined.

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent essay in the New Yorker about people displaced by Katrina reminds us of a truth we do not always want to face: change can be good. The loss of a culture is always keenly felt (if not always keenly written). But it is the writer’s job to view it from as many angles as possible, honoring not only the loss—which is where we tend to focus—but as many voices and perspectives as we can. The art of losing is not hard to master. And, as Elizabeth Bishop suggests, sometimes loss only looks like disaster.

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