Friday, November 10, 2006

epitaphs on lower fifth...

[18 west 10th street and 18 west 11th street respectively]

a block away from each other in one of the tonier precincts of the village are two townhouses bearing the address “18”—coincidentally the number that represents life in jewish custom. both bear historical and literary significance, though that significance is radically different.

just before noon on march 6, 1970, 18 west 11th street—then owned by advertising executive james p. wilkerson—blew up when dynamite detonated in the basement bomb factory run by one of wilkerson's daughters, cathy; her friend cathy boudin; and three other bomb makers (diana oughton, ted gold, and terry robbins) who died in the explosion. then a weather underground "safe house," a bomb exploded accidentally while being prepared for an action. the fbi later reported that the group possessed sufficient amounts of explosive to level both sides of the street. protesting the war in vietnam, the group—according to new york times reporter mel gussow (who lived next door at the time)—had planned on destroying such sites as columbia university’s low library. (cathy wilkerson and kathy boudin escaped and remained fugitives for over a decade.) unlike its neighboring 19th-century red brick townhouses, no. 18 has a modern, angled front window. notably, the site of the explosion was the former residence of merrill lynch founder charles merrill and his son, the noted poet james merrill. james eventually recalled the tragedy in his poem “18 west 11th street,” part of which reads:

Seemed anger, the Aquarians in the basement
Had been perfecting a device
For making sense to us
If only briefly, and on pain Of incommunication ever after.

in the previous century, sugar refiner moses lazarus lived on the next block down at 18 west 10th street: there his daughter emma lazarus (1849-1887) wrote the poem “the new colossus” in 1883. this poem was later used for the inscription at the base of the statue of liberty—providing the famous lines: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, i lift my lamp beside the golden door!” a friend of ralph waldo emerson and a translator of german lyric poet heinrich heine, emma lazarus counted herself among american writers of that time who attempted to produce a literature independent of the british mold. growing up in a privileged sephardic family, she was moved by the travails of her less fortunate co-religionists who were then beginning to arrive in large numbers to escape grinding poverty and the terror of the pogroms. lazarus worked with the hebrew emigrant aid society

notably, she corresponded with writers and intellectuals such as emerson, william james, robert browning, and james russell lowell. her involvement in the literary world at the time was highly unusual on two accounts: on one hand by limitations normally placed on women at the time in any field, and on the other by her proud proclamations of jewish identity. thus, as an authentic american writer and a passionately outspoken jew, lazarus greatly pushed the envelope for women, jews, and america’s still self-conscious literature. ever ahead of her time, lazarus argued for the creation of a jewish homeland years before herzl was moved by the antics of anti-semitic vienna mayor karl lueger (and later, the outrage of the dreyfus affair) to foment zionism.

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