Home > Authors/Literature, Books, History, Journalism, Kurt Andersen, Media, Omaha, Pop culture, Radio, Writing > Culturalist Kurt Andersen Wryly Observes the American Scene as Author, Essayist, Radio Talk Show Host

Culturalist Kurt Andersen Wryly Observes the American Scene as Author, Essayist, Radio Talk Show Host


Although he’s lived in New York longer than he lived in Nebraska, author Kurt Andersen was born and raised here and maintains close ties here.  He is best know to some as a journalist and to others as a public radio show host, but he’s lately established himself as a fine author as well.  If you have not read his work I encourage you to do so.  It is thoughtful and entertaining.  He is another in a long line of superb literary talents from Nebraska.  His books include The Real Thing, Turn of the Century, Heyday, and last year’s Reset, a meditative piece on the current American crisis of confidence he adapted from an essay he wrote for Time.  He is a much-in-demand essayist for leading publications.  Andersen is also a top-rate journalist, pundit, and interviewer. He’s a great interview himself.

The following piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) soon after the publication of his second novel, Heyday. I eagerly await his next.

 

 

 

Culturalist Kurt Andersen Wryly Observes the American Scene as Author, Essayist, Radio Talk Show Host

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The world is Kurt Andersen’s oyster.

In a media career of dizzying variety this Omaha native, who co-founded the irreverent Spy magazine and was fired as editor-in-chief of New York magazine for being a provocateur, has become a hip observer of the American cultural scene. He dishes up his wry musings as a columnist/essayist for haute New York pubs, as a novelist, as host/reporter for Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and as a co-founder/contributing editor for the new online content site Very Short List. His earlier cyber foray, Inside.com, was short-lived.

Two new projects find him fixing his discerning eye on an epoch in the nation’s past and on a watershed moment for his hometown. His new novel Heyday (Random House) explores America at a threshold moment in history and his March 25 New York Times magazine piece examines the cultural boom underway in Omaha.

Whatever the medium, he displays a deep curiosity for and broad knowledge of subjects across the cultural landscape. His vantage point is the center of all things — New York. He’s been there now nearly twice as long as he lived in Omaha, which he left soon after graduating Westside High School for an Ivy League scroll.

“Kurt is a cultural journalism icon in New York City. I can’t think of anyone who’s thought of more highly in the realm of cultural commentary,” said Film Streams Director Rachel Jacobson, who got to know Andersen when they both worked at WNYC in New York. “He’s certainly brilliant, but he’s also incredibly easy-going and wonderful to talk to.”

His brilliance long ago marked him as one of those most-likely-to-succeed types. The magna cum laude Harvard grad soon made good on his promise by rising fast up the journalistic ladder in the ‘80s-‘90s, as a Time magazine writer, critic and editor, as a New Yorker columnist, as editor-in-chief of Spy and New York magazines. He’s been a contributing writer to the New York TimesAtlantic MonthlyVanity FairRolling Stone. He still does a weekly column for NY magazine.

With its look at the excesses of the 1980s, from New York’s garish party scene to bogus health gurus to the elitist Bohemian Grove camp’s weird goings-on, Spy tapped into the ironical Zeitgeist of the time. Its success was a rush.

“Very heady indeed,” he said. “We didn’t know when we started Spy quite how tough it would be to do, and how long the odds against such a thing working were — the classic too-stupid-to-know-better situation. It was heady and intensely fun, but also draining and occasionally terrifying.”

His firing from NY magazine was “more stunning than painful,” he said, as “it came so entirely without warning — circulation…advertising was up, the magazine was reinvigorated…lots of positive buzz. It felt like getting shot out of a cannon in the middle of Times Square, and I hadn’t even known I was inside a cannon.” He felt better when staffers “quit in solidarity” and press accounts unearthed the reason for his firing. “The magazine’s coverage had pissed off various associates” of then-owner Henry Kravis, “who had asked me to stop covering Wall Street,” Andersen said. “I came out of it feeling OK about the whole affair. Plus I got more than a year’s severance pay. And it made me decide finally that if I was going to write novels, as I’d always thought I ought to do, now was the time to try.”

It’s hard to imagine this one-time enfant terrible is now a doyen in New York media salon circles. Read one of his columns or listen to one of his reports though and you find he’s lost none of his youthful urbane wit or acerbic bite.

 

 

In recent years he’s taken a longer view of things as an author. His first book, The Real Thing, was a collection of humorous essays. With his best seller first novel, Turn of the Century, in 1999, he proved he could apply his smart, funny, insider’s take on social-cultural trends in the digital media age to the extended format of a book and tell a rousing good story in the process.

With his well-reviewed new novel, Heyday, he looks back to the 19th century at a defining moment in America’s past, when, from 1846 to 1848 a remarkable confluence of events unfolded to usher in the nation we recognize today. He looks through the eyes of well-drawn characters swept up in the American Experiment to reveal a world in flux and speeding toward modernity. The story is ostensibly centered in New York, London and Paris. but these teeming, messy capitals of progress are really the launching points for a cross country trek that allows the paths of its main characters to intersect with the currents and movements of the times. The wide open frontier, the spartan utopian communities, the makeshift settlements in Kanesville and the Great Salt Lake, the rough-hewn town of San Francisco and the wild northern California gold diggings all become key locales.

Heyday goes on sale March 7.

Andersen’s also throwing his attention these days to Omaha, where he researched that Times piece about “the cultural moment” the city’s enjoying thanks to some nontraditional movers and shakers. Since the 2004 death of his mother he has no family left here, yet he finds himself drawn back to this place and its people.

He sat down with The Reader at M’s Pub in December to talk about his new book, the radio show, life after mags and his take on Omaha’s urban renaissance. The tall, graceful man cuts a cosmo figure with his stylishly casual attire and suave air. He’s a careful listener who answers questions thoroughly, eagerly. He wears his ironic intellectualism without affect. His connect-the-dots way of analyzing subjects makes for good conversation.

In a 2003 interview Andersen spoke about facing down the fear of making the leap from journalist to novelist with Turn of the Century.

“I was confident I had the basic level of craft to put together sentences in different ways. Not having the tools, foundations, crutches…of journalism was completely liberating, especially the first two months,” he said of this first turn at novel writing, discounting “a feeble effort” years earlier. “But then it was completely terrifying because writing a long form thing of anything is terrifying, but also because it was this thing I had never done before. And, frankly, part of the attraction to me of trying new things is the scariness. I find if I know how to do something too well I get bored or it’s just not interesting.”

Century’s present-day milieu of New York media wheelings and dealings found Andersen on familiar ground. But Heyday’s 19th century setting meant getting-up-to-speed on an era far removed from today.

He said “to write a historical novel has a whole other set of horrible, technical challenges. You know, I’d read ‘em, but I’d never really thought about, What version of 19th century language do you invent?”

He steeped himself in the times.

“I spent about a year-and-a-half doing nothing but research,” he said, “and it was bliss. I never went to graduate school, so I felt like this is what graduate school in its ideal form would have been like. I had the basic idea for the story and everything, so it was work, but it was the best kind of work because I didn’t have to write anything.

“I read a million books, lots of diaries. Especially I found the diaries very useful because it gives you a sense of the colloquial manner of speech rather than the kind of Hawthorne, Dickens formal literary language which is how we imagine everybody spoke in the 19th century all the time. Obviously it wasn’t. And so in…just immersing myself in all kinds of diaries, it gave me a sense more of how the language was actually spoken.”

To commune as it were with some of the places that comprise his novel he trod the very areas in Paris and in northern California he writes about.

Once he got down to writing, he found a sense of period vermisilitude in the upstate New York home he kept until recently. The isolation and tree-lined fields of this country home “fed the dream” of 19th century life, he said, “in a way that living in New York doesn’t quite as easily.” Still, he wrote more than half the book from the office he keeps upstairs in his Brooklyn home. One advantage to being in the city, he said, is that Studio 360 is recorded in Lower Manhattan, “within blocks of where the Five Points were and where all the Lower Manhattan life in my book is set. It was fantastic walking past these things almost every day.”

He tried hard to avoid a pitfall many novelists fall into. “The thing with a historical novel is you do all this research and it’s tempting to show off your research and contrive the story to go here and contrive it to go there,” he said, “and that’s a real thing I found myself having to watch.” He’s happy with the modicum of “celebrity cameos” he integrated into the story, including “plausible” meetings between select characters and such famous personalities as Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman and Alan Pinkerton.

The whirlwind period at the heart of the book is one that’s held him enthralled.

“I’d had the very germ of the idea for this book for a long time, before I even wrote the first novel (Century),” he said. “And I think it began when something I read made me realize that in this one month of 1848 so much happened that I’d never seen connected before. In the biggest sense, all these revolutions in Europe, gold discovered in California, our winning the war against Mexico, the Communist manifesto published. Of course, I was already aware of the golden moment in literature of Whitman and Poe and Thoreau and all the rest and the beginnings of modern newspapers and photography and all that.

“So before I even decided to write the book I started researching and the more and more I discovered about this moment — of the telegraph and the railroad and feminism and communes, I thought, Why has no one ever said that this was the threshold — that this was when modern life as we know it began? And once I started going down that route, I just became obsessed and then started inventing a story I could use as the armature to tell that larger story.”

Heyday

If Andersen has his way, scholars and historians will view 1846-1848 in a new light.

“We think of 1776, 1782, 1787 as the birth of America, but I’ve really come to think that in a more holistic cultural, economic, political way this moment bears looking at as when the prototype was getting made,” he said. “I don’t know of any other moment when so much stuff that you can look at from today and say, Yeah, I see where this thing we now experience — the seed of it was there. I mean, beyond the sort of three-branches-of-government-in-civics stuff.”

He said never has America been as swept up in so much change as it was then. The challenge for him as a storyteller, he said, was to “try to make palpable…just the sheer excitement of this and terror of this moment of incredible change and newness.” For him, there’s no comparison between the social-cultural explosion of 1846-1848 and that of, say, Height Ashbury or the digital revolution. The birth of America, the birth of the modern age is a long affair, but I honestly can’t imagine a better couple of years to look at…the sense of world turned upside down.

Andersen also likes the fact he takes on a swath of American history not oversaturated “in fiction or in our popular imagination” the way “the Indian Wars, the Old West and the Civil War” are.

“One of the reasons this period appealed to me, in addition to my thinking it’s an amazing time, “he said, “ is it’s more virgin territory. People saw the Indians were fucked but the Indian Wars were still on the horizon, 20 years hence. It’s the moment before slavery became this thing that busted America apart. Most people didn’t yet have any sense it was the fissure that would explode 10-12 years later. It’s another kind of germ of potential waiting to explode in the same way that all the good things or the new technologies were germs about to explode.”

He also felt pulled into the era by the extant photographs of the time, when the earliest such images on record were produced.

“When I started looking at period photographs I realized that we who live in this highly photographic, video-mediated age today can feel a connection to a period where photography existed in a way we can’t quite feel a connection to ten years earlier, when it didn’t. I just think that’s true,” he said. “When it’s all about drawing, that’s the old days, whereas, when I see these early photographs of the streets in Paris during the revolution, it’s alive. It was amazing to mere there were photographs of that. It gave me this sort of visceral sense of connection because it was real, it was a photograph, rather than simply an account in prose or drawing.”

Then there’s the inventions and innovations the era heralded in that anticipated today’s information age technologies and tools.

“When you look at photography or the telegraph, I mean to me everything from daguerreotype to television, that’s just a refinement,” Andersen said. “This mechanical, instant picture was the big change. The same with the telegraph. The telegraph to the Internet, it’s all just refinements of instant communication.”

There are other reverberations with today he found compelling.

“As I was doing my research about the Mexican War, our first foreign elective war, I was like, Hmmm, what does that sound like? I began writing the book in 2002,” he said, “when Bush was preparing to invade Iraq because they might attack us essentially. That was James K. Polk in 1846. In effect, Polk said, We’ve got to invade Mexico or they’re going to invade us. The Mexican War is a war people don’t know much about today, but so interesting because this was an imperial war…a foreign war…a war we chose to fight. I already had all these other ways in which I thought this time had resonances with that time, but that was yet another.

“It’s just a fresh view of a piece of American history. Not that I made it fresh, but I think by kind of depicting it, people might just realize, God, I never thought of it this way before or I don’t know much about this time.”

The primary characters in Heyday are emblematic of the great enthusiasm and anxiety of the new age dawning.

Ben Knowles is a young, idealistic Brit of means who turns his back on the Old World for the promise of the New Arcadia. His departure for America is hastened by a misadventure in Paris, where he’s both witness and unwitting agent of revolution. In the figure of Ben, Andersen provides a prism for viewing America from a “foreigner’s eyes…seeing “it for all of its ugliness as well as excitement. I wanted somebody who was thrilled about the idea of America and who would then be disappointed or not,” he said. Through Ben we see “this thing being made up as it went along” — what Andersen calls “the early adolescence of America.”

Ben finds an incarnation of the new nation’s spirit in Polly Lucking, an emancipated woman from a luckless family. She, like her late dreamer father, is enamored with all that is new and possible, only more practical about it. As a female of independent persuasions but poor straits she pursues two professions open to feminists then — prostitution and the theater.

Duff Lucking is Polly’s “wounded soul” of a brother. A disgraced veteran of the Mexican War, he’s a fireman with a suspect knack for always smelling out a good blaze. Haunted by the Lucking family’s many tragedies and his own wartime trauma, he sees mendacity all about him and anoints himself avenging angel, like a 19th century Travis Bickle, to cleanse the unholy land.

Timothy Skaggs is a bohemian, bon vivant, journalist, daguerreotyper and would-be astronomer. This cynical commentator on his times, is also a hedonist who indulges his huge appetites for life. The oldest of the bunch, he is at once friend, mentor, devil’s advocate and surrogate father figure to the others.

There are Dickensian overtones to the book, from the harsh class system to familiar types that embody the best and worst of human kind. Among these archetypes are sweet urchin Priscilla Christmas, repulsive b’hoy Fatty Freehorn and the sinister aristocrats, the Primes.

The villain of the piece is Gabriel Drumont, a Corsican whom we meet serving in the Paris national guard. An ugly encounter at the start of the book propels Drumont on a journey half way around the world to avenge his brother’s death. Each character is escaping some aspect of his or her past. Each is pursued by a specter of fate. Drumont is that Angel of Death. He also serves as the old guard counterpoint to what he considers the anarchic, libertine, insurrectionist actions of Ben and Co. A restorer of order to a “disordered world.”

“He (Drumont) is a very different human being than the rest,” Andersen said. “A hard person, driven by honor and duty. To an extreme degree. But I don’t regard him as mad or even evil. As I read and read and read into the period I came to believe this idea of honor and duty was a much more potent presence thing in life 160 years ago than it is today. I just think that’s true.”

Andersen spent three years writing and another year revising his “big tapestry” of a novel. He’s now “trying to figure out” what he’ll make the subject of his next. “I had given myself until the end of the year, (2006)” he said. I have a couple of different novel ideas…I will be onto.”

Meanwhile, he’s busy with Studio 360, the omnibus program that works from the digressive edges to tie the threads of complex subjects. An installment of its “American Icons” series, which explores American works of art, won a 2005 Peabody Award. The honored show considered the search for the Great White Whale in Herman Melville’sMoby Dick. An upcoming “Icon” looks at the Midwestern perspective of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholic The Great Gatsby.

He swears he doesn’t miss the magazine game. “No, I really don’t get a twinge to do that. Various things, including Studio 360, slake that appetite,” he said. “I had ten years of kind of like an unbelievably fantastic magazine-making experience, so I feel like, Why push my luck? Maybe I could do another magazine gig that would be fun, but I kind of don’t think so. No, I’m very happy writing books, doing the radio show. And I’m involved in this little Internet thing….called Very Short List (www.veryshortlist.com). We recommend one movie or one book or one piece of music or one web video a day…”

 

1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America

 

He also doesn’t miss being the boss. “I’m happy frankly not managing a lot of stuff and people,” he said. “You know, I get to have my ideas, talk to artists and filmmakers for radio and write my books, and other people are sort of in charge of the operations. I like having as small a part of my life as possible be about management, deciding how much people should get paid and all that crap.”

He has the freedom to discover his hometown’s emerging new face and persona. “I find it really heartening and hopeful about urban life in a frankly improbable place like this one,” he said, “where like a real vital set of scenes are happening. You know, there’s the Bemis art thing happening…the Old Market-retail-condo gentrification thing…the film scene…the music scene with Saddle Creek Records, Timothy Schaffert’s Lit Fest…It seems as though there’s a kind of critical mass of this stuff developing. I think it’s fantastic. I’d find it delightful and charming if it were in Dayton, but I didn’t come from Dayton, so I find it really nice this sense of it being a really livable place.”

He has more than a passing interest in Film Streams as a member of its advisory board. FS director Jacobson got to know Andersen when she worked at WNYC, which co-produces his radio show.

He has been such a great friend both to me and to Film Streams,” she said. “I’ve felt like I can call on him to ask his opinions about anything, from lobby décor to press ideas to programming choices. He’s also planning to curate a series of regional movies…in the fall…I am thrilled that he’s still interested in having a connection to Omaha, and couldn’t feel more fortunate that his affiliation with Film Streams might play some role in that. ”

What his Times piece and a recent Studio 360 segment reveals is that Omaha’s cultural boom is driven by a new matrix of artists-entrepeneurs, not the Great White Fathers of the past.

“It’s this literally alternative history that I think is important for making it a city that feels pleasant and interesting and civilized to me. I mean, yeah there is the canonical history of Omaha and then there’s this other one, and I find it’s this other one not decided in board rooms…necessarily that’s key.”

“You can point to a relatively small group of individuals starting in the late ‘60s, with the Mercers and Ree Schonlau, up through Robb Nansel and Rachel Jacobson today, who for whatever combination of altruistic, aesthetic reasons made certain choices that made things to my eye and taste nicer here than they could have been. This could all have been knocked down as well as Jobbers Canyon,” he said, meaning the Old Market. “I could point to other cities around America where that is what’s happened.”

Omaha’s emergence as a cool urban center, he said, proves “individuals actually can make a huge difference and that’s part of the story. I’m really happy it happened the way it did and I’ll tell you, it has worked out better for Omaha than probably anyone would have predicted. I think Omaha is very fortunate.”

The Omaha model reinforces a lesson he said he’s learned: “That large risk-taking can work out OK if you really have a singular vision and stick to it and work hard and have fun doing it.”

Studio 360
is carried by many public radio stations. Check your local listings.  Heyday is now in fine bookstores everywhere.

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: