Hofstra Horizons Research

The World and Dana Brand

Joseph Fichtelberg
Professor of English

The World and Dana Brand

Dana did his graduate work at Yale, studying with such luminaries as J. Hillis Miller and A. Bartlett Giamatti, the future commissioner of baseball. He came to Hofstra in 1989, was granted tenure in 1992, and in 1993 became chair of the English Department, a position he held for eight years. Dana guided the department through a significant expansion, overseeing a staff of close to 100. He helped shape a new literature curriculum and administered a diverse composition program. After heading the English Department, Dana chaired its Personnel Committee. An Americanist specializing in literature from the Civil War through the 20th century, he taught widely in HCLAS, New College, and Honors College.

Dana’s writing reveals a singular clarity of vision. His principal scholarly work, The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1991) – still in print – is a groundbreaking study of the role of the flaneur in transatlantic texts. As Dana observes in the opening pages, to understand the flaneur is to understand the emergence of modernity. The flaneur, or urban observer, as Charles Baudelaire defined him, “marvels at the eternal beauty and the amazing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom” (Spectator 3). The flaneur, however, was not merely a passive observer of the urban scene. He was the presiding consciousness of a new relation to the world. The flaneur was the first to see in the chaos of modernity a new principle of order.

Dana BrandIn using the flaneur as the groundwork for his study, however, Dana went well beyond Baudelaire, who saw the figure as a European novelty. By contrast, Dana provides a genealogy of the urban observer rooted in Renaissance London. That great city incited a wealth of commentary, from nondescript surveys of vital statistics to satirical portraits of its high life and low life. Writers captured high life in visits to Vauxhall Gardens and the Royal Exchange, where prosperity and power were on display. The low life found expression in a remarkable range of urban sketches, from confidence stories to scatological portraits of the city’s “mysteries.” Dana masterfully surveys this rich literature, which culminated in the great essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Addison and Steele’s Spectator, Dana argues, offered a way to order this sprawling scene: “They introduce the innovation of a powerful gaze that provides a spectator with a panoramic equanimity … enjoy[ing] diversity without grossness, randomness without danger, amusing bustle of mild interest rather than terrifying chaos” (33). Mr. Spectator offered the controlling gaze of a new social regime, one in which a wealth of sensations and experiences could be organized with the right habit of mind. It was the brave new world of liberal capitalism served up as a feast of the senses.

In the 19th century Dana shows, the focus and effects of this literature changed. Broad panoramas of urban life gave way to what he calls “the revival of the familiar essay,” a “highly personal style of writing” that allowed more immediate intimacy with the most diverse experience. That change was in part a response to a quantum shift in city life, which was becoming too vast, too vicious, too complicated to be captured in a single gaze. Other genres arose, including urban detective fiction and the new art of photography, to capture this elusive experience. American flaneurs, Dana argues, responded to the new regime.

Before Dana, no one had so strenuously argued that writers of the American Renaissance could or should be understood as flaneurs. America was too rural, it was claimed, too Jeffersonian, too pastoral to allow its literature to be shaped by urban spectators. But America’s great flaneurs – Poe, Hawthorne, and, above all, Whitman – were no ordinary observers. In discussing Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, the world’s first mystery story, Dana shows that Poe eschewed the flaneur’s conventional serenity. Rather, Auguste Dupin was somewhat diabolical, a cerebral, sinister figure who understood the irrational forces driving urban life. Hawthorne, too, demonstrates the limitations of the flaneur’s power. In “Sights from a Steeple,” his narrator attempts to give a synoptic view of the town, only to confess his insufficiency. Hawthorne’s characteristic indirection and modesty betray the increasing opacity of the 19th-century city, yet those traits also suggest the reserve of an artist like Hawthorne, far from the centers of European modernity. It was left to America’s greatest literary flaneur to demonstrate the true reach of a new modern art.

For Dana, Walt Whitman was America’s preeminent urban observer, at home in an opera house or on a Broadway omnibus declaiming Shakespeare while he took in the crowd. Whitman reveled in urban spectacle, but, like Poe and Hawthorne, his art presented flaneurs with a difference. Whitman’s attempts to capture the city, Dana argued, rarely strike home. Too often, his New York portraits read like static tableaux, generic depictions of everyday scenes. There seemed to be a gap between the flaneur’s tools and the city’s stark demands, an absence of poignancy that made the landscape seem almost barren. But Whitman sensed this shortfall, and answered it through a new modernist design. In a compelling reading, Dana relates Whitman’s urban portraiture to photography, which left a deep impression on the poet:

Like taking a photograph, gazing, as Whitman describes it, does not necessarily privilege any portion of the field of vision nor does it imply that the gazer is having any definable response to or understanding of what he or she observes. The eye that gazes, in a photograph or in an urban crowd, does not surrender its mystery or allow itself to be read. Yet this increases its fascination. As [Walter] Benjamin writes, “… The deeper the remoteness which a glance has to overcome, the stronger will be the spell that is apt to emanate from the gaze.” (166)

The oscillation between remoteness and haunting, clinical intimacy, evident in so many early photographs, shaped Whitman’s greatest urban poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman accomplished what no other flaneur had been able to do: he made modernity personal.

Mets Fan and The Last Days of Shea (Taylor, 2009) were more than paeans to his favorite team.

They were meditations on time and loss, love and purpose, idealism and sacrifice.The years between the publication of The Spectator and the City and Mets Fan (McFarland, 2007) were a fallow period for Dana. He published essays on Alfred Hitchcock and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And he began experimenting with a genre he had studied so closely, the personal essay. After a piece on the Mets was published in Newsday in 2005, he turned full force to this new mode. Mets Fan and The Last Days of Shea (Taylor, 2009) were more than paeans to his favorite team. They were meditations on time and loss, love and purpose, idealism and sacrifice. At times, in recording his impressions, Dana himself became a kind of flaneur, as in this description of “The Crowd at Shea”:

Looking over the tops of the heads, I see cornrows, spiked hair, pony tails, and yarmulkes. I see lawyers in bedraggled business suits, men who look like busts of Roman emperors, and kids who cannot believe their good fortune, to be here, to see the game … All races mix, all cultures and ages gather, here in a broad mass of blue, black, and orange flecked with pink, yellow, and white. (Mets Fan 118)

But the experience of watching the Mets was more than an urban spectacle. For Dana, it was deeply personal. “When I go to Shea,” he wrote of the old stadium, “I feel as if I am visiting my father and several long lost versions of my daughter. I visit all of the different eras of my life, and all of the different teams and players who gave me so much happiness as I grew up and grew older. … So much of what I have known and been seems held in the great curved embrace of the stands, in the rich green symmetry of the field, in the chaos of girders and buttresses and bathrooms and frying food on the concourse behind the seats” (Mets Fan 7). For Dana, baseball was a commemoration of his life. He knew that it was the rhythms of baseball, the innumerable predictable actions punctuated by accident, that gave the game such depths.

That sense of baseball as autobiography, as a kind of urban poem, is most poignantly conveyed in two parallel passages in Mets Fan. In “The Most Exciting Mets Game Ever,” Dana recalls the experience of watching the Mets’ epic postseason game against the 1986 Astros with his parents and sisters.

The game was so tense and important that we couldn’t talk about our lives or about other things during the commercials. Nothing for those few hours was allowed to intrude. All of us cared, to an impossible depth, and all of us cared in different ways. … In recent years, my parents had become more involved than any of us. They had more time. Now that we were grown, the Mets had taken part of our place. … They watched every game here in the den, him in the bigger armchair to the right, her on the couch on the left. Nothing now changed in the den except that every year there were a few new things on the shelves. (Mets Fan 59)

But something did change. The Mets won:

Our den was not the right place for what happened next. My sisters and I leapt to our feet and began do to something we had never dreamed of doing as children, when we were much much smaller. We joined hands and began to jump up and down, and as objects my parents had collected over the years did not begin to fall from their perches, we squeezed each others’ hands and began to jump tentatively higher and higher, screaming because we were so happy that the Mets had won, that the Mets had survived. … My parents are laughing and are pretending to be worried about the shelves and the cabinets toppling to the floor. I am filled with the joy I had at that moment, and the joy I feel looking back on us all there and complete and together. (61-2)

Thirteen years later, the Mets once again found themselves in a playoff, this time with Atlanta. The Mets would not win the World Series that year. The Yankees did. But Dana was back in the den with his family – now including his young daughter. “The furniture, clocks, paintings, and shelves were all where they had been. But while the room in 1986 looked like the room of a late middle-aged couple, while it looked as if it had recently been the room of a whole family, the room in 1999 looked like something much more precarious” (93). Dana’s father, a distinguished physician, had developed Alzheimer’s. This time, there would be no jumping up and down. It was a Sunday night – school the next day – and Dana had to leave before the game ended. As he drove home, he thought of why baseball meant so much to him:

I thought of my father, and my daughter, and I tried to decide if baseball made life seem longer or shorter. In ways, I think it makes life seem longer, because you have this sense of an infinite series of brightly lit evenings recalling other brightly lit evenings, summer afternoons that recall other summer afternoons. … So you feel as if you remember so much, as if you have seen so much of this long, continuing thing. (94-5)

He pulled into his driveway, deposited his sleeping daughter, and watched the Mets pull out a win. “I was so happy, in the late Connecticut quiet, as my daughter slept, and as my wife waited for all the commotion to be over so she could ask me how the day had been” (96).

In his discussion of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Dana turned to the last work of the great French intellectual Roland Barthes. In Camera Lucida, Barthes seeks to explain photography’s aesthetic power. Photography, Dana writes, “offers proof of the reality of time while enabling a sense that it is possible to see across time” (167). Whitman understood this poignant power. His great poem is a study of shared presence, of the subtle connections we feel in every moment, with everyone with whom we share our lives:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the east – sun there half an hour high – I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose.
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations than you suppose. (1-5)

For Whitman, as for Dana, time was not a “self-destroying medium” but a means of experiencing the present in all its elusive fullness, like “glories strung … on my smallest sights and hearings” (9). In that sense, Dana’s life and work were a unitary essay, in the French sense of that word: an attempt to see in the many elements of experience a resonant whole. It was our rare privilege to have shared those glories, to have shared Dana’s world.

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