New York provides an architectural feast, especially if you do not mind straining your neck. Not least among the city’s treasures are its many churches. I have already discussed Saint Patrick’s, the city’s Catholic cathedral, easily one of the grandest buildings in the city. But Saint Patrick’s is not the only cathedral in New York.
Further uptown is a cathedral of even grander proportions: Saint John’s. This is a behemoth of a building, certainly the largest church building in New York City and arguably in the entire country. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington D.C., covers more area but contains far less volume.) And the building as it exists now falls far short of the original plan. Neither of the cathedral’s front towers has been completed, nor has the enormous tower that was to stand over the midpoint of the building. Indeed, after a fire destroyed the north transept in 2001, the cathedral has even lacked a crucifix floorplan. This has led it to be informally dubbed St. John the Unfinished.
Even with all of these parts missing, however, it is a giant church. Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Epicopalians conceived the project as a way to rival or even surpass St. Patrick’s. This cathedral, too, is built in an elaborate neo-gothic style that mimics the great cathedrals of France and Spain. Its hulking façade, with its three enormous doors sitting underneath pointed arches, beckons the visitor from the streets of modern Manhattan to a seemingly medieval world. All of the decorations carefully maintain this illusion, from the frilly spires, to the ornamental carvings, to the friezes of Biblical scenes above the doors. Even the monumental brass doors are covered in art, showing scenes from the life of Christ and representations of the four evangelists. Aside from the cathedral’s manifestly incomplete state, the only thing that breaks the illusion is the appearance of grey discoloration from car exhaust.
The inside is fully in keeping with this aesthetic. Enormous pillars hold up a vaulted ceiling, while stained glass windows allow colored light to drift inside. The visitor is greeted by a beautifully carved wooden choirstall, holding an image of Christ against a golden background. (This is a real 15th century German work, on loan from the Metropolitan.) The cathedral even has a sort of poor man’s version of the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. As far as I know, there are no actual poets buried in this section of the church; instead, small tablets bearing the names and brief quotes of famous American authors cover the floor. According to the plaque, the idea was inspired by a rector in the church of Washington Irving in my hometown, Tarrytown.
All this is true to the style of highfalutin European cathedrals. Closer inspection, however, reveals a church very unlike those it imitates, even St. Patrick’s downtown. Saint John the Divine was conceived as a different sort of institution, a “Democratic Church,” as it dubs itself, open to any and all who would like to come. True to form, the rainbow colors of LGBT pride were displayed prominently near one altar. And this is not a pose. To pick just two examples of the church’s progressive tendency, the cathedral hosted a performance by Diamanda Galás meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and displayed Edwina Sandys’ statue, Christa, a portrayal of Christ as a woman (unsurprisingly, a very controversial work).
All of this is world’s apart from the staid, traditional activity of St. Patrick’s. On the other hand, it is free to walk into the Catholic cathedral, while visitors of Saint John’s have to pay.
Adjacent to the building is an attractive little green space, known as the West 111th Street People’s Garden. Here is located the building of the Cathedral School, a K–8 school for children of any faith; and during the summer it is common to see flocks of children in summer camp parading by. Nearby is the Peace Fountain, a sculpture by Greg Wyatt supposedly portraying the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and the triumph of good over evil. Yet to me the statue looks like an angel strangling a curious giraffe. In any case, the odd sculpture provides a nice illustration of the cathedral’s less orthodox attitude towards traditional themes.
To get to our next church, we must walk a good twenty minutes or so. The pleasantest route takes us directly through the main campus of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the oldest university in New York, and one of the best in the world. Suffice to say that everyone from Alexander Hamilton to Barack Obama have studied there. The campus leaves no doubt as to the honor, splendor, and pretensions of the institution. The grandiose Butler Library, for example, is adorned with the names of great thinkers and writers: Herodotus, Plato, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Voltaire… Directly opposite is the Low Memorial Library, another stately neoclassical edifice; and on the steps leading up to its entrance is the statue of Alma Mater, a symbol of the university, made by the same sculpture who designed the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French.
The thirsty or hungry traveler may also take a small detour to stop at Tom’s Restaurant, a diner used in the exterior shots of Seinfeld. (Though the outside looks exactly like it does in the show, the inside looks nothing like the fictional Monk’s Cafe.) It is a nice place to have a coffee.
The walk further uptown takes us alongside Riverside Park, and through some quite swanky neighborhoods, with upscale apartments attended by liveried doormen. It is an appropriate setting for a church intimately connected with wealth: Riverside Church.
Riverside Church was the idea of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Curiously, this was not the first Rockefeller church that I visited. Much closer to my home, Rockefeller helped to establish the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, a lovely stone building with beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagal and Henri Mattise. Riverside Church is much grander in scale, with an enormous bell tower that rises high up above the rest of the building, and which makes Riverside the tallest church building in the United States.
So big is the tower, in fact, that the actual church seems insignificant by comparison, though it is by no means small. The interior consists of a single nave, again neo-gothic in design, filled with pointed arches and stained glass. Architecturally, it is more perfectly composed, more pure of form than Saint John’s, which lends it a rare tranquility and grace. It is simple and beautiful. John D. Rockefeller was motivated to found the church partly out of a dissatisfaction with the Baptism of his youth. He wanted a more modern church, which is why Riverside is nondenominational, and also why great figures of science are carved into the decorations, including Galileo, Newton, and even Darwin.
Riverside Church is like Saint John’s in its history of progressive activism. Indeed, the church arguably has an even stronger connection to social reform. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a major speech against the Vietnam War here, in 1967; and there are still photographs of him on the bulletin board. A far more humble mark of the church’s ethos is the bathroom sign, which declares “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The church is still an epicenter for advocacy on many fronts, from anti-torture, to immigrants’ rights, to support for the HIV-positive. It is a model for a humanitarian church.
It is hardly sensible to visit Riverside Church without visiting the monument next door. Within a few hundred feet of the church doors is the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. It is the largest and grandest tomb of an American President, an enormous neoclassical structure complete with Greek columns and domed ceiling. Even though his presidency has been widely regarded as a failure, he was an immensely popular figure at the time of his death; his funeral drew one and a half million spectators. This explains the grandiose design of his final resting place, which is highly reminiscent of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides.
Nowadays, the tomb is a quiet and largely ignored corner of New York, with a handful of tourists respectfully poking about at any one time. Yet it is well worth a visit. Grant is interred in a massive granite coffin, alongside his wife in an identical sarcophagus. The coffins are below the floor level, visible through a hole in the floor, where they rise up from the lower level on a platform—again, much like Napoleon’s tomb. The visitor can descend and walk around the coffins, pausing to admire the busts of other Civil War generals, such as William Tecumseh Sherman. On the upper level, flanking the staircase, are two side chapels with historical flags from the war. And up above a mosaic depicts the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant. One could be forgiven for thinking that Grant was a general alone, and not a president, from the evidence of his tomb.
Here is where I will end my little tour, which can take as little as a couple hours. Separated by only a few blocks are the largest and the tallest churches in the United States—not to mention a historic university and an enormous tomb. But Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church are, for me, far more than architectural delights. They are living institutions, still engaged in the proper work of religion: to improve the lives of their congregations.
More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.
Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.
The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.
I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.
Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river.
Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.
Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.
Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.
To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.
We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels.
But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.
Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.
On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.
Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.
I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.
My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).
It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses.
Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.
Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.
Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.
In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.
This past Friday I went to Bethel Woods for the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. Ringo Starr and his All Starr band was headlining. Each of us had a special connection to the event. My mother grew up nearby, and was able to attend one day of the original concert, seeing Joe Cocker perform “With a Little Help from My Friends.” My brother and I, meanwhile, had gotten into the music from the sixties in high school, and had watched the Woodstock film many times. We had even seen Richie Havens, who opened the original festival, twice—once here in Bethel Woods. Besides that, all of us are devoted Beatles fans.
My mother stressed for months preceding the event. There were so many instructions—parking passes, when to arrive, what you can take in, and so on. She had called the organizers several times in order to make sure that we were properly prepared. Even so, when we arrived (after taking the same back roads my mother had taken, fifty years ago) we were promptly informed by a state trooper that we needed an additional parking pass, the “green one,” even though we already had one they had mailed to us. To get it, we had to drive over a mile to the information tent, asking for directions several times along the way (the original trooper forgot the name of the road, which was Huckle Puddy).
This done, we circled back and were finally allowed into the parking lot, being waved on by dozens of attendants. The walk to the venue took us past a great many signs, each one adding to the ever-increasing list of prohibited items and activities. No weapons, of course, or “any object that may be used as a projectile” (quite a broad category), nor professional cameras, posters, banners, selfie sticks, iPads, or lawn chairs. If you wanted to bring a camera, it could not have an interchangeable lens. If you wanted to bring a bag, it had to be plastic and transparent, allowing the staff to easily see what was inside. Among the list of permitted items were umbrellas, strollers, and “two 20oz. factory sealed bottles of water per person.” On the list of prohibited items were musical instruments.
Before going inside, we had to pass through metal detectors (no precaution can be omitted in the age of mass shootings), and then have our tickets scanned. After a slight wait, we were allowed inside.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a cultural complex located on the original grounds of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The site was opened partially to combat the economic downturn of the region. Years ago, the Catskill Mountains were a popular vacation spot for those living in New York City, especially in the summer when the city became unbearably hot. But events conspired to make this option ever less popular. The widespread use of air conditioning made it unnecessary to escape to the mountains, and the rise in cheaper air travel made destinations further afield more popular. Resorts and hotels closed down, leaving the region devoid of an economic heart.
Bethel Woods has several venues, including a small indoor one (where I saw Richie Havens) and the outdoor pavilion, big enough (with lawn space) for around 10,000 people. (Since you cannot bring in your own lawn chair, you must rent one from Bethel Woods if you sit on the lawn.) This is where Ringo was to perform. The complex also has a museum dedicated to the sixties: counterculture, Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movements, and so on. I visited this museum back when I was in high school, and I remember an old Volkswagen Bus on display, as if it were an antique horse-drawn carriage or a space shuttle.
On this day there were tents set up all around the space, selling knick knacks, Woodstock paraphernalia, and overpriced food and drinks. A single can of beer cost $14. There were a couple cordoned-off bar areas that only catered to visitors with special tickets, who sat behind the barrier on plush chairs drinking overpriced drinks. People wearing tie-dye shirts and bell bottom jeans, with flowers sticking out of colorful bandannas, strolled around sporting bags and other merch that featured the iconic Woodstock symbol, a guitar with a dove perched on it. The average age has increased quite a bit since the first festival, though not quite by fifty years. In general the crowd was overwhelmingly white—more so, I suspect, than the original crowd, if I can judge from photos and videos. Despite threatening rain, it was a fine, sunny day.
When the original Woodstock Festival was held, this land was a dairy farm, owned by Max Yasgur. Like the anniversary concert, the original one was planned to make money. In today’s dollars, tickets for all three days cost well over $100. About 200,000 attendees were expected. But the organizers had difficulty finding a venue. The town was opposed to the concert, even though the organizers lied and said that only 50,000 would come. By the time they secured Max Yasgur’s farm, three days before the concert, they did not have enough time to build the fences. The event became, de facto, free; and more than 400,000 people came. Logistically it was a nightmare, with massive traffic jams, insufficient food, water, and toilets, and muddy fields caused by the rain. What prevented the event from becoming a calamity was a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that prevailed among the concert-goers.
In short, the event became an iconic moment in the counterculture movement of the sixties. And though it was, financially, a disaster for the organizers, the 1970 documentary of the festival more than recouped the expenses.
Nothing I could write would capture the amazing energy of the original festival better than the documentary. While the youth were boiling over with indignation at the horrors of racism and the Vietnam War, they were simultaneously filled with an extraordinary hopefulness, actuated by the belief that music and love could herald in a better world.
No event, then, could be further in spirit from the original festival than the anniversary concert. Hippiedom has passed from counterculture to kitsch. If the original event was a logistical disaster, this one was impeccably planned. If the original event did not turn a profit, this one certainly did. The hippies were filled with a do-it-yourself ethos; they thought that they could escape the perils of commercial culture by creating things by hand, by getting back in touch with nature, by cooperating rather than competing with each other. Now, hippie garb can be bought at the gift shop, for inflated prices; and Bethel Woods transparently squeezes its visitors, by prohibiting them from bringing anything from home into the event.
The original attendees slid around on the mud and bathed in the river; they entertained themselves with drum circles. You cannot bring a guitar or a drum into Bethel Woods, and to see the music you sit on either a rented lawn chair or within the concrete pavilion. The hippies tried to reject capitalism. Now, two jumbo-trons beside the stage play commercials and display ads before, between, and after the show. And the contrasts did not stop there.
The first band to play was Blood, Sweat, and Tears, who in another iteration had played at the original festival. The band’s line-up has changed quite a bit over the years; and nobody currently in the group was present at Woodstock. In fact, the current vocalist, Keith Paluso, was years away from being born in 1969. The 30-year-old singer rose to fame as a contestant on the NBC show, The Voice; before that, he informed us, he had been a park ranger in Tennessee. “So don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be anything you want,” he said to a cheering crowd. But I wonder if the hippies of 1969 would have thought that being chosen on a corporate TV show by a cast of super-rich celebrity judges was a really inspiring origin-story.
The band played well, sticking to its signature style of jazz-rock—a fusion of exotic harmonies, elaborate solos, and a steady backbeat. Paluso said that they played nearly the same set as the band did fifty years ago (though their set wasn’t captured on the documentary).
The next to perform was Edgar Winter, brother of the famous guitarist Johnny Winter, and famous in his own right for the hit song “Frankenstein” in the seventies. The aging rocker played with a power trio, guitar, bass, and drums, while he switched between synthesizer, saxophone, and timbales, all the while singing in his surprisingly powerful falsetto (he’s 72 years old, after all). His act featured a lot of jamming, with Winter playing call-and-response with each of the instrumentalists in turn, scatting a lick and having the player repeat it. I thought it was a little much.
Finally Ringo came out, accompanied by his All Starr Band. The idea of this band is that Ringo gathers together former members of prominent rock groups, and each of them performs songs from the high points of their careers. It is like a retirement home for aging rockers. The current line-up features Colin Hay, of Men at Work; Hamish Stuart, of Average White Band; Steve Lukather, of Toto; and Gregg Rolie, who played with Santana at the original Woodstock. During their set, then, Colin Hay sang “Land Down Under,” Hamish Stuart sang “Pick up the Pieces,” Steve Lukather sang “Rosanna,” and Gregg Rolie sang “Evil Ways.” Ringo, for his part, sang several of his hits from the Beatles, including “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” as well as some hits from his solo career, like “Photograph.”
Ringo was charming as ever, effortlessly funny even if occasionally sounding out-of-tune, such as when he asked “Are there any young girls in the audience?” before singing “You’re Sixteen.” In the age of Jeffrey Epstein, this does not sound like an innocent question. The other members played and sang well, too, delivering a crowd-pleasing performance. I was happy to see Ringo, not only since I think he was one of the keys to the Beatles’ success (despite his reputation, his drumming was innovative and crucial to the band’s sound), but also because this meant that I had seen both living Beatles (having seen Paul McCartney in Yankee Stadium, years ago). For a man of 79, he looks and sounds great.
While I do not wish to disparage the music of the anniversary, I think it also illustrates a major shift since the days of Woodstock. Rock music used to be the affair of amateurs, who figured out how to play and sing by themselves. Nowadays, rock music has been professionalized. The musicians at this concert played with a technically immaculate polish that was very different from the original generation of musicians. As a contrast I might offer Richie Havens, a man with no musical education who created an entirely original way to play the guitar, tuning it to an open chord, barring it with his thumb, and strumming like a madman. Or I might mention Jimi Hendrix, whose self-taught style has remained basically inimitable. The guitarists who played at the anniversary, by contrast, were studied professionals, capable of playing flawless blues solos, jazz chords, or funk riffs. They could sound like anyone, in other words, except themselves.
So what are we to make of this immense contrast? In truth, it is not surprising that the youthful hippie culture puttered out. People get older, more successful, more integrated, and more conservative. Besides, such an outpouring of naïve hope was perhaps unsustainable. In any case, as a method of social change, the hippie way was rather self-indulgent and hedonistic, hoping that drugs and dancing was enough to change the world.
The change also illustrates the immense power of the culture to absorb a counter-culture, commercializing everything to the extent that it loses its teeth and even its identity. We actively buy into this commercialization. Money is basically irresistible.
Yet for all the naiveté, the fuzzy thinking, the hedonism, and the self-righteous nonsense of the hippie movement, it is difficult not to regret the disappearance of that immense, hopeful energy, that impossible dream of ushering in a new world. Now we have many of the same problems as the hippies had—foreign wars, racism, exploitative capitalism—but without the spirit of cooperation, inventiveness, and optimism that might allow us to push back. For Woodstock was not about the trappings of hippiedom, or even ultimately about the music. It was about a dream.
There is no place in New York City to which I have a more intimate connection than the American Museum of Natural History. I practically grew up inside its walls. For a nerdy boy on the Upper West Side, it was the perfect place for a weekend outing. My mom recalls taking me there and letting me run around in the big Hall of Ocean Life, while she enjoyed a beer at the refreshment stand. (They do not sell beer anymore.) My dad took me plenty of times, too, and then followed up the visit with a meatball subway sandwich.
Kids still love the museum. The natural world, after all, is far more accessible than the highfalutin world of art. A child who is still figuring out the basics of the world around her has no need of elaborate images to reconnect her to her senses. And it is fortunate for our society that the museum is so accessible to children. Judging from the case of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil deGrasse Tyson (as well as myself) the fascination exerted on youthful visitors to the museum often matures into a fascination for the natural world and a respect for the power of human reason. And you do not need to be a child to feel this twin amazement at world without and the intelligence within. I feel it every time I visit.
You can enter the museum from several spots. The grandest is, without a doubt, through the Roosevelt Rotunda on Central Park West. When walking up the stairs, the visitor will notice the heroic equestrian statue of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is worth pausing to continue this statue, for it encapsulates much of the controversial history of the institution. The mustachioed man is flanked by a Native American and an African man, both on foot, and both looking rather dejected to my eyes. The racial message is clear: the white man sits atop the lesser races. To its credit, the AMNH is acknowledging this imagery with a special exhibit, “Addressing the Statue.” I think this strategy is far preferable to the idea of simply removing it, since now the statue provides an opportunity for learning.
Theodore Roosevelt holds a special place in the history of the museum. His father was one of the museum’s founders, when it was still housed in the Arsenal Building of Central Park. The younger Roosevelt was himself an ardent naturalist, and we have him to thank for many of our country’s most beautiful national parks. But being a nationalist in those days did not mean what it means today. Roosevelt did an awful lot of hunting on behalf of the museum, providing some of the exotic animals that were later stuffed and mounted in the amazing displays. Our views on hunting big game and on racial differences have both, fortunately, evolved since then.
To thank the President for his support, the museum is studded with acknowledgements. The most extravagant of these is the massive mural painted by William Andrew Mackay, covering three tall walls of the Roosevelt Rotunda, where the visitor enters. These depict the eventful life of the naturalist president, turning him into a kind of secular saint on the walls of the cavernous room. But of course most people’s attention is absorbed by what is happening in the middle: the dramatic encounter between a brontosaurus protecting its calf, and the hungry allosaurus prowling for prey. Both the baby and the predator are dwarfed by the gargantuan form of the brontosaurus, whose already significant height is bolstered by standing on its hind legs. Personally I doubt that such a massive animal could perform such a maneuver without breaking its legs. Indeed, replica fossils had to be used, since the real fossils (made of stone, after all) are too heavy to mount in such a way.
Much as I would like to move on to the museum’s exhibits, there is one more relic from the museum’s past that deserves comment. Downstairs from the glorious Roosevelt Rotunda is the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which includes four small exhibitions about the varied activities of the president: his interest in nature; his love of exploration; his time as a statesman; and his life as a writer. What draws most attention, however, is a diorama showing a meeting between Peter Stuyvesant—the Dutch leader of what later became NYC—and the indigenous Lenape people. Made in 1939, this diorama contains several omissions and inaccuracies that work in the Europeans’ favor, such as showing the Lenape almost nude. Again, to its credit, the AMNH has included annotations on the glass, pointing out several of these problems; and their website includes lesson plans to help visiting teachers use the diorama.
I am dwelling on these examples of the museum’s less noble past, not to portray the institution in a negative light, but to show that the museum is working to improve itself without burying its past. It is a model to imitate. And the museum has a long history. This year, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the institution. This makes the AMNH one year older than the Metropolitan, which was founded in 1870.
Now it is finally time to enter the museum. Luckily, the entrance fee is still a suggested donation for all visitors, so you need not break the bank. What should we see first? There is a great deal to choose from. In fact, the AMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world, with millions upon millions of specimens of animals, fossils, minerals, artifacts… It would be virtually impossible to see the entire thing in one day. For my part, it has taken me dozens of visits to fully wrap my mind around the museum; and even a lifetime would not suffice to learn all it has to teach.
Let us go on straight ahead from the Roosevelt Rotunda into the Hall of African Mammals. Simply as a work of art, this is one of the high points of the museum. In the center a herd of eight African elephants—bulls, cows, and calves—huddle together. Arranged around this heard, in little niches in the walls, are other exotic animals: lions, zebras, giraffes. The visitor would be forgiven for thinking that all of these were merely plastic replicas; but they are real taxidermied specimens of animals (one of the elephants was shot by Theodore Roosevelt himself). This gives the dioramas a kind of macabre air, which is combined with melancholy when examining endangered species such as the rhinos and the gorillas.
Yet art intervenes to uplift this collection of exotic bodies into a thrilling exhibit. Every diorama is masterfully done: the animals stand in dramatic, lifelike poses amid an environment so scrupulously recreated as to be totally convincing. Added to this are the paintings on the curved surfaces enclosing the dioramas. These hand-painted backgrounds are worthy works of art in their own right: adapting perspective to the wall’s curvature in order to create a nearly seamless continuation with the scene in the foreground. The result is a strange blend of natural beauty and human invention, which is at turns convincingly lifelike and technically astounding. As I walked along from diorama to diorama, I felt like pilgrim visiting a church, walking around from chapel to chapel.
The lion’s share of the credit for this work goes to Carl Akeley, who participated in both collecting and mounting these specimens. Though this business of big-game taxidermy can seem to us in the present day as grim and barbaric, I think that Akeley deserves to be viewed as an artist of high ability. Creating compelling nature dioramas is no easy matter. It requires a naturalist’s eye for fact and a sculpture’s eye for form. To construct a compelling design that is, at the same time, true to nature, requires a special knack. Akeley was a master of it.
A kind of sister to this gallery is the Hall of Asian Mammals, also accessible through the Roosevelt Rotunda. This is a decidedly smaller space; and as the plaque on the wall informs us, the animals here are owed to a “Mr. Ferney” and a “Colonel Faunthorpe,” who made six expeditions into Asia to hunt these animals. Two Asian Elephants stand in the center of this gallery, slightly smaller than their African counterparts. This gallery originally contained a specimen of a giant panda and a Siberian tiger, but the subsequent history of those species led the museum to place these in the Hall of Biodiversity as examples of endangered species (more later). On my latest trip, I learned that there is a type of Asian Lion with a rangy mane, which lives in a small sliver of India.
Now let us descend a flight of stairs once again to the Rockefeller Memorial Hall, on the ground floor. Here we can enter the space directly below the Hall of African Mammals: the Hall of North American Mammals. We find still more superb animal dioramas. The most famous of these is the Alaska Brown Bear. Two of these stand behind the glass. One is reared up on its hind legs, while the other prowls menacingly nearby. The height of the upright bear is startling. Standing before it, you feel how easily this creature could overpower you. Another superb display is of the moose, which features two bull moose jousting with their antlers. As a Canadian friend once told me, moose are the “king of the beasts.”
A quick trip through the Roosevelt Memorial Hall will lead us to one of the museum’s newer spaces: the Hall of Biodiversity. Opened in 1998, it did not exist when I was a young child. The room has a stunning design. Through the center is a swath of artificial rainforest, made to replicate one of earth’s most diverse environments. A legion of tentacled creatures hang from the ceiling, including a giant squid, an octopus, and a massive jellyfish. A glass case holds the giant panda and Siberian tiger, among others, as examples of endangered species; and the bones of the long-dead dodo can be found. Most of the action takes place on the far wall, which is illuminated from behind. Here is represented the entire panoply of life, from bacteria, to algae, to fungi, to plants, and finally to all the many variations of animals: worms, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and vertebrates of every kind. (There is an online version that you can click through.)
The sheer abundance of models on display gives a visual illustration to the richness of life on this planet. This amazing variety, developed over 3 billion years of evolution, goes far beyond our humdrum ideas about plant and animal types. To give an example, once a teacher of mine asked everyone in class to make a guess at how many species of bee there are in the world. People’s guesses ranged between 12 and 300. The answer is 20,000. Unfortunately, this biodiversity is being dramatically curtailed through human action—which is why this gallery was made.
This attractive space opens up to what has always been, for me, the most dramatic room in the museum: the Hall of Ocean Life. Here is where I would spend most of my time as a child. This hall is one of the biggest spaces in the museum. It is dominated by the life-sized model of a blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist on the planet, hanging from the ceiling. This lightweight model weighs no less than 21,000 pounds—so just imagine what the real animal must weigh. It is frankly stupefying that something so large can be alive. The entire herd of elephants from the Hall of African Mammals can huddle underneath its belly.
Dioramas line the walls of both floors of this hall. The best of these are on the bottom, where you can find a polar bear, a pod of walruses, and a huddle of sea lions. Here, as elsewhere, these displays are amazingly dramatic and lifelike. We can see the sharks in pursuit of the poor sea turtle, and the dolphins jumping out of the water to catch some flying fish. But the real masterpiece of this hall is the battle between the sperm whale and the giant squid. The sperm whale is the biggest toothed predator in the world, and its prey is likewise large. This big-headed mammal dives deep under the water—sometimes over a mile deep, going more than an hour without breathing—in order to prey on the invertebrate monsters that lurk below.
The most notable foe of this whale is the giant squid, itself one of the world’s largest animals, capable of growing to over 40 feet in length. When a whale finally catches on of these squids, it must be a serious fight, as the suction-cup scars found on the hide of sperm whales attest to. The diorama evokes all the drama of this encounter. We arrive once the fight has commenced: the whale has one of the squid’s tentacles in its jaws, and the squid is wrapped around the whale’s enormous head. The diorama is illuminated in a semi-darkness that recalls the inky blackness of the deep ocean
As a child, I found this scene both fascinating and terrifying, and became obsessed. I drew the battle over and over, doing my best to perfect the two different forms: the smooth blue whale and the sprawling red squid. Even now, this conflict between the big-brained sperm whale and the monstrous giant squid calls to mind a deep conflict within our own nature.
This description only touches upon the strange, otherworldly beauty on display in the Hall of Ocean Life—a beauty that captivated me as a child and which still moves me. The world below the seas is more fantastic and alien than anything dreamed up in science fiction. You can see this clearly in the three dioramas depicting life in the ancient oceans: creatures whose bodies form spirals, cones, wings, prowling about on an ocean floor populated with blooming anemones. The colorful, twisting, bulbous forms of the coral reef also evoke this strange allure. A part of me has always wished to be a marine biologist.
Now we will leave the Hall of Ocean Life to travel back through the Hall of Biodiversity, to enter a space which I have still not adequately explored. The first is the Hall of North American Forests. This space is dedicated to the sorts of environments present in the United States and Canada, from the deserts of Arizona to the cold forests of Ontario. The most impressive object on display is a cross section from a 1,400 year-old Sequoia. It is enormous: big enough to serve as a dance floor or even to serve as the foundation for a house. Notable historical events are marked on the tree rings, going from the invention of book printing in China (in 600), to the crowning of Charlemagne (in 800), to the death of Chaucer (in 1400), to the ascension of Napoleon (in 1804), to when the tree was finally cut down, in 1891.
This hall is also notable for a diorama depicting the little critters who live in the soil, responsible for breaking down organic matter and keeping the cycles of life in swing. The worm, centipede, and daddy-long-legs are blown up to 24 times their actual size, which is not a pleasant sight. The same can be said for the giant model of a malarial mosquito, which does not increase my affection for that species. Teddy Roosevelt played a part in educating the public about the role mosquitos play in spreading malaria, since he had to deal with the disease when overseeing the Panama Canal.
When we leave this hall, we enter yet another of the museum’s grand entrance spaces. This is named, appropriately enough, the Grand Gallery. It is most famous for the hanging Great Canoe, made by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Carved from a single tree, this enormous boat can hold a dozen people and is suitable for use in ocean waves. The front features an exquisite painting of a killer whale. When I was a boy, I normally entered the museum here. At the time the canoe was filled with the plastic figures of Native Americans; and I would look at these mannequins with a kind of uncomprehending terror, since I could not figure out what those men were doing. The museum has since refurbished the canoe and removed the figures, hanging it higher so as to make the decoration more visible.
There are still other treasures to be found in this gallery. In one corner is a glass containing an ammonite fossil. This are extinct mollusks which looked like squids living in a spiral shell. This particular ammonite happened to fossilize under high pressure, which resulted in it being an iridescent rainbow. Nearby is a magnificent stibnite: a metallic crystal formed from antimony and sulfur. These crystals form themselves into a collection of jagged silver spikes all sprouting from a central core. A nearby child compared it to a porcupine.
The Grand Gallery normally leads to the Northwest Coast Hall; but it is currently closed for renovation. This hall is the oldest continued exhibit space in the museum, having been opened in 1900. The peoples of the Pacific Northwest are known throughout the world for the high quality of their visual art, including the iconic totem pole. This hall contained a great many of these poles, among other art, which made it one of the museum’s more beautiful spaces. Much of this was collected by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, during the famed Jesup North Pacific Expedition of 1897 – 1902. The current renovations are yet another example of the museum’s attempt to confront its past: updating the information to reflect how these cultures wish to be represented, rather than how anthropologists represented them 100 years ago.
The Grand Gallery also leads into the equally grand Hall of Human Origins. Opened in 1921, this hall was the first exhibit about the controversial topic of human evolution in the United States. The hall still performs this admirable task, teaching visitors about the evolutionary past of our own species. The visitor is first confronted with three skeletons, one of a modern human, one of a chimpanzee (our closest living relative), and one of a Neanderthal (our nearest extinct cousin). On the wall there are models of various primates, with their genetic similarity to humans shown underneath. Chimpanzees are nearly identical, with 99% similarity.
A major highlight are casts of famous human ancestor fossils, including Turkana Boy and Lucy. (I myself studied human evolution in the Turkana Basin, so it is always gratifying to see the plaque about the region.) There is also a reproduction of the Laetoli Footprints—imprints preserved in volcanic ash 3.5 million years ago, showing clear evidence of bipedalism—and a diorama of the what the two australopithecus may have looked like as they walked across the ashy plain (the male with his arm snuggly around his mate). There are also scenes representing the life of early humans, building shelters out of mammoth bones or being ambushed by giant hyenas. It was a tough life back in the paleolithic.
After moving through the Hall of Human Origins, you come to the Hall of Meteorites. This is most notable for containing a large chunk of the Cape York Meteorite. It is unknown when this iron meteorite struck the earth (near Cape York, in Greenland), though it was likely thousands if not millions of years ago. The original meteorite broke up into three large pieces, which were used by the Inuit living nearby to make iron tools. For decades Westerners searched for the mysterious source of iron (not easy to come by in the arctic), until Robert Peary, the explorer, finally found the meteorites and arranged for them to be transported and sold to the AMNH (likely without compensating the Inuit). The fragment displayed is so heavy that the foundations for the platform had to be built down to the bedrock below. It’s an awfully big rock.
The Hall of Meteorites normally leads to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. However, this hall is closed for renovations at the moment, which does not surprise me, since every time I visited the hall struck me as looking decidedly retro. The angular, geometrical design of the room (which appropriately mirrors that of a crystal) was praised highly when it was opened in the 1970s; but nowadays it looks very similar to how Kubrick imagined the future would be, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beautiful corners of the museum. The glass displays, arranged throughout the room, are filled with gleaming stones—gems which reflect and refract light in a thousand distinct ways.
(Visit here to see photos of the original gallery and concept drawings for the new gallery.)
This hall has a colorful history. Whenever I visit, I think that the hall looks like the kind of place Lex Luther would rob in order to get some kryptonite. Other people have had similar thoughts, it seems. In 1964, Jack Roland Murphy (“Murph the Surf”), with two accomplices, snuck into the museum and stole some of its most famous pieces: the Eagle Diamond, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Star of India sapphire (all donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan). The thieves were eventually caught, and the jewels found and returned to the museum—the Star of India was found in a bus station foot locker—with the notable exception of the Eagle Diamond, which was likely cut into smaller pieces and sold. (Murph the Surf was later convicted for murder; in prison he became a minister and was released early; he is currently the vice president of the International Network of Prison Ministries.)
We have gone to the very end of the museum, but we have still left out one of the museum’s most notable wings: the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Opened in 2000 (so I did not see it as a child) this is the newest part of the museum, and it shows. The space-age design features a massive central sphere enclosed in a glass cube. The new Hayden planetarium is housed within this sphere, where visitors can see shows projected on the upper dome. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the first and, so far, the only director of the Rose Center; and he narrates many of the astronomical shows.
Below this “cosmic cathedral” (as the designer called it) is the Hall of the Universe. Here you can find information about stars, planets, galaxies, and the moon, all displayed on sleek metallic panels. There are scales that tell you what your weight would be on Mars and the Moon (in pounds, which requires a conversion for non-American visitors). In one clear glass case there is a self-contained ecosystem of algae and tiny shrimp—a microcosm that represents the macrocosm of earth. A curving walkway that leads away from the planetarium takes the visitor through the entire history of the universe, from the big bang to the present day.
The star of the hall is the Willamette Meteorite. This is another iron meteorite, yet it looks strikingly different from the Cape York Meteorite. Its surface is pockmarked—I believe from centuries of weather erosion. The rock has been on earth a long time. Possibly the core of an early proto-planet, smashed to smithereens in a cosmic collision, this meteorite struck earth thousands of years ago (but we have yet to be able to find the impact sight). It was found in Oregon, but it was likely moved by expanding and receding glaciers. As with the Cape York Meteorite, the Willamette Meteorite was taken without the consent of the native peoples who had long known about it. This led to a lawsuit, in 1999, by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, demanding the return of the rock (which had been in the museum for nearly 100 years by then). Luckily, the AMNH reached a deal that allowed it to keep the meteorite.
Adjoining the Hall of the Universe is the Hall of Planet Earth, devoted to geology. This gallery has accomplished the difficult job of rendering geology visible, tactile, and immediate. The space is filled with models of geological formations, many of which can be touched. These slices of earth help to illustrate the normally invisible processes below the surface which have shaped our planet—the slow churning of the continental plates, the effects of receding glaciers and running water, the volcanic explosions which hurl up new land from the depths. The hall also has a section devoted to climate change, which features an ice core (a piece of ice formed over thousands of years) which the visitor can “read” by moving a monitor over different sections, thus revealing how the climate has changed.
From what I observed, children love the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Everywhere I looked young kids were reading, looking, touching, laughing, and in general having a great time. To me this represents an accomplishment of a high order. Making whales and dinosaurs accessible to children is straightforward; but to make accessible the abstract theories of physics, the slow processes of geology, and the distant threat of global climate change—this calls for subtlety and skill, and the designers of this hall have accomplished their task with brilliance.
Now we must get to an elevator and ascend from the bottom to the top floor. We have dallied in the museum for a good, long time, and it will close soon, so we had better get to the spectacular fossil rooms on the fourth floor.
The proper place to begin is on the Orientation Hall. Here the visitor can see a video that explains some background of evolution and cladistics (making evolutionary trees). But the visitor will likely have difficulty focusing on this video, since in 2016 the museum added an enormous dinosaur to the room. This is the Titanosaur, a massive, long-necked sauropod whose form dominates the space. From tail to head, the animal stretches 119 feet (or 32 meters); and in life it likely weighed well over 60 tons (an adult elephant, by comparison, weighs about one-tenth as much). The size of these animals is simply staggering—especially considering that they began life in an egg scarcely bigger than that of an ostrich. How much vegetation did one of these have to eat in a day in order to survive?
The fossil rooms make a closed circuit, so the visitor can go in any direction. The most logical direction to go in, however, is to begin with the Hall of Vertebrate Origins—since this way the galleries are chronological.
From the perspective of biology, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins is likely the most fascinating hall of fossils, even if it lacks any of the spectacular specimens of later eons. We can see examples of the first vertebrates, on sea, on land, and in the air. One of the more memorable fossils on display are the jaws of the extinct Megalodon, a shark that lived millions of years ago, and which grew several times larger than today’s great white shark. The tremendous and terrifying jaws, hanging from the ceiling, dwarf even the bite of a Tyrannosaur. Nearby hangs a model of the Dunkleosteus, an armored fish that lived many hundreds of millions of years before the Megalodon, and which likely was major predator of its day. Further on is a Pterosaur, a member of the first known vertebrates to have achieved flight. (Commonly called dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs were closely related but technically not dinosaurs. Also, the term “Pterodactyl” only refers to one subgroup of the Pterosaurs.)
These three examples only touch on the immense biological richness in this hall. For anyone hoping to better understand the history of life on our planet, their time will be well spent in close examinations of the specimens on display. The museum also offers computer booths that allow visitors to scroll through various evolutionary trees and learn more about different species.
We now come to one of the museum’s most spectacular spaces: the Hall of the Saurischian Dinosaurs. Now, Dinosaurs are typically split into two large evolutionary groups, the Ornithiscia and the Saurischia. The latter includes all carnivorous dinosaurs as well as sauropods (and birds, the only living dinosaur group). This means that this gallery includes the famous Tyrannosaur. Even when manifestly dead, the Tyrannosaur has a commanding presence. The mere thought of it being alive is enough to cause goose bumps. And this predator—one of the largest to have ever walked the earth—was likely even more terrifying than we normally think. According to the paleontologist Stephen Brusette, Tyrannosaurus was highly intelligent, had excellent vision, and likely lived and hunted in packs. One of them is frightening enough; imagine a gaggle of T. Rex. And to think that this fearsome creature began its life no bigger than a chicken.
Across from the Tyrannosaur is another museum favorite, the Apatosaurus (sometimes called the Brontosaurus). This is a sauropod, somewhat smaller than the Titanosaur in the other room, but still large enough to make even the Tyrannosaur look petite by comparison. Another fearsome predator on display is the Allosaurus, a carnivore somewhat smaller than Tyrannosaurus that lived several million years earlier, which was an apex predator in its own epoch. This Allosaur is bending over to scrape some meat off of a fresh carcass. One less flashy specimen on display is the skull of a velociraptor (which, despite its portrayal in Jurassic Park, was about the size of a turkey).
Next we come to the Hall of the Ornithischian dinosaurs. This group does not contain quite as many star dinosaurs as the other hall, but it will not disappoint. Here can be found one of the museum’s most important specimens, a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur. Unlike in the vast majority of dinosaur remains, here we do not only have the skeleton, but the skin of the ancient animal. This has allowed scientists to get a much better idea of what the scales of a dinosaur were like. Also on display is a Stegosaurus, famous for its small brain, spiked tail, and a back covered in vertical plates (whose purpose is still debated). My personal favorite, however, is the Triceratops, an herbivore that lived alongside T. rex and was one of its principal foes. Powerfully built, with a three-pronged horn and a protective ridge, hunting these beasts must have been no easy matter.
I am always moved by the dinosaurs. They were magnificent animals, many of them so far beyond the range of size and power that we can find among today’s land mammals and reptiles. That such a diverse group of powerful beasts could go entirely extinct from a chance event—a meteoric bolt from the blue—cannot but remind us of our own precarious existence. Indeed, these chance catastrophes play a disturbingly crucial role in the history of life on our planet. Dinosaurs themselves would never have become so dominant if not for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (possibly caused by volcanic activity), which eliminated much of their competition. And the mammals would never have been able to emerge as the current dominant life form if not for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which eliminated every one of these creatures (except for birds), thus leaving the stage set for us. But how long will we last?
The next hall focuses on the early history of our own clan, the mammals. The further back one goes in evolution, the mudier become the distinctions between distinct lineages. Thus, some of the fossils on display in the Hall of Primitive Mammals do not strike us as mammals—and in fact are not, only early relatives. Into this class falls the Dimetrodon, a sail-backed cuadroped that looks far more reptilian to my eyes than anything resembling a house cat. But a close examination of its skull reveals the tell-tale opening behind its eye socket, leaving a bony arch which scientists have decided constitutes the defining mark of a new class of animal, the Synapsids, which includes mammals.
The Hall of Primitive Mammals is notable for the mammal island—a large array of fossil specimens that illustrate the range of mammalian diversity. By any measure, we mammals are an immensely diverse lot, having populated the land, sea, and air, occupying all sorts of niches, and ranging in size from a large insect (the smallest bat) to the biggest animal ever to exist (the blue whale). Amid this sea of variety we find the Glyptodont, an extinct relative of the armadillo, far larger and far more heavily armored. The face of this fossil preserves a sense of the patient drudgery which must have characterized this poor beast’s life, as it dragged its heavy shell through the landscape. The saber-toothed cat led a more exciting, if not more successful, life thousands of years ago, as did the lumbering cave bear. But the most terrifying skeleton of all may belong to the Lestodon, an enormous ground sloth whose gaping nose socket seems to look at you like a cyclops.
Finally we come to the Hall of Advanced Mammals, which features species more recently extinct (many of which died off during the great megafauna extinction 10,000 years ago). Here we can see a large array of specimens that illustrate the evolution of horses, growing up from dainty things the size of dogs up into the stallions of today (though, as often happens with evolution, this progress was not always linear). At the end of the hall we see extinct relatives of the elephant. One is the mastodon, which is about the size and build of a modern elephant, if slightly stockier. This nearly complete fossil skeleton was found in New York—amazing to consider.
Standing a head taller is the Mammoth, a much closer relative of the elephant that went extinct not too long ago, while the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were well under way. It is massive, of nearly dinosaurian proportions, with tusks that curve so tightly inward that it seems they would have been useless for defense. (Scientists are now playing with the idea of using DNA from frozen mammoth remains to bring them back. I wish them luck.)
By now, you must be exhausted. Museum fatigue has set in, and you can no longer concentrate on or even enjoy what you are seeing. This is inevitable at the American Museum of Natural History. There is just way too much. I have already written far, far more than I planned to, and there is still so much of the museum left to explore. I have left out the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, the Hall of North American Birds, and the Hall of Primates. And that is not all. The museum has huge exhibits devoted to cultural anthropology. Aside from the aforementioned Northwest Coast Hall, there is the Hall of Asian Peoples, the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, and the Hall of South American Peoples.
And here I must add a note of criticism. It says a great deal that a museum of natural history would include exclusively non-Western cultures. Admittedly, this is largely a historical artifact of the time when the study of “primitive” living peoples was grouped with the study of human evolution and primate behavior in the discipline of “anthropology.” This grouping obviously reflected cultural and racial biases of the original founders of the field. But we have moved far beyond that, and now it seems discordant and strange to walk through, say, the Hall of Asian Peoples. How could a single hall, however well-made, encompass the enormous history and diversity of the Middle East, Central Asian, Southeastern Asia, and East Asia? Even encompassing the traditions of China alone would require a museum for itself. Not only that, but the cultural halls generally have a dark and dingy aspect, as if they have been left unchanged for decades.
So it is my hope that the museum soon refurbishes, not just the Northwest Coast Hall, but all of the cultural halls—taking into account not only advances in our understanding, but how the cultures themselves would like to be represented. Judging by the progress that the museum is already making in this respect, I think that the future looks bright.
What more can I say about the Museum of Natural History? I have already said more than I planned to, and yet it scarcely seems enough. My visits to the museum had a fundamental influence on me. My shifting interests throughout my childhood and adulthood—in marine biology, chemistry, physics, botany, human evolution, and human cultures—have virtually tracked the floor plan of the museum. From an early age, I have been possessed with a desire to collect, catalogue, and display—an urge which I am sure owes much to this place. Beyond its importance in my life, however, I see the Museum of Natural History as a model institution for the coming ages, as something much needed in our society, even as a kind of secular church for the new age: capable of appealing to the mind and to the emotions. I hope that every child may feel the wonder I felt, and still feel, at both the universe around us and the intelligence within, which has allowed us to know something of this universe.
… it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.
This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.
Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.
Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).
Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.
Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury. e Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.
Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.
At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.
Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.
Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).
Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.
I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:
As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.
In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so.
Alas, alas, what misery to be wise when wisdom profits nothing!
Great books do not reveal themselves all at once. Old classics must be revisited from time to time, at different stages of life, in order to experience the many resonant frequencies of the work. This time around I chose to listen to these Theban plays as an audiobook, with a full cast; and it was far preferable to the mute page.
Reading, listening to, or watching the Greek plays may be the nearest we get to time travel. The works immerse us in a foreign world. What struck me most was the Greek attitude towards freedom and fate. Shakespearean tragedy is reliant on human choice. As A.C. Bradley notes, the tragedy is always specific to the individual, to the extent that the tragedy of one play would be impossible for the protagonist of another. Put Hamlet in Othello’s place, or vice versa, and he would make short work of the play’s problem. The tragedy in a Greek play is, by contrast, inevitable and universal. By the time that the curtain is raised in Oedipus Rex, he has long ago sealed his doom.
There is nothing special about Oedipus that marks him for a tragic fate. His tragedy could have befallen a Hamlet or an Othello just as readily as an Oedipus. This changes the entire emotional atmosphere. Whereas in a Shakespearean tragedy we feel a certain amount of dramatic tension as the protagonists attempt to avert crisis, in Greek tragedy there is instead a feeling of being swept along by an invisible, inexorable force—divine and mysterious. It is animated by a far more pessimistic philosophy: that honest, noble, and wise people who do nothing wrong can be dragged into the pit of misery by an inscrutable destiny.
As a result, the plays can sometimes engender a feeling of mystery or even of vague mysticism, as we consider ourselves to be the mere playthings of forces beyond all control and understanding. Characters rise to power in such a way that we credit their virtues for their success; and yet their precipitate fall shows that there are other forces at play. Life can certainly feel this way at times, as we are buffeted about, lifted up, and cast down in a way that seems little connected to our own actions. For this reason, I think that the fatalistic pessimism of these plays is both moving and, at times, even consoling.
Of the three, the most artistically perfect is Oedipus Rex, which Sophocles wrote at the height of his career. Antigone, the last play, was actually written first; and Oedipus at Colonus was written over thirty years, at the very end of Sophocles’ life.
Though arguably the worst of the three, Antigone is the most thematically interesting. It pits two ethical concepts against one another with intense force, specifically different sorts of loyalty. Is it better to be loyal to one’s family, to the gods, to the state, or to the ruler? Creon’s interdiction, though vengeful and petty, is understandable when one remembers that Polynices is a traitor responsible for an attack on his homeland that doubtless cost many citizens’ lives. Creon could have justified his decree as a discouragement of future disloyalty. Antigone believes that duty to family transcends the duty of a citizen, and the events justify this belief.
It must be admitted, however, that this ethical question is muddled by the religious nature of central issue. Few people nowadays can believe that burial rites are important enough to merit self-sacrifice and civil disobedience. When the superstitious element is removed, Antigone’s ethical superiority seems questionable at best. Certainly there are many cases when loyalty to the family can be distinctly unethical. If a sister sheltered a brother who just escaped imprisonment for murder, I think this would be an unequivocally immoral act. But since burial does not involve help or harm to anyone, the ethical question becomes largely symbolic—if no less interesting.
Even if the emotional import of these plays has been somewhat dulled by the passing years, they remain amazingly alive and direct. The power of these plays is such that, even now, when the Greek gods have passed into harmless myth, here we can still feel the sense of awe and terror in the face of a divine order that passes beyond understanding. It would take a long time for theater to again reach such heights.