Anyone who’s ever lived in New York—or even spent a mere afternoon there—absolutely must read Low Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Luc Sante’s 1991 debut and best-selling history of the city’s untamed beginnings. In prose as dark and blunt as a Bowery thug’s blackjack, Sante, who will lecture at Vassar College on April 6, starts with the city’s settlement by the Dutch and follows its basest path of physical and social evolution into the early 20th century, acting as the bottom-feeding tour guide to a forgotten world of opium dens, suicide saloons, humanity-stuffed tenements, interchangeable cops and con men, and rat fights as entertainment.
Sante has also authored Evidence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), an album of the artfully macabre crime scene photographs he unearthed during the research for Low Life; The Factory of Facts (Vintage, 1999), a memoir; and Kill All Your Darlings (Yeti Books, 2007), an anthology of essays and articles. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Grammy for his liner notes to the 1997 reissue of The Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways Records), Sante, who currently teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College, has also served as the film critic for Interview, the photography critic for the New Republic, the book critic for New York, and as the historical consultant for Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. On April 6 he will speak at Vassar College’s Spitzer Auditorium in Poughkeepsie as part of the institution’s Public Voices lecture series.
(845) 437-5370; www.vassar.edu.
At a recent reading you mentioned that you started out as a poet, which, given your succinct and descriptive style, certainly makes sense. Do you still write poems?
I stopped writing poetry a long time ago. The road forked, and I went down the branch marked “Prose.” And I don’t ever want to see any of my old poems again.
At the same reading you also explained how you see Low Life and your other history-themed works as being something separate from nostalgia, which they are often branded as. Could you reprise your ideology on this for our readers?
Nostalgia is the name people give to the bargain they strike between ignorance of the future, discomfort with the present, and fear of the future. Because of this, it’s very easy for any interest in the past to be slagged off as a manifestation of that fear and discomfort, especially since it lets people off the hook of their ignorance. But the past, despite the best intentions of many, remains alive. Or (as Faulkner famously put it in Requiem for a Nun), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It seems that everyone, myself included, loves to bemoan the fact that New York has had all the soul sucked out of it by gentrification and been smoothed down to a high-gloss, post-Giuliani, Disneyesque nub. One of Low Life’s central themes, however, is that New York is an environment that is constantly reinventing itself, a town literally built on the bones of its past. Still, I wonder if even you could have foreseen the level of change that’s occurred since Low Life was first published in 1991.
Time will tell how it all shakes out, but the reshaping of New York, at least Manhattan, over the past 25 years or so is notable for the sheer scale and amount of demolition, as well as construction. No previous era had that much destroying to do to impose its will, and obviously no previous era built so much so high. And the corporate ethos that drove all that business was also about getting the most from the least, so the gaudiness of the recent past was matched by its shoddiness—whatever the failings of the late 19th-/early 20th-century robber barons, at least they built to last. The '80s/'90s/2000s will leave really lousy ruins.
In addition to playing drums in bands during your early years in Manhattan, you wrote lyrics for the Del-Byzanteens, a postpunk group that also featured future filmmaker and Hudson Valley resident Jim Jarmusch. Are you still in touch with Jarmusch? Have you thought about collaborating with him on some kind of project?
I see Jarmusch all the time—we’ve been friends for more than 35 years. We started collaborating on a movie long ago, but it was fatally interrupted by Wim Wenders giving him a bunch of leftover 35mm stock. He made Stranger Than Paradise instead. Anyway, we’re both control freaks. Any attempt at collaboration would probably result in a bloodbath.
When did your interest in photography come about? Does it predate your writing career? How does one discipline nurture the other?
I’ve had a visceral connection to photography since high school, when I found in the library the Time-Life book called Documentary Photography, which introduced me to Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, etc. I didn’t write about the subject until my book Evidence, an unintended offshoot of Low Life, but it has endured since as a fertile subject. In September, Yeti Books will publish Folk Photography, a study of the American “real-photo” postcards made mostly between 1905 and 1930. The funny thing is that I don’t take pictures, not even snapshots, really, and never have been tempted to.
One of your books, Novels in Three Lines (NYRB Classics, 2007), is a translation of works by the French journalist and anarchist Felix Feneon. How did you come to discover Feneon and what is it about his writings that compelled you to chronicle them?
I picked up a small paperback selection of Feneon’s nouvelles in Paris a few years ago and read the whole thing in a single Metro ride. It was perfect for me: my flea-size attention span, my interest in the dark side of daily life, in the early 20th century, in popular journalism, and the pieces definitely have a resemblance to photographs.
I understand you’re now working on a book about Paris, which you say isn’t necessarily the Parisian equivalent of Low Life. Could you give us a taste of what to expect?
It’s an attempt to reconcile the Paris of story and song and the real Paris. Having said that, of course, I then think: “Which real Paris?” There are dozens if not hundreds, even now, let alone over the course of the centuries. Anyway, it’s about fashion—in that word’s various senses—and revolt, and the theater of the streets, and the friction among classes, as well as crime, vice, ambition, idealism, glamour, etc. It’s a 17-layer cake.
There have been some fine books written about the historical obscurities of the Hudson Valley, by the late Alf Evers in particular. But I’d bet your take would be much different. Have you considered sticking your shovel into the rich, bone-laden soil of upstate New York?
Well, you never know, but these things take a long time to marinate. I first saw New York City in 1959 and Paris in 1963, whereas I didn’t come up to this area until the mid ’90s. If I’m still around in 2030—and the Mayans were wrong about 2012—maybe I’ll be ready for my Kingston book then.