Boss George Steinbrenner: The Muse of Bronx Literature

I come to praise the Bronx, but first I want to bury the Yankees. God, I’m so glad they lost. They deserved to lose: It’s pure karma, payback for the way they stole the American League playoff series last year with the help of that smug little fat kid who turned an out into a home run. That smug little fat kid whom Rudy Giuliani-incorruptible, zero-tolerance-for-quality-of-life-crimes Rudy Giuliani-made into some kind of civic hero for a disgusting act of rule-breaking and bad sportsmanship. One Mr. Giuliani apparently justified with a jingoistic, win-at-any-price, we’re-Number-1 mentality. The Yankees never were Number 1 last year. They were Number 1 with an asterisk. Number 1 with a rap sheet.

This year’s ignominious defeat of the Steinbrenner team comes as sweet vindication to me. You might recall that on the eve of the playoffs last year, I wrote a highly contrarian “I hate the Yankees” column, hoping for just such a post-season humiliation. Only that smug little fat kid stood in the way of what should have been, but now, at last, justice is done, and I can try to write something positive about the Bronx, about the Bronx school of American literature.

Don’t think it’s been easy for me to separate my lifelong hatred of the Yankees from an objective consideration of the Bronx literary sensibility, particularly when compared to the Brooklyn one. Two of the most powerful and enduring legacies my father left to me were a horror of “mob scenes” (our family never went anywhere on holidays or even in daily rush hours in order to avoid being trapped in the dread gridlock of a “mob scene”) and a hatred of the Yankees. In my father’s case, the latter (and maybe even the former) were a product of growing up in Brooklyn, going to Abraham Lincoln High School and developing a devotion to the Dodgers that verged on religion and came with a concomitant hatred of the Yankees. And with the departure of the Dodgers from Brooklyn in my childhood, hating the Yankees became a lifelong spiritual commitment.

Should the Bronx be blamed for the Yankees? Probably not, but it was surprising how strongly I first reacted when Gerry Howard, an editor at W.W. Norton and a valued interlocutor of this column, proposed his Bronx-supremacy-over-Brooklyn-literature thesis to me. I’d relied on Gerry Howard’s literary judgment in a couple of previous instances, most particularly when he came up with the “unreliable author” conjecture to help explain an offhand but deeply disturbing remark by Vladimir Nabokov in which the master appeared to pull the rug out from under the delicately counterpoised relationship between unreliable narrators in Pale Fire to assert that the real narrator of the novel was not V. Botkin posing as Charles Kinbote ventriloquizing John Shade, but rather John Shade inventing both Kinbote and Botkin. True Nabokovians will understand the dire threat this posed to the interpretive life of one of the great works of art of the century. But we scotched that snake.

Recently, Mr. Howard wrote me that, inspired by Bronx native Don DeLillo’s meditations on Bronxness in Underworld , he had been developing a thesis on the way Bronx-born literati had begun to surpass the long reign of Brooklyn natives in American letters. I asked him to send along the evidence he’d compiled (he’d gone so far as to prepare comparative charts which traced Bronx and Brooklyn writers to their respective high schools), despite it’s slightly Kinbotian sound-and my own longstanding Yankee-hater’s antipathy to Bronxness.

Well, the charts arrived, with annotations and commentary, and I must admit he builds an impressive case. Mr. Howard’s thesis is that “Brooklyn has a more illustrious past, but the Bronx has pulled definitively and dramatically into the lead in the past couple of decades. To put it bluntly, Brooklyn at the present moment cannot field five writers whose current output comes close to matching that of the Bronx’s (note Yankee imagery) Murderers’ Row of Cynthia Ozick, Richard Price, E.L. Doctorow, Grace Paley and Don DeLillo.” Looking at his charts, which also include Bronx-bred literary figures Irving Howe and Harold Bloom, his case seems strong on the face of it.

But I was drawn to his Brooklyn chart as well, which reveals that two of the most powerful Brooklyn writers still living-Arthur Miller and Joseph Heller-had gone to Abraham Lincoln High School, the same high school my father did. (According to Mr. Howard, a charismatic, old-fashioned principal there, Abe Lass, gave many of its graduates a sense of literary mission.) Brooklyn was also the early home of Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Woody Allen, Louis Begley, Hubert Selby Jr., Pete Hamill, Alfred Kazin and-in addition to all these alter kockers -the talented young Edwidge Danticat.

But before we get into the question of the nature of Bronxness as opposed to Brooklynness, let’s consider the question of whether there is something about Outer-Boroughness in general that generates (or at least colors) distinctively literary ambitions.

It’s not that there hasn’t been a long line of Manhattan-born and -raised writers, from Herman Melville and Washington Irving to James Baldwin, Henry Roth, J.D. Salinger and the great Robert Stone. But it’s not clear whether, aside from Mr. Salinger, one can say there is some intrinsic Essentialist Manhattanness to their work. Living in Manhattan is, in a way, living at ground zero. Just as when you’re at the North Pole there’s no longitude-or rather all longitude but no particular longitude. Being in the center, at the pole, there’s less to define oneself against in a usefully resentful way, resentment being an underestimated engine of literary ambition, the need of the outsider to make his mark at the expense of the insider, while Manhattan, the quintessence of insiderness, in a way is the mark.

It occurred to me in fact that one might usefully apply Outer-Boroughness in literature to Isaiah Berlin’s “borderland theory” of political charisma. In which the celebrated British political philosopher and essayist argues that some of the greatest (and most monstrous) political geniuses came from the outlying provinces, the outer boroughs, in effect, of the empires they would ultimately seize and rule-Napoleon (from Corsica); Hitler (born across the river from Germany in Austria); and Stalin (from the province of Georgia). Mr. Berlin believes that something about the sense of being on the margins made them more feverishly nationalist and chauvinist than natives of the imperial capitals. And, in a sense, it could be said that Outer-Borough ambition is more nakedly Manhattanish than that evinced by Manhattanites, who tend to cultivate or affect an insouciant condescension toward their own (often just as feverish) strivings.

In fact, Gerry Howard believes that what he regards as the recent decline in Brooklyn literary supremacy may be due to its increasing centrality, Brooklyn’s literary Manhattanness. “For most of this century,” Mr. Howard wrote me, “to be born and raised in Brooklyn was to have an automatic mystique as one’s birthright. It was the incubator of the rising urban middle class, it had a distinctive accent, it was identified with the most noble structure of the American content (I mean the Brooklyn Bridge, although certain people would think I was referring to Ebbets Field), and it had the Dodgers, who provided an education in literary categories (tragedy, the low mimetic, etc.) all by themselves. The downside of all this is the sometimes cloying sentimentality that can attach itself to the Brooklyn idea and Brooklyn memories.”

By contrast, he thinks of the Bronx and its inhabitants as “being made of altogether tougher stuff.” There is less of a unified Bronx sensibility, the defining Bronx neighborhoods (like the East Tremont Jewish community) “have been destroyed by the Cross-Bronx Expressway; Westchester has never provided an accessible suburban escape route for the teeming masses of the Bronx as Long Island offered to Brooklynites in the postwar years.” There is not, in other words, a positive locus of Bronxness, as the bridge and Ebbets Field were for Brooklynness (unless you count the Bronx’s Edgar Allan Poe house). Because it lacks a unified personality of its own, the Bronx may drive those of literary inclination to construct personalities with an intensity to compensate for the absence of a unified borough perspective. Which leads Mr. Howard to conclude the Bronx is “just plain more postmodern; the Bronx literary temper is simply better suited to a post-liberal, post-New Deal, post-American-century world, DeLillo especially. Where Whitman might be a presiding literary spirit of Brooklyn, the Bronx resident Edgar Allan Poe seems well suited to the Bronx, you could say.”

I think there’s much truth in that; I think it’s possible the schmaltzy Brooklyn spirit can be entrapping as well as liberating, the way liquid schmaltz can be intoxicatingly rich when poured in a golden arc over the chopped liver at Sammy’s Roumanian restaurant (thank you, Dan Okrent, for the tip), but cold, deadly and repulsive when it congeals around the heart.

But I’d like to expand on a factor that Mr. Howard mentions without giving central prominence to: the Yankees. More specifically, the dreadful irritant George Steinbrenner. Mr. Howard speaks of a Yankee factor in Bronx consciousness, the way they were “the epitome, through much of this century, of heartless excellence and, latterly, of brawling, ego-driven disorder … Add the reign of George Steinbrenner, and you have a borough that understands and has coped with adversity and baroque disaster.”

Still, I think this may underestimate the Steinbrenner contribution to literature as a kind of anti-muse in his monstrousness. He is everything those of us who are Dodgers at heart have always hated about the Yankees. (You don’t have to be from Brooklyn-I was born in Manhattan and raised on Long Island-to be a Dodger at heart.) Mr. Steinbrenner has all the arrogance without a single ounce of the talent, all the bluster without the balls to take responsibility for his blunders, all the arbitrary, vain, pompous, bullying posturing without the brain or heart to match it.

To have this bloated gasbag hovering over your borough, hovering over your consciousness in your formative years like a malevolent Gumby balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, is to know deep truths about the human condition that some human beings may be fortunate never to have to know. But such truths are what make writers different: Their impassioned apprehension of such Steinbrennerian truths, however dark and sick, is what makes writers writers .

The Yankee loss is then doubly a cause for rejoicing. In itself, as karmic payback for the smug fat kid (a baby Steinbrenner!) who stole victory for them the last time. And for the fact that defeat brings out the best (i.e., the worst) in George Steinbrenner. He is likely to be so obnoxious as he blusters and blames everyone else, tries to extort more stadium money from his easy-mark pal the Mayor, sneakily bad-mouths the ballplayers who deserve better than him, attacks the Bronx itself-he will be so Steinbrennerian that this year alone he will engender, irritate into being, an entire future generation of Bronx literary talent. Hail to thee, O Boss, muse in spite (and I mean spite) of yourself.