Much of Lily Bart would evaporate in the hard, dry atmosphere of the theatre but that Jew Rosedale--he would loom up magnificently. I am not sure but that he would be the central figure in the play. He is wonderful. Studied from life and yet a summing up of racial traits and tribal ambitions. He is much more vital and convincing than Selden who, at the close, is a pale prig. However I am not writing a review--only a word of thanks for the pleasure the book has given me. And I am for personal reasons, curious about Mrs. Wharton's plans for a drama. I could knock the novel into an acting play in 3 months; though I fancy she will make her own version.
(Josephine Huneker, ed., Letters of James Gibbons Huneker, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922, p. 47.)
|Apartment building at 1618 Beverly Road, Flatbush, Brooklyn, where James Huneker lived from 1912 to 1921. (Photo used with permission of PropertyShark.)|
In 1912, when the Hunekers moved to their rental apartment in Flatbush, Edith had lived for two years at 53 rue de Varenne. By 1921, when James Huneker died in Flatbush, Edith had, in addition to her apartment on the rue de Varenne, Pavillon Colombe and Ste.-Claire Château in Hyères. But Huneker liked it in Brooklyn. He was what Edith was not: a flâneur. She may have liked her motor flights. Huneker didn't drive. He got around--and boy did he get around--by trolley, el, and subway, and mostly on foot. He explored the nooks and crannies of Brooklyn, stopping often along the way for a beer. His "starting point," he wrote in 1915, "for many trips into the wilderness of platitudinous brownstone, brick and mortar, steel and stone," was Fred Schumm's Chop House, at Fulton and Adams Streets, where Shake Shack now is. "To it I always returned when the sun's rays slanted through the broad avenues westward. It is good to have an island of safety, and here is one for the average Brooklynite, not to count the casual transpontine visitor. Another is the old-time oyster and chop house of Gage & Tollner"--remarkable to think that in 1915 Gage & Tollner, which closed in 2004, was already being called "old-time"--across the street from Schumm's. It may not be so hard to imagine the teenage Edith Wharton out gallivanting with Emelyn Washburn, but Huneker was 58 when he made his sorties from Schumm's. (Edith, in 1915, was in war-torn France. Incidentally, Huneker was awarded the French Legion of Honor, for his service in promoting French writers and artists in America, in 1910. Edith Wharton was awarded it in 1917, for her work during wartime.)
|James Huneker in 1915.|
He liked Brooklyn in part because its homely charms reminded him of his native city. Huneker was born in Philadelphia on January 31, 1857. He was five years older than Edith, and six years younger than Minnie Jones, who was born in the same city and a world apart from Huneker. She came from Society Hill. He was born at 1434 North 7th Street, a desolate place today, but then a prosperous middle-class neighborhood with many Catholics (like the Hunekers) and Jews. He was not born in the lap of luxury, but his family was certainly not poor. In fact, his cultured parents were serious collectors of prints, a circumstance that greatly aided his visual education. In the 1870s he served an apprenticeship in the law. In 1874, his family moved to 1711 Race Street. At that time there was no Benjamin Franklin Parkway cutting through the neighborhood (it was a good 40 years off), but the house stood in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, one of the finest buildings in America. In the following year, at the age of 18, he began to study piano, and he began writing about music for the Evening Bulletin. Soon, he would give up the law for the world of music. For three years "I dreamed and yearned," Huneker wrote in his autobiographical Steeplejack (1920), "as only a lad love-sick with art can yearn. Life stretched like a lyric ray of moonlight paving the silvery waters of the future. Nothing seemed impossible. All was permitted. I felt an invincible force within my veins--the swelling sap! Ah! Youth is immortal." In 1878, the law now behind him, he went to Paris where for a year he audited piano classes at the Conservatoire and philosophy classes at the Sorbonne. Between 1879 and 1886 he lived in Philadelphia. In the latter year he moved to New York. He studied piano under the famous Rafael Joseffy (who had been a pupil of Liszt), through whom in 1888 Huneker became an instructor at Jeannette Thurber's National Conservatory of Music in America, the music school, on 17th Street just east of Irving Place (where Washington Irving High School now stands), that had the imprimatur, though not the financial backing, of the United States Congress. Huneker taught at the National Conservatory for ten years, including the years (1892 to 1895) when Antonín Dvořák was its director.
|James Huneker, c. 1890, photograph by Napoleon Sarony.|
In 1919, on the eve of Prohibition, Huneker wrote "I was entrusted by the President, Jeannette M. Thurber, with the care on his arrival of Dr. Antonin Dvorak" ("Musical Memories: Oscar Hammerstein and Dr. Dvorak," New York Times, August 24, 1919). Mrs. Thurber may have thought of putting Huneker together with Dvořák because they both had bibulous reputations. Huneker took Dvořák out for a night on the town, a tour through the "thirst belt," as Huneker referred to lower Third Avenue. The two men began at Goerwitz's, "across the street from the National Conservatory." It was also known as Scheffel Hall, and its distinctive building, a designated landmark, still stands on Third Avenue just north of 17th Street (not really across the street, but no matter). Alas, the building did not yet sport its present elaborate façade on the 1892 night Huneker and Dvořák went there--though that façade, added two years later, would later be very familiar to Huneker and Dvořák. They then walked down to Gus Lüchow's, on 14th Street--"for a musician not to be seen at Lüchow's argued that he was unknown in the social world of tone." "At each stopping-place Doc Borax"--as Conservatory staff called Dvořák--"absorbed a cocktail or two." As for Huneker, "alcohol I abhor. Therefore I stuck to my usual three-voiced invention of hops, malt, and water." Dvořák knew no English; Huneker no Czech. Therefore they conversed in German: "I rejoiced at meeting a man," Huneker wrote, "whose Teutonic accent, above all whose grammar, was worse than mine." After Dvořák had had nineteen cocktails, "maybe more," Huneker suggested they get something to eat. Dvořák would not hear of it, instead insisting that Huneker drink some slivovitz--"It makes warm after beer." At that point, Huneker knew he could no longer keep up, and left Old Borax--"He could drink as much spirits as I could beer, and never turn a hair"--to his own devices.
But wait. As the child stared sadly at the music before him, he found something more in those assorted yellow-bound volumes published by G. Schirmer than mere notes, the uninvited causes of his labors; there were words, too, enchanting descriptions of the Polish composer’s music. Indeed, the greatness and romance the child could hardly find emerging from his own exertions he found in the words the kind publisher had provided….the writer of the delicious and educative words that caused my time to move so profitably was James Huneker.
In my teens and twenties, I played a lot of Chopin on the piano, often out of the bright yellow editions published by G. Schirmer in New York City. Each of those volumes opened with an essay penned in the early 1900s by the American critic James Huneker. Today, many people would find Huneker's prose overblown, but I did not; its unrestrained emotionality resonated with my perception of Chopin's music, and I still love his style of writing and his rich metaphors.
On February 13, 1921, Huneker's funeral service took place, not in a church (he had long abandoned his parents' devout Catholicism), but in Town Hall, on 43rd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. The 1,500-seat Town Hall, which had been built by the League for Political Education, which had advocated for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, had, on the day of the funeral service, been open for exactly one month and one day. For the service, the hall was filled to capacity. The service took place four days after Huneker died of pneumonia nine days after his 64th birthday. At the close, a string quartet played Schumann's Träumerei, "associated," said the Times, "with the early days of the Thomas Orchestra, when Huneker first wrote of music in New York." His widow Josephine, to whom he had been married for the last 21 years, was there, as was his son and only child, Erik, from his second of three marriages (he was twice divorced). The honorary pallbearers included the Metropolitan Opera general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the conductor Artur Bodanzky, the music historian Henry T. Finck, the theatrical impresario David Belasco, and, yes, Gus Lüchow. Mary Garden was there. Huneker's eulogists were the music critic Henry Krehbiel, the actor Francis Wilson, the lawyer and art collector John Quinn, and the lawyer George Wickersham.