Kurt Andersen | Essays


Cover of Heyday, design by Gabrielle Bordwin, 2007.

"In the middle of the nineteenth century, modern life is being born: the mind-boggling marvels of photography, the telegraph, and railroads; a flood of show business spectacles and newspapers; rampant sex and drugs and drink (and moral crusades against all three); Wall Street awash with money; and giddy utopian visions everywhere. Then, during a single amazing month at the beginning of 1848, history lurches: America wins its war of manifest destiny against Mexico, gold is discovered in northern California, and revolutions sweep across Europe — sending one eager English gentleman off on an epic transatlantic adventure...."

Kurt Andensen's new novel, Heyday, is "a sweeping panorama of madcap rebellion and overnight fortunes, palaces and brothels, murder and revenge — as well as the story of a handful of unforgettable characters discovering the nature of freedom, loyalty, friendship, and true love." Courtesy of the author, Design Observer is pleased to present two excerpts from this novel, both involving the dazzling Polly Lucking, a strong-minded, free thinking actress (and discreet part-time prostitute). Portrayed is the tumultuous world of 1848 — and the beginnings of modern retailing, branding, trademarks and American commerce.

Heyday: Two Excerpts from the Novel by Kurt Andersen

February 23rd, 1848
New York City

Without stopping, she glanced in the big window of the sewing-machine shop. She heard the faint hum and syncopated chukka-chukka-chukka drumming, like a tiny locomotive. There was a new girl seated at the table in the window, like an animal in a cage. Polly had despised almost every day of her own time as a seamstress — working by hand, with only needles and thread — and wondered if the women in the window actually finished their shirts and handkerchiefs, or simply stitched and stitched, endlessly and pointlessly, ten times faster than anyone could sew without a machine.

Approaching Chambers Street, she felt, as always, a rising anticipation. Momentarily she would be recognized in just the way she longed to be recognized, to be treated with fondness and even, she imagined, respect. Elsewhere she was, at very best, another unattached young woman at large in the city, one of the new horde of nannies and maids and shop clerks and publishing girls. From the moment A.T. Stewart's opened two years ago, just after her 21st birthday, Polly had been a habitué. She visited at least once a week, sometimes more often, and she usually left with some new possession — a ribbon, a piece of sheet music, perfume, a pen, usually something perfectly inessential. Today, at least, she was on a particular errand — she needed to buy a costume for an upcoming performance, a chemise that could do duty as the Venus de Milo's toga.

Stewart's was a new kind of store — gigantic and comprehensive, a dry goods emporium as grand as a palace but also unashamedly popular. And Polly Lucking was devoted to it, inspired by the hired salesmen standing behind their tables and display cases, silently smiling, encouraging her to stroll at will among all the merchandise, awaiting her choice, as if they were her own servants; and by the platoon of matrons in grey gabardines fluttering around the dressing rooms, ready to hold smocks or tie corsets or fetch a cup of Croton. Fresh running Croton water, free and unlimited!

As she paused to scrape the porridge of mud and shit and slush and lime from the sole of each boot, she looked up at Number 280 and felt something like pride — for the five stories of white marble as rich as a meringue and the plate glass windows, each fifteen feet wide and nine feet tall, more windows than wall.

Her love of Stewart's derived most of all from the fact that it was entirely new. There were no foul-smelling oil lamps, no sooty streaks on the walls, no creaky floors, no chipped wainscoting, no cracked panes, no mysterious and capricious prices, no starchy crone or pinchpenny storekeeper giving her the eye. It was headquarters for the fellowship of the new, the most modern and democratic club on earth.

Yes, precisely, Polly imagined as she approached the entrance, the left corner of her mouth just curling into a smile, I've arrived at my club. She amused herself with this whimsy of a club that admitted women — let alone an actress, let alone a Mercer Street strumpet. An actress, Polly amended, who did appear last year in School for Scandal and The Hunchback and the Dumb Belle, and was only a part-of-the-time harlot, a ten-dollar parlorhouse harlot attired in a beaver-fur coat trimmed with swansdown and an excellent dragonfly-green cashmere dress ...and carrying a sketchbook and graphite pencils and The Knickerbocker magazine in her satinet handbag ...but an actress and a whore nonetheless.

"Welcome back to Stewart's, Miss Lucking."


As the doorman touched his hat and heaved opened one of the eleven-foot doors, she touched a fluted column with one hand to steady herself and then inhaled deeply, the way she always did upon entering: clean dry stone, expensive varnish, Oriental rugs, cut flowers, linen writing papers, lavender water, the latest crinolines fluffy as French pastries, hundreds of pristine calicoes, damasks and ginghams — the tonic aroma of so many good things all brand new. And that invisible cloud of warm air, luxurious and heavenly, so unlike the harsh heat of mere stoves. She shivered with pleasure. The store's two dozen clocks, with two dozen slightly different bells and rhythms, began striking two. The cheerful and nervous discord of the chimes pleased her.

Down the whole Broadway side of the store, big buttery shafts of afternoon sun poured through the windows. Polly walked along the western aisle, leaning over a glass cabinet to examine a Chinese ivory comb, then an India rubber umbrella, then muffs (of mink and ermine and monkey) and gloves (of cow and doe and rat). She waded in and out of the sun. She wanted to bask in this light, to let it warm her face and hands and make her hair even more perfectly golden.

She found the chemise she needed, and paid for it, but decided to climb the stairs to the mezzanine. She lingered in the mourning department, where she had made a purchases a couple of years earlier — the fifteen pairs of black gloves for her mother's funeral — and more than once had pictured herself in the metal casket with the plate-glass window at the head end, like the maiden in "The Glass Coffin" by the Brothers Grimm. Today there was a new model on display, a Mr. Trump's Patent Corpse Refrigerator, with a false bottom that was to be filled with ice for the funeral — but filled now, in fact, with hundreds of beautiful, clear glass marbles.

Finally pausing, both hands gripping the brazilwood railing, looking out on the selling floor twenty feet below, at the acre of colored boxes and bottles and blankets and gowns and shawls, Polly assumed the air of the lady of this immense and up-to-date house. The things were not like ordinary merchandise for sale, stacked thoughtlessly on shelves or hidden in drawers, but arranged artfully, in the open, as if to suggest lives lived, like on a theater stage. Coming to Stewart's was for her a little like stepping into a play in which new characters and objects appeared each time she returned; a play in which she was the wealthy but fair and charming but strong-willed heroine. "You haven't the sense God gave a goose," her mother would say if she were able right now to divine her daughter's thoughts.

The clocks chimed again, the higher-pitched shattering-icicle sound of half past. It was time to go. She had a busy afternoon and evening ahead — one of her occasional meetings with Timothy Skaggs at his studio in Ann Street (what he called her "pro bono episodes") and her regular weekly dinner with her dear Duff. Now that she could afford restaurants, she seldom ate anywhere else. Her stubborn refusal as a child to study cooking, so maddening to her mother, had been vindicated.

But first she would take a minute to glance at the baubles on display in the windows of Tiffany's new store across Broadway. Even from a hundred feet away, she could see the glitter of gold. She was not one of those women mad for jewelry — indeed, she imagined that she could disavow fine living after she had enjoyed it a while longer — but she did enjoy looking at gold.

February 23rd, 1848
New York City

At their dinner together each week Duff demanded a look at the new pages of Polly's picture album. She sketched graphite-pencil scenes of buildings and portraits of acquaintances, and sometimes pasted in flowers, twigs, bits of lace, ticket ends, newspaper headlines, all sorts of curious bits and pieces.

As a child, she had had a precocious talent for drawing, which is why her father took her to Washington the summer she was eleven. Zeno and Polly Lucking had spent their entire visit in and around the Patent Office. He would find a patent model in the Exhibit Hall for her to draw, retire across F Street for a glass of sparkling hock, return to the Exhibit Hall, assign her another model to draw, drink some more hock, and so on. After a few days they'd returned home to the Clove Valley with a portfolio of eight excellent pictures, each slightly altered, of eight newly patented inventions, including a galvanometer, an induction coil and a dog-powered butter churn. He'd dated each one August 1833, three years previous. His scheme entailed sending a drawing and an indignant letter to the respective inventor, claiming that he, Mr. Zeno Lucking of Union Vale, New York, had constructed an earlier, nearly identical device —, and threatening a lawsuit unless he was granted a share of royalties. Because the government had employed no patent examiners back in the 30s, and issued patents more or less automatically, the plan might have succeeded. Before he took his own life in 1837, his flam seemed to be working: a lawyer for the galvanometer man had offered to pay Zeno Lucking $160 to quit his claim.

Copyright © Kurt Andersen, 2007.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [5]

does Kurt Andersen really need any more exposure?
dan visel

Funny, it's precisely the exposure to the sorts of ideas in this book that enlighten the way we think about — and look— at things around us. Americans in general (and designers in particualr) have an irksome tendency to revel in ahistoricism. The language here, the references - all of it evokes a sense of this enchanting period, now long gone, that would otherwise only be available to us in dry, chronologically compartmentalized history books.

Designers are all about visualizing things, and in this instance, what better way to imagine — and enlarge your perspective on a world that preceded you - than through a novelist's eye?
jessica Helfand

Had heard the buzz... What a treat for my usually boring lunch hour! Thanks D.O. gods. Now to Amazon!

Kurt Andersen's novels are often compared to those of Tom Wolfe. Both writers tend to really focus on specific details to establish setting and character, the kind of attention to detail one looks for (and seldom finds) in good design criticism.
Michael Bierut

The cover of the novel is great, but Kurt Andersen is only compared to Tom Wolfe in an invidious way. He's a brilliant guy, but since he ultimately wants to have lunch with the people he's "satirizing," the actual satire goes nowhere. On the other hand, as one reviewer of "Turn of the Century" put it, when Wolfe satirizes someone they stay satirized ...

(This recent book, by the way, lest this blog's readers be misinformed, has virtually no Wolfian qualities -- it's a historical novel.)

And it's a shame to read, on a smart blog, a dismissal of the work of historians as dry and "chronologically compartmentalized," whatever that means. I suspect this novel, too, is chronologically compartmentalized -- if that means "set in a certain period."

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