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"Wonderfully evocative…a grand, sad story of racism and real estate, political hardball and seaside pleasure-seeking."—A.O. Scott, New York Times Book Review
When Bruce Springsteen called his first album Greetings from Asbury Park, he introduced a generation of fans to a fallen seaside resort town that came to represent working-class American life. Starting with the town's founding as a religious promised land, music journalist and poet Daniel Wolff plots a course through Asbury...
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"Wonderfully evocative…a grand, sad story of racism and real estate, political hardball and seaside pleasure-seeking."—A.O. Scott, New York Times Book Review
When Bruce Springsteen called his first album Greetings from Asbury Park, he introduced a generation of fans to a fallen seaside resort town that came to represent working-class American life. Starting with the town's founding as a religious promised land, music journalist and poet Daniel Wolff plots a course through Asbury Park's 130 years of entwined social and musical history, in a story that captures all the allure and heartbreak of the American dream.
"It's an ingenious idea, as the author, a poet and an award-winning biographer of Sam Cooke, filters the town's history through more than a century of its all-American summer holiday celebrations."—San FranciscoChronicle
"Unflinching, artful, and indispensable."—Dave Marsh, author of Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s
A burnt-out, middle-aged businessman is walking down Broadway. Day in, day out, for more than a decade, he's run a brush factory: hairbrushes, horse brushes, paintbrushes, scrub brushes. The business, which he started from scratch, has made him rich-and has taken its toll both physically and spiritually. He's just turned forty, is married but childless. Self-made, he wonders why he worked so hard and sacrificed so much. Even his deep Methodist faith doesn't' seem able to sustain him.
Coming up Broadway, he notices a fellow Methodist, and the two men stop to chat. The friend is the treasurer of a brand-new real estate venture on the Jersey shore. The businessman asks how it's going, and his friend is all optimism. Well, very well; in fact, if he puts his name down now, early, he can have his choice of building lots at a special price.
The last thing the brush manufacturer wants is more responsibility. But for a while now, his doctor, his wife, and his friends have been advising him that he needs a break. They all seem to agree that sea air and a trip out of New York City would make all the difference. In fact, he'd been planning a trip to Europe.
"Well," he answers, without giving it much thought, "put me down for two."
A few days later, he and some of his friends decide they'll go look at the development and pick out his new lots. Taking a ferry across New York harbor to Port Monmouth, he rides from there to Eatontown, New Jersey, by train, has dinner in a country inn, and then travels on what he calls "one of the worst roads that could well be imagined." It's a turnpike, a new one, but in May of 1870 even a new road is a backbreaking mixture of sand, mud, plank supports, and potholes. And the most common means of transportation, something known as a Jersey wagon, is a square, straight-sided contraption with hard flat seats and unforgiving wooden springs. "As free from graceful lines as those of a readymade coffin," one contemporary described it, and it helped make the trip down the shore "a weariness to the flesh and spirit." At the end of the long ride, "the more robust were generally able to climb out but the feebler ones ... had to be lifted." Given the businessman's health, he may have needed assistance.
He's set down in a stretch of empty sand and scrub oak. Construction on the new town hasn't begun, and between the green flies buzzing around his head and the dunes stretching on like a desert without shade or structure, the businessman might well have turned right around, gone back to the city, found his so-called friend, and asked for his money back. Instead, he is, in his words, "completely taken" and decides to return as soon as possible and set up camp.
The very emptiness calls him. It appeals to his sense of adventure, his nose for business, and his religious beliefs: the qualities that have carried James A. Bradley this far in life. Born on Valentine's Day, 1830, at the Old Blazing Star Inn, in Rossville on Staten Island, Bradley was the son of an Irish farmer with a drinking problem and an English mother. He was baptized a Catholic. When he was five, his father died, probably from drink. Two years later, his mother married Charles Smith, and they followed the stream of people moving into Manhattan. In those years before the Civil War, the city's population was exploding, from 130,000 people to more than a million.
The Smiths moved to Cherry Street on the Bowery, once a fairly exclusive neighborhood catering to "Gentry and Seafaring men alike." But in 1837, the year they moved, a general economic panic had embraced the city. That April alone, 128 firms went under. Railroads fell, banks collapsed, and building construction stopped. The city's working class crowded into tiny, miserable tenement apartments. The poor sewer system and primitive health services led to massive outbreaks of typhus and cholera. Bradley's stepfather set up a notions store to sell a little bit of everything: groceries, meat, clothing, shoes. He and his seven-year-old son (now known as Jim Smith) had a peddler's wagon. Their favorite spot was down on Catherine Street outside the new specialty store, Lord & Taylor.
The panic of 1837 fed a growing evangelical movement. Preachers predicted doomsday and railed against the evils of drink. They also attacked the immigrant religion, Catholicism. New York City's Catholic community was still small-accounting for only eight of the city's 150 churches-but it was easy to blame the "papist" minority not only for corrupting morals but for taking jobs. At grade school, Jim Smith would have studied textbooks full of anti-Catholic prejudice. Did people know he was Catholic? Sometime in those early years, he began insisting that people call him Bradley, but it isn't clear whether he let on about his religion.
As a teenager, Bradley hung with a rowdy, immigrant crowd. He was a Bowery Boy (which designated both the geographical area and one of the gangs that ran the Lower East Side) and soon developed what he called "a fondness for wine." That was only one of Cherry Street's temptations. By the early 1840s, the Bowery had become a working-class pleasure zone. Cockfights were staged next to billiard halls. Hookers waited outside former mansions. And the small hotels offered free "vaudevilles" to attract customers. These included a little bit of everything, from ventriloquism to dancing, circus acts to comics.
The young Bradley loved the shows, often going to three a week. As a thirteen-year-old, he was in the right place to have witnessed the development of one of the most popular styles of the day: the minstrel show. In a Bowery theater in February 1843, a quartet of white performers put on blackface and, using a heavy "nigger" accent, helped start what would become a national fad. The Virginia Minstrels played reels and jigs, told down-home plantation jokes, and loped across the stage in what they called the Virginia Jungle Dance. Negroes were barred from Bowery theaters, but minstrel shows became the rage.
Soon, Bradley's mother, Hannah, decided that her teenage son was learning too much too fast and needed a change of scene. She shipped him out to Bloomfield, New Jersey, across the river and north of Newark, where a friend from her childhood owned a farm. Jim spent a year in Jersey milking cows and feeding chickens. He hated it. Twice he ran away and was caught trying to catch a ferry back into the city. Finally, at the age of sixteen, he returned to the Lower East Side. Apparently, he'd been straightened out. He got a job, anyway, as an apprentice to a local brush manufacturer and began his career.
It was hard, hot work in a cramped space that stunk of hog bristle and glue. The animal hair had to be washed by hand, dried in a hot room, bleached, sorted for length, shaped, tied, glued, and inserted into a handle. Depending on the type of brush, a man might make six to eight dozen a day. The hours were long, and when work was over, Bradley returned to a crowded, narrow tenement life amongst thousands of others fighting to survive.
His transformation from worker to successful businessman began when he was eighteen. That year, his older sister died. At the funeral service-held at a Methodist camp meeting outside Brooklyn-Bradley saw the light. His mother was Methodist, and now he converted to what was, in that era, a "distinctively middle-class creed." Leaving behind his immigrant religion was a move up and out-a chance to reinvent himself-and Bradley went at it with a fervor. He became a model employee. By the time he'd turned twenty-one, he was foreman at the brush factory. He married Helen Packard, an educated Rutgers student: timid, gentle, and devout. The two of them resolved to start their own business and, through extraordinary self-discipline, managed to save one thousand dollars. That, a visitor would recall, was an enormous sum, especially from "one of a class which save so little."
The Bradleys were determined to leave that class behind. In 1857, they completed payment on a lot uptown. Then, borrowing the capital, the twenty-seven-year-old Bradley launched his own brush company. He couldn't have picked a worse time. Stock market speculation, enormous monopolies in railroads and other industries, the surge of new immigrants-all combined to produce a nationwide panic. Unemployment skyrocketed; financial institutions closed. In New York City, the only currency anyone would accept consisted of bank bills depreciating at five to twenty-five percent a day. By December of 1857, the city had lost an estimated $120 million, and nearly a thousand businesses had gone under. The panic led to the Third Great Awakening (also known as the Businessmen's Revival), where thousands gathered for prayer meetings and denounced the addiction to moneymaking. Backlash against immigrants revived, too, with editorials to "shoot down any quantity of Irish or German." Meanwhile, the tenements exploded, as starving workers lashed out at the system. Unemployed workers occupied City Hall, and the government eventually had to call in the marines to restore order.
The only thing that kept the Bradleys' business afloat was their bankers' decision not to call in the loans, and that may have been based on the couple's single-minded perseverance. Bradley, a visitor recalled, was "a vigorous and large built man, rather rough in his appearance but full of energy." While his wife kept shop, he was upstairs cutting, shaping, and gluing brushes. Later in life, he'd reminisce how lunch in those days was often a slice of bread coated with molasses. By the end of his second year in business, Bradley had cleared his losses, and soon, he "added considerably to his capital." The main reason was war. When the South seceded from the union, the North passed tariffs to protect its manufacturers. New York's economy took off, creating an enormous demand for, among other things, brushes: to clean cannons, curry horses, groom officers' uniforms. New York City was home to a few dozen millionaires in 1860; by 1864 there were several hundred. When the Civil War ended, Bradley's firm had sales of $400,000 a year.
The war put the Bradleys into a new class of American capitalists-not as incredibly wealthy as John D. Rockefeller or Diamond Jim Brady, but full-fledged participants in what would come to be known as the Gilded Age. The Bradleys moved the factory to larger quarters on Pearl Street in Manhattan and bought a "fine house" on Brooklyn's Bedford Avenue. If James Bradley had taken his Methodism seriously before, he now became a major donor and the superintendent of the new Central Methodist Church in Williamsburg. At that time, the most popular religious figure of his day, the abolitionist Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, was attracting huge "privileged audiences" to his Brooklyn church. While Beecher often called for social reforms, his sermons also amounted to "reassurances," as one historian puts it, "... that social inequalities generated by the free market system were divinely sanctioned and morally justifiable." At the same time, the born-again evangelist Reverend Dwight L. Moody was conducting his own mammoth revivals, arguing that the suffering of the city's tenement dwellers was a direct result of their having "drifted away from God."
So, at age forty, Bradley has the comfort both of his success and his religion. Still, he finds himself deeply and strangely exhausted. He buys the building lots on the Jersey shore and resolves, that summer of 1870, to leave the city to become, in his words, "an inhabitant of the wild woods." That empty stretch of undeveloped beach, he decides, is "where my wearied body and brain might rest, lulled to sleep by the murmuring sea at night, and awaked in the morning by the songs of birds in the pine trees surrounding my couch." It's a vision far from his tenement past, from the sorting of hog bristle, from his fine house in Brooklyn. Early on the morning of June 9, he sets off with a pair of horses, a carriage, a tent, and John Baker, whom he describes as "my colored man."
Aboard the steamer Red Bird, Bradley crosses New York harbor, cuts inside Sandy Hook, and steams up the Navesink River to the town of Red Bank. Along the way, he falls into conversation with a man named Shaw. Only later does he discover that it's Henry Ward Shaw, best-selling author (under the pen name Josh Billings) of the Farmer's Almanac. Billing's way with an aphorism has made him even more successful than his contemporary Mark Twain. "What the moral army needs just now," Billings wrote, "is more rank and file and fewer brigadier generals." Maybe even more apropos to the exhausted brush manufacturer in search of a dream: "Building air castles is a harmless business as long as you don't attempt to live in them."
Bradley disembarked in Red Bank, leaving Baker to take care of the horses, and walked over to the Globe Hotel for a meal. It's there that his revelation began. He no sooner sat down at the table than "a feeling of freedom and satisfaction swept over him." As the feeling grew, he recognized it as an awakening, a heaven-sent miracle. Speaking of himself in the third person, he would tell his biographers, "tears rolled unrestrainedly down his face."
The epiphany, if startling, wasn't totally unexpected. This kind of moment had, after all, launched the religion Bradley believed in, Methodism. A hundred and thirty years earlier, in London, John Wesley had felt his heart "strangely warmed," and rediscovering the Christ that had been hidden to him by the rituals and conventions of the Church of England, he'd cried out-much as James Bradley would cry out upon reaching his promised land-"I believe!"
This born-again moment was at the core of the young Methodist Church. Shucking questions of doctrine like baptism and confession, John Wesley had seen his mission as "carrying religion and morality to the submerged classes." He advocated open-air preaching, going directly to the new working class of the industrial revolution, and leaving the details of how they wanted to practice their faith up to them. "One condition, and one only, is required," Wesley wrote: "a real desire to save the soul."
Not surprisingly, a religion that rebelled at the Church of England and championed a fresh, democratic approach had immense and widespread appeal in the American colonies. In the years before the Revolutionary War, the 250 original subscribers to New York City's first Methodist congregation ran the gamut from "Negro servants to the Livingstons, Delanceys, and Stuyvesants." During those years, American Methodism was a passionate, evangelical sect driven by a band of circuit-riding preachers. The colonies' best-known and most successful, Francis Asbury, left England for Philadelphia in the fall of 1771. As a young man of twenty-six, he asked himself some of the same questions that Bradley must have during his much shorter crossing on the Red Bird-and ended with a similar determination. Aboard ship, Asbury wrote in his journal: "Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honor? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No. I am going to live with God and to bring others to do so."
Asbury went on to organize the first American Methodist Conference. He spoke not only in churches but in pioneer cabins, in prisons, town haLls, and anywhere else people would listen. It worked. There were less than five thousand Methodists in the colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War. By 1790, the new nation had more than forty-five thousand white members and nearly twelve thousand "colored." While New York City was a British stronghold, mostly Church of England, New Jersey was far more open to the new sect and its emotional revivals. Asbury, ordained a bishop by John Wesley, presided over what were called Love Feasts. One report, from around 1776, described the whole congregation as being "bathed in tears," with the cries so loud you couldn't hear the preacher. "Some would be seized with trembling, and in a few moments drop on the floor as if they were dead; while others were embracing each other with streaming eyes, and all were lost in wonder, love, and praise."
Bradley's moment of revelation was part of his religious tradition. And, as he began his long, bumpy ride down the Jersey shore, the ex-Catholic envisioned himself as carrying that revelation with him: a kind of modern pilgrim on a quest into "the wild woods."
Excerpted from 4th of July, ASBURY PARK by DANIEL WOLFF Copyright © 2005 by Daniel Wolff. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 7, 2008
I read his in the Summer of '07, on a beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, far from my childhood days visiting Asbury Park. I simply couldn't put it down. This is a thoroughly researched book with a fast pace. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 28, 2005
Even if you didn't think you were interested in the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen or early 20th century Methodism (and who wouln't be?)this book is so gracefully written and so well researched you'll be drawn in. And once you start, you'll want to finsih the whole Twentieth century as Daniel Wolff tells about it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.