Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin by Nicholas Howe, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin
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Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin

by Nicholas Howe

How do the places we live in and visit shape our lives and memories? What does it mean to reside in different locations across the span of a life? In richly textured portraits of places seen from within, Nicholas Howe contemplates how places create and gather their stories and how, in turn, a sense of place locates the stories of our own lives.

Howe begins with


How do the places we live in and visit shape our lives and memories? What does it mean to reside in different locations across the span of a life? In richly textured portraits of places seen from within, Nicholas Howe contemplates how places create and gather their stories and how, in turn, a sense of place locates the stories of our own lives.

Howe begins with one of the finest descriptions ever written of Buffalo, that city on an inland sea where he grew up. He gives us a fresh Paris, viewed from the river below. And he depicts Oklahoma as a site of open lands and dislocation—a place of coming and going. Howe then turns to Chartres, a traditional location of pilgrimage, to ask what other sites might still be capable of compelling visitors in secular time. He portrays Berlin as a scene of twentieth-century history—and a city that helped him make sense of his American life. Finally, he writes about Columbus, Ohio, as home. Vividly rendering the places he has known, Howe meditates on the weight of home, the temptations of the metropolis, the fact of dislocation, the unraveling of history, the desire to remake ourselves through voyage, and the wonder of the familiar.

In ways that too often elude travel writers, it is place that holds our imagination, that inspires much of our art and literature. Across an Inland Sea evokes the various senses of place that can fill and haunt a life—and ultimately give life its form and meaning.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though Howe takes readers from Buffalo, N.Y., to Paris and from Oklahoma to Chartres, Berlin and Columbus, Ohio, in these elegant essays, his is not a travelogue in the traditional sense, but rather a deeply felt, meditative exploration of the "power that places have over us." A medievalist and professor of English at UC Berkeley, Howe reveals a gift for capturing the modern-day pilgrimage. "Journey, story and metaphor alike," he writes, "draw from the same need: to move from point to point in the hope of discovery." Howe's discoveries take the form of little epiphanies-about the way to see a city with fresh eyes, about the writing about place and memory-and are the stops along the way that he meticulously relates to his readers, so that, in the end, his journey becomes his reward. Howe's references are often literary-Kafka, Roland Barthes, Flaubert-but his accounts are clear and thoughtful, and his wit helps make his narrative work accessible. His opening chapter about his family's-and his own-history in and relationship to Buffalo during its recent decline is stunning in its breadth of understanding and melancholy, while his elegy to Columbus's High Street reveals a striking depth of feeling for a main drag marked by fast food chains and ethnic restaurants, student hang-outs and underused parks. This graceful volume will be especially meaningful to writers, but it should appeal to anyone who muses about authenticity in a place or people. 6 halftones. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Princeton University Press
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5.77(w) x 8.76(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

Across an Inland Sea

Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin
By Nicholas Howe

Princeton University Press

Nicholas Howe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691113653

Chapter One

At the start of the twentieth century, my mother's parents left Greece to settle in Buffalo, New York. Earlier in the Greek diaspora, they would have gone to another inland port, to Trebizond on the Black Sea or, most likely, to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. There were distant cousins on my grandmother's side who had settled there; as a young girl my mother met them in Athens where the family had gathered for a reunion in 1928. I sometimes wonder if these cousins knew of Cavafy when he lived in Alexandria and wrote his poems about coming home to Ithaca or waiting for barbarians at the end of things. I have no way of knowing, though, because we lost all trace of them long ago. They would not have been likely to approve of Cavafy; he was a poet, homosexual, anglophile, in short, an alienated native of the Levant rather than a loyal son of Hellas. And family gossip said that our cousins were provincial in ways that only those who live in the ruins of a great civilization can be, for they could always find in the past what they lacked in the present.

Had my grandfather settled in Trebizond or Alexandria, this book about places persisting in memory might have been easier to write because those cities have the dusty glamour of old trade routes. But itwas Buffalo where he settled, and brought my grandmother after they married, and thus I cannot trade on the romance of lost empire. Instead, I write about Buffalo from the late 1950s through the early 1990s when no travel writer would have put it on his trophy list. It might have earned a brief mention in an itinerary for Niagara Falls, and in that way perhaps have repeated my grandfather's experience. For a few years as a young man he drove a sightseeing bus from the Buffalo train station to the Falls. It was quick tourism before World War I: jump off a New York Central, see a wonder of the world, catch another train out.

Thirty-five years are a brief span in the life of a city but those from the late 1950s through the early 1990s marked a change in Buffalo. When I was growing up the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed "Boost Buffalo. It's good for you." As recently as the late seventies you could see these words on the sides of buildings, though the paint had faded and the offices inside were sometimes unoccupied. By then the city was learning to take pride in a more hard-boiled slogan, "Buffalo. City of No Illusions." Being a city of no illusions meant having a kind of weary dignity, a toughness that came from a large working-class population, bad winters, and a suspicion about more cosmopolitan parts of the state, especially New York City. Buffalo knew what it meant to be a city of casualty, a place that Sports Illustrated once called "The Armpit of the East." The journalist, as usual, got it wrong because Buffalo is not really a city of the eastern United States. It began to thrive only after it became the western terminus for the Erie Canal in the late 1820s. To this day, it still feels more than superficially midwestern in its attitudes and tastes.

The city has this feel because, resting on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, it belongs to the inland waterways that give coherence to the center of the continent. Starting from Buffalo, you move west to Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth. Along that network of lakes and rivers runs as well a shared cultural identity, for many who settled in these Rust Belt cities were immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s from Germany and then, in later decades, from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Like other cities on the great midwestern lakes, Buffalo once took pride in its local beers: Simon Pure, Kochs, Iroquois, to name only three I drank as a teenager. They were cheaper than the national brands and certainly tasted no worse. Their neon signs dotted the small windows of the corner taverns that could be found in the city's older neighborhoods. Now that these breweries have gone out of business, the city has lost some of its flavor. The new microbreweries make better beer, but they are too decorous to splash their names in blue and red neon across the local bars where people gather after work or eat a fishfry on Friday evening.

From where I write in Columbus, it is six hours on the interstate to Buffalo: two hours northeast through Ohio, and the rest along the rim of Lake Erie past the outskirts of Cleveland through Pennsylvania and then into New York State. For this part of the trip you drive within a few miles of the lake. On the interstate, especially in Pennsylvania as it approaches New York, you ride high on the old escarpment and for a few miles look down, across acres of vineyard, to the hard blueness of the lake. For most of these four hours you cannot see the lake, though if you drive the route regularly you learn to feel its almost oceanic presence because rain showers and snow squalls can blow off it with remarkable ferocity. More immediately, you realize after crossing the state line into New York that you are riding on what had once been the bed of the lake before it shrank to its current size. Driving that route, I came to feel the persistence of geography in life, especially as it gives form to memory. From those hours of driving toward Buffalo I learned how much that somber city had left its impress on me in ways that more inviting or glamourous places have never done and never will.

The somberness of the city had everything to do with its structures: huge factories to roll steel, tower after tower of elevators to store grain, lift bridges to give lakeboats access along the Buffalo River. The great buildings of its downtown date from a time when elegance, even modernity, meant a heavy solemnity, a lavish use of stone and tile to hide ironwork skeletons. These structures were put there to endure, and today some survive sadly without purpose. They stand against the lake and its hard weather with a kind of reassurance that more minimal buildings from late in the twentieth century cannot offer. Their heavy construction makes these turn-of-the-century buildings a nightmare for wreckers. So many of them remain because sometimes the best way to destroy is to abandon.

In winter when dusk comes early, there is never enough light in Buffalo. It has the heavy clouds typical of a city on the water. Summers in Buffalo are usually cool and sunny, but they have nothing to do with shaping the character of the place. It is the long soul-wearying grayness from late October through early April that defines the city. The snow does so as well, of course, but it falls unevenly over western New York. Towns a few miles to the south of Buffalo can dig out from two feet of snow while towns the same distance to the north sweep away a light dusting. In the American imagination, Buffalo remains a snow capital because during one winter in each generation it suffers a massive storm that takes weeks to clear away. In flood regions, people point with pride to the high-water line on bridges or buildings; in Buffalo, they do the same with drifts that buried houses and filled underpasses.

It is the slag-gray clouds that weigh down on you for months and exhaust you during Buffalo winters. The sun when it appears seems watery and distant behind a thin glaze of cloud. In the older sections of the city, the houses are narrow and tall, typically two full stories and a usable attic. They were built close together with barely enough space between them for a single car to reach the garages in back. In these older neighborhoods, whether modest working-class or solidly upper-middle-class, the city has a cramped feel about it that has nothing to do with the constraints of topography. Only on the west side, with the lake and river, do natural boundaries press the city in on itself. No, the older houses in Buffalo cluster together to stand against the wind that blows, unbroken, across the lake from Canada. And the rooms in these houses, with their high windows and heavy woodwork, are dark. The houses have a quality of old-fashioned propriety in their darkness, of domestic life as the defining source of one's being.

In a city like Buffalo, life did not move into a public world except for church and tavern, and both are also defining and limiting in their sense of community. In the old areas, where no false piety separated church and tavern, neighborhood locals could be found on many street corners. They were usually quiet, clean, orderly. Dark booths and a few tables, a bar with blended whiskies and local draft beers, a small menu with beef on weck (the local hardroll dotted with rock salt and caraway seeds) and a vinegar-laced German potato salad-these were places where families would come for a little cheer against the winter gloom. By no accident, one of the few good books about Buffalo, Verlyn Klinkenborg's The Last Fine Time, is set in a tavern called "George & Eddie's," a place as unassuming as its name. Or, that once was as unassuming as its name; it's gone now as is most of the old east-side Polish community where it was located. The Eddie of George & Eddie's lived about half a mile from where I grew up in the suburbs, another one of those who left the old neighborhood for the comforts of a new house with a green backyard.

The artist who knew how to paint those grim Buffalo neighborhoods was Charles Burchfield, whose scenes of tall, narrow houses and wind-tormented trees have for Buffalonians an almost photographic realism. With their eerie vibrations, his paintings seem hallucinogenic only to those who have never spent a winter in Buffalo. His houses shimmer weirdly along their edges; verticals we know to be plumb and foursquare waver; houses and streets are set at disconcerting angles that make for a feeling of dislocation. His trees are more gnarled than any you can find in nature, their branches form haloes of light that give a feeling of unease. If Burchfield and Edward Hopper are often paired as American realists, their subjects are different. Hopper captures those moments when people seem overwhelmed by the emptiness of the cityscape. Burchfield paints the psychic disturbance one senses in the city itself; his buildings vibrate with the unseen, unexpressed emotions of those who live within them. Looking at his scenes of Buffalo, at such paintings as Ice Glare or Sulphurous Evening, one feels the waves of repression that emanate from his houses. These are not places where happy people live. They are the houses of those who maintain outward appearances and who know that things inside have gotten terribly twisted.

This spookiness fills the houses in his famous Promenade, but to see it you have to look past the episode he paints on the sidewalk of a fat woman with a little dog being followed by a pack of big dogs. The painting seems comic, but turns ominous because the houses in the scene refuse to be merely picturesque. The elegiac Burchfield is less, however, the painter of city neighborhoods or backyards filled with massive trees than the recorder of urban industry in works with austere titles like >Ice-Bound Lake Boats, Freight Cars Under a Bridge, or Black Iron, a meticulous rendering of a railroad lift bridge on a heavy overcast day in fall. In a work of 1929, Burchfield seems to predict the fate of industrial Buffalo by painting a pile of old boilers, gearworks, and pipes as Still Life-Scrap Iron. Burchfield's industrial paintings seem elegiac because of all that happened to the city since he did them: its decline, its loss of a center, its hard years of layoffs and canceled dreams. Or perhaps that decline is why I look at his paintings with the conviction that through some detail they might teach me to understand why the city changed so fundamentally.

The city's original reason for being, its place on the map, came from the confluence of the Buffalo River into the Niagara River as it flowed from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Travel by water turned Buffalo into the eastern edge of the American midwest. The neighborhood near Buffalo Harbor remembers the regions on the far side of the lake and beyond with streets named Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi. As an inland port, Buffalo lost its being after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in the late 1950s. Once ocean-going freighters could move through the Great Lakes to unload their cargoes and then reload with grain or ore, Buffalo no longer served as a center for transshipment between lake-boats and freightcars. The trainyards that sprawl across the southern parts of Buffalo belong to a lost city. But once, in the war year of 1943 when food was as vital as munitions, Buffalo shipped more grain in a single year than any other harbor ever did in history. The city, as family stories told, had not always been a backwater.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Buffalo became a monument to the passing of the high-industrial age. Its mills and elevators remained intact but lost much of their utility and seemed to offer no possibilities for reuse. For a time the city had known scale, energy, sweat. It had been a place of transformation where grain was milled into flour and breakfast cereal, where iron ore and coke were smelted to steel for carframes and bridge girders. It was a city that knew the basic elements of life, that dealt in the changes worked by fire and water. So how had it been left to die? How had it become a monument to ways of living that no one cared about anymore?

These questions came too late, after those I might have asked had died. There were some answers that did not require family knowledge. Buffalo was part of the decline of the industrial heartland into Rust Belt; it was hit like other cities on this inland sea by rises in energy prices, labor costs, and racial unrest; it was, more uniquely, made anachronistic by changes in transportation patterns. These are all necessary explanations and others might be added. But none help me to discover what it was like to have lived through this decline. What did it mean to feel the city's life drift elsewhere, to know almost imperceptibly over time the withering of a city's identity? What did it mean to grow old in that city as it also aged and slipped into memory?

My ghosts of Buffalo come from the city's majesty before the 1950s. I want to recover that city and find my family's time in it; I want place to be a means to locate what has been lost in our lives. In classical Greek, the rhetorical patterns in stories are called topoi and are related etymologically to topography: these patterns provide the terrain of stories. In turn, stories can be a way of mapping the geography of a place. Memory is the quality of place that explains its hold on us; observation must be another because it can reveal the deceptions of memory. What holds them together is the shared meaning of stories: those we bring to a place and those we create about it. And most of our stories about place have more or less to do with the treacheries of time.


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What People are saying about this

Willard Spiegelman
This book's power and beauty derive from Howe's subtle meditations on time and place, and the precision of his eye in measuring and describing the specific sites in which he finds himself. Howe's stunning achievement is to mingle the commonplace with the exotic and to encourage us to experience his places—and our own—with careful, sensitive attention.
Michael Gorra
Across an Inland Sea enacts a dialogue between the visible traces that time leaves upon space and the more evanescent ones it engraves on our memories, so that we see each place as a palimpsest of different moments. The elegantly written pieces reinforce each other, giving the book as a whole a cumulative force that makes it larger than the sum of its separate parts.
Paula Fox
Across an Inland Sea is a striking collection of essays; each one tingles with immediacy and intimacy. Ranging from Chartres to High Street in Columbus, Ohio, from a boat on the Seine to the Openlands of Oklahoma, the writer discovers what in Kim Kipling called 'the solace of stories.' To the French writing virtues of lucidity and clarity, Howe adds wit and art.

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