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Editor’s Note, September/October 1999

The Island of Mannahatta

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 1999 | Volume 20, Number 5

In the 1600s, the place was known as "mannahatta," an Indian word for "island of ills" or "place of general inebriation." It was a narrow and not-too-long strip of land where two rivers converged on a harbor. Voyagers from the Dutch West India Company landed there in 1624 and began building cabins and a fort and a counting house. It was the beginning of what would become New York City.

"Other settlements soon sprang up around the harbor," we are told, "including the village of Breuckelen, named for a town back in Holland, and up along the East River, a sprawling plantation, owned by a Danish farmer, Jonas Bronck. It was soon known simply as 'the Broncks.'"

How the small Dutch outpost grew into a world-class city is traced in a documentary airing this fall, produced by Ric Burns and supported by NEH. The narrative recounts how the Dutch eventually lost out in the free-for-all trade in the Atlantic, and how new European landlords arrived and gave it a new name, "York" for the English royal house.

In the twelve- hour film we meet the heroes and charlatans and visionaries who have populated the city's history. Among them we encounter the New Yorker who was the richest of them all—J. P. Morgan, financier of railroads, creator of conglomerates, connoisseur of art and of women. Jean Strouse, who has written a biography of Morgan, talks about his complexities with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris. Was Morgan a robber baron or do-gooder? At one point, Strouse points out, he saved the American economy from bankruptcy only to find much of the nation appalled rather than grateful.

Morgan, like his contemporary Henry James, drew his cultural compass from Europe. Its treasures filled his house on Fifth Avenue; he gave Old Masters to the new Metropolitan Museum of Art. If he and James were exemplars of a gilded age, in other quarters a distinctly American attitude was developing: the voices of Mark Twain, of Jack London, of Theodore Dreiser. On Broadway, a young rehearsal pianist was about to wrest the musical theater away from Vienna and the operetta. His name was Jerome Kern. He wrote seven hundred songs and inspired another generation of songwriters: At one point George Gershwin was his rehearsal pianist. Kern gave Broadway Sunny and Sally and Show Boat, Kern and then rode the wave of popularity to Hollywood to write song and dance on the screen.

Kern left behind a New York that was losing its bubble, where times were growing harder. We get a glimpse of that New York in a new NEH-supported exhibition. It contains seldom-seen photographic work by the painter Ben Shahn. The images linger over the 1930s and kids at play, immigrants at work, radicals waving placards. Although we are told that the photographs were separate from his paintings, some tantalizing similarities can be found.

And last, we look back at a time ten years ago: the fall of the wall between the two Germanys. Forty years of isolation was ending, and the cracks in the wall were fissuring through the rest of the Soviet world. Secrets began coming to light. We read about the scramble in the U.S.S.R. to match the U.S. atomic bomb effort, and the feat of a scientist named Igor Kurchatov. Historian Loren Graham considers whether scientists are finding work more difficult in Russia's present economic chaos than they did under the terrorism of Stalin.