A conversation with John Byron Kuhner.
The University Bookman is delighted to post this interview with John Byron Kuhner, author of a surprisingly engaging book about that often-neglected isle, Staten Island. His book, Staten Island, or, Life in the Boroughs, is a beautifully written reminder of a central tenet of the Bookman ethos, that every locality has a story and personality, and that localism can be found anywhere, even in the fifth borough of a great metropolis.
John Kuhner was born in Queens and spent ten years teaching Latin, Greek, and English in primary and secondary schools after graduating from Princeton. In 2008 he quit teaching to spend more time writing. More unusual features in his life include living for more than two years alone in an off-the-grid cabin without running water, and speaking Latin fluently. His website is johnbyronkuhner.com.
John, thanks for joining us. First, how did you come to write a book about Staten Island?
I was twenty-five at the time I wrote it, and full of lofty ambitions—the usual young-writer “Great American Novel” problem—but I knew this was an unhealthy, abstract tendency. I decided to try very hard to avoid the Great American Novel, and instead to try to write the best book I could about the county where I lived. That was Richmond County, New York, better known as Staten Island. The fact that the Island was so utterly unknown, and had, comparatively speaking, such a slender bibliography, only made the project more appealing to me. Anything “hidden in plain sight”—anything that people are aware is there but really know nothing about—is a gift for a writer. Especially in New York City.
A central concern of the Bookman is the importance of place, that sense of groundedness that renders us more than atomistic flies of a summer, which seems also to be a central theme of the book.
It certainly is a theme for the book. I’m fortunate to have a relatively deep taproot in New York. On my father’s side of the family no one has lived anywhere else but New York City since the 1870s, and on my mother’s side the furthest anyone has gone is the Poconos. My mother lives in the house where I was born—I was born in a room on the second floor. I think about this all the time—that I am part of a tradition, which gives me a kind of depth of perspective about this place that a lot of other residents simply don’t have. It leads me naturally to writing about it.
On the other hand, it feels sometimes like a burden and a limitation—I think a lot about how liberating it might be to live someplace completely different, like New Mexico or Oregon or someplace like that. It’s especially hard because New York feels like home but it also doesn’t—the people and neighborhoods turn over so quickly, your memories hardly get a chance to get settled. And of course it’s so expensive, and the rootedness I’m talking about is a completely different concept of a city from Bloomberg’s “luxury product” concept. And Bloomberg is winning, for the most part. But this is the only home I have. And one of the things I find most beautiful about human life is when people have their Luther-moments, their “Hic sto, aliter non possum.” If my writing can encourage love and loyalty to home—in this case Staten Island and New York—I would be very pleased.
Parts of the book are quite poignant, such as the discussion of Tottenville or the old orphanage on the edge of the island. What are those stories meant to convey about the rate of change the island has witnessed in the last half-decade or so?
Poignant is a fine word, but I want to make it clear that, as I say in the book, “I found it is little use to mourn over the past, except to remind myself of the virtues I needed in the present.” Many parts of Staten Island have been badly developed and a great deal of the place’s beauty and history has been lost. That’s done. And that’s true all over New York City, by the way. This is the city that preserved neither of the two executive mansions Washington stayed in while New York was the nation’s capital. I visited the site of one of them over on Cherry Street the other day, and it was a housing project.
But I’m more interested in the things which are here. I’ll drive myself crazy if I look at photos of old Penn Station too much. The point is to love and preserve the things we have. And as a writer and teacher I’m interested in addressing what I consider to be the underlying causes of our wanton destruction of our culture, which are mental: an ignorance and neglect of what we have, and a kind of avarice-by-principle which considers anything which is done profitably to be done well. Those need to be addressed just as much as trying to preserve individual buildings. As Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” But there’s still a tremendous amount left on Staten Island. Places like Mount Loretto—the orphanage you mention—are real preservation successes that most New Yorkers don’t even know about. It’s rural New York City in the twenty-first century. It’s incredible.
There is a fair amount of history in the book, yet Staten Island does not figure prominently even in histories of New York City. Is that simply Manhattan bias?
No, not entirely. Manhattan is Manhattan: it’s the center, it’s where the decisions were made, it’s where the most interesting people are, it’s the big story. But the fact that Manhattan is important doesn’t mean that life elsewhere is unimportant. In fact, that thought is the main thing I want to combat. When you grow up in the outer boroughs—I’m from Queens—you have this feeling that life in the boroughs is insignificant, it’s not the grand theater that “City” life is. A view of Central Park is beautiful; a view of Forest Park—who cares. This entire way of thinking is wrong.
When I was writing the book, I was reading tons of Thoreau. Walden is called Walden, or, Life in the Woods. My book is Staten Island, or Life in the Boroughs. I did this because I found him so relevant. People think that Thoreau wrote a book about how we all should live in the woods and be self-reliant, and then they castigate him for leading a rather normal life, eating his mother’s cookies or something like that. But his book really wasn’t about going to the Frontier—which he could have done. He basically went to the edge of town, someplace where he was a little less in touch, where he was a little more alone and his life was a little simpler—to Staten Island, if you will. And he didn’t say we should all go live in the woods. He said we should go live where we are.
This to me is the point of my own book as well. Go live where you are. You don’t need a fashionable address. You don’t need to see tourists on your block. The fact that God can dwell there is literally of infinitely greater importance than how many Zagat rated restaurants you can walk to.
What is the most surprising or interesting fact you learned in the course of your writing?
The most historical essay in the book is called “Washington and Burr,” and is about the Kill van Kull, the strip of water between Staten Island and Bayonne. Burr died here, in Port Richmond, in 1836, and Washington’s inaugural parade actually took place by boat, Venetian-Republic-style, and passed this way in 1789. These things I knew, as they are part of the island’s lore.
But the curious fact I discovered while finishing the essay was that a warehouse on the Kill was also the storage site for the uranium for America’s first atomic bombs. The Belgian company that mined uranium from the Congo was afraid that the Germans might try to weaponize it during the war, and they shipped their stock to America. It stayed on Staten Island for a few years, until the Manhattan Project started up. Apparently they were plotting how to get uranium from the Congo or Belgium into the U.S., and contacted an official at the company, who told them the uranium was already in the U.S.—someplace no one would ever look, Staten Island.
This kind of detail gives historical depth to the essay—this one place saw Washington, Burr, and Fat Boy. It’s now the main artery of shipping traffic into New York too, so it’s a great place to see the infrastructure of globalization—the huge container ships and oil drums and so forth. If you know the history, there’s a lot to think about in that one little strip of land.
It must also be said that the book itself is beautifully produced with wonderful illustrations and a pull-out map of the island. Tell us how you came to work with The Crumpled Press.
After I wrote the book, I submitted it a few places and gathered my rejections. The book is about Staten Island; no one really cares; and what’s more, I don’t write in a modern style. I read a lot of Latin, and I write complex sentences which sound distinctly Latinate.
I let the book sit for a few years—I was teaching and trying to write a better Latin textbook at the time—and then a friend told me about The Crumpled Press, which he described as a group of University of Chicago intellectuals who considered themselves Aldus Manutiuses (or Aldi Manutii, to do them justice). They ended up being a perfect fit. They hand-bind all their books, and found my archaic style a perfect fit for their old-style workmanship. They edited it but left my voice intact.
And so we have a book that actually sounds different from other books. And since we had such an opportunity on our hands to create something beautiful, we got an illustrator, Lesley Chen, to do a nineteenth-century-style map of the Island and drawings to boot.
So I take it presentation was an important part of the vision you had for the book?
My initial concern was the prose, but I found that the Crumpled Press had a more holistic view of the entire bookmaking process. They wanted a high level of craftsmanship all the way through. And I will make no bones about the fact that most of the things I find most beautiful—buildings, artworks, prose—come from earlier ages, when the craftsman was expected to make something not only solid but also adorned. The ornaments of old prose writing are still highly effective to my ear. I don’t know why modern editors insist on cutting them. If you told me, “Here’s a novel by a new writer who writes in the tradition of Irving and Poe and Melville,” I would buy it. I love the way those writers wrote.
Is there a next project you are working on?
Two things. I’m writing a book on New York pizza which marries high and low culture in a way similar to the Staten Island book. And I’m just about done with a novel. Find me an intelligent agent and hopefully these things will get sold before I starve.