Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Paterson

By Levi Asher on Saturday, July 30, 1994 12:16 pm
A small industrial city on the Passaic River in northern New Jersey, Paterson was the subject of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams, who celebrated its grimy, unspectacular American-ness. Years later Allen Ginsberg would emerge from Paterson's Jewish neighborhoods.

Ginsberg's Paterson is strikingly similar to Jack Kerouac's home town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and this may have been a factor in the close friendship these two writers shared. Both cities were built upon the textile industry, with mills lining the waterfronts, and both cities became decrepit, dividing into isolated ethnic neighborhoods, when the textile industry ceased to flourish during the first half of this century. Ginsberg never romanticized Paterson, though, the way Kerouac romanticized Lowell. This may have been because Williams had already done so, or maybe it was because Ginsberg is naturally a globalist; there does not seem to be much room for the humble small town in his work.

When Kerouac created the character of Sal Paradise to represent himself in 'On The Road,' he identified Paterson, not Lowell, as Sal Paradise's hometown.

Ginsberg did return to Paterson as a famous poet, and almost got arrested after announcing that he had just smoked pot at the town's waterfall during a walk with his father. I visited the Great Falls myself recently, and while I didn't happen to have a joint with me I thought about Ginsberg and his father as I watched the rushing waters. The Falls are very impressive, and it's a shame that more people don't visit them. The old mills still stand next to the river, where they are preserved as part of the Great Falls Historic Site.

Paterson was the scene of an important labor uprising in 1913. There's a recent book that discusses this uprising and the famous Armory Show in Manhattan (which introduced modern art to America) as two key events in American history. I'm trying to find a copy of this book, and when I do I'll write more about this subject.

Paterson is mentioned in Bob Dylan's song 'Hurricane,' about the boxer Hurricane Rubin Carter who was arrested for a murder that took place in a Paterson bar.
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