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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1817.—February 29, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Feelings, Money, & New York

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great New York Begins Poetically, by Eli Siegel. And never before was a city presented as it is in this 1970 lecture. Speaking chronologically, Mr. Siegel looks at various happenings, and instances of literature, having to do with New York. Several are fairly famous; many are not. He is casual, warm, always exact and deep. His knowledge of both literature and history is clearly tremendous, but he never shows off with it or thrusts it. He has one see and feel New York as described by this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Mr. Siegel began the lecture with Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan in 1626. In the section printed here, we reach the first part of the 19th century. And we’re in the midst of opposites. There are place and time—the geography of Manhattan, in its steadiness, and social life taking place on it. There are the tangible—land, buildings, sidewalks—and the intangible but real purposes of people. And we have the terrible opposites of rich and poor.

A New Feeling

Those opposites, rich and poor, are certainly with us now. And it can be said truly that today there is a feeling about them different from what was felt at any other time in American history. Of course, there’s also likeness. But the difference is enormously, mightily important. It is connected with what Mr. Siegel explained in the 1970s: economics based on contempt—on seeing people in terms of how much profit one can squeeze from them—is no longer able to succeed, and never will again. He documented the reasons why in his Goodbye Profit System series of lectures. And here, to comment on an evolving feeling and consciousness in America, I quote from a New York Times article headlined “Survey Finds Rising Strain between Rich and the Poor.” It appeared on January 12, and begins:

Conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society, according to a survey....

About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor in the United States, a survey by the Pew Research Center found....[This] represented about a 50 percent increase from the 2009 survey, when immigration was seen as the greatest source of tension.

Throughout America’s history there has been that hideous division called “rich and poor.” In New York, for instance, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were sweatshops, disease-ridden tenements, children shivering with cold, thousands of families without enough food, while at the same time, not many blocks away, persons lived in vast wealth. Of course, people always hated being poor, hated it all their rooked and stifled lives. And despite the “anyone can make it in America” notion, most people who worked very hard remained poor anyway. We can’t say they were resigned to poverty, but, with all their suffering, there was in many people the feeling “That’s how things are.”

By the mid-20th century, the fact that there had come to be a sizable middle class in America worked against Americans’ having what the article calls a sense of “conflict between rich and poor.” Meanwhile, that large middle class existed for only one reason: unions, which fought courageously in behalf of justice to working people. Now, in 2012, there is what the Times article tells about: a change in the feeling of Americans, who now see “conflict between rich and poor” as the country’s biggest “source of tension.”

The Real Question

Yet the Times and the survey it cites put the subject in a way that’s not accurate. “The survey’s main question,” we’re told, was, “‘In America, how much conflict is there between poor people and rich people?’” This question, we’re further told, “was often understood to mean, ‘Do the rich and the poor get along?’ and ‘Do they have the same objectives?’” But the real question is: Should there be poor people at all? Is it shameful, immoral, un-American for poverty to exist? Is it something that should be done away with completely, and fast?

There is an assumption, in the question asked and the discussion of it, that the existence of rich and poor is a staple, and that the thing to be studied is simply how much conflict there is between the two. That way of seeing the matter is both cruel and crazy. It’s as though there were a survey in 1850 which asked, “How much conflict is there between slaves and slave owners? Do they have the same objectives?”—implying, as the current survey does, that it’s right for there to be both, and the question is simply whether they get along.

Meanwhile, the Pew survey’s upshot, even as given, is important: that Americans feel our biggest conflict is between rich and poor. This upshot really has in it the following: People throughout America are becoming poorer and poorer, and that’s why there is a much more vivid sense of poverty and wealth. With it is an increasingly conscious anger that such a division exists. Ever so many persons who are still in the middle class are very worried that soon they won’t be. Americans have come to feel that the way of economics they’re living under has in it huge contempt and ill will for them, and they’re furious.

Commenting on Americans’ “change in perception” about “income inequality,” the Times article refers to a new awareness of “the issue of undeserved wealth.” What is “undeserved wealth”? You deserve wealth when it comes from work you yourself do. Undeserved wealth is what you get through using the work of others to aggrandize yourself—through pocketing the profit others produced with the labor of their bodies and minds. That Americans feel there is such a thing as “undeserved wealth” is the same as their being against the profit system.

This Is What Happened

What happened over the years was: 1) as more people became middle class, because of unions, and 2) as countries elsewhere had more ability to produce what US companies had produced, the profit system became weaker and weaker. Because unions were enabling workers to get more of the wealth they, the workers, created—enabling them to stop being poor, to lead more dignified lives—bosses and stockholders were less able to grab for themselves huge amounts of the money the employees had earned.

That is why various persons are on a nationwide campaign to kill unions. They know that big profits for a few individuals can no longer be had if there is a true middle class, if those who work are recompensed respectfully. These slick anti-union thugs want to force Americans to work for very little. If they were honest, they would say what is so: “We are trying to make the large majority of Americans be poor. Because that is now the only way we and our buddies can be very rich.”

Yes, there is a new consciousness in America. And it will grow. Americans don’t want the profit system. They are not clear what should replace it. They don’t want some economic “ism.” What they want is what Eli Siegel described: an economy based on good will, on a true answer to the question “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

There Were Social Life, Greed, Love
By Eli Siegel

I thought of dealing with The Contrast, a play written in 1787 by Royall Tyler, about New York of the time. But I’ll save that for another occasion. And there were early novels published. But the next thing I think it well to deal with is a spritely poem by one of the best-known poets in America of the early 19th century, Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). I talked about him when I dealt with his poem “Marco Bozzaris.” And his poem “Red Jacket” is an attempt to understand an Indian. But “Fanny,” of 1819, is a long poem set in New York.

It is quite graceful and has many names in it, including names of actors. It is affected by Byron, and is well done. “Marco Bozzaris” is the most poetic of Halleck’s works, but “Fanny” is very agreeable, and very informative. Both Tyler’s The Contrast and “Fanny” are about early young women in America who were appraising the possibilities of men in their lives and thinking of using disdain to get ahead in terms of amour. This is from stanzas 111 through 116 of “Fanny”:

She long had known that in her father’s coffers,

And also to his credit in the banks,

There was some cash; and therefore all the offers

Made her, by gentlemen of the middle ranks,

Of heart and hand, had spurn’d, as far beneath

One whose high destiny it was to breathe,


Ere long, the air of Broadway or Park Place,

And reign a fairy queen in fairy land.

·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·  · 

She had been notic’d at some public places

(The Battery, and the balls of Mr. Whale),

For hers was one of those attractive faces,

That when you gaze upon them, never fail

To bid you look again.

·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   

She shone at every concert; where are bought

Tickets by all who wish them, for a dollar;

She patroniz’d the Theatre, and thought

That Wallack look’d extremely well in Rolla....

We have a play referred to. The character of Rolla was one of the most famous of the time—he is in Pizarro, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and stood for liberty for the Incas.

So that’s from Halleck’s “Fanny.” It’s well done. Something poetic in the full sense is not present, but there is New York social life, which went on in every decade.

Acquisition & Poverty

There is a poem that Poe helped to make famous later in the 1830s, which gets in what used to be called a “social problem.” A social problem sometimes is about why people are poor and don’t like it. But another social problem has to do with an aspect of sex: prostitution. It was a social problem because even then people would go around in a big city and find women looking strangely. The other social problem is related to this one. Occasionally the two meet: that is, the problem of why money isn’t better apportioned, and the problem of why love at any time has to be paid for.

A poem on the subject is by Nathaniel Parker Willis. And when, toward the end of his life, Poe lectured on “The Poetic Principle,” he quoted it.

Willis was as popular a writer in prose as any. His writing in the New York Mirror is a real repository of Manhattan jibes. His works made Americans feel they had jauntiness, polish, gaiety; they were not pigs in a poke or frogs in a frozen pond, and they weren’t all given to clerical solitariness.

In the poem I’ll read, “Unseen Spirits,” Willis foreshadows later opinion. That is, there was a feeling that the best people would like to sell their daughters, in terms of strict marriage. A lot of it went on. A good many of the plays have to do with negotiations about a belle—let’s say, on Tompkins Square, or sometimes further downtown. Early, you have a belle near Whitehall, because New York with difficulty approached Chambers Street in the early part of the century. Then it made a great northern stab and got to 14th Street. Then it got to the theater district on 23rd Street, and then—what with the reservoir, which used to be around where the Public Library is—got to 42nd. But Rivington Street, for example, had its fashionable aspect, as did Chrystie Street. There was a place called Five Points, which Dickens writes about: that was the slums then. You can find out about it in his American Notes. Then later, there was the Tenderloin, uptown. But what this poem describes is on lower Broadway.

Poe says of it:

One of the finest poems by Willis—the very best, in my opinion, which he has ever written—has...been kept back from its proper position, not less in the critical than in the popular view.

The poem, which tells about two different women, begins:

The shadows lay along Broadway,

’T was near the twilight-tide—

And slowly there a lady fair

Was walking in her pride.

Alone walked she; but, viewlessly,

Walked spirits at her side.


Peace charmed the street beneath her feet,

And Honor charmed the air;

And all astir looked kind on her,

And called her good as fair;

For all God ever gave to her

She kept with chary care.


She kept with care her beauties rare

From lovers warm and true,—

For her heart was cold to all but gold,

And the rich came not to woo,—

But honored well are charms to sell

If priests the selling do....

Shadows, Buildings, Purposes

“The shadows lay along Broadway.” A good many novels have downtown Broadway getting darker. The shadows did come; meanwhile you have a feeling that water is very near, and then, there are these buildings, these mercantile buildings. Some of them were fairly high. For a while we didn’t have anything higher than six stories, but later came eight stories. And towards the end of the century came nothing less than over twenty stories—the Singer Building,Woolworth Building, Equitable Building, Flatiron Building. Well, the history of architecture is something in New York, as it is everywhere in America. Some of the mercantile buildings around Broadway and Bleecker Street came to be looked on as collector’s items standing right near the pavement. Only you couldn’t collect them. You could only collect, say, a bit of rain that had fallen on them.

We have, in the poem, ladies walking on Broadway. There are a good many descriptions of merriment on Broadway, including at Niblo’s.

“Alone walked she; but, viewlessly, / Walked spirits at her side.” The spirits, Willis implies, are the spirits of acquisition, and ego advancement, and obeying daddy, who is perhaps as mercantile as she is. But the acquisition is going to take place through the ministry of a man of God: there’s going to be a comfortable marriage arranged.

“For her heart was cold to all but gold”: that’s internal rhyme. The word gold in relation to marriage went through the century.

How Can You Make a Living?

Then Willis writes about the other young woman:

Now walking there was one more fair—

A slight girl, lily-pale;

And she had unseen company

To make the spirit quail:

’Twixt Want and Scorn she walked forlorn,

And nothing could avail.

That’s not said in the most accurate way, but she has the company of Want and Scorn: she’s not respected and she doesn’t have enough money. She’s poor, and at this time the jobs for girls were very limited. What you could do was work in a family, and suffer as Jane Eyre did (but in America) as a governess. Or you could sell sweet potatoes. Teaching by women hadn’t come to be a big thing yet.

No mercy now can clear her brow

For this world’s peace to pray;

For, as love’s wild prayer dissolved in air,

Her woman’s heart gave way!—

But the sin forgiven by Christ in heaven

By man is cursed alway!

“As love’s wild prayer dissolved in air, / Her woman’s heart gave way!” This is a very romantic way of describing what has been called sin. It’s lewd as anything. “But the sin forgiven by Christ in heaven / By man is cursed alway!” That has been so since the New Testament. Christ caused a great controversy about Mary Magdalene. It hasn’t been settled yet.

I do not see this as fully poetry, but it does present New York. The way people made their living in New York is something to see. There are some stories of Henry James about it, but there are many other stories. Avenue D—you had to make your living on it. You had to make your living on Avenue C. And what did you have to do on Avenue B?—make your living. Avenue A—of course. Then you get to First Avenue—what do you have to do there? First Avenue became a great mart for external transactions, following the tradition of Peter Minuit, who made that transaction in the open air. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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