Monday, February 24, 2014

Steven Cassedy's "Connected"

Steven Cassedy is Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego. He has published in a variety of fields, including Russian literature, French literature, philosophy and history of religion, Jewish studies, philosophy, history of science, history of music, history of ideas, and American studies. His books include Dostoevsky's Religion and Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory.

Here Cassedy shares some ideas for a big screen adaptation of his new book, Connected: How Trains, Genes, Pineapples, Piano Keys, and a Few Disasters Transformed Americans at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century:
The movie version of this book would definitely be tricky. I actually started out with fictional characters as part of the book, each representing a social “type” from the era. Every chapter began with a story about one of the characters, to illustrate something about the topic of that chapter. My editor wisely talked me out of using the characters in the final version—they made the book a little too weirdly hybrid for most readers, she rightly thought—plus the little stories were, well, kind of boring.

But the book tells a number of real-life stories that could make terrific movies—or at least be part of some terrific movies. Perhaps one thing I’ve done in Connected is provide technical advising services for a great big movie that’s set in this era—but a movie part of whose point is exactly that it evokes an era and a place. Think of last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, for example, which brings you back (with one or two goofs on the part of the Coen brothers) into New York City at the beginning of the 1960s. If you were around at that time and in that place, you remember that the subway entrances looked just exactly like that (no “1” train, but the IRT Broadway Local), and so did the automobiles that lined the streets.

A director who likes to make icons out of ordinary objects and who wanted to set a movie in the era of my book could feature Waltham watches, the Time Ball atop the Western Union Building, cans of Hawaiian pineapples, OK Records, public signs displaying personal hygiene rules, a Steinway upright piano. One of my aims is to show how an ordinary object can point out beyond itself with a myriad of imaginary filaments that connect it to a myriad of distant (or not-so-distant) points. In one chapter, I describe an 1894 Steinway upright (which actually belongs to my family), and I imagine that its original owner, a Mr. Byron Sherman from Morristown, New Jersey, is holding the family globe and putting an individual finger or thumb on each of the spots marking a place that provided a raw material for his instrument: Congo for ivory, Madagascar for ebony, Australia for wool (the felt in the hammers), the Adirondacks for spruce, and so on. He would end up clutching the globe as if it were a basketball. In fact, a man clutching the earthly globe was a frequent iconic motif in nasty political satire from this era: a grotesquely caricatured Jew with his arms greedily wrapped around the earth (cover image for the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion) or John Bull as an octopus spreading his tentacles over the various territories of Great Britain’s far-flung colonial empire. This is globalization (a big theme of my book), before the term was coined.

My idea is that these objects are stories—or they’re the characters in a larger story. I guess I’d leave it up to the director to figure out how to make the actual movie.
Learn more about Connected at the Stanford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Connected.

--Marshal Zeringue