Sunday, August 30, 2009

23rd Street Pseudonyms

Welcome back! The pseudonyms of the three people imprinted on the 23rd Street Subway wall and referred to at the end of the previous post are revealed today. They are: Harry Houdini for Erich Weiss, the escape artist and magician; O. Henry for William Sidney Porter, the short story writer; and General Tom Thumb for Charles Sherwood Stratton, the 25-inch dwarf who gained notoriety as one of the stars of the circus produced by P.T. Barnum (also noted on that wall) to much acclaim throughout the mid to late nineteenth century.

What a bizarre trio, huh!? In some crazy sense, they represent the diversity and the sheer nuttiness of New York. The first figure - Houdini - was such a remarkable and convincing escape artist that at least one astute observer (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) believed he had the ability to dematerialize and rematerialize at will. O. Henry is still the best known short story writer of all time for his surprise endings. In fact, he spent only the last few years of his life in New York City, during which time he wrote close to a short story a week, though only a handful are still regularly read and remembered. And then there's Tom Thumb, who actually weighed over 9 pounds at birth and just plain stopped growing after six months (he began to grow again very slowly later on in his life). He went on to become one of the most famous people of his time, despite having no real talent, simply because P.T. Barnum convinced millions that he was worth seeing.

If anything unites these three it is probably that the American public came to believe they were something more than what they really were. Which, to the extent this is true, nicely captures one of New York City's most endearing qualities as well. It is the dream, the fantasy of New York that arrests so many. But like so many dreams or fantasies, they can rarely be fully realized or understood and often lead, in the end, to some degree of disappointment. Those who know this but seek after the dream anyway are less disappointed than others when the dream goes unfulfilled. They may even experience some sort of wry pleasure in knowing that part of that great quest is chimerical, something like an unendingly diverting mirage that is admired and appreciated for its beauty but is ultimately as insubstantial as gossamer.

1 comment:

  1. These three represent aspects of the entertainer, miraculous ability, prolific craft and celebrity. Not many entertainers acheive all three (Houdini did, of course, and Ethel Merman, the subject of this blog the other day certainly did), but New York is populated with entertainers galore, most intentional, some not so much. I wonder which of these qualities would be most valuable to them? I wonder which is most likely to pay the bills? I wonder which leads to the greatest likelihood of lasting glory?