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Jersey pride: not an oxymoron

Lawrence Rozanski | Monday, September 27, 2010

I’m probably one of the only graduate students at Notre Dame who studies the art and culture of New Jersey. (Seriously. I go to conferences and deliver papers on this stuff.)

Given that, in the past month, The Observer has published three articles on the Garden State — Chris Allen’s “A Shore Thing,” Natalia Tamzoke’s “Jersey Shore: I Love Hate You” and Maija Gustin’s “Jersey Explosion” — I thought I’d add my voice to the chorus of people who want your readers to know that there really is more to New Jersey than fist pumping, body shots and bail hearings.

Here’s a fact: New Jersey is arguably one of the most important centers of regional imagination in the United States. Poetry-wise, Walt Whitman drafted most of “Leaves of Grass” in Camden; William Carlos Williams lived (and died) in Rutherford, but not before he wrote “Paterson” and took a young poet named Allen Ginsberg (also a Jersey boy) under his wing; Amiri Baraka, a Newark native, has served as Poet Laureate of New Jersey; Joe Ceravolo spent most of his lamentably short life in Jersey; and Louise Gluck has rewritten Homer’s “Odyssey” by way of our infamous Meadowlands.

In terms of novelists, we can lay claim to Philip Roth’s searingly brilliant (and dirty) mind, as well as Pultizer Prize winners like Richard Ford and Junot Diaz.

Cinematically, New Jersey has inspired the likes of Kevin Smith and Zach Braff, as well as Todd Solondz and Hal Hartley, Jr. And let’s not forget the visual arts: Man Ray clocked time in Ridgefield; Robert Smithson got his start exploring the state’s industrial wastelands and pre-fab diners; and Tony Smith, in a celebrated piece for Artforum, compared driving on the NJ Turnpike to the end of art itself.

Oh, and our music? Sure, there’s Springsteen and Bon Jovi — but don’t forget Patti Smith, the Feelies (who were a major influence on REM), Yo La Tengo (you probably heard them on The Gilmore Girls), and recent notables like Titus Andronicus, Real Estate and Memory Tapes.

That’s not exhaustive list, but hopefully you readers get the point: the phrase “Jersey pride” is far from any oxymoron.

Lawrence Rozanski is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.