Comments on Robert Sullivan’s “The Meadowlands” August 2015

The Meadowlands is a book rife with topics to discuss and explore. The swirling, interconnecting themes float and collide with each other like the filth and refuse drifting down the Hackensack River. But the murky waters did occasionally clear, and the emotive views on New Jersey’s greatest historical landmark, presented to us via a multiplicity characters, were often poignant.

For me, I found a couple of major tensions in the text:

  • HUMANITY vs. NATURE: Much of “Meadowlands” is a historical narrative of the failure of human attempts to lead the Meadowlands to “progress” and to “develop” them. In different historical times this means different things of course. Progress is a broad word, and I think that the author generally is referring to a specific type of economic direction in which human endeavors attempted to shape the Meadowlands (i.e. an industrial based, capitalistic venture). Of course, the human impact on the Meadowlands is not non-existent, and to say a failure to bend nature to the will of what a capitalist vision of “progress” is, is not to say that humanity does not have lasting effect on the Meadowlands even though it is “barren”. It was interesting for me to see the multiple failed attempts at bringing the Meadowlands “up to par” with the rest of society. The human failures, the unconquerable aspects of the natural habitat, seems to be transferred to the residents there  as a qualifier of being more primitive, of being “less human” because of the nature around them (The association of Cecaucus with pigs and trash causes many there to be looked down upon and made the butt of jokes).
  • PRIMEVAL WISHING: Don Smith and Bill Sheenan are two Meadowlands environmentalists who are battling for the future of the Meadowlands late in the book. It is here that we see glimpses of what I have heard referenced to earlier as the “pristine myth” (See Charles C. Mann’s excellent read 1491 for an in depth discussion on the topic). Bill vows to “not stop until I see what the Indians saw”. This idea of nature as being pure and untouched even though it was molded and lived upon by Amerindians, besides dehumanizing said peoples is also simply unattainable, fictitious, a cultural imaginary. What is natural? What is “untrammeled by man”? The human impact on the world is much older and more complete than I think we hold in our imagination.
  • ORGANICS AND THE HUMAN-MADE: Stylistically, the author mixes the typical usages of words. Sullivan regularly uses organic modifiers to speak of waste, of plastics and of other types of human made, inorganic waste. It is exceedingly jarring at first, but if anything it made the book that much more provocative. I remember fondly playing in areas similar to the ones described by Sullivan, a mixed landscape where as time and nature do their work, the rusting steel beams of an old farm house become natural. Nature pushes back on human endeavor. Human endeavor is eventually swallowed by nature. But at that “in-between” phase, when primacy is attained by neither, something strangely nostalgic and entrancing happens in the ugliness somehow.
  • CULTURAL IMAGE AND IDENTITY: The Meadowlands is viewed as an eyesore by some, beautiful as others, a hindrance, and then again never given thought by some. The cultural image of the Meadowlands has shifted multiple times throughout history and did so multiple times in the book. Identity is key to those who live in the Meadowlands, those trying to preserve is, and those trying to shape it. Sullivan presents to us many times “this is what the Meadowlands mean to me”, over and over in fact. It is through the lens of multiple characters that we see the shifting cultural attitudes on the Meadowlands and therefore the values of stewards like Don Smith and Sheenan or makers of progress.

Feel free to comment. Hope all is intelligible.

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2 Responses to Comments on Robert Sullivan’s “The Meadowlands” August 2015

  1. alettamerrick says:

    I think the “pristine myth” may be why most people consider the wilderness to be a huge, remote, and moderately dangerous place, and never the beautiful local park with maintained trails and open spaces with playgrounds. We’ve touched it (relatively recently), so now it’s ours, not nature’s; humans and “real” nature can’t be together.

  2. John Krygier says:

    Excellent – you pulled out some of the bigger issues from the reading that we can discuss during class. Keep it up.

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