Halloween came early this year at City College. Professor Joshua Wilner moderated a panel entitled, "Mocking the Creator: Frankenstein as Modern Myth." The event was held in conjunction with a recent City College Library exhibition at the Morris Raphael Cohen Library: "Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature."
The focus of the discussion was Mary Shelley's grotesque novel "Frankenstein," which continues to reverberate in our culture through film, art, and literature.
Mr. Wilner spoke about both the book and the monster itself as "hideous progeny." He is currently working on two (presumably less hideous) book projects: "Wordsworth and Mandelbrot on the Coast of Britain" and a study of experimental writing from Dorothy Wordsworth to Gertrude Stein that will be called "Lyric, Prose, Modernity."
Panelist Ian Balfour, a professor at York University of Toronto, discussed the novel in relation to the biblical creation story. His talk, "Frankenstein and the Language of Origins," emphasized that Frankenstein was written in a period when readers were preoccupied with stories of origin.
Rational or scientific criticism of the Bible flourished during the same era. "The monster is a kind of scientist, too," Mr.Balfour said. He noted that the monster's development reproduced the progress of the human race. For example, Frankenstein moved from sensation to concepts to inarticulate sounds to articulate sounds.
Mr. Balfour's forthcoming book will be on "The Language of the Sublime" (Stanford), to be published next year.
A professor at Brandeis University, Mary Campbell, spoke on "Frankenstein and Modern Discourses of Origins." She addressed the scientific and technical prehistory of the novel.
Ms. Campbell, who was a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin last year, gave examples of what she called the "phobia-prone history of medicine." She discussed Frankenstein in the context of male parthenogenesis and noted, "There is no one more like the monster than the maker himself."
Speaking on "Enlightenment Mind, Romantic Monster," a professor at Baruch College, Nancy Yousef, considered the creature's self-education. Ms. Yousef noted the monster's awesome isolation. She said Shelley was not simply copying empiricist philosopher John Locke's model of a mind enclosed in a dark chamber, but "transposing and reimagining it." Ms. Yousef is at work on a philosophical history of intimacy.
One person said Shelley's novel was "like peanut butter" because "it could go with anything." "Frankenstein" is arguably the single most required text in English literature courses today, the Knickerbocker learned.
Why do students relate to it? As was said that evening, "It is one of the coolest things written by a teenager."
Friends and colleagues gathered late last week at the Corner Bookstore in honor of David Castronovo's new book "Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit: Books from the 1950s that Made American Culture" (Continuum).
Mr. Castronovo is a literary gentleman, which is another way of saying he possesses qualities ever more rare in our times - erudition, taste, and manners. His book outlines the influence of landmark midcentury books that have come to define American culture today.
A number of Pace University colleagues attended Castronovo's reception. Alfred Hitchcock experts and film historians Walter Srebnick and Walter Raubicheck; Pace's poet-in-residence, Charles North, and a poet and editor of John Ashbery's essays, Eugene Richie.
Also at Corner Bookstore that evening were the author of "Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim" (Houghton Mifflin), Mary Dearborn; a Dante scholar and New School professor, James Tetreault; a specialist on American literature and the performing arts, Emmet Long, and Janet Groth, who collaborates with Mr. Castronovo on editions of Edmund Wilson's letters and uncollected essays.
A professor of history emeritus at Brown University, Stephen Graubard, and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sat down with a journalism professor from the University of Maryland, Haynes Johnson, to discuss "The American Presidency." The program was a special, on-the-record talk at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Graubard is author of "Command of Office: How War, Secrecy and Deception Transformed the Presidency, from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush" (Basic Books) and Mr. Schlesinger is author of the recently published book "War and the American Presidency" (W.W. Norton).
Mr. Johnson, who often appears on the PBS series "Washington Week in Review," has a New York Sun connection: His father won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for a series of articles in this paper that ultimately formed the material for the movie "On the Waterfront."
At one point during the discussion, Mr. Johnson expressed his dismay toward graduate students who had never read the Federalist papers because it wasn't required of them.
He also said that President Theodore Roosevelt knew an immense amount of history, though President Woodrow Wilson was "not equally learned." Mr. Graubard added, to audience laughter, that Wilson was a professor and "that may have been the problem." Mr. Schlesinger concurred, and defending his profession, added that Wilson had been a professor "in government, not history."
Seen in the audience were Alexandra Schlesinger; a former president of New York University, John Brademas; Theodore Sorensen of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Gillian Martin Sorenson of the United Nations Foundation, and David Speedie of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. After the discussion, the editorial director of Times Books Paul Golob, was seen talking with Warren Bass of the Washington Post.
Downstairs at Deutsches Haus at New York University, there is a plastic pumpkin at the main desk filled with Halloween candy. The Knickerbocker sampled some wrapped "Mary Jane" molasses and peanut-butter candies.