An imaginative, engaging, and celebratory episodic history of New York City, conveyed courtesy of Woodlawn Cemetery residents.
At mid-life, the sour taste of mortality was giving rock writer Goodman (The Mansion on the Hill, 1997) insomnia. He took to riding the city streets on his bike late at night, pausing to marvel at a host of memorials to characters he hadn't a clue even existed, though they’d been triumphed by the city mere years before. “A mayor and a war hero?” he asked incredulously when happening on a vest-pocket park named after early 20th-century politician John Purroy Mitchel, who died in WWI. Who was this guy? How could we forget so soon those who had died in cataclysmic events, or the events themselves, or others who had made an impact but were now disappeared into an amnesia that seems almost instantaneous? One thing Goodman knew: Mitchel was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, 400 acres of the north Bronx, a pastoral fantasy of heaven where “a quiet and undeniable grace wraps the small hills and deep shaded glens.” Visiting the cemetery, the author found some people who had died anonymously but gained stature with the years (Herman Melville, for example), others who died with great celebrity and receded into the mists with alarming alacrity. Their stories, Goodman fruitfully muses, constitute an archive of the city laid out in rows of stone. So he seizes upon a half-dozen and recreates, in unhurried language rich with referents, moments of history in imagined vignettes. He fashions tales about the scourges of polio and influenza, about the work of the Picirilli Brothers’ artistry and the rabble-rousing congressman Vito Marcantonio, the shyster Austin Corbin and the great black poet Countee Cullen. With an eye for social justice, Goodman knows who to bite and who to give a resurrecting pat on the back.
Careful research brought satisfyingly to life, putting flesh on long-gone bones and letting them live again, cheating the reaper.