The Conference on Literature and Urban Experience (CLUE), Rutgers University Newark

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The Conference on Literature and the Urban Experience (hereafter referred to as "CLUE"), took place on April 17, 18, and 19, 1980, in the Robeson Center, Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. It featured more than 50 distinguished writers and academics discussing a wide range of topics—"literature, theater, film, education, and the visual arts"—focusing on the theme of urban experience. Additional public events were sponsored at the Newark Public Library, the Newark Museum, the Paul Robeson Art Gallery in Newark, the City Without Walls Gallery on Shipman Street in Newark, and the Institute of Jazz Studies, at Rutgers, Newark. The proceedings of the conference were broadcast live on local cable television, and on National Public Radio. Tapes of these broadcasts were later edited into video and audio recordings which were then marketed to the larger academic and public broadcasting community. Papers presented at CLUE were selected and published in a collection by Rutgers University Press (RUP), and a high-school-level textbook was later compiled, focusing on literature and the city. Details of the conference, its organization, broadcasts, taping, and subsequent publications are outlined below.

CLUE was a major event in the life of Rutgers University, Newark. It is estimated that CLUE attracted more than 6,000 visitors over the three days. There was an estimated daily audience of some 600 persons in the Robeson Hall, with a considerable, additional crowd watching live video feed in the "over-flow" rooms in Robeson Center. The National Endowment for the Arts' publication, Humanities, reported simply "a standing-room-only crowd." (1)

CLUE was not designed primarily as an academic exercise, although it no doubt succeeded in this respect. Instead, CLUE was an educational experiment intended to engage a larger, public audience. The Rutgers University academic community and the English Department at Rutgers-Newark in particular, designed CLUE with the deliberate intent of reaching out to the public at large and involving it in a broad discussion of the modern urban experience. By all accounts, it is in this respect that CLUE was truly unique and successful. In the words of Alan Shusterman, who reported on CLUE for the New Jersey Committee for the Humanities: CLUE was "the best public humanities project I have seen . . . drawing a large, predominantly public audience to discussions. . . [which] were timely and directly concerned with pressing social issues." In Shusterman's opinion, the major shortcoming of the conference was that it "was too crowded with talented people." He goes on to state that "state committees should learn from this experience how salable a good humanities project is," and suggests that they "ask the project planners . . . to prepare a five page on 'how we raised the money and involved the community' report." (2)

CLUE was an important event in several respects: first, it was an important humanities gathering focusing on a timely theme; second, it was a community outreach experiment; and finally, it was successful in disseminating materials from the conference in a variety of formats.

Below are short descriptions of CLUE's organizers and the organizational chronology; a description of the program (keynote addresses, forums, library and museum exhibits); and a short discussion of CLUE publications.

CLUE Organizers

The organization of CLUE began during the latter half of 1978. The original chief organizers were Michael C. Jaye, and Peter J. Ventimiglia, both from the English Department, Rutgers University, Newark College of Arts and Sciences (hereafter referred to as "NCAS"). In September 1979, Ann C. Watts replaced Peter Ventimiglia as co-organizer. Also included in the original organizational committee were: John R. Abram (librarian, Newark Public Library); Barbara Callaway (Urban Studies, NCAS); Henry Christian (English Department, NCAS); Margery Fredricks (Newark Museum); Wendell Jeanpierre (Black Studies, NCAS); Elpidio Laguna-Diaz (Spanish Department, NCAS); Charles Nanry (Vice Dean, University College, Rutgers); Estelle Robinson (Department of Community Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick); James Scott (Department of English, NCAS); and Carl Sonn (Department of English, NCAS). Later, a Community Advisory Committee was organized to coordinate events with the City of Newark.

During 1978 and 1979 the organizers contacted a wide array of humanists as they put together the CLUE program. Having decided early on basic themes—Ethnicity, Drama, The Novel, Poetry, Youth, and the Interaction between Literature and Society—they set about gathering the participants who would come to Newark in April 1980, and establish the tone and attitude of these discussions. A complete list of participants, as well as persons contacted who declined to participate is found in this inventory (See Appendix A and Appendix B ). Among those originally contacted who later declined to participate were writers such as Norman Mailer (originally slated as a Keynote speaker), Joseph Heller (for the Novel), Eric Bentley (on Drama), and Susan Sontag (on the Interactions between Literature and Society). (3) The final program did not suffer, however, from these omissions. As discussed in closer detail below, keynote addresses and featured papers were presented by such twentieth century literary giants as James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Edward Albee, Toni Morrison, Imamu Amiri Baraka, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to name a few.

From the beginning the location was set for Rutgers Newark, with additional programs at the Newark Public Library, Newark Museum, the Paul Robeson Art Gallery in Newark, the City Without Walls Gallery in Newark, and the Institute of Jazz Studies, at Rutgers, Newark. These arrangements solidified over the course of 1979 and 1980, but did not alter significantly. The programs staged at these venues are discussed below.

In addition to arranging for speakers, the CLUE organizers arranged for a multitude of other necessities. These included arrangements for publicity, travel, health care, housing, caterers, special luncheons and dinners, fundraising, and post-conference publications. They had to gather conference papers from participants beforehand and send them to other participants on the various forums, arrange contracts for payment (as many CLUE participants were paid), take care of special housing and meal arrangements, and so on. They also had to print publicity flyers and CLUE programs and arrange to make T-shirts. And, after the conference, the organizers had to find a publisher for the CLUE papers, eventually settling upon Rutgers University Press. Then, the participants whose papers were to be included had to resubmit their papers for editing. In the end, the organizational work associated with CLUE, the correspondence, fundraising, reports, and publications, did not end until well into 1983.

CLUE Program (4)

CLUE began on the morning of Thursday, April 17, with introductions from the CLUE directors, Michael C. Jaye and Ann C. Watts, followed by keynote addresses by James Baldwin, Bruno Bettelheim, and Joyce Carol Oates. That afternoon the CLUE forums began with "Drama and the Urban Experience." This forum featured the following speakers: Edward Albee ("The Playwright v. the Theater"); Richard Eder ("Theater and Cities"); and discussants Albert Innuarato and Douglas Turner Ward. In the evening a poetry reading took place, featuring the work of poets Robert Ciardi, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Nikki Giovanni, David Ignatow, and Ntozaké Shange.

The second day of CLUE, Friday, April 18, began with the forum "Ethnicity and Urban Literature." This was the largest and most contentious forum of the conference. In addition to the four initial paper presentations, this forum featured three one-hour discussion panels that took place simultaneously immediately after the initial forum papers. Forum papers were presented by Imamu Amiri Baraka ("Black Literature and the Afro-American Nation: The Urban Voice"); Jerre Mangione ("A Double Life: The Fate of the Urban Ethnic"); Chaim Potok ("Cultural Confrontation in Urban America: A Writer's Beginnings"); and Pedro Juan Soto ("The City and I"). The three discussion groups were "The Black Experience," "The European Experience," and "The Hispanic Experience." It is reported that this forum and the subsequent discussion groups ("The Black Experience" discussion group in particular) prompted some rather serious confrontations. There were also later reported to be angry exchanges between several of the poets. (5)

The afternoon program on Friday, April 18, included two more forums: "The Novel and the City" and "The Poet and the City." Speaking about the Novel were the following: Ihab Hassan ("Cities of the Mind, Urban Words: The Derealization of Metropolis"); Alfred Kazin ("The City from Melville to Mailer"); Marge Piercy ("The City as Battleground: The Novelist as Combatant"); and Piri Thomas ("The Last Prison is the Prison of the Mind"). Speaking about the Poet and the City were: Lawrence Ferlinghetti ("Modern Poetry is Prose"); Nikki Giovanni ("The Poet and Truth"); David Ignatow ("Living with Change"); and Helen Vendler ("Lowell's Cities").

The final day of CLUE, Saturday, April 19, featured another large forum with three discussion groups under the title, "Urban Literature and the Young." Papers were presented by Joan Burstyn ("Borrowing and Lending: The Young Reader and the Library"); John Holt ("A People's Paper for the Inner City"); Jonathan Kozol ("The Re-invention of Childhood"); and M. Jerry Weiss ("Literature for Youth: The City as Heaven and/or Hell"). Three discussion groups convened subsequently: "Children and the Literature of the City"; "The City in Literature and Public School Curricula"; and "Young Writers in the City."

The final forum, "Literature and the Shaping of Society," closed the conference on Saturday. Speaking on this topic were: Leslie Fielder ("Mythicizing the City"); Leo Marx ("The Puzzle of Anti-urbanism in Classic American Writing"); Toni Morrison ("The City Limits; the Village Values: Concepts of Neighborhood in Black Fiction"); and Stephen Spender ("Poetry and the Modern City").

In conjunction with the main conference program, a number of events were sponsored to coincide with CLUE. The Newark Public Library sponsored afternoon film screenings throughout the conference of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and City Lights, as well as the film, Lonelyhearts . Discussion groups were offered after each showing. The library also installed special exhibits in their galleries on the following themes: "Nine Views of Newark," "Cities and the Poetry of Place," "Graphic Art and the City," "Printing and the City," and "Music from the City." On Thursday night they sponsored a poetry reading in Spanish by the Cuban poet, Pablo Le Riverend. And, on Saturday morning the library organized a poetry workshop entitled, "Poet and City: A Workshop/The Poet is You," which was conducted by the poets Margaret Tsuda and Betty H. Neals. (6)

The Newark Museum and the City Without Walls Gallery (Shipman Street, Newark), in cooperation with the Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences, Newark Museum Training Program, sponsored a major exhibit, "New Deal Art: New Jersey," with accompanying forums. (7) Participants at CLUE were invited to attend these forums free of charge. According to the official CLUE program, on Saturday, April 19, two forums took place in conjunction with the New Deal Art exhibition. The following presented papers: Hildreth York ("New Deal Art: New Jersey"); Adolph Konrad ("The W.P.A.: From the Artist's Point of View"); Francis O'Connor ("The New Deal Murals: A National Variety"); Lorraine Brown ("Federal Theater: Social Protest, Melodrama and Genius"); Warren I. Susman ("The Arts Project in Cultural Contexts"). A special exhibit of five murals by Joseph Stella (1877-1946), under the collective title, "New York Interpreted," was also part of the Newark Museum's special events surrounding CLUE.

Finally, The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, Newark put up a special exhibit of photographs of Newark-born jazz artists, books of jazz fiction, and album covers featuring urban themes.

CLUE Publications

As one would expect from an academic conference of this magnitude, the essays presented at CLUE were compiled into an academic publication under the title, Literature and the Urban Experience. Essays on the City and Literature (Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, eds.), published by the Rutgers University Press. An educational booklet for high school students was also produced: The City and Literature: An Introduction (Henry A. Christian, et al.), published by Rutgers University in 1983. (8) Its most lasting archival legacy, however, is without doubt the video record produced during the conference.

Suburban Cablevision TV3 (covering North and Central New Jersey) broadcast live from the conference proceedings. It won a 1981 ACE award for this coverage. The cable network later rebroadcast CLUE in May-June, 1980; July-August 1981; and partially rebroadcast it again in the fall of 1981 through spring 1983. Subsequently, these tapes were edited by Professor Carl E. Sonn, into 17 one-hour videocassettes. These were marketed to educational institutions in the United States and abroad. Furthermore, in response to the ongoing interest in CLUE and specifically in the discussion of African American literature, Professor Sonn, in 1982, edited a special two-hour video, entitled "The Black Experience."

Finally, National Public Radio affiliates also broadcast large portions of the program live, with later rebroadcasts. (9)

In the final analysis, CLUE was truly a monumental gathering of distinguished speakers whose talents were skillfully solicited and organized into a program designed to extend art and learning to a larger community ordinarily excluded from academic proceedings. As of 2004, it remains the largest literary conference sponsored at Rutgers. And, the collection of essays presented at CLUE still regularly appears on course syllabi.

(1) See Alan Shusterman "Evaluation for the New Jersey Committee for the Humanities," May 8, 1980. (Report included in this collection, Box 10, Folder 12); Humanities, (vol. 1, no. 4, July/Aug. 1980), p. 2. See also, references to selected news items included in the attached bibliography. Copies of some news items are included in, Box 14, Folder 3.

(2) See Shusterman, op. cit.

(3) See "Proposal for a Public Conference on Literature and the Urban Experience" (Oct. 1978). (Included in this collection, Box 7, Folder 7).

(4) Copies of the CLUE program are included in this collection (Box 3, Folder 17).

(5) See Shusterman, op. cit.

(6) A copy of the booklet produced for this workshop, Notes for a Poetry Workshop (Newark, N.J.: Newark Public Library, 1980) is included in this collection (Copy in Box 7, Folder 4).

(7) Because this exhibit and its programs were not part of the CLUE organization per se , the current collection contains very few documents.

(8) See attached bibliography for complete citations.

(9) See Ann C. Watts, "Final Report: Dissemination of Materials from the conference...," December 1983. (Report included in this collection, Box 10, Folder 16); Shusterman, op. cit.

From the guide to the Inventory to the Records of the Conference on Literature and Urban Experience (CLUE), Rutgers University Newark, April 17-19, 1980, 1978-1983, (Rutgers University. Special Collections and University Archives)

Archival Resources
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