By LEE SIEGEL
New Jersey is America's secret treasure-house of culture.
If that strikes you as a proposition out of an absurdist play, consider a sampling of the gifted figures who have either come from Jersey or made a home there: Bruce Springsteen (N.J.'s state songbird); Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli; Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg; the painters George Inness and John Marin; the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; Stephen Crane, Philip Roth, Junot Díaz; and David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos."
California? Too much fantasy, too much hazardous sunlight and too much obsession with software and hard bodies. New York City? Too much reality, too little sunlight and too much obsession, period. Everywhere in between? Riches, to be sure, but no place has New Jersey's tightly packed diversity, its quick changes from urban to country, from mountains to coast, from gritty to gorgeous.
Of course, think "New Jersey" and cultural epicenter doesn't immediately spring to mind. Instead, the name summons up unsparing caricature: grime, gangsters, pollution, ugly highways, Byzantine shopping malls, Saharan parking lots and a level of culture somewhere between troglodyte and troll.
Even the nickname "Garden State" seems to be something like a defensive reaction meant to fend off ridicule. In 1954, when the state legislature passed a bill adding the sobriquet to license plates, garbage disposal had long been a crisis in Jersey. Not only did the tiny state lack sufficient space for discarding its waste, but it had become a dumping-ground for garbage from other states. Gov. Robert Meyner vetoed the bill, writing, "I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening for farming than any of its other industries or occupations." The state legislature promptly overrode his veto, and the rest is license-plate history.
New Jersey's small size has a lot to do with both its much-inflated deficiencies and its virtues. A lot is packed into limited territory. Urban squalor is squeezed up against dairy farms; picturesque villages right out of a New England landscape are a sneeze away from sulfurous factories and malodorous highways. For a lot of people, caricature of the state's deficiencies is an efficient way to reduce its multifaceted nature to a clear meaning.
The jumble of contrasts is, on the contrary, the source of Jersey's remarkable harvest of talent. It drives certain people to either build a unified artistic sensibility out of the divisions around them, or to create art unhindered by a narrow identity.
At the same time, you can refine Jersey's countless dimensions into two polarized elements: industrial and pastoral. The struggle for dominance between them is at the heart of the American drama -- the Civil War, for example, or the urban/agrarian friction that has shaped the schism between liberal and conservative to this day. It could be that Jersey is so representative of America's original strife that dismissing the state as a crude and unlovely place is a good way to sweep certain national anxieties under the rug.
But New Jersey's fractured personality is the very reason for its (hidden) cultural preeminence. After all, no less than one-fifth of this heavily industrialized and densely populated state is taken up by the Pine Barrens, a gigantic primeval forest of pine and oak buried like the unconscious in southern Jersey. Even in Newark's black ghetto, the young writer Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) could imagine that "the invisible mountains of New Jersey linger where I was born." Paul Robeson -- Phi Beta Kappa scholar, athlete, law-school graduate, actor, singer -- might not have thrived in a less faceted place.
Then, too, there is the particular way Jersey is positioned next to New York. Unlike Long Island and Connecticut, from where you have to drive through New York City's boroughs or Westchester to get to Manhattan, you go from Jersey straight into the glittering towers of Gotham, which confront you dramatically no matter what approach you take from the Garden State. For New Jerseyans, Gotham exists as ever-present aspiration, temptation and either haunting or competitive contrast. That could be why you find Queen Latifah's wild, river-spanning energy in Philip Roth's antic intensity and vice versa. And perhaps why Dionne Warwick sings "Promises, Promises" with such robust pathos. "Things that I promised myself fell apart..."
So why all the antipathy toward a place that is also the first colony to ratify the Bill of Rights, that contains numerous beautiful towns and villages, that boasts an ocean, mountains and a vast forest among its natural wonders, and that has more horses per square mile than any other state?
The glee that New Yorkers take in belittling their neighbors to the west is especially energetic. There are two reasons for this. First, people living in New York City are convinced that without New Jersey blocking their view, they would be able to see the rest of the country. Second, New Jerseyan Aaron Burr killed New Yorker Alexander Hamilton in a duel, the tragic consequence of negative remarks that Hamilton made behind Burr's back at a dinner party (probably something like: "Burr, that moron from New Jersey"). That Hamilton was gunned down on a Weehawken, N.J., cliff overlooking Manhattan's spectacular streets -- and not, say, on Fifth Avenue -- only added insult to injury. New Yorkers have a long memory.
But these local grievances do not explain why New Jersey's worth eludes the rest of the country. Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University, accounts for the national scorn in two words: "The Turnpike."
The New Jersey Turnpike, that is, a 148-mile, 4- to 12-lane monstrosity that snakes from the state's southeast corner north to the George Washington Bridge through some of the meanest terrain in the civilized world: macadam deserts; belching smokestacks that make Gary, Ind., look like a Scottish pasture; trucks roaring on every side of you as though you were strapped to the bottom of a Boeing 737 during takeoff; strip malls that go on and on like the laughter of a lunatic.
Because it is the very essence of America's ugly industrialized and commercialized underside, the New Jersey Turnpike has impressed itself on the national imagination more than any other element of the Garden State. Bruce Springsteen's genius has been precisely to take that negative image and infuse it with positive energy.
"Springsteen has made the Turnpike's blighted landscape a source of almost cinematic drama," said Jim Cullen, the author of "Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition." "He transformed it into the vivid setting of riveting journeys that finally matter more than the city glimmering across the Hudson."
Springsteen's isn't the only artistic vision that has drawn a universal meaning out of the Garden State's more sordid particulars. Mr. Chase, the genius behind "The Sopranos," chose Essex County as the setting for his extraordinary tale of lust, greed, vanity and pride among a group of small-time gangsters, thus bestowing on the third state the mythic timelessness that Thomas Hardy once conferred upon the English heath.
Mr. Chase himself was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and grew up in two New Jersey towns including North Caldwell, N.J., the very environs where Tony Soprano and his colleagues live and do business. As a child during the late '40s and early '50s, he made regular car trips with his family to visit his grandmother in Westchester. To his young eyes, New Jersey's half industrial, half naturally wild landscape was "a magical vision of a huge mystery," he said. Gazing out at it, he was "completely transfixed."
The mystery was, specifically, the Meadowlands, a 28-square-mile swath of marshland in northeastern New Jersey, a stone's throw from Manhattan. At the time when Mr. Chase ogled it from the backseat of his family's car, the teeming swamp had not yet become the giant landfill it is today. Industrialized pockets vied for space with rivers, rushes and wildlife. Even as a teenager, taking the bus into the city to film school from his parents' home in North Caldwell, Mr. Chase remembers looking out over the "rivers like glass, the miles after miles of reeds in the water, and the factories" and thinking, "this is America, strong and big. The brute beauty of the factories, the winking airports, made me feel alive."
Call this sense of enchantment an outgrowth of the "Parkway," as opposed to the "Turnpike," dimension of the state.
The Garden State Parkway, that is, a 173-mile meandering highway stretching from the southernmost tip of New Jersey at its coastline to its northern border with New York state -- a winding road with capacious lanes; a broad, verdant, tree-filled island running down (much of) its middle; wooded boundaries; limited entrances to prevent congestion; bans on trucks, billboards and any kind of commerce along its way; gentle curves designed to keep drivers from being lulled to sleep; and -- naturally, in the home state of Sinatra and Springsteen -- "singing shoulders" that make the wheels rumble if a drowsy motorist starts to drift from the road.
The Garden State Parkway is something like the fulfillment of the modern dream of harmony between nature and technology -- where rivers like glass meet winking airports. If the car is one big part of America's soul -- Springsteen: "The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors/And the boys try to look so hard" -- then the Turnpike and the Parkway reflect two basic aspects of American existence: our unflinching approach to the practical facts of life, and our irrepressible romantic tendency to try to transform them.
In his epic poem, "Paterson," William Carlos Williams spoke for the factual Turnpike when he famously wrote: "No ideas but in things." Williams' fellow Patersonian and disciple, the Parkway mystic Allen Ginsberg, took the side of Parkway romanticism when he referred in his epic poem, "Howl," to "nowhere Zen New Jersey" ("nowhere" being a compliment for Ginsberg). No wonder Philip Roth called his memoir of growing up in Newark "The Facts" -- and then proceeded to undermine them.
Most of the greatest Jersey cultural figures combine Turnpike and Parkway characteristics, as if New Jersey embodied those two aspects of American life long before the construction of its asymmetrical arteries.
George Inness, America's first great landscape painter, made pictures that were both more immediate and real than those of his predecessors, and at the same time more personal and introspective. Alfred Stieglitz, born in Hoboken, pushed realism in photography to new limits, even as he was perfecting a hazy, impressionistic style. In his novel "The Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane -- Newark, Port Jervis, Asbury Park -- pulled off the near-impossible feat of using dreamlike language to make war shockingly actual.
When Marlon Brando -- whose breakthrough film, "On the Waterfront," took place in Hoboken -- started to run out of steam in the '60s, Neptune, N.J.-born Jack Nicholson came to the rescue of American film. The young Mr. Nicholson was tenaciously Turnpike in his abrasive explosions, and profoundly Parkway in his dreamy outcastness. From there, realism in American acting had two places to go: Parkway calmness and integrity (Meryl Streep, Bernards High, class of 1967); or Turnpike disorientation and bizarreness (Tom Cruise, Glen Ridge High, class of 1980).
"Integrity," in fact, is a word you hear a lot when people talk about Springsteen's music or Mr. Chase's artistic vision. Maybe it's because New Jersey politics is known to have a certain Turnpike quality that an idealistic, Parkway conception of integrity looms large in New Jersey's collective imagination.
Among other things, integrity in Jersey terms means not judging by appearances. Frankie Valli: "Ahh, ah-ah-ah-ahh (Rag doll, ooh)/I love you just the way you are." Springsteen: "You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright/Oh and that's alright with me."
No wonder Tony Soprano can't stop thinking that redemption is right around the corner, though his temperament keeps him right where he is, stuck in his own nature.
Seeking something like a unifying vision of New Jersey, I asked Mr. Cullen what he thought Springsteen, the Turnpike alchemist, might ask Tony Soprano, the Turnpike product who is also haunted by ducks, bears and other forms of Parkway nature. "I understand you," Mr. Cullen said, "I sympathize with you, I kinda even like you. But your fatal embrace of your sickness is killing what you love."
And what question does Mr. Chase imagine that his creation -- sprung partly from his boyhood desire to plumb the mystery hidden in the lights and rushes of the Meadowlands -- might pose to the state's epic warbler, if Tony were to meet Bruce in some warp of space and time? "He'd ask him for concert tickets," Mr. Chase said.