Grand Street and Lost Property

An online pal passed along that the literary and visual arts journal Grand Street has closed its NYC office and will publish no more. I’ve never held a copy in my hand, but over the years one of the books I’ve found myself more and more drawn to, and surprised to hear myself recommending so often, is the autobiography of Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the journal in 1981.

Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy’ is a coming-of-age story by a man who was born wealthy (first line: “I am Collectors’ Child.”), surrounded by high art, controlled by a powerful father, and weighed down by equal parts vanity, awareness, and shame. Going back through my copy this morning:

“In ‘My Life and Loves,’ which I read at thirteen, Frank Harris tells of conquering London by reciting Shakespeare at it. Half-Irish, dubious and d√©class√©, ill-dressed, ill-mannered and a runt; yet when challenged, he knew Shakespeare better than English. A capital way to social success. I memorized 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’ only no one challenged me.”

Choosing works of art to make girls has of course a number of meanings. One is that connoisseurship is an exemplary bourgeois fault. And so it naturally was with me, as also with Shakespeare’s Troilus, whose I am giddy soliloquy is a typical false position of strength taken by privilege in its fight with even normal desire: …and I do fear besides / That I shall lose distinction in my joys.”

“One afternoon, watching Susy, on the needlepoint rug, in the paneled library, I remembered how once at a dealer‚Äôs, a decrepit old collector came, with his young wife and new baby, to inspect a white-figure wine jug of the fourth century B.C. The baby pulled at something, the lekythos nearly fell, and from the way the collector looked, I knew if he had had to choose between the vase and his baby, the baby would be dead. I‚Äôm not like that, thank goodness, I thought, watching Susy on the rug, watching my parents watching me, turning my foot from side to side, catching the light on my shoe.”

Sonnenberg eventually turned enough of a corner to become the man of letters – a giver of things – he’d been posing as for decades. He started Grand Street and was soon surprised to feel honest happiness, to receive honest admiration from friends and writers with whom he worked. (Susan Minot was the first.) His MS worsening with the years, Sonnenberg stopped editing the journal only when he could no longer turn the pages.

But he was finally nourished, and living as his own man. “My dissident habits, once poses, became significant,” he writes near the end of the book. “All was my clay.”