The Fourteenth Ward
In this section, Miller speaks of his childhood in the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where he was raised. The rest of the country existed only as an idea for him; he was born in the streets and raised in the streets. This meant he was free. It meant accident and drama and dream; even “adventure” couldn’t come close to the street.
The boys he knew in the street will never leave him. They are his real heroes, and they were always real, never invented. He never seemed to notice the streets were dirty or ugly; that is just how they were. Life moved leisurely and was full of peace and contentment.
In his dreams, Miller returns there. He remembers the battleships in the Navy Yard. His memories are not full of beaches and lovely mothers but of tin and the ironworks and the men with black hands walking into the furnace. His whole world was the Fourteenth Ward, and “if anything happened outside it either didn’t happen or it was unimportant” (6).
Miller remembers Rob Ramsay, a black sheep of his family because he was the son of a minister and was insouciant and full of human frailties. He went to war and came back with medals and “fire in his guts” (7). Eventually he walked off a pier and drowned.
Miller and his friends used to gather in the summer evenings at Ramsay’s house and watch the goings-on at the saloon across the street. There were long lines at The Bum, a burlesque joint, and people strolled by constantly.
Saturday to Monday was a block of time with things melting into each other. On Saturday mornings he could sense the war vessels in the basin being washed and the guns being polished. He knew he wanted to get out and go to far places, but he only made it across the river to Second Avenue and Twenty-Eighth Street were he played the Orange Blossom Waltz on the piano.
The weather and tides that come across the river are in his blood. He remembers being on the ferryboat, holding tight against the slippery handrails and hearing the seagulls diving and squawking.
For Miller, “One passes imperceptibly from one scene, on age, one life to another” (9). The realization that many years have gone by comes upon one suddenly, and memories rise up and intrude and “permeate every fiber of one’s being” (9). He explains, as we walk, things within us split and change; when we were young we were whole, but now the pain of the world has permeated us and split us. Now we are in a time when we remember; we don’t actually drink in the streets. We live in the mind in fragments. There was a moment, a glimpse, when we were young of what awaited us, and then it came. Now we are fragmented “and all our parts are separated by the thinnest membrane” (12).
Miller conjures an image of looking down from the Brooklyn Bridge and walking the streets at night. The bridge is against the sky. He details sounds and sights of the city, and this might be a time when one first discovers Dostoevsky. When it was five past seven and he was at the corner of Broadway and Kosciusko, Dostoevsky first flashed on his radar. His name came in “unostentatiously. Like an old shoe box” via the lips of a Jew. Everything is still present for Miller: the Jew’s lips, the sun setting, the traffic. He also remembers when he heard of Jonathan Swift, whose name “was like a clear, hard pissing against the tin-plate of the world” (15). He concludes the section by going from image to image in Swift—dragon, Houyhnms, dancing, food, fires, intestines, etc.
Black Spring is a fascinating, confusing, and disturbing work with images and metaphors both incomprehensible and stunning. It is a fusion of the autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness fiction writing, and the dream diary. The ten sections are barely tied together except thematically and with the occasional allusion to something mentioned elsewhere (i.e., Tante Melia).
Miller’s intentions are varied—to shock and titillate the reader, to probe his own past and identity, to understand how he fits into the world, to chronicle the problems of modernity, to fuse dream and prose, and more. For the reader this can all be a bit overwhelming, but general advice in approaching this work is to take the autobiographical sections for what they are, and then surrender oneself to the phantasmagoric, fugue-state tableau that is the other sections.
Though there are, as aforementioned, similar themes that run throughout multiple sections, we will analyze each section as an individual one to provide clarity to the reader.
The Fourteenth Ward
“The Fourteenth Ward” is one of the more famous and anthologized sections in Black Spring, and is often paired with “The Tailor Shop” in its evocation of Miller’s childhood, youth, neighborhood, familial relations, and oblique usage of a bildungsroman. Miller waxes poetic about the street, falls in love with Dostoevsky, and confronts the reality of war as exemplified by the ships that fill the basin. From the beginning of this relatively straightforward piece he exhibits “his typically highly charged metaphoric breaking and soaring lyricism,” as critic David Stephen Calonne writes.
The Fourteenth Ward for Miller was idyllic, shielded from the reality of the rest of the world. It was, William Solomon explains, a sheltered, self-enclosed environment where individuals were licensed to indulge in unruly, delightful behavior without external interference.” Miller and his friends played in the streets, mingled with other Brooklynites, peeped at brothels and saloons, and ultimately engaged in adventures of the most meaningful sense. It was a dreamlike state and Miller admitted he returned to it in his mind as a “paranoiac returns to his obsessions” (5). The things that were unpleasant—the dirtiness of the streets, the warships, the ominous and dangerous ironworks—loom large in his mind, but he has only fondness for them and elides their coarse nature. Miller is, as James Decker writes, “like a precocious [Walt] Whitman…[who] accepts both the beauty and grime of the street.”
Miller feels a profound sense of nostalgia for the place he grew up, admitting, “these memories intrude, rise up like ghosts and permeate every fiber of one’s being” (9). One of the reasons for this is because when he was young, he was not yet assaulted and fragmented by the vagaries of the modern world. He was part of the social fabric, part of a community. Maturity, he rues, is “fragmentation”; this contrasts with youth in which “we were whole and the terror and pain of the world penetrated us through and through. There was no sharp separation between joy and pain” (10). Childhood wasn’t easy, but at least one could truly feel and experience what was happening. Now “we remember only” (10) and “we are never whole again” (12). It is no wonder that in his youth even though he thought he wanted to get away, he really only made it to Manhattan. It would take adulthood to provide the impetus to leave America for France.