A look into the history of the Township of Weehawken, New Jersey via pictures, postcards and other artifacts.

(88159) - John Erskine's Weehawken Boyhood

Circa: 1947

The following information was given to the Time Machine by Bob Schwartz:

A novelist, poet, musician, and educator, John Erskine was a well-known figure in the cultural world of early 20th century New York City. While he never attained the national prominence of contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, his life was nonetheless marked by distinction. As a professor of literature at Columbia from 1909 to 1937 his influence was said to have 'extended beyond the College to affect all of American education.' In 1925 he began a prolific career as a novelist with the publication of The Private Life of Helen of Troy (a somewhat daring title for the those times), and in recognition of his accomplishments as a composer and pianist Erskine was named first president of the Juilliard School of Music, a position he would occupy for nearly a decade.

Impressive credentials no doubt, but hardly worthy of mention in the Weehawken Time Machine were it not for the fact that in his autobiography, A Memory of Certain Persons, John Erskine has also left us a vivid but tantalizingly brief account of his boyhood in Weehawken.

Born in Manhattan in 1879, John Erskine was three years old when his father, a ribbon manufacturer, moved both his business and his family across the river. Their new home was a 'large and comfortable' house on Pleasant Avenue in Weehawken; the factory was located a little farther west, in what was then called Union Hill. As Erskine points out, this arrangement reflected the fact that the two adjoining townships were in essence worlds apart. The busy streets that crisscrossed the thriving working-class community of Union Hill all came to an abrupt halt when they reached Weehawken; there, nature still held sway, adorned in places by an elegant residence or palatial estate. After a series of financial reverses Erskine's father was forced to sell the house and factory, and in 1900 the family moved back to New York City; by then, however, his son had already begun his long association with the college that was to have such a major impact on his life. Yet the years in New Jersey, too, seem to left a deep impression: Erskine was later to write that 'I did not yet realize the influence that Weehawken memories would have on me always.'

In reading these excerpts keep in mind that the 'Boulevard' mentioned by the author is neither Kennedy Boulevard nor Boulevard East but actually present-day Park Avenue. Although marked on maps of the period as 'Bull's Ferry Road,' it was apparently long enough and wide enough to be considered a 'boulevard' by the local inhabitants. (The Boulevards as we know them were constructed during the years 1894-1897.)

Fliegende Blaetter, or "Flying Leaves," was a satirical German magazine first published in 1842. It featured the work of Wilhelm Busch, a cartoonist who catalogued the fiendish antics of two young boys, Max and Moritz, in what is considered to be the world's first comic-strip. Americans are (or were) more familiar with the "Katzenjammer Kids," their direct descendants.

Grace Episcopal Church, which Erskine's father helped build, is still standing and has kept its original name; Gardner Street, however, is now known as 40th Street. The venerable church has also managed to hold on to something else through the many years: trees. Sparse as they are, they can still serve to remind us of the 'stately groves' and 'parklike grounds' that once abounded on the Weehawken side of the 'Boulevard,' and perhaps prompted the name-change to Park Avenue.

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You can read Erskine's memoir of his Weehawken boyhood online here - the relevant portion starts on page 17.

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