Department: English School: College of Arts and Sciences Campus: Old Westbury
Member of NYIT Since: 2008
If asked to time travel, Assistant Professor of English Tom Jacobs, Ph.D., might say he'd want to go back to the 1920s, following Owen Wilson's character in Woody Allen's film, Midnight in Paris. Their likely destination would be a saloon haunted by Modernist literati such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and maybe, on a good day, Picasso.
The movie is about moments of unexpected connection, about the unexpected moments of fusion with the past. So, too, was the period of Modernism from the 1920s to 1950s.
"There are these moments that have a sense of mystery, moments that connect you to the past and the way the world can be," he says. "You see this often in the literature of the early 20th century, which was a time when everything was so unsettled. There was so much hope but also so much suffering."
Jacobs will soon revive some of these moments as a co-organizer of NYIT's interdisciplinary conference, Modernist Manhattan, on Friday, March 2. He is intrigued by visual and material culture, which can produce what he calls "moments that are not prepackaged," and by how Modernist authors explore the way these encounters affect a person's sense of self, the past, and social relationships.
He is also writing a book, Eruptions of Mystery, on this topic, and working on a chapter about writer Richard Wright's 1941 story, "The Man Who Lived Underground." An Institutional Support for Research and Creativity grant has helped to fund both projects.
"The first half of the 20th century was an exciting time for art and culture," Jacobs says. "And there's still a real material connection to that time."
Jacobs sees this connection in places such as Nikola Tesla's last remaining lab on Long Island and the original JPMorgan Chase building at 23 Wall St., which withstood a bombing by a 1920s anarchist.
"On the walls, in the old lab, and all around us, you can still see the grooves from the explosion of the past ... at least if you look for it," Jacobs says. "The residue of history exists all around us. We only need to look for it to see it."