New Jersey suffers from de-centralisation syndrome but we love it still

May 3, 2014

One of my favourite subjects is grappling with my childhood identity of growing up in New Jersey in the USA.  What was it about that state at that time (the 1960s)?  What makes my former high school classmates (and yes, me) so nostalgic for our experiences, in what was, after all, a place of high pollution, few exciting natural resources (okay, let’s face it, “the shore”, but what else?) and constant living in the shadow of New York City to the northeast, and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia to the southwest?

Few people can explain New Jersey better (both to Jersey natives and non-Jersey residents) than Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University.  Here is a quote from Rockland’s essay “New Jersey’s Image”:

New Jersey’s identity problem is, in part, self-inflicted.  The state has not sufficiently fostered centralized political, cultural, and commercial institutions which would provide a focus or sense of community.  The governor’s mansion is located not in the state capitol, Trenton, but in Princeton; the Garden State Arts Center (now named for a bank) is not in a city but just off a major highway exit; and the state’s commerce and industry is spread out along its highways.  The number of New Jersey jokes with the punchline “Which exit?” suggest that key to the state’s uncertain identity is its extreme decentralization. The state still exemplifies, in no small measure, Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane’s 1846 lament: “We have well nigh forgotten that we have a history.  We have almost lost the very sense of our identity.  We jave had no center.”

For some years, Rockland has taught a course at Rutgers entitled “Jerseyana”, with a required reading/viewing list that includes books Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus (a classic for we New Jersey-types) and John McPhee’s Pine Barrens  along with the film’s Jersey Girl and Atlantic City.  The syllabus starts with a quote from Allen Ginsberg’s “Garden State” and and Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.

If you really would like to examine what makes New Jersey New Jersey, here’s a strongly recommended book:  What’s Your Exit?  A Literary Detour Through New Jersey, edited by Joe Vallese and Alicia A. Beale (Word Riot Press, Middletown, New Jersey, 2010).  (I found Rockland’s quote above in their introduction, page 17.  You can also read some excerpts through Amazon here.)  The book is organised, in classic New Jersey fashion, by “exits”, and includes fabulous writing (poetry, essay, fiction, drama) by a large number of authors, including well-known names like actor Jason Biggs, poet Alicia Ostriker, novelist Tom Perrotta,  Joyce Carol Oates and of course Michael Aaron Rockland – as well as many many writers you have not heard of yet, but will want to read.

And want a good short “potted history” of New Jersey?  Try this essay by Rockland, which appeared in New Jersey Monthly in January 2014, written in honour of the state’s 350 birthday.  One fun fact from that piece:  I bet you did not know that New Jersey’s voters voted against Abraham Lincoln not once but twice – in 1860 and 1864.

And another point by Rockland, in his entry on New Jersey’s image in The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press, 2004):  “Jersey is the only state that so overpowers its namesake, you can drop the ‘New’ when referring to it. Try that with Hampshire, York, or Mexico.”

Take that, you doubters.

What's Your Exit cover