e There’s a new biography of Jane Jacobs out this week, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, by Robert Kanigel. It’s the longest and most comprehensive book so far on an influential person who arguably changed the way we looked at cities. But several disappointing passages demonstrate that this biography is, sadly, too preoccupied with the way she looked.
A blistering review in the New York Times by Dwight Garner describes the book as a “word-heap,” that’s “graceless, infantilizing of its subject and strangely unbuttoned in tone.” But this part of the review particularly stood out to me:
Ms. Jacobs was a tall, owlish, arresting presence. People stared at her and thought, “Who is that person?” I dissent from Mr. Kanigel’s flat assertion that “she was never beautiful.” I dissent further when he writes, “She was not even memorably unbeautiful.” He goes on to call her “pudding-faced” when older and, later, “fat and dumpy.”
Fat and dumpy! What prose!
Surely these phrases were taken out of context, I thought, so I went in search of the passages from the actual book.
Unbelievably, it gets worse:
She was never beautiful. She was not even memorably unbeautiful; for long stretches of her public life, she was a pudding-faced old lady in ill-fitting jumper [sic] and sneakers.
And a few sentences later, this:
Her language was lucid, but you don’t get a hold on people by being merely lucid. It was disruptive, too—combative, even bitchy.
Later, in case we have forgotten either of these things, we have to be reminded again:
During the 1940s and 1950s she was slim, even svelte, hovering around 140 pounds. Much later, especially when health problems slowed her down, she grew fat and dumpy.
Jane was not a beautiful woman, nor had she been when she was young.
REMINDER: SHE WAS NEVER BEAUTIFUL, OKAY?
The entire first chapter, the whole introduction to the book, is all about her many shortcomings, physical, sartorial, and audible, which leaves the reader with this question:
How, then, we are left to wonder, did so many come under her spell?
As if being a visionary writer and advocate was not enough? Oh, wait I know why...
What makes this phenomenon all the more confounding is that Jane Jacobs couldn’t boast those superficial extras that can contribute to public reference. For one thing, she was not a man.
Superficial extras? What does that even mean?
Other critics don’t mention these passages in their reviews. Anthony Flint, who wrote his own book about Jacobs, says the book reveals a “caring mother, wife, and friend” in his review at the Boston Globe. Richard Florida gives it glowing praise at CityLab. At the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik uses the biography as an opportunity to recount a time he met Jacobs in person, but without going into much detail about the book itself (maybe this is telling). However, Peter Laurence, who also wrote a book about Jacobs, addressed some problematic terms in Gopnik’s story on his blog.
There is certainly much to be learned here about Jacobs’ work and her impact—it is an affectionate, detailed biography—and I think these phrases can be attributed more to clunky writing than blatant misogyny.
But I have to say I’m more than a bit grossed out that a publisher in 2016 is cool with letting an author describe any real person—man or woman—with such unimaginative phrases like “fat and dumpy,” “never beautiful,” or “pudding-faced” (does anyone even really know what pudding-faced means anymore?). And do you think Robert Moses’ voice is ever once described as “bitchy” in his biography?
Might I suggest a new subtitle for this book: The Mansplainer’s Guide to Jane Jacobs.