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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
In (partial) defense of the guido, and then some high art
Peter C. Hansen  (February 4, 2011, 4:22 pm)

From oddities to high art, NJ sends out a country's worth of culture, and can't be pigeonholed or typecast. (This is no surprise, since the immensely diverse NJ would be the third most densely populated major country on earth if it were independent.) In the face of some recent perusals, I got to thinking about one of our odder sorts of inhabitant.

There has been a surprisingly fair, accurate and interesting report on BBC comparing perceptions and realities invoked by Jersey Shore. These were set point-by-point against a review of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the U.K. version of the show is going to be set. Newcastle, where I once had my backpack stolen, actually seems not a bad place overall, and in some ways pretty familiar. As the article points out, the vast majority of folks are rather normal, and this statement certainly resonated: "But the other thing we [in Newcastle] are known for is being very friendly and down to earth. We don't really do snobby or stuck up in this part of the world."

As for our own Jersey Shore, I am not going to join fully in the righteous public disdain of guidos. (Yes, that's what they are, and that's what they have always been called in fair NJ. No one in NJ confuses them with Italians in general. They are to Italians what punks and soccer hooligans are to the English.)

Instead, I would like to offer a somewhat contrarian view.

Having gone to the Jersey shore all my life, I have seen, despised and (from a safe distance) laughed at guidos. I was actually at Seaside Heights the summer they filmed the first season of Jersey Shore. The faults of guidos are quite clearly perceived from the outside. Nonetheless, over time I have come to recognize their qualities. The supercharged TV caricature of this group aside, these are people who are willing to do their own thing in the face of unpopularity (even within NJ), to spend huge amounts of time maintaining every detail of their unique subculture, and to put themselves in harm's way to defend their own peculiar honor. Guidos may be laughable, weird and a host of other negative things, but they are still a vibrant, red-blooded and vigorous group. They are indeed far more interesting and human than the bloodless, cookie-cutter, wimpy, alt-whatever, organic drones that populate hipster car commercials.

The special opprobrium that falls upon the Jersey Shore guidos is not based on their lousy behavior, which is ubiquitous on TV, but rather on their having the gall not to be blandly middle-class. Guidos are proudly working class, which is rare in modern American life and particularly for televised American youth. This characteristic makes them freaks for people raised on Friends, but it also helps to explain why this group has a certain special place in NJ life. (In saying this, I know that most of the Jersey Shore folks are actually from New York and such. That is merely an accident of individual geography. Anyone who wants to deny the existence of the NJ guido should be parachuted into Nutley.)

A very large number of New Jerseyans either inhabit or have recently come from the blue-collar world. (That blue-collar world is most firmly middle-class, by the way. The "low class" is reserved for the ill-behaved, no matter how wealthy.) Even if they can't stand the faults common in blue-collar society, New Jerseyans so commonly appreciate its toughness, plain-talking, basic human decency, lack of pretension, and stoicism that these traits are without doubt innate aspects of NJ culture. There is in fact nothing so heartwarming as hearing all of these qualities expressed in heavily accented "tawk." In my humble opinion, receptionists at medical offices and dental hygienists win the prize for great Jersey chatting, hands-down.

(As an aside, it may be observed that a New Jerseyan who leaves the state soon learns just how unique the state's sense of humor is. Irony, point-making crudity, tongue-in-cheek trash-talking, mock offense-taking, double-speaking, absurdity and deadpan gallows humor all blend in a way that seems perfectly normal to a Garden Stater, but is often completely lost on people from other parts. This type of humor is reflected in the extreme bad taste of many NJ diners, particularly new ones. It is so awful and over the top that it is welcomed and enjoyed tongue-in-cheek even by those who wouldn't let anything of the sort in their house.)

All told, the guido is merely a bizarre sub-species of a much broader and likeable NJ culture. Whatever their foibles, faults and garish oddity, guidos still represent an underlying, cherished cultural archetype, in precisely the same way that a ten-gallon hat, bolo tie, rhinestone-everything and alligator boots on a Texan hark back to the humble cowboy. Outward appearances may be over the top and oftentimes objectionable, but they still pay homage to a remembered and honorable way of life.

Turning briefly now to more empyrean spheres, the Renwick Gallery, across the street from the White House, is always worth a visit. Now, however it has particular interest for New Jerseyans since it currently has a surprising number of New Jersey artists represented in its superb 19th-century salon. Befitting the state, none of the artists is like the other. First, there is Leopold Seyffert's In My Studio of 1931. This self-portrait may have been done in Bound Brook, where Mr. Seyffert died in 1956. The Sung Tranquility of Ethelyn Cosby Stewart (Arlington, NJ, 1900-1972) is a very well-executed homage to Chinese painting and porcelain. A large-scale work by Howard Russell Butler (a native New Yorker who died in Princeton in 1934), The Seaweed Gatherers, is a calm and meditative landscape with a nostalgic, late 19th-century rural sensibility. Frederick Waugh's Knight of the Holy Grail, by contrast, is a landscape fantasy with pre-Raphaelite echoes. Waugh was born in Bordentown in 1861, and his painting of a knight and three angels (complete with poem) takes pride of place on the main wall. If you find yourself in the capital, you should stop by and check them out.

So, we see that NJ culture in its manifold forms is getting a lot of exposure these days, for better and for worse. In the end, New Jerseyans cannot expect to be understood, or even to be represented only by the particular subculture they adhere to. We have to take the good with the bad. At the same time, we can take a lot of pride not only in producing works like those shown at the Renwick, but also in fostering a unique state culture and a fascinating kaleidoscope of subcultures. New Jersey isn't monolithic. It contains multitudes – just like one of its poets, Walt Whitman.