Some United States. Stop one: New Jersey

As Joe mentioned the other day, I am back in New Jersey for the time being. I’ve just noticed how many weeks it has actually been since I’ve updated anything here, between a couple of weeks of travel, a couple of weeks of being extremely ill, a couple of weeks of playing tourguide to my mom and her boyfriend in Japan, and a couple of weeks of reading and getting graduate school related application stuff together-and topping it all off with trans-hemispheric relocation, a birthday, and various other odds and ends I have completely neglected this space here. So, while I have a few things that I want to write about, and a large number of photographs I want to post from my last several weeks in Japan (for this year anyway), in honor of my return to good old New Jersey, below are some choice quotes from a book of travel writing by the late humorist Irvin S. Cobb entitled Some United States (1926) purchased just this afternoon from the $1 shelves outside the famous Strand bookstore in The City. As the title of this post implies, today I bring you excerpts from the chapter on the great state of New Jersey.



Just Behind Those Billboards

After you cross by train through the tube under the North River, which is so-called because it is really the Hudson River and edges Manhattan Island on the west and bears no relation whatsoever to the northern boundaries of anything at all, and, this safely done, emerge from the tunnel mouth on the farther shore, you will see a large number of billboards. Well, New Jersey is just behind those billboards.


In billboards, New Jersey, regardless of comparative areas, leads all the states of the Union. I’m not sure but what she leads all the habitable globe. Next to the commuters, billboards constitute her most conspicuous product. The commuters come and go. In the morning they hurry away to New York of Philadelphia to earn their livings and in the evening they return to bed down for the night. Thus daily they come alternately under the head, first, of exports, and then of imports.

An orthodox New Jersey commuter is easily to be recognized in New York. He wears and imaginary string tied around a mental thumb to make him remember not to forget to call up the employment agency and notify the new cook who is going out to his place to spend two or three days with the family, possibly even staying the full week out, to meet him at the station for the 5:03; and she may recognize him by the worried lines in his face and the fact that he will be carrying parts for the lawnmower.


Whenever I have occasion to traverse the State of New Jersey by rail, I take advantage of the opportunity to reflect upon our outstanding institution of billboards as it presents itself to the purview of the traveler. Regarding billboards and billboarders , I have gone to the trouble of compiling some very interesting figures.

For instance, if all the billboards which desecrate the scenic areas of America were piled one on top of another, allowing twelve inches of horizontal thickness for each billboard, the total number would form a column one hundred and fourteen miles high; and to soak these properly for burning would require ninety thousand barrels of grade-A kerosene; and then when some philanthropist had applied the match, the flames of the bonfire would cast a glow visible as far away as Bermuda, and in every community in this country where people have learned to value the beauties of unblemished nature, there would be public dancing in the streets and a holiday for the school children would be declared.

Again, let us consider for a moment an even more agreeable summarization: If all the billboard art directors who go to and from in the land choosing decorative vista with a view to marring them with their billboards, where laid out side by side with lilies in their hands, it would make a very enjoyable spectacle for the rest of us provided only we were sure that one of them was in a trance.

While I speed athware New Jersey I frequently play a favorite game of mine. I call it Billboards. [Ed: his billboard obsession becomes troubling in its fetishization. Enough on that topic.]

For, when all is said and done and disregarding what figure New Jersey may have cut in the earlier days of this Republic and, before that, in the Colonial time, the question next arises: What now is she? And the answer is that she is become the smudgy and begrimed passageway that separates two great metropolii. [Ed: I know for a fact that Joe would disagree about the characterization of Philadelphia as a great metropolis.] Lying between them and holding them apart, she takes their overflow and they suck out her substances as they long ago sopped up her personality. The semicolon of the Eastern seaboard–that’s modern New Jersey. Never mind what she is commercially. Historically, she’s a cow that went dry about the time the boys got back from the Spanish War. An she has been dry every since. And from present indications will continue to be dry.


All of which, I claim, helps to explain why New Jersey is one of the joke states. It is not well for a state to be, by national estimation, a standing joke. Kansas once was one and it took her long years to live it down. [Ed: Kansas has worked hard in recent years to reclaim that title.] Arkansas was one and has not yet entirely recovered. Connecticut was one and because of traditional memories lingering in the popular mind of wooden nutmegs and shoe-peg oats, will never entirely get over it. [Ed: I have 0% idea what those references mean. I suppose that means Connecticut HAS gotten over it.] Missouri, for a spell, had a close call with being one, but lacking all else, the state which foaled a Mark Twain would have a title to immortal grandeur on that sole account.

New Jersey still is one and a hopeless patient. For half a century references to Jersey justice, Jersey skeeters and Jersey lightning made her the football of the jesters. [Ed: And all the more embarrassing for us, having invented football here.] As a matter of fact, and giving them due credit, her mosquitoes must sharpen their bills yet finer ere they may hope to compete with the Long Island variety. And in these piping Prohibition days her homemade applejack, potent though it may be, stands comparison with the bootleggers’ best. It may give you the blind staggers, but the blindness is a temporary affliction.


With time the symptoms have changed, but the case remains incurable. For to-day New Jersey is still a joke state. Outsiders think of her as the State where they suffer from billboarditis and ride on the Erie and harbor the corporations and broadcast the bedtime tales. They forget her material contributions to the national prosperity. And who can blame them?


But just look at the blame thing now! Coal tipples and garbage dumps and freight tracks and smelters and refineries invade the marshes, and the birds are mostly fled away, and for wild life the mosquitoes are left. The elm-shaded towns where once upon a time future statesmen were born and patriots grew up and writers ripened their art, have become clamorous, cindered, smoky factory places crowded with transcendently ugly workshops, the dirty, homely streets swarming with alien workers quacking a jargon of tongues fit to eclipse Babel’s Tower itself.

It is hard to believe that here, long ago, poets dreamed their dreams and painters plied deft brushes and masters in statecraft dealt masterfully with the politics of their time; that once upon a time great publicists and great orators dwelt in these spots. It is impossible to believe that any such ever again will abide here.


In all of manufacturing  New Jersey the most agreeable sight, I think, is the sign on the road to Pompton which says you are now leaving Paterson. When I get that far I stop and give thanks.

4 thoughts on “Some United States. Stop one: New Jersey”

  1. I find this talk of billboards kind of funny, actually. I drive the parkway to 78 to 24 on the way to work, and then take 280 and the parkway home. 4 major NJ highways, and no billboards in sight. Due to zoning laws, they’re actually illegal on the Parkway and Turnpike, so if you want a billboard there, you can buy property beyond the tree-line and try to make a super-tall sign, or you can get your logo on a “this highway sponsored by:” sign.

    I guess maybe somebody with power read this book sometime between 1926 and now and decided “there ought to be a law.”

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