Stanley Blair, Ph.D., associate professor of English, hosted a presentation at the Monmouth County Library on Oct. 12 to discuss Margaret Widdemer’s novel “Why Not?” and its potential relation to the town of Wanamassa in Ocean Township, New Jersey. The event was a follow-up to Blair’s original discussion on the subject in 2015, in which he presented about a dozen points of correlation between the local history of Wanamassa and the fictional town of “Wanalasset” in Widdemer’s book.
Frank D’Alessandro, then-owner of the Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park, first mentioned Widdemer, an Asbury Park native, to Blair at a charity event that he and his students were holding there. From there, Blair explains, in his undergraduate New Jersey literature course (EN 415), he juxtaposed excerpts from her book “The Boardwalk” (1920), a short-story sequence that describes year-round life in a fictionalized version of Asbury Park circa 1900, with an excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” (also 1920) that describes a summer tourist’s perspective of Asbury Park circa 1917.
After reading “Why Not?”, Blair found a 1995 Asbury Park Press article by local historian and writer Peter Lucia, who mentioned the resemblance of Wanalasset to the nearby real neighborhood of Wanamassa.
Blair conducted his own research on this topic and discovered that the novel had been adapted as a 1918 silent film called “The Dream Lady.” He embarked on a quest to track down the footage and determine whether it had been shot on location locally, thus potentially being the earliest cinematic representation of Ocean Township.
Having traced the film to a single, unrestored, and unreleased copy in a French archive, Blair’s research hit a dead end until recently. After years of searching, he was informed by the Library of Congress that the film was in the process of a digitization and was due for release on Netflix and DVD.
Blair screened the film at his presentation at the Ocean Township branch of the Monmouth County Library on Oct. 12, recapping the ties he’s uncovered between Wanalasset and Wanamassa, and concluding with an open discussion.
Though the film and additional research ultimately concluded that “The Dream Lady” was not filmed in Ocean Township, the event turnout and persistent curiosity on this topic have confirmed for Blair that there is a great deal of interest, both on campus and off, in local literature.
“This is for several reasons, including the validation that seems to occur when people realize that a place they may know, or even a place in which they live, has been elevated into art and has meaning,” Blair explained. Blair added that the most fun fact he has learned throughout his research is that the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce’s slogan in 1915 was “Asbury Park—the town without a frown.”
Among those with an interest in local literature is Melissa Badamo, a junior English major and student of Blair’s. “It was interesting to see a piece of New Jersey geography depicted in a work of literature from the early twentieth century. As an English student and published author myself, I enjoyed seeing this parallel,” said Badamo, whose young adult novel “The Uncommon” also takes place in New Jersey. “I love being exposed to different types of literature, especially [this novel], which takes place so close to home.”