Urbanities

Stefan Kanfer
City Lights
New York’s long literary line
Autumn 2010
The Algonquin Hotel: a famous Gotham hangout for writers, such as Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (far right)
Bettmann/Corbis
The Algonquin Hotel: a famous Gotham hangout for writers, such as Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (far right)

For writers, New York City has always been a magnet with two poles, one that attracts, another that repels. Visiting from England, Anthony Trollope was drawn to the place; he thought it “intensely American.” Alexis de Tocqueville, on the other hand, found the city “bizarre and disagreeable.” Decades later, Henry James seconded that assessment: “New York is appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire.” Decades after that, F. Scott Fitzgerald romantically disagreed: “The city seen for the first time” had the “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” No other urban area, not even London or Paris, has provoked such strong opinions or inspired so many novels, short stories, and nonfiction narratives.

Washington Irving started the flood. He was the first professional author to make New York (or Gotham, as he dubbed it) his centerpiece. Elsewhere, he’s best remembered for countryside legends like Rip Van Winkle. But in New York, his pseudonym has even greater staying power: his satirical history of New York under Dutch rule was written by one Dietrich Knickerbocker. The Knicks of the NBA salute Irving every time they take to the boards.

Irving died in 1859 at 76, his reputation beginning to wane. A new generation was knocking at the door, and it had little use for old-fashioned prose and tame ghost stories. The rivalry began. Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror, lived for a time in a Bronx cottage. There he issued the opinion that Irving was “much overrated.” Poe, American to his fingertips but adored by the French, elbowed his way to literary prominence in the late 1830s. Yet he died of alcoholism before he could consolidate his reputation and put down rivals.

By then, however, plenty of other writers were making their way in New York. Long before Walt Whitman reinvented American poetry, he was a newspaper reporter who reviewed his own books anonymously and praised the city in extravagant prose: “There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels he can never die.”

James Fenimore Cooper moved from his Scarsdale farm to downtown Manhattan in the 1820s. Setting up on Pearl Street, he produced a series of popular works, ranging from sea novels to frontier epics. Books like The Last of the Mohicans enjoyed worldwide success, and for years Cooper considered himself beyond the critics’ reproach. Then came another city dweller, Samuel Clemens, who would live for a time in Washington Square. In his essay “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Clemens (writing, as usual, under the name Mark Twain) noted that Cooper used—and misused—a very small “box of stage properties.” A favorite one was “to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick.” Another favorite was the “dry twig” routine: “Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. . . . The Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.” Choose any Cooper work, Twain concluded, and “its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.”

While he was at it, Twain derided a former resident of Washington Square who had left Greenwich Village for the more hospitable precincts of London. “Once you put it down,” Twain is said to have grumped about a novel by Henry James, “you simply can’t pick it up.” James was too lofty to argue; he bided his time, and then remarked that Twain was all right in his way but that his writings appealed “to rudimentary minds.”

Those rudimentary minds also found much to admire in two city dwellers who told stories based on what they had seen and heard. Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage at 24 without ever witnessing war, considered the Bowery “the only interesting street in New York.” And William Sydney Porter, who wrote as O. Henry, found all the inspiration he needed by looking at faces in the Manhattan crowds. “In the Big City,” he observed, “large and sudden things happen. . . . The City is a sprightly youngster, and you are red paint upon its toy.”

But the elegant James had little use for these authors—imagine writing about prostitutes and slum dwellers! Though born in Manhattan, the master of nuance had spent decades away from the city before returning for a visit in 1906. He was appalled. A trip to the Lower East Side, crowded with Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia, proved particularly dismaying. “There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start,” wrote James, “and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds.” After visiting a tearoom where he heard a nerve-jangling mix of American and Yiddish phrases, the author made a prediction: “The Hebrew conquest of New York” would bite the national tongue. “Whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English.”

Like fellow novelist Edith Wharton, who also lamented this proletarian takeover of downtown New York, James missed the significance of what he witnessed. The city was being revitalized. True, the Lower East Side was more crowded than Calcutta, but the newcomers had brought with them a fresh energy and a limitless ambition. They were already creating a dramatic literature of their own; more than two dozen Yiddish theaters featured operas and straight plays—in addition to revivals of Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. Brilliant writers eventually emerged from this ghetto, including composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, drama critic and director Harold Clurman, and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

By the 1920s, New York was playing host to a different kind of literature. Journalism was in the saddle and rode the publishing industry. Time debuted in 1923; its feverish, jaunty prose quickly caught the spirit of the Aspirin Age. The New Yorker came along two years later. Under editor Harold Ross, it became the most important literary journal in America, attracting writers as disparate as Edmund Wilson and Groucho Marx. The magazine’s strength and weakness derived from the same source: its insularity. Some staffers and contributors formed a luncheon group called the Algonquin Round Table. It met every day at a hotel on 44th Street, where ad-libs, puns, and light verses were carefully crafted and then sent to cooperative newspaper columnists. Dorothy Parker: “I like to have a martini, / Two at the very most. / After three I’m under the table. / After four I’m under the host.” Robert Benchley: “A freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.” George S. Kaufman on flying: “I like terra firma. The more firma, the less terra.”

It was all very bright and witty—until the Depression took hold and gave that sort of chatter an irrelevance, even in a place famous for an ability to droll with the punches. Ernest Hemingway found the literary city repulsive; in Green Hills of Africa, he called New York writers “angleworms in a bottle.” And H. L. Mencken demanded, “Have you ever noticed that no American writer of any consequence lives in Manhattan? Dreiser tried it (after many years in the Bronx), but finally fled to California.”

Mencken, notorious for his contrarian screeds, was wrong. So was Hemingway. In addition to Singer, five recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature have found New York’s attractions too powerful to resist: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. Philip Roth and John Updike took apartments there; Norman Mailer never left town. Along the way, The New Yorker stopped being quite so closed and began to publish the likes of J. D. Salinger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.

In their slipstream has come an impressive chorus of writers who regard the city as a font of inspiration. Tom Wolfe’s 1987 Bronx- and Manhattan-based novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was not only coruscating but prescient; his fictive Reverend Bacon anticipated Al Sharpton’s emergence as a major public figure. Wolfe has since gone on to analyze the city’s cultural scene with acuity and wit. Jonathan Franzen, currently the hottest novelist in America (Freedom, The Corrections) lives on the Upper East Side and spends his off-hours bird-watching in Central Park. In a literal sense, New York is not the subject of his novels. Yet in a literary sense, it is: the city’s power, variety, and endurance inform his characters and plots. In the brilliant Lush Life, Richard Price covers the skirmishes between residents of the Lower East Side and the yuppies who, while pushing them out, don’t mind scoring a few drugs from the nonwhite guys who still have pads on Eldridge and Orchard Streets (the very thoroughfares that offended Henry James). In Chronic City, Brooklyn-born Jonathan Lethem creates a Manhattan in which a ferocious tiger destroys subway stations, a thick, mysterious fog covers downtown, and a billionaire mayor (perhaps the most absurd invention of all) dithers in the background.

Michael Chabon sets his fanciful and Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay during the golden age of comic books. The pop artists flourish in a Manhattan much like the Metropolis of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Caleb Carr places the cast of The Alienist (including Teddy Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan) in nineteenth-century New York, but the narrative overflows with contemporary Freudian and political insights. Carr’s most striking note comes not from his febrile imagination but from the pages of history: he describes the old reservoir, on Fifth Avenue in the lower 40s, that once sent water to all the boroughs. In 1911, it became the site of the New York Public Library, the acreage next to Bryant Park switching from slaking New Yorkers’ physical thirsts to satisfying their intellectual appetites. A century later, it’s still doing so.

Small wonder, then, that so many authors regard the city as the most beguiling and inspiring place on the planet. In Here Is New York, first published in 1949, E. B. White imagines “a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart” embracing New York with the shiny eyes of an adventurer, generating enough illumination “to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.” Even then, that boy was a latecomer. The long line of adventurers with manuscripts began in Washington Irving’s time, and it has never stopped. As long as they keep coming, Gotham will never lack light.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of Somebody, a biography of Marlon Brando. His next book, a biography of Humphrey Bogart called Tough Without a Gun, will be out in February.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
More by Stefan Kanfer:
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates:

View Comments (22)

Add New Comment:

To send your message, please enter the words you see in the distorted image below, in order and separated by a space, and click "Submit." If you cannot read the words below, please click here to receive a new challenge.

Comments will appear online. Please do not submit comments containing advertising or obscene language. Comments containing certain content, such as URLs, may not appear online until they have been reviewed by a moderator.