Years ago at City College set in the brick and limestone recesses of West Harlem, where corner vendors offered warm nuts on as indigent hotels burned nearby, I took a summer course, Literary New York, with the affable and astute Earnest Hemingway scholar Ira Elliott. In the class held on one of the top floors of a mammoth building built for riot suppression (such as easy site lines for sharpshooters, hallways that could be easily locked down), we poured over the city’s ever-lasting literary symbolism, the powerful traits that feel as real as a bent and broken as a tree growing in Brooklyn or the quiet swing of doors at a posh Bulgari store.
The city has always been a diverse signifier in urban prose, a deep wellspring of fecund and fertile images woven through literature and film. Even while watching reruns of the The Squid and the Whale, one can sense the Prospect Park neighborhoods as a dystopia mired in literature, sport, and endless parking conundrums. The neighborhood is an analogue to the personal breakdown of marriage and childhood: splotchy walled homes and over-lit indoor tennis courts mark and mimic the Raymond Carver-like dissolution of all things formerly trustworthy and stable.
Sometimes the city is simply an ornamental backdrop, innocuous as a diorama cut from cardboard boxes; other times, the city feels palpably gritty and volatile, eruptive and engrossed in ennui. That’s the difference between sitcoms and the harrowing alleyways and blaring taxis of sin-steeped City of Night and the tabloid-world of “eight million stories pictured in The Naked City. Each time the city becomes a stand-in for an author’s impressions, a morphing index and tableax, an extension of an author’s gestalt and worldview. The city is both a projected set-piece and an internalized force.
The city contains identity multitudes — as murky Metropolis model, Big Apple dream conveyor, and Gotham City mob labyrinth – each plunging into face-offs between the quick and the dead, the fast and the curious, and the flawed good and undeniable evil. The city is never just a neutral space, a grid ringed with steel, glass, and iron enclosures, or merely blank architecture glinting over the East or Hudson river. Authors have a profound psychological attachment to the body of the city, its psycho-geography and pulses, its hulk and materiality. It’s as though the city is biomorphic, alive, trembling, poking up through the narratives as a character itself, eating its way into story cores.
This has been common since the 1800s, when stories like Stephen Crane’s “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1893), whose modern equivalent might be the BBC America thriller Copper, evoked the city in gas lit, darkly oil painted, and cut-throat journalistic hues. As a claustrophobic, Dickensian, and “naturalistic” version, the narrative seethes with humanity’s mirth and mud. It’s quasi-evil, monstrously indifferent to the battered and hopeless, a toxic terminus of human frailty and filth, engulfing the characters that are unfortunate enough to dwell inside its interiors, which are precursors to the mean streets often salaciously detailed in crime, noir, and pulp genres. Crane offers no lenient gaze: no writerly sheen staves off the grime. No buffers exist between the streets and the souls of the people.
In Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep (1934), the city is not as singular and unified, either as public or rhetorical space. It’s divided and fragmentary: it’s part Moloch, part Eden, Irish and Jewish, new and old, a fallen city steeped in sin trying to grapple with its conscience. Roth’s shimmering novel details a vast swath of seedy tenement halls, a uterine-like atmosphere seething and brooding with anxiety and identity crises offset by bustling daylight market stalls that line the street.
These form a nexus of immigrant commerce and trade, cackle and banter. The story is like a Lower East Side poem, a modernist piece rendered in proletariat terms about truants and those seeking truth. Roth discerns hope and meaning even in petty gangland youth, who demean the protagonist child, forcing him to toss a piece of zinc into a trolley line, causing hissing sparks and a vision of God.
For Crane, who self-financed his novel, the Bowery overflows with tough, everyday, common-as-mud colloquial speech. The city – rife with loss, damage, and contortion — steeps in aggression and fracture, like a cocoon of endless night and strife. Much later, those same neighborhoods gave birth to CBGB and punk rock, heroin chic and skinhead romp. Rogue Irish cops gave way to Mayor Koch and cobbled streets turned to graffiti alleys. In Crane’s bitter eye, valor and venality go hand-in-hand. “Damned disorderly brats” reign and buildings heave and moan, quivering and creaking “from the weight of humanity stamping about” in their bowels.
For Roth, whose own background hovered in Marxism, incest, and a City College education too, the city’s foreboding fatalism (steeped in a colloquial soundtrack of languages) is tempered by long resplendent days, where both the verve and the angst of the Jewish community provides a sense of ethnic climate, history, and resonance.
New York is not merely vicious and unbridled, broken and bellicose, but a slightly unkempt mystery, itself teeming with recalcitrant elements– “the old house creaked when the wind elbowed in and out the alley…” The characters’ hues flip – they’re despondent, fervently attentive, and fretful as their hearts are contorted by “dreamlike fugitive sadness” given respite in “the hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude.”
Whether Jewish poet and beat generation guru Allen Ginsberg sought that same beatitude is unknown, but his coterie of pals labored as well in the heart of the nearby neighborhoods beginning in the late ’40s. Yet, like Ginsberg later saw both William Blake and Moloch in his visions of New York City, Roth’s tormented protagonist feels like a precursor to their “beat” personas, a piece of raw clay in the hands of a city that breeds beauty and terror, confusion and clarity.
The city of Henry James, perhaps epitomized by Washington Square, contains little of that discourse. In his compressed and restrained narrative, the city is a repository of professional and cosmopolitan mores, a tidy home for the self-edifying bourgeois and stilted upper classes that he undercuts with irony. For example, America is a country where, “to play a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe you earn it…” How very contemporary the barbs feels in an era in which people cannot actually describe the workloads of financers and investors.
Clever main protagonist Dr. Sloper feels utterly modern, as well. According to the narrator, he exudes both scholarly wisdom and yields concrete prescriptions. Like the city itself, there is nothing vague or abstract. “He always ordered you to take something…” while explaining minute matters to patients. This confidence rings familiar in an era of rampant pill popping and herb dosing in which self-satisfied doctors of all stripes offer remedies in liberal intonations. Science and healing are modern marvels; no old world folklore should blemish the treatment.
The city at the heart of Sloper is strikingly whitewashed, teeming with erudition, and almost alabaster ghostly. New York is made for men of the world, an entourage of purloined people of upper crust, upper class gastronomy and economy. There appear to be no margin walkers, even along the grassy waysides of Canal Street. Little dissent percolates in the narrative, and few fringes indicate antithetical values and counterculture.
A reader has to focus intently to imagine the disconnected drudgery of workaday worlds, which can be hardly discerned in the veins of the narrator’s city. The city is defined and finite, coherent and cohesive, life-affirming and righteously riot-proof.
The microcosm of the novel does not teem with riverside tenements but attempts to sketch the corolla of Washington Square, which, at the time, was an unpaved section cloistered near the “spacious”, “august”, and “confident air” of Fifth Avenue. Yet, other murkier nocturnes and dank daylights do exist in the upper blocks of the city, where one passage describes the extended interior giving way to an area where pigs and chickens shit in the gutter.
As David McWhirter alleges, James, who published the novel in 1880, seems blind to the changes underfoot in New York, including bustling ferry services, street railways, and the basic infrastructure of a frenetic Walt Whitman-sized city. The immigrants clawing their way inside the American dream seem absent as well in James’ viewfinder.
To Whitman, New York symbolized acute acceleration, dizzying industry and might, and the city registered “the impalpable sustenance of me from all things.” The city becomes soluble when rendered in Whitman’s boundless ethos.
In contrast, James simulates a museum-like study of a fossilized city bound to some other time. The lives pouring forth within the boundaries are not hemmed in by poverty or class war; they are simply part and parcel of the loneliness that stems from modernity, capitalism, and intellectuality. His New York City offers closure, integrated and dialed-back dynamism. The carnivalesque undertows go missing: the grasp of the city seems clean and calculated.
For James, the territory is a map, a perfunctory sketch, not a throbbing nebula, like Whitman’s Manhattan.