The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia
In this excerpt of David Reid's rich and thorough history of New York City, 1945 -1950, we read of Albert Camus' first impression of the city as “a hideous, inhuman city" of "violent light".
The Brazen Age by David Reid Copyright © 2016 by David Reid. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Part 1: Chapter 1: City Lights.
In March 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”
At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”
Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat” -- the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.
“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s.
Although a brilliant travel writer, Camus was not a lucky traveler. When he was young and unknown, he blamed poverty for cramping his journeys, and when he was older and could afford more, he was a martyr to celebrity, always dreading its exposures and demands right up to the day he went to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize. Travel made him anxious, which he concluded was the proper state for a traveler, and often physically sick. As he records in his diary, after a sociable crossing, he came down with the flu just in time to arrive in New York.
On March 27, around noon on a gray, windy day, as his ship entered the Narrows, his first glimpse of New York was of Coney Island, a dismal sight under a flat painted sky. In the distance, the skyscrapers of Manhattan rose out of the mist. “Deep down, I feel calm and indifferent, as I generally do in front of spectacles that don’t move me.” Anticlimactically, his ship rode at anchor for the night.
“Go to bed very late. Get up very early. We enter New York harbor. A terrific sight despite or because of the mist. The order, the strength, the economic power are there. The heart trembles in front of so much admirable inhumanity.”
“Order” manifested itself at once. At the dock, Camus found himself singled out for sustained scrutiny. “The immigration officer ends by excusing himself for having detained me for so long: ‘I was obliged to, but I can’t tell you why.’ ” The mystery was dispelled many years later. Alert to the left-wing politics of Combat, the FBI had opened a file on him, and passed on its suspicions to the Immigration Services.
Feeling weak from his flu, Camus was welcomed by two journalists from France and a man from the French consulate. The crowded streets alarmed him. His first impression of New York was of “a hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.” He did note the orderliness of things confirmed by how smoothly the traffic moved without policemen at intersections, and by the prim gloves worn by garbagemen. That night, crossing Broadway in a cab, his flu made worse by a bad hangover (he had stayed up drinking until four the night before), feeling “tired and feverish,” Camus was “stupefied by the circus of lights.”
Bright lights, big city had been the New York formula for a century. On his first visit, in 1842, Charles Dickens found the gaslights of lower Broadway as brilliant as those of London’s Piccadilly, but he also discovered New York could be a strangely dark and vacant place – catacombesque -- and secretive, like the oysters that its citizens devoured in such prodigious quantities. The streets were often empty except for pigs that foraged at all hours. The slums, like the infamous Five Points, to whose low haunts the great man was escorted by two policemen, were as noisome as any in London.
In the 1870s and ’80s, gaslight began yielding to electricity. The Bowery, with its popular theaters, was the first district to be lit by Edison’s eerie new light, followed by the stretch of Broadway from Twenty-fourth Street to Twenty-sixth. A commercial visionary from Brooklyn named O. J. Gude seized on electricity for display advertising. In 1891 Madison Square was astonished by a giant sign advertising a Coney Island resort (“Manhattan Beach Swept by Ocean Breezes”). Verbally inventive too, Gude coined the phrase “Great White Way.” The most wondrous electric advertisement in New York was a fifty-foot pickle in green lightbulbs advertising Heinz’s “57 Varieties.” This “pioneer spectacle,” as Frederick Lewis Allen hails it in The Big Change, stood at the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and Twenty-third Street, since 1902 the site of the Flatiron Building. In 1913, Rupert Brooke came to marvel at the gaudiness of Times Square. At street level, the effect was disconcerting. “The merciless lights throw a mask of unradiant glare on the human beings in the streets, making each face hard, set, wolfish, terribly blue.” Above, the street was filled with wonders. Brooke could not help noticing an advertisement starring two bodies electric, “a youth and a man-boy, flaming and immortal, clad in celestial underwear,” who boxed a round, vanished, reappeared, and fought again. “Night after night they wage this combat. What gods they are who fight endlessly and indecisively for New York is not for our knowledge.”
City lights were mostly white in the 1920s. “For anyone interested in period detail, there were almost no colored lights then,” Gore Vidal recalls in his essay “On Flying.” “So, on a hot, airless night in St. Louis, the city had a weird white arctic glow.” In the 1930s, the planners at the New Deal farm agencies expected an influx of urbanites to flee the stricken cities for a new life in the countryside: the prospective exurbanites were called “white-light refugees.” In time, of course, the refugees came, only the process was called suburbanization. Neon light, first imported from France before the First World War by a West Coast automobile dealer, Earle C. Anthony, remained unusual for a long time even in New York. Edwin Denby, the dance critic and poet, remembered “walking at night in Chelsea with Bill [de Kooning] during the depression, and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions -- spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon-light -- neon-signs were few then -- and I remember the scale in the compositions was too big for me to see it.”
Throughout the Jazz Age and the Depression the white and many-colored lights of Broadway blazed, now concentrated in Times Square, where they advertised Four Roses whiskey, Camel cigarettes, Planters Peanuts (“A Bag a Day for More Pep”), Coca-Cola, the Astor Hotel. It took the blackouts during the war to dull the blaze, but by 1946 even the more prolonged dimout was becoming a distant memory. New York had resumed its old habits of brilliance.
“I am just coming out of five years of night,” says Camus in his journal, “and this orgy of violent lights gives me for the first time the impression of a new continent. An enormous, 50-foot-high Camel billboard: a G.I. with his mouth wide-open blows enormous puffs of real smoke. Everything is yellow and red.”
David Reid is the editor of Sex, Death and God in L.A. and coeditor of West of the West: Imagining California. His essays, articles, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and in several anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize XII. He lives in Berkeley, California.