Brain Pickings

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters & Personal Essays

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Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from 'Paris vs. New York' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell's hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

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