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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

07 OCTOBER, 2013

Ernest Hemingway on How New York Can Drive You to Suicide

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“I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through.”

From Jack Kerouac’s nightlife tour to Gay Talese’s obsessive observations to Frank O’Hara’s ode to its dirty streets, New York City has always had a way of mesmerizing famous writers into recording their unfiltered impressions of Gotham — especially so in their diaries and letters. Now comes a new addition from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who had spent the previous five years living in Paris: In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, offering an unprecedented glimpse of Papa’s peak of self-discovery as a writer and a human being — Hemingway writes to his Parisian friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas The letter, dated October 11, 1923, appears to be his way of sorting out his own thoughts in deciding, once and for all, that he was no longer interested in living in North America’s urban epicenters.

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the Stork Club, New York City. (JFK Presidential Library & Museum)

Hemingway begins with a quick, excited, and irreverent report on his new baby boy born the day before (“I am informed he is very good looking but personally detect an extraordinary resemblance to the King of Spain.”), makes a playful riff on Stein’s famous 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” (“Got a Little Review with your Valentine for Sherwood. It is very fine and very mine couldn’t help writing that mean very fine and very Sherwood.”), and proceeds to deliver his verdict on New York — from a meditation on its cuisine to a critique of its architecture to a prescient remark on suicide four decades before his own.

Contrary to my remembrance the cuisine here is good. They are very fine with a young or fairly young Chicken. I have also found some good Chinese places. We have both been very homesick for Paris. I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through. It is of only doubtful value to have discovered. In New York four days I could not locate Sherwood or anybody I wanted to see because of being too busy. Tried telephoning etc. New York looked very beautiful on the lower part around Broad and Wall streets where there is never any light gets down except streaks and the damnedest looking people. All the time I was there I never saw anybody even grin. There was a man drawing on the street in front of the stock exchange with yellow and red chalk and shouting “He sent his only begotten son to do this. He sent his only begotten son to die on the tree. He sent his only begotten son to hang there and die.” A big crowd standing around listening. Business men you know. Clerks, messenger boys. “Pretty tough on de boy.” Said a messenger boy absolutely seriously to another kid. Very fine. There are really some fine buildings. New ones. Not any with names that we’ve ever heard of. Funny shapes. Three hundred years from now people will come over from Europe and tour it in rubber neck wagons*. Dead and deserted like Egypt. It’ll be Cooks most popular tour.

Wouldn’t live in it for anything.

* Tourist buses — from “rubberneck,” slang for tourist or gawking onlooker

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with other famous writers on New York, then revisit Hemingway on writing and the dangers of ego, his Nobel acceptance speech, and his irreverent letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald on heaven and hell.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Four Types of Jaywalkers: An Illustrated Morphology of Bad Pedestrians circa 1924

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“The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian.”

Walkability might be the key to what makes a great city, but it comes with an inevitable double edge: More walkers means more bad walkers. But while the advent of smartphones has certainly exacerbated the epidemic, the history of pedestrian nuisances is a long and colorful one. The very term “jaywalker” — after jay, a silly person — was coined on August 3, 1924, in a New York Times editorial about the proliferation of pedestrian menaces — something I learned from a passing mention that Alexandra Horowitz, who knows a thing or two about the art-science of urban walking, makes in her unspeakably fantastic meditation on learning to see the familiar city with new eyes. Alexandra was kind enough to help me track down the original archival article, and I was immediately taken with the marvelous morphology of bad walkers that it paints. So I teamed up with my friend Wendy MacNaughton — brilliant visual storyteller and frequent Brain Pickings contributor — and asked her to do for the taxonomy of pedestrian perils what she did for Gay Talese’s taxonomy of street cats, illustrating the archetypes of walkers described in the New York Times article. Please enjoy.

Titled “The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian,” the original 1924 article by M. B. Levick presages the urban density of our present and examines it through the eyes of an imagined Uncle Jay Walker, a sort of patron saint of sidewalk orderliness and pedestrian manners. Levick writes:

The speeding and erratic pedestrian is a problem of the present but nothing is but thinking makes it so and the town has not come to realize it yet. Envisage the Manhattan of distant aeons — say 1926, after the fashion of popular prophecy — and the picture shows motors by the million, of bizarre design, closely packed but orderly and docile to semaphores on roadways, sunken, raised, suspended or maintained by radio. In this picture the pedestrians file as orderly as a column of troops along Utopian footways. But what of reality then — and now? The question is not of the jaywalker, but of the master anarchist in all his varieties (and hers), who is creating new and ineluctable hazards in the process of getting from place to place. Here is a problem that has been only touched upon by the “Keep Moving” signs along Fifth Avenue.

Does the world offer worse sidewalk manners than those of Manhattan? Savages in distant isles stroll more urbanely through nine-mile streets like the jungle trail of Typee and never elbow their way with a war club. Medieval streets two feet wide, with the rooftops over hanging, give the Old World traffic cop nothing to do save to help the occasional plump pedestrian who sticks between the walls. Look at the Bund and you see benighted Chipamen trailing single file, and if for them the right side is the wrong side, as for the Englishman, at any rate, the sides are recognized. But New York, orientation smitten from it, rushes in where angels fear, and if there is anything in the transmission of acquired characteristics it bodes ill for the future.

Levick then outlines the types of bad walkers:

There are the veerers who come up sharply in the wind and give no signal. The runners who dash to a goal and then dash back again without even tagging another “it.” The retroactive, moving crabwise. Those who flee and turn swiftly to victory, making a commonplace of the ruse that gave Joe Choynski his fame in the ring. Left-ends and butters, the people who never met the Marquis of Queensberry and to whom Greco-Roman is more foreign than jiu-jitsu.

As mad as the satellite particles of an atom and amid each group, like a nucleus, a static type. The plodder, trudging through Times Square as o’er the lee and knowing neither near side nor off side. The inferiority complexes whose only sense of power is to make the world walk around them. Children of the cigar store Indians standing stock still, so that a couple passing must say “Bread and butter!” Others who are to movement what the color blind are to light and the swaggerers who in an earlier age would take the wall, but in this present confusion must take wall and gutter and all between to assert their precedence.

Conceding that punishment is not enough, Levick — who laments that New York can’t afford the Southern disposition that “the woman pedestrian is a concern of gallantry and not of self-defense” — proposes some solutions:

Control is Uncle Jay Walker’s real work. Perhaps he should devise a speed law and a minimum speed law. Or traffic lights on every house front. If you believe that Western delegate, New Yorkers never knew the rules of the road. Is it too late now? They could be taught in school in rhymes like the doggerel which helps sailors on pathed waters:

From three short blasts ‘tis yours to learn
That she is going full-speed astern.

The verse has a hint; remember it when a determined stout woman comes at you like a skittish battleship. Horns and sirens, to be supplemented with side lights and range lights and a masthead light “at a height above the hull not less than the breadth of the vessel.” All this would have a practical value, and think, too, of the aesthetic appeal. The sober, hurrying crowd would become as gay as a convention of fireflies: the dandy could spend on matching the lights of lapel and coat tail what time he now give to his tie, and mankind, like taxicabs decorated in the latest manner, would burgeon like a Christmas tree, red, green, yellow and blue.

What would be the effect on the traffic accident rate if pedestrians bore false arms for warning, like the grotesque red hands that truck drivers work with strings? It would be a training whose results would be apparent in the roadways no less than on the sidewalks. He who has learned to jaywalk on the sidewalk would be less apt to jaywalk in the street and Special Deputy Policy Commissioner Baron Collier could doubtless point to an even greater saving of life that the street fatality ration between the first half of last year and the same period in 1924. Last year’s rate for the six months was fifteen persons killed to each 10,000 registered vehicles, while the rate to July 1 of the present year was twelve. Of this year’s deaths 82 occurred at crossings and 130 away from crossing, from which Commissioner Collier draws a moral for the jaywalker, at the same time wishing for a law that would give the police regulation over pedestrians as well as vehicles.

And yet, Horowitz tells us in On Looking, though jaywalking may be a civic traffic violation, it could actually be safer because it relies on shared attention rather than mindlessly following traffic signals, which means you’re making judgments based on eye contact rather than autopilot — which, of course, is no reason to plod or veer across city streets.

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2013

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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