New York Diaries: 400 Years of Great Writers’ Reflections on a Great City
What Jack Kerouac’s existential divide has to do with earmuffs, 9/11, and Edison’s “mechanical mind.”
By Maria Popova
For the past four centuries, New York City has been courted, confabulated, and cursed, in public and in private, by the millions of citizens who have called it home. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) is a remarkable feat of an anthology by Teresa Carpenter, culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections to reveal a dimensional mosaic portrait of the city through the journal entries of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in its grid over the past 400 years — easily the most dynamic and important depiction of the city since E. B. White’s timeless Here Is New York.
In an ingenious touch, Carpenter arranges the entries by day of the year, rather than chronologically, which brings to the foreground certain common patterns of daily life that appear to shape our experience of the city, be it in 1697 or 1976. At its heart, however, the collection exudes a certain unflinching quality of the city, unshakable solid ground that stands tenacious beneath the tempestuous weather patterns of great wars and great loves and great losses that swirl over.
Every century produces a diarist who laments, ‘This is the worst catastrophe ever to befall New York!’ Surely it seems that way at the moment. The city takes the blow, catches its breath, then moves along to the insistent rhythm of the tides. New York, as it emerges from these pages, is by turns a wicked city, a compassionate city, a muscular city, a vulnerable city, an artistic wonder, an aesthetic disaster, but forever a resilient city — and one loved fiercely by its inhabitants.” ~ Teresa Carpenter
Regarding her curatorial sensibility, Carpenter explains:
The criterion for selection was simple. I chose these entries because I liked them. They moved me, fascinated me, made me angry, made me laugh, invited tears, or simply satisfied my curiosity. They also serve a more vital purpose, and that is to transform the New York of postcards, the gray, still abstraction of granite, the denatured Gotham of science fiction, the out-of-time videoscape of crumbling towers, into a living city. And so in this spirit, they provide the kind of detail of daily life that so delights the armchair anthropologist.
And delight it certainly does. From the voyeuristic glimpses of famous lives (Edison, Kerouac, Twain, Roosevelt, de Beauvoir) to the textured anonymous masses (businessmen, clergymen, Victorian teenagers) that constitute the intricate living fabric of the city, the diary entries are at once engrossingly intimate and strikingly prototypical of the human condition.
Here are some favorites.
On May 20, 1948, Jack Kerouac reflects on a general sociocultural peculiarity of New York, folded into the particular peculiarity of the writer’s life:
No word from Scribner’s. Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything. And the novel is yet unfinished, really, and the time has come to start typing it and straightening it out. What a job in this weary life of mine, this lazy life. But I’ll get down to it. The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a heaven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.
(The novel he is referring to is The Town and the City, his first.)
Just the previous year, on November 19, a wholly different, more private side of Kerouac emerges:
Dark Eyes came to my house tonight and we danced all night long, and into the morning. We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. My mother was charming when she got up and saw us there. I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.
On February 18, 1867, a 32-year-old Mark Twain paints a portrait in stark contrast with recent portrayals of the NYPD:
The police of Broadway seem to have been selected with special reference to size. They are nearly all large, fine-looking men, and their blue uniforms, well studded with brass buttons, their jack boots and their batons worn like a dagger, give them an imposing military aspect. They are gentlemanly in appearance and conduct… I hear them praised on every hand for their efficiency, integrity and watchful attention to business. It seems like an extravagant compliment to pay a policeman, don’t it? I am charmed with the novelty of it.
Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder in the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select part of half-a-dozen gentlemen-hogs have just now turned the corner…
And who knew Thomas Edison had such a penchant for the poetic? On July 12, 1885, he captures beautifully a morning experience all too familiar:
Awakened at 5:15 A.M. — My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams — turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion — succeeded — awakened at 7 A.M. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G — Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination à la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.
Then, a few sentences later, a haiku-esque, Yoda-esque treat:
A book on German metaphysics would thus easily ruin a dress suit…
And on the following day, a deadpan blend of dark humor and entrepreneurship:
Went to New York via Desbrosses Street ferry. Took cars across town. Saw a woman get into car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish the creaking when she walked.
Simone de Beauvoir, fashion critic? On February 4, 1947:
During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain barehanded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sticks to their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.
And on the subject of fashion, Leo Lerman writes of Marlene Dietrich’s insight into Greta Garbo’s wardrobe, September 3, 1951:
Marlene says Garbo has only two suits of underwear. They are made of men’s shirting. She waears one for three days, then washes it, does not iron it. Then she wears the other. Marlene says she doesn’t mind the not ironing, but three days! Garbo uses only paper towels in her bathroom, has two pairs of men’s trousers, two shirts, and little else in her wardrobe. She is very stingy.
I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.
2:30 p.m. The first blast jolted me out of bed!!!! My apartment shook and I heard all these people on the street screaming. Dashed outside – Armageddon??? WTC on fire! Both towers! I watched them burning from the Williamsburg Bridge. Unsure why – no one around me spoke english! Run back inside my apartment no phone – all TV stations static – cell doesn’t work – modem does – weird – quickly listen to news on my little battery operated transistor alarm clock radio. Terrorists! Hear first tower COLLAPSED right outside my window – freak! On radio – radio news people are freaking out. – run outside with my bike and camera. Everyone I see on the street is saying shit like “Oh my fucking God!” – everyone is in weird shock. No one is not effected.
In a chaotic Chinatown. Looking at only ONE WTC tower – on fire – so surreal. Just one – superbizarre! Was on cell phone with Bryan – only person I could get through to – weird) , camera in hand, as 2nd tower COLLAPSED right in front of me!! You could feel the dull roar in the concrete. Will never forget it – EVER. It was like a blooming grey daffodil that bloomed big and then dissipated into dust. An unbelievable image I will never forget. People on street – totally edgy. Super razor blade vibe everywhere – no traffic. EVERYONE – MOBS walking AWAY from disaster. I can’t believe I am looking up and there are no twin towers – like a fever dream.
My favorite entry comes on November 29, 1941, from a 19-year-old Jack Kerouac — at once a living testament to the richness of life as a college-dropout-turned-lifelong-learner (cue in Kio Stark’s new project) and a poignant meditation on the most fundamental tension of the human condition:
I returned to college in the Fall, but my mind wasn’t at rest. My family was not any too well fixed; I felt out of place, the coaches were insulting, I was lonely; I left and went down to the South to think things over. Since then, on my own, I have been learning fast, writing a lot, reading good men, and have been slowly making up my mind, seriously & quietly. Either I am loathsome to others, I have decided, or else I shall be a beacon of rich warm light, spreading good and plenty, making things prosper, being a cosmic architect, conquering the world and being respected, myself grinning surreptitiously. Either that, Sirs, or I shall be the most loathsome, useless, and parasitical (on myself) creature in the world. I shall be a denizen of the Underground, or a successful man of the world. There shall be no compromise!!! I mean it.
My only lament? Susan Sontag, one of my greatest intellectual heroes and a formidable New York diarist, didn’t make it into the collection. Omission notwithstanding, New York Diaries is an absolute masterpiece blending a curator’s discernment, an archivist’s obsessive rigor, a writer’s love of writing, and a New Yorker’s love of New York — the ultimate celebration of the city’s tender complexity and beautiful chaos.
Published January 6, 2012