American Letters and New York City

New York City
New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

One of the great blessings of American literature is that, unlike that of many less diverse nations and cultures, ours benefits from the inspiration offered in the geographic diversity of the land. It is sad, therefore, that so many intelligent champions of American letters would prefer that we have but a single literary Mecca. A nation can only have one intellectual capital. As France has Paris, so must America have New York. To defend such a proposition, and perhaps to justify living in a city that is as likely to brutalize an author as it is to celebrate him or her, some of New York’s most ardent boosters go to great pains to make the case that for the writer or the book-minded, there is no place to be but New York City.

In an article entitled “City Lights,” writer and biographer Stefan Kanfer offers us a notable example of such Metropolitan hyperbole. To support his point, he gives endless examples of writers from Washington Irving to Jonathan Franzen who have made New York their home.

Kanfer is most loquacious when answering the infidel literati who rejected the Big Apple:

Ernest Hemingway found the literary city repulsive; in Green Hills of Africa, he called New York writers “angleworms in a bottle.” And H. L. Mencken demanded, “Have you ever noticed that no American writer of any consequence lives in Manhattan? Dreiser tried it (after many years in the Bronx), but finally fled to California.”

Mencken, notorious for his contrarian screeds, was wrong. So was Hemingway. In addition to Singer, five recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature have found New York’s attractions too powerful to resist: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. Philip Roth and John Updike took apartments there; Norman Mailer never left town. Along the way, The New Yorker stopped being quite so closed and began to publish the likes of J. D. Salinger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Indeed.

This is exactly the kind of defensive self-justification cum effusive self-congratulation for which New York must own the patent given its frequent use by the city’s fanboyim. A steady flow of this tiresome spew has poured from the pens, typewriters, and laptops of Gotham for over a century, and the sole effect outside of New Amsterdam’s legion of besotted admirers has been a roll of the eyes and a turn of the page.

I submit that there are far simpler and less mystical reasons for New York’s role as a literary gravity-well than Mr. Kanfer’s pean would seem to suggest. Those include:

  • New York is where the publishers are, and most writers find it convenient to be near the largest critical mass of markets for their work, whether they want to be there or not. One of Kanfer’s Nobel Laureates, Toni Morrison, came to New York to be an editor in a publishing house, not because of some mystic magnet.
  • Writing is a lonely profession, and the proximity of a sympathetic support group of peers, both more and less talented, is a comfort to all, especially the struggling and the poseurs, (the latter whom find it much easier to justify their unpublished status to their loved ones and themselves because at least they are in the center of the action.)
  • New York is home to an overlarge community of grossly wealthy idle and nouveau riche, especially from among the financial community, who patronize the belles letters as a means of embellishing their unearned or under earned lucre with a patina of culture.
  • Writers are celebrated, tolerated, and venerated in New York like nowhere else on the planet. Such ego infusions are heady, addictive stuff.

Hardly the stuff of impassioned tributes, I know, but without doubt more reflective of some basic truths that reflect the uglier side of the vocation of letters.

As for me, I side with Mencken, Hemingway, Drieser, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and all of the others who had the fortitude and dignity to ply their craft far from the shores of the Hudson. How much greater the triumph of a writer laboring without the support of editors, agents, patrons, and fellows in close proximity.

And, for the record, New York has no especial claim on Nobel Laureates in Literature: Steinbeck did his best work in California, Lewis in Washington, DC, Bellow in the Midwest and Boston; Hemingway, Pearl Buck and Joseph Brodsky avoided the place.

The truth is, America is blessed to have a geographically diverse literary tradition, so much so that one could almost make a lifetime study of the literature of New England (less New York City), of the South, of the West, and California.

Dismount your horses, Tribunes of Gotham. You are all wonderful and do great work. To pretend that literature begins and ends in your precincts does an injustice to literature and an injustice to New York.

Originally published October 17, 2011 in The Peking Review

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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