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

Advertisements

Schemers and Dreamers

Schemes of My Father: Men’s Lives: GQ.

Eric Puchner offers a moving essay wherein he explains the initially hopeful – and later tragic – circumstances of his family’s move to southern California.

We all knew one or more of these families, drawn to the state by a promise that was never quite articulated but that was always understood. Some of these folks did alright, but others were soon gone. I remember them in the names of my friends in my LAUSD elementary school who would come for a year or two, and then disappear.

I finished this and wished there was some way I could tell Eric that he’s not alone, he is not the only child of our generation to end up as collateral damage in a parental spasm of re-invention, Golden State style. But somehow I think he knows.

Woody Allen, Metrpolitan or Philistine?

Woody Allen playing his clarinet in concert in...
Woody Allen playing his clarinet in concert in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Defending Los Angeles from Woody Allen’s remark that making a right turn on a red light was Los Angeles’ only contribution to culture, Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith retorted:

What about the drive-in bank, the Frisbee, the doggie bag? What about our Hansel and Gretel cottages, our Assyrian rubber factory, our Beaux-Arts-Byzantine-Italian-Classic-Nebraska Modern City Hall? What about the drive-in church?

All joking aside, whatever Woody Allen is, he is also one of the great preachers of the Gospel According to Gotham. Does anything exist for you, Woody, beyond the mid-point of the George Washington Bridge going West?

The only real difference between New York’s cultural contributions and California’s is that our Eastern brethren tend to do a better job at promoting theirs that we do of ours. We here at the GWR would like to change that, of course.

Industrial Design with Californian Characteristics

American Design, California Style | Fast Company.

Someone once told me that design is where style meets business. California has long played a major role in industrial design for American industry, and increasingly it is doing so for companies around the globe.

In this quick and thought-provoking read, San Francisco-based designer Brett Lovelady explains why this is the case.

A Literary Symphony: Coevas

TheCoevas official blog.

For those of you ready to try something a little experimental in your reading, check out Coeva, an interactive novel written by Maria Pia Carlucci, Fiorella Corbi, Maurizio Verdiani, and “conducted” by Stefano Capecchi

Take a look at the blog, and if it sounds intriguing, pick up the book at Amazon.

More than Sunshine

California – PhotoBotos.com

California’s diverse landscapes, cultures, and biomes are one of the state’s most attractive features. The beauty we see around us is more than just sunshine, surf, and (movie) stars, cultural memes notwithstanding.

We owe a debt of gratitude, then, to those who have the eye and patience to capture California at its finest. While many of us try (including those of us here at the Golden West Review,) PhotoBotos offers a cache of some truly remarkable photos, including some scenes (like the Yosemite Firefall) that are bits of unremembered history.

Take a look and enjoy.