New York Writers

City Journal on New York's long literary lineage

Stefan Kanfer traces the significance of New York to some of America's greatest writers:
For writers, New York City has always been a magnet with two poles, one that attracts, another that repels. Visiting from England, Anthony Trollope was drawn to the place; he thought it “intensely American.” Alexis de Tocqueville, on the other hand, found the city “bizarre and disagreeable.” Decades later, Henry James seconded that assessment: “New York is appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire.” Decades after that, F. Scott Fitzgerald romantically disagreed: “The city seen for the first time” had the “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” No other urban area, not even London or Paris, has provoked such strong opinions or inspired so many novels, short stories, and nonfiction narratives.

Washington Irving started the flood. He was the first professional author to make New York (or Gotham, as he dubbed it) his centerpiece. Elsewhere, he’s best remembered for countryside legends like Rip Van Winkle. But in New York, his pseudonym has even greater staying power: his satirical history of New York under Dutch rule was written by one Dietrich Knickerbocker. The Knicks of the NBA salute Irving every time they take to the boards.

Irving died in 1859 at 76, his reputation beginning to wane. A new generation was knocking at the door, and it had little use for old-fashioned prose and tame ghost stories. The rivalry began. Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror, lived for a time in a Bronx cottage. There he issued the opinion that Irving was “much overrated.” Poe, American to his fingertips but adored by the French, elbowed his way to literary prominence in the late 1830s. Yet he died of alcoholism before he could consolidate his reputation and put down rivals.

By then, however, plenty of other writers were making their way in New York. Long before Walt Whitman reinvented American poetry, he was a newspaper reporter who reviewed his own books anonymously and praised the city in extravagant prose: “There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels he can never die.” [Read more]

Also at A Piece of Monologue