THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO THE LITERATURE OF NEW YORK by Cyrus R.K. Patell and Bryan Waterman, eds., Reviewed by William Chapman Sharpe
 


THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO THE LITERATURE OF NEW YORK
Eds. Cyrus R.K. Patell and Bryan Waterman
(Cambridge, 2010) xxiv + 254 pages
Reviewed by William Chapman Sharpe on 2010-05-22.

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Writing about New York is both rewarding and daunting. Rewarding, because it's an inexhaustible topic that has a ready audience of passionate experts. Daunting, for just the same reasons. Every book about the city is doomed to come up short in content, meeting along the way a well-informed army of nit-pickers, assumption-questioners, and evidence-doubters. If New York has become, on a global and artistic plane, everybody's city, it is also a highly localized spot where nobody else's experience is likely to match one's own. Such are the personal and proprietary instincts of New Yorkers that "my town" hardly ever coincides with "our town."

Co-editor Cyrus R. K. Patell, a professor of English at NYU, meets the omission problem head-on in his introduction to this book. Acknowledging the immense scope of his subject, he remarks: "don't kvetch too much if you find that some familiar figure has been omitted or given short shrift. Or, rather, kvetch all you want: complaining, after all, is one of New York's great cultural traditions" (2). To get the kvetching out of the way, let's note up front that in this book you won't find much in the way of formal analysis or citations of the great passages of prose and poetry that convey the wonder that is New York. Except for Whitman, poets and prose writers who sing the city's praises (and curses) get little note: Hart Crane, Federico Garcia Lorca, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Frank O'Hara and the New York School merit only fleeting mention. Skyscrapers, subways, and other distinctive features of the environment (Times Square, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island) that figure heavily in the literary mythos of New York are similarly left in the background. While movies are mentioned frequently, there is no discussion of the graphic novel and the angst-haunted work of Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, or Frank Miller. A more thematic approach might have led to essays on crime and detection, domestic and public space, fashion and gender, downward mobility and homelessness, and the relation of literary form to the ever-changing built environment. And for those who want to grapple with the textual fallout of the key event of the past decade, there is no chapter or sub-section on the literature of 9/11. Happily, however, much of this material can be found elsewhere, in works such as Shaun O'Connell's wide-ranging Remarkable, Unspeakable New York (1995) or Kristiaan Versluys' profound Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel (2009).

Kvetching aside, the Cambridge Companion series tries to do something worthwhile but tricky: it seeks to give students an authoritative overview of complex topics through a series of short essays locating significant works in historical context. The need for coverage that Patell casually dismisses in his introduction is actually the driving force behind the volume and each essay within it. As I learned myself when contributing to a Cambridge Companion (the forthcoming volume on London), it is no easy task to find an imaginative organizing principle that will be fresh to specialists and enlightening for newcomers to the field. But working within these confines, Patell and his co-editor Bryan Waterman have assembled a strong team of scholars and an attractive array of topics. One cannot but be grateful for all the insight and erudition assembled here. The contributors have made a bold stab at mapping the literary ground as it looks in our context-oriented, politically engaged new millennium.

According to Patell, the volume provides a series of guides for the reader, "opinionated companions who will show you around some of the different eras, enclaves, genres, and ideas that mark the city's literary and cultural history" (2). Hence, a readable, detailed chronology of literary history sets the stage for fifteen essays on Dutch New York, the early theater, the novels of Brooklyn, the bohemians of Greenwich Village, immigrant and ethnic literature, African American literary movements, and so on. There are also fifteen images, ranging from an 1849 drawing of the fictional forebear Diedrich Knickerbocker through photographs of Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith, and up to a stage shot of the Five Lesbian Brothers performing Brave Smiles at the WOW Café in 1992. The scholarship is thorough and up-to-date. In addition to extensive notes at the end of each essay, there is a fifty-title general bibliography.

While books on New York are often heavily weighted toward the modern period, the better half of this one deals with the nineteenth century and before. Underlying the individual essays is an overdue assertion of New York's place in the country's early cultural history: "Most college survey courses in US literature undervalue New York's contribution to American literary history," Patell writes. "New York receives little attention as a literary center even, curiously, in courses that include the turn into the twentieth century, when New York was clearly the site at which the national cultural mythology was being produced by new mass media and by the publishing industry. One of the goals of this Cambridge Companion is to suggest what a reconfigured US literary history might look like if its center of gravity were shifted southward from Boston to New York" (5).

This line of argument is convincingly sustained by the wealth of material in the opening essays: "From British Outpost to American Metropolis" by Robert Lawson-Peebles; "Dutch New York from Irving to Wharton" by Elizabeth L. Bradley; and "The City on Stage" by Bryan Waterman. In a lively essay that recalls Peter Conrad's exuberant The Art of the City (1984), Lawson-Peebles writes that "gourmandizing lies alongside fornication at the incontinent heart" of New York's emergent textual body politic (13). Bradley shows how Washington Irving's mock epic History of New York (1809) created a fictional Dutch culture, full of whimsy and excess, that "remained New York's preferred founding myth for the twentieth century and beyond" (39). Waterman uncovers the deep roots of American theater in Royal Tyler's self-reflexive The Contrast (1787), "the first play by an American writer to be professionally staged" (43). In it we meet for the first time the New York brand of such far-reaching topoi as the tour of the city for out-of-towners, the deception of country bumpkins, the tension between pretense and sincerity, and the incessant theatricality of all areas of social life. Waterman then conducts his reader around subsequent theatrical monuments, including Benjamin Baker's A Glance at New York (1848), which introduced the stock character of the Bowery "b'hoy;" Augustin Daly's melodrama Under the Gaslight (1867) with its sensational train-tracks rescue; and Clyde Fitch's The City (1909), which stressed as never before the idea that New York is the ultimate testing ground of character: as the defeated protagonist realizes, the city "strips [a man] naked of all his disguises . . . to the City he can't lie!" (55).

A second group of essays explores mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan. In "Melville, at Sea in the City," Thomas Augst underscores how the city and its democratic ethos permeated Melville's life and writing, from his birth near the waterfront into a prosperous but soon to be ruined household; to his multiple, often unlucky sojourns as a professional writer; and finally to his long decline into obscurity as a customs inspector who trudged to the wharves six days a week for nearly twenty years. Demonstrating how Melville almost wilfully sabotaged his own career with the anti-publisher tirades of Pierre (1852), Angst brings out Melville's complex relationship to the aims of the Young America movement, which sought to relocate the country's literary capital from Boston to New York. In "Whitman's Urbanism," Lytle Shaw uses the Great Gray Poet's well-known evocations of Manahatta (Whitman never called it New York) as a starting point to chart his influence on later poets. While Crane, Langston Hughes, Lorca, George Oppen, and O'Hara make the list, Shaw shows--in a group of subtle, comparative readings--how Allen Ginsberg "drew out the utopian, unfamiliar, and even contestatory elements of Whitman in order to turn him into a countercultural ally from the 1950s onward" (79).

The nineteenth century portion of the book closes with what I find the most entertaining essay here, Caleb Crain's "The Early Literature of New York's Moneyed Class." After summarizing the substantial work recently done on New York low-life and the "Sunshine-and-Shadow" genres, Crain notes that "the literature of New York's overclass was nearly as prolific as that of its underclass" (94), and he dives delightedly into such silver-fork works as Charles Astor Bristed's The Upper Ten Thousand (1852), George William Curtis's The Potiphar Papers (1856), and the fashion and gossip columns of the city's foremost flâneur, Nathaniel Parker Willis. From Crain we learn that "the middle-aged rich men of 1850s New York hated the polka almost as consistently as they hated abolitionists" (99), and that Willis opined that a city without an opera was "like a saloon without a mirror" (97). Most intriguing is Willis's pre-Darwinian theory that, trivial as it seemed, fashion mattered immensely "because it determined which virtues the ruling class would welcome into their beds and thereby into the elite" (98).

The remaining essays explore the literature of twentieth- and twenty-first century New York. Martha Nadell's "Writing Brooklyn" moves with assurance between portraits of the Brooklyn Bridge and the borough's neighborhoods, and between genres that include stories, poems, and the coming-of-age novel or memoir, ranging from Whitman and Jack Kerouac to Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs, Thomas Wolfe and Betty Smith to Hubert Selby and Jonathan Lethem. Sarah Wilson's "New York and the Novel of Manners" intriguingly links the familiar territory of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and William Dean Howells to surprisingly similar concerns in Abraham Cahan, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson. "Immigrants, Politics, and the Popular Cultures of Tolerance," Eric Homberger's informative study of the popular 1920s play Abie's Irish Rose, exemplifies the critical method employed throughout the volume: the play "is a prism in which powerful cultural forces - ethnic relations, the impact of mass immigration, and the cross-generational complexities of assimilation - are refracted, exaggerated, and also unexpectedly clarified" (134). Melissa Bradshaw dissects the tensions between authenticity, activism, and nostalgia in "Performing Greenwich Village Bohemianism." And, in a refreshingly personal essay on "African American Literary Movements," Thulani Davis speaks of "the Baldwin I knew" (172) and the impact of earlier writers, including Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Leroi Jones /Amiri Baraka, on contemporary African American authors.

To justify the familiar claim that New York played a central role in disseminating literature, Trysh Travis (in "New York's Cultures of Print") charts the transition from the expanding nineteenth-century marketplace to the "golden age" before and after WWII, when the desire for profit was temporarily counterbalanced by a concern for quality and liberal cosmopolitan values. The gears shift audibly with the next essay, Daniel Kane's "From Poetry to Punk in the East Village," which traces the influence of a Rimbaud-esque "poetry as lifestyle" idea in the emergence of the punk scene in the 1960s and 1970s Lower East Side scene. But in a nice geographical segue, Robin Bernstein's "Staging Lesbian and Gay New York" then explores the downtown world of off- and off-off Broadway. Crammed with detail and insight - such as that penis-oriented Jewish humor is what makes Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1992-94) palatable to mainstream audiences - the essay concludes with a passionate celebration of GLBTQ theater's value to American culture.

A thought-provoking brace of essays by the editors winds up the Companion with a flourish. In "Emergent Ethnic Literatures," Patell meta-critically explores an issue germane to the entire volume: "the problems with the [limited] ways in which late twentieth century institutional multiculturalism has encouraged us to read literary texts, particular ethnic texts" (219). Beginning with the controversy over the choice of Chang-rae Lee's novel Native Speaker (1995) as a "One book, One City" selection, Patell tackles "the assumption that ethnic writing should have . . . a representative function" (220) that celebrates and preserves cultural difference. He rightly points out that "one of the abiding subjects of New York ethnic writing is the impossibility of maintaining the purity of Old World cultural traditions - or even New World cultural traditions - in an urban situation where ethnic neighborhoods impinge as closely on one another as they do in New York" (220). Favoring instead philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's notion of "cosompolitan contamination" as the most useful model for reading the ethnic literature of New York, Patell looks at the founding and development of the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe and its role in creating a hybrid literary style whose significant expressions include Piri Thomas's memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967) and Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning musical In the Heights (2007).

Finally, Bryan Waterman's "Epilogue: Nostalgia and Counter-Nostalgia in New York City Writing" considers the omnipresent idea that the best of New York is always already behind us, a sensibility that haunted the bohemians of Greenwich Village in the 1920s, as Melissa Bradshaw shows earlier in the volume, and that may be traceable back even to the founding fictions of Irving's History of New York. Yet Waterman locates an equally persistent counter-strain that can be found in places as various as the novels of Wharton and Doctorow, or the dystopian/utopian analyses of critic and memoirist Marshall Berman, which remind us that yesterday's glory was built on social and economic injustices we often prefer to ignore. What cannot be ignored, however, is the city's constant drive for rebirth, and the way in which it continually makes Mirandas of all comers: "'Tis new to thee." For those now arriving at the portals of New York culture, The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York will provide a valuable welcome.

William Chapman Sharpe is Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University. His most recent book is New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography.



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