Thursday, January 13, 2011

Five Books of New York

Edmund White brought down his decalogue of New York books in the Guardian yesterday. The list is particularly good, not merely because it was compiled by an excellent writer (who thereby sheds light on his own writing), but because it contains several books that I was unfamiliar with.

In White’s spirit, then, here is a Pentateuch of New York books I am hoping you don’t know yet. The problem, of course, is how to narrow the list. Many of the best novels about New York are about Jewish immigrants to the city (The Rise of David Levinsky, Bread Givers, Jews Without Money, Call It Sleep), but I have already recommended them elsewhere. Same with Chang-rae Lee’s terrific Native Speaker, which is not only one of the best immigrant novels ever written but probably the best about one of the “outer boroughs.”

What is wanted are definitive accounts of defining New York experiences. Such as:

(1.) W. D. Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889). After the Civil War, the cultural center of the United States shifted from Boston to New York. Howells’s great novel not only chronicles the shift, but is also a major example of it. Basil March relocates to New York to start a magazine and meet social radicals. The novel is the New York intellectuals’ book of Genesis. Perry Miller’s Raven and the Whale covers the prehistory. Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel The Unpossessed picks up the story half a century later, when the Jews barged onto the scene. Thomas Bender’s 1987 history of New York Intellect is an academic overview, reliable and free of jargon.

(2.) Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936). Powell told her diary that she had “the perfect New York story” for her first New York novel. (Her first six novels were largely set in her native Ohio.) The perfect story: adultery and reputation-burnishing in the literary world. It is as if Cakes and Ale were written over in the style of Evelyn Waugh, only more aphoristic and even more fast-paced. Powell is hard on publishers, critics, blurb-writers, agents, second-rank novelists, would-be novelists, washed-up novelists, and novelists’ wives, ex-wives, and mistresses. Anyone who dreams that if he can make it there he can make it anywhere should read Powell first.

(3.) Calder Willingham, Natural Child (1952). The most unusual (and perhaps most insightful) novel ever written about the Young Man from the Provinces who comes to New York to pursue artistic dreams. In this case, the young man is a young woman, and the province from which she hails is the South. The outsider’s perspective, and the ear for regional differences in speech and self-understanding, make Willingham’s book a rewarding read. To say nothing of the humor, which makes the book a breezy and enjoyable read to boot. William Styron tries to cover much of the same ground in Sophie’s Choice, but does so without humor and with much earnest pseudo-philosophizing. In a peculiar way, Ellison’s Invisible Man, published the same year as Willingham’s novel (and far better, of course), belongs to the same genre.

(4.) Louis Auchincloss, The Embezzler (1966). A precursor to Bernie Madoff, Guy Prime was a “symbol of well-born affluence, of the grandeur of old New York.” He traveled in the highest social circles of New York in the ’thirties. Then he betrayed his class by embezzling $350,000 from his country club. Life among New York’s filthy rich was the native ground of the late Louis Auchincloss, who died almost exactly one year ago. The Age of Innocence, which features an embezzler in a subordinate role, is the classic account of the class at its zenith. Steven Millhauser’s brilliant 1996 novel Martin Dressler, about a New York hotelier a century ago, may be the best novel ever written about American business.

(5.) Ruth R. Wisse, A Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988). Covering fifty years of New York’s largely unknown literary history, the great critic’s best book tells the story of Di Yunge, the gifted young Yiddish poets who washed up on Manhattan’s shores in the early decades of the last century. Wisse focuses upon two of the group—Mani Leib and Moishe Leib Halpern. Suddenly the minor characters in Abraham Cahan’s and Anzia Yezierska’s novels spring to life, along with the coffeehouses where they argued and the newspapers that competed bitterly for the dwindling Yiddish readership in New York. Although narrower in scope—perhaps because it is narrower in scope—Wisse’s book is everything that Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers should have been.

I would have liked to end the list with Richard Price’s wonderfully sordid crime novel Lush Life (2008), set in a quarter of the city rarely visited by book readers, but I seem to have run out of space.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Well, your list worked like White's for me. The superb quality of the one I know (Ruth Wisse's book) lends credibility to the rest.

I would never have thought of Perry Miller's history as a "New York book." But it is, obviously. That one I read on your recommendation, way back when. It's been enormously useful.

Meytal Radzinski said...

Even though I have an inherent issue with modern New York books, I like that this list is comprised of very diverse titles. This isn't just a list of books that take place in New York, with the modern young New Yorker at its center, assuming New York to be the greatest place in the world...

Though I haven't read any of these books, each one seems like it touches on a very different, perhaps less known aspect of New York (or as you say, the New York experience). It seems like these books don't necessarily sugar-coat the city or its faults (Turn, Magic Wheel sounds great) and also look at completely different subjects.

Sean K said...

I've been a lurker for a few months and love your blog. I read Lolita, and am reading Nemesis on your recommendation. They're both excellent. Now I've five.. er.. six more to put on my "to read" list.

Lane Eliezer said...

How about Jewish and outer borough? Alfred Kazin's memoir, "A Walker in the City".

D. G. Myers said...

Kazin’s memoir was the second book that White listed.

Shelley said...

Perfect: I was just thinking last night that I want to read W.D. Howells, because you've got to love him for the social conscience he showed in his era. I just read War On Words by Michael Gilmore, which disucsses how pre-and post-Civil War writers censored themselves both to mollify the South before the war and because they were writing for a blood-sickened and conflict-weary nation afterwards.

David Gruber said...


My question isn't directly in response to this particular post, but I was trying to think of a novel written about character or characters who deliberately renounce Judaism or Jewish life (either voluntarily or under threat of violence). I couldn't come up with one, so I was wondering if you could. Thanks for considering it.

D. G. Myers said...


The first title that occurs to me is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives. There have to be others, though. I’ll keep thinking.


David Gruber said...

Thank you, DG. I appreciate the suggestion and I'll let you know if I think of any other books that touch on this theme.

Fran Manushkin said...

I'm casting a second vote for Ruth Wisse's great book about the New York Yiddish poets. It's time for me to read it again.