November 14, 2018

When a Human Being Is an Event: Visions of New York City in Fact and Fiction

By Stuart Mitchner

Whenever I think of New York City in fiction, the first two novels that come to mind are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which was published on or before November 14, 1851, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published on July 16, 1951. Ishmael’s voyage, the remedy for the “damp, drizzly November” in his soul, begins on “a dreamy Sabbath afternoon” in “your insular city of the Manhattoes,” where “the streets take you waterward.” The “madman stuff” that happens to Holden Caulfield on his voyage through Manhattan leads him to, among other places, “the movies at Radio City,” which was, he says, “probably the worst thing I ever did.” 

McPhee on Manhattan

While John McPhee is not a writer readers normally associate with the city of the Manhattoes, his new work The Patch (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), published yesterday, November 13, and previewed here last month, offers ample evidence of a Princeton commuter’s long-term relationship, including a piece on the Radio City Music Hall whose opening paragraph might have moved Holden Caulfield to call him up for a chat:

“A little boy is going to come to New York someday, disappear, then eventually return to his hometown as a middle-aged man. When his mother says, ‘Where were you all this time?,’ he will tell her, ‘In the line at the Radio City Music Hall.’ He may even introduce her to the girl he met near the end of the queue, courted between Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Plaza, and married at Sixth and Fiftieth.” 

The second part of The Patch, an anthology of pieces collected for the first time in book form, concludes with a celebration of Alaska containing  an evocation of “megalopolitan towns” in McPhee’s “part of the world,” where “people are so numerous that if they were all to come out of the buildings at once they would not fit in the streets. As one result, and perhaps as a form of survival, they tend to close each other out. Conversation goes off at peculiar angles. Glances run perpendicular to the channel of the talk. No one is listening.” In Alaska’s “small, high latitude communities, … a human being is an event.”

Election Aftermaths

Human beings and events are one and the same in the city of the ages Teresa Carpenter explores in New York Diaries: 1609-2009 (Modern Library $26), an embarrassement of riches that makes for  addictive, irresponsible, non-linear reading. With the election still very much on my mind, especially after Thursday’s Hinds Plaza rally supporting the Mueller investigation, I went right to the month of November and painter John Sloan’s reference to “the din of the thoughtless” celebrating Election Night 1908. After noting that William Jennings Bryan was defeated “for the third time in his attempt to be President,” Sloan writes, “I voted for him for I feel that some stop must be put to the rottenness in the Republican administration. But, as usual, I’m on the losing side. ‘Bill’ Taft, a jolly looking fat man designated by [Theodore] Roosevelt as his successor gets the office — and the cancerous growth is to have four more years. I’m not a Democrat, I am of no party. I’m for change — for the operating knife when a party rots in power.”

Another entry from Sloan comes on Election Day 1907, where “noisy trumpet blowers, confetti throwers and ‘ticklers’ are in use–a small feather duster on a stick which is pushed in the face of each girl by the men, and in the face of men by the girls.” It’s a “good humorous crowd, so dense in places that it was impossible to control one’s movement.” And there’s “a big election bonfire on Seventh Avenue, with a policeman trying to keep its creators from adding fuel.”

A few pages later, on November 8, 1881, Theodore Roosevelt is noting his election to the New York legislature “by a majority of 1501” over the Democratic candidate.

November Mob

Given the post-election chaos we’re living through in mid-November 2018, it’s jarring to read journalist Edward Robb Ellis’s November 30, 1954 entry comparing a Madison Square Garden Rally for Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy to “a cocked gun that failed to fire” because of, among other things, “the GOP defeat in the election” and McCarthy’s “subsequent loss of his chairmanship” and thus his command of the “witch hunt” against Communist subversion of American institutions. Ellis refers to speakers who “turned truth inside out” declaring to the “frenetically shrieking people…that everything they said was cold rationalism. We believe in law and order, they shouted, even as they ejected a girl photographer who had broken no law, committed no disorder…They said more much more, but they failed to spew the words that could have unleashed the beasts. The mob wanted to hear about mob-given laws. It wanted to be told that it had ascended to the throne.”

When Donald Trump’s onetime mentor Roy Cohn showed up to “help the mob make love to itself,” there arose “a throaty chant: ‘We want Roy, we want Roy!’” As Cohn approached the speakers’s platform, “the audience rumbled expectantly. Roy would tell everyone! Roy had all the answers!…This was the moment! But — he fizzled out,” unreeling “long and involved sentences,” serving “pap when the mob wanted red meat.” However, “he did shoot one dose of hyperbole” into the mob: ‘If the Senate …votes to censure, it will be committing the blackest act in our whole history!’”

Had Cohn “machine-gunned bursts of short emotional words into that audience, he would have carried the night — and maybe the entire history of the nation. Greased with the poison of lies, they would have found their mark and killed the soul of an entire people. Instead, he shot over their heads. He should have aimed at their bellies.”

Cohn’s protégé knows all too well where to aim. And here we are.

Intimations of 9/11

As you’d expect, Teresa Carpenter gives special attention to the dates September 11 to 17, 2001, although personal narratives of the attack on the World Trade Center and the aftermath have been so thoroughly and widely documented that she was hard put to find much that was worthy of the enormity of the event. Among the bloggers she quotes, a Brooklyn cook and restauranteur writes, “People keep asking me if I want to get out of the city now. I don’t want to get out at all. I feel I’ve been nailed to this city forever, tattooed as its own.”

Some of the most interesting entries are from Simone de Beauvoir’s 1947 visit. If you still have images of September 11 in your consciousness, it may heighten your response to what she writes on January 26: “Rising above the skyscrapers, the sky surges through the straight streets; it’s too vast for the city to tame, and it overflows.” The entry ends with a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty: “I just want to see a view of the Battery as I’ve so often seen it in the movies. I do see it. In the distance, its towers seem fragile. They rest so precisely on their vertical lines that the slightest shudder would knock them down like a house of cards. When the boat draws closer, their foundations seem firmer, but the fall line remains indelibly traced. What a field day a bomber would have!”

“An Auditory Illusion”

In books as carefully mined as Diaries, there are gems everywhere, whether it’s Andy Warhol on March 11, 1978 (“I had a lot of dates but decided to stay home and dye my eyebrows”), or the Empire State Building as seen by novelist Dawn Powell on November 15, 1931 (“The most magical spot in the world”) and poet James Schuyler on November 9, 1987 (“silvery and half erased and more beautiful than I’ve ever seen it”).

On January 28, 1939, novelist Glenway Westcott writes, “I bought a newspaper to read on top of the Fifth Avenue bus, and therein came upon the news of the death of Yeats, and to my astonishment experienced an auditory illusion: two or three claps of thunder, not loud, at a distance, but awe-inspiring on that bright winter day.”

Melville’s Mountain

Diaries offers a glimpse of the author of Moby Dick on October 1, 1856, from his friend Evert Duyckinck: “Herman Melville passed the Evening with us — fresh from his mountain charged to the muzzle with his sailor metaphysics and jargon of things unknowable. But a good stirring evening ploughing deep and bringing up to the surface some rich fruits of thought and experience.”

Finally, there’s some disagreement about when Moby-Dick was published. In fact, its first appearance, as The Whale, was in England on October 18, 1851. According to A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984), the American publication date was November 14. Andrew Delbanco’s Melville The Man and His Work has it as November 1. In any case, few dates are more central to Melville’s writing life than November 14, 1851, for it was then that, according to Delbanco, the first copies of Moby-Dick arrived at his home in Pittsfield, Mass. On that same day Melville took a copy over to Nathaniel Hawthorne in Lenox “and invited his friend out to dinner at the local hotel.” Two days later Hawthorne wrote the “joy-giving and exultation-breeding” response that inspired one of Melville’s longest, happiest letters, in which he says, “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book.” Months before the high of November 14, however, there was the June low of the letter to Hawthorne with its admission, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” In fact, he died in comfortable surroundings a little less than 40 years later at 104 E. 26th Street, so little known by then that the New York Times death notice identified him as “Henry Melville.”

J.D. Salinger died on January 27, 2010, leaving behind a number of manuscripts arranged for publication. Almost nine years later, his heirs have released nothing, an unhappy echo of Holden’s closing line, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”