Writing New York: A Literary Anthologyby Phillip Lopate
'Few cities,' writes Phillip Lopate in his introduction to this historic anthology, 'have inspired as much great writing as New York.' Here Lopate and The Library of America present a sweeping literary portrait of the city as seen through the eyes of over a hundred writers. Residents and tourists, novelists and poets, architects, politicians, social reformers,
'Few cities,' writes Phillip Lopate in his introduction to this historic anthology, 'have inspired as much great writing as New York.' Here Lopate and The Library of America present a sweeping literary portrait of the city as seen through the eyes of over a hundred writers. Residents and tourists, novelists and poets, architects, politicians, social reformers, naturalists, humorists-in unexpected and dazzling ways the writers in this volume take on the challenge of capturing New York's enduring spirit, its constantly changing public spectacle, its gossip, amusements, hard-luck stories, and tragedies. This paperback edition includes an expanded introduction and additional selections be Don DeLillo, Colson Whitehead, and Vijay Seshadri, bringing the story up to the present.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Washington Irving
Washington Irving (1783-1859), America's first successful man of letters, now known primarily for his Hudson Valley tales "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," made his initial splash at age twenty-six with a comic, mock-learned, rambling volume, whose full title, A History of New York From the Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, indicates the tongue-in-cheek, mythological manner in which Irving clothed his account of his native city's roots. The book pretended to have been written by an aged, bitter codger of Dutch extraction, Diedrich Knickerbocker -- in short, one of history's "losers." Thus began the whole "Knickerbocker" tradition, connecting that pseudonym with the city's local legends. Though A History of New York certainly has passages of farce and satire, Irving (who did considerable research) often followed historical events fairly closely. In any case, this first published history of the city attempted to provide the amnesiac, hustling, nineteenth-century port with a founding myth and a past. Its ironic, disenchanted voice set the tone for much New York literature to come.
From A History of New York
The island of Manna-hata, Manhattoes, or as it is vulgarly called Manhattan, having been discovered, as was related in the last chapter; and being unanimously pronounced by the discoverers, the fairest spot in the known world, whereon to build a city, that should surpass all the emporiums of Europe, they immediately returned to Communipaw with the pleasing intelligence. Upon this a considerable colony was forthwith fitted out, who after a prosperous voyage of half an hour,arrived at Manna hata, and having previously purchased the land of the Indians, (a measure almost unparalleled in the annals of discovery and colonization) they settled upon the south-west point of the island, and fortified themselves strongly, by throwing up a mud battery, which they named FORT AMSTERDAM. A number of huts soon sprung up in the neighbourhood, to protect which, they made an enclosure of strong pallisadoes. A creek running from the East river, through what at present is called Whitehall street, and a little inlet from Hudson river to the bowling green formed the original boundaries; as though nature had kindly designated the cradle, in which the embryo of this renowned city was to be nestled. The woods on both sides of the creek were carefully cleared away, as well as from the space of ground now occupied by the bowling green. -- These precautions were taken to protect the fort from either the open attacks or insidious advances of its savage neighbours, who wandered in hordes about the forests and swamps that extended over those tracts of country, at present called broad way, Wall street, William street and Pearl street.
No sooner was the colony once planted, than like a luxuriant vine, it took root and throve amazingly; for it would seem, that this thrice favoured island is like a munificent dung hill, where every thing finds kindly nourishment, and soon shoots up and expands to greatness. The thriving state of the settlement, and the astonishing encrease of houses, gradually awakened the leaders from a profound lethargy, into which they had fallen, after having built their mud fort. They began to think it was high time some plan should be devised, on which the encreasing town should be built; so taking pipe in mouth, and meeting in close divan, they forthwith fell into a profound deliberation on the subject.
At the very outset of the business, an unexpected difference of opinion arose, and I mention it with regret, as being the first internal altercation on record among the new settlers. An ingenious plan was proposed by Mynheer Ten Broek to cut up and intersect the ground by means of canals; after the manner of the most admired cities in Holland; but to this Mynheer Hardenbroek was diametrically opposed; suggesting in place thereof, that they should run out docks and wharves, by means of piles driven into the bottom of the river, on which the town should be built -- By this means said he triumphantly, shall we rescue a considerable space of territory from these immense rivers, and build a city that shall rival Amsterdam, Venice, or any amphibious city in Europe. To this proposition, Ten Broek (or Ten breeches) replied, with a look of as much scorn as he could possibly assume. He cast the utmost censure upon the plan of his antagonist, as being preposterous, and against the very order of things, as he would leave to every true hollander. "For what," said he, "is a town without canals? -- it is like a body without veins and arteries, and must perish for want of a free circulation of the vital fluid" -- Tough breeches, on the contrary, retorted with a sarcasm upon his antagonist, who was somewhat of an arid, dry boned habit of body; he remarked that as to the circulation of the blood being necessary to existence, Mynheer Ten breeches was a living contradiction to his own assertion; for every body knew there had not a drop of blood circulated through his wind dried carcass for good ten years, and yet there was not a greater busy body in the whole colony. Personalities have seldom much effect in making converts in argument -- nor have I ever seen a man convinced of error, by being convicted of deformity. At least such was not the case at present. Ten Breeches was very acrimonious in reply, and Tough Breeches, who was a sturdy little man, and never gave up the last word, rejoined with encreasing spirit -- Ten Breeches had the advantage of the greatest volubility, but Tough Breeches had that invaluable coat of mail in argument called obstinacy -- Ten Breeches had, therefore, the most mettle, but Tough Breeches the best bottom -- so that though Ten Breeches made a dreadful clattering about his ears, and battered and belaboured him with hard words and sound arguments, yet Tough Breeches hung on most resolutely to the last. They parted therefore, as is usual in all arguments where both parties are in the right, without coming to any conclusion -- but they hated each other most heartily forever after, and a similar breach with that between the houses of Capulet and Montague, had well nigh ensued between the families of Ten Breeches and Tough Breeches.
I would not fatigue my reader with these dull matters of fact, but that my duty as a faithful historian, requires that I should be particular -- and in truth, as I am now treating of the critical period, when our city, like a young twig, first received the twists and turns, that have since contributed to give it the present picturesque irregularity for which it is celebrated, I cannot be too minute in detailing their first causes.
After the unhappy altercation I have just mentioned, I do not find that any thing further was said on the subject, worthy of being recorded. The council, consisting of the largest and oldest heads in the community, met regularly once a week, to ponder on this momentous subject. -- But either they were deterred by the war of words they had witnessed, or they were naturally averse to the exercise of the tongue, and the consequent exercise of the brains -- certain it is, the most profound silence was maintained -- the question as usual lay on the table -- the members quietly smoked their pipes, making but few laws, without ever enforcing any, and in the mean time the affairs of the settlement went on -- as it pleased God.
As most of the council were but little skilled in the mystery of combining pot hooks and hangers, they determined most judiciously not to puzzle either themselves or posterity, with voluminous records. The secretary however, kept the minutes of each meeting with tolerable precision, in a large vellum folio, fastened with massy brass clasps, with a sight of which I have been politely favoured by my highly respected friends, the Goelets, who have this invaluable relique, at present in their possession. On perusal, however, I do not find much information -- The journal of each meeting consists but of two lines, stating in dutch, that, "the council sat this day, and smoked twelve pipes, on the affairs of the colony." -- By which it appears that the first settlers did not regulate their time by hours, but pipes, in the same manner as they measure distances in Holland at this very time; an admirably exact measurement, as a pipe in the mouth of a genuine dutchman is never liable to those accidents and irregularities, that are continually putting our clocks out of order.
In this manner did the profound council of NEW AMSTERDAM smoke, and doze, and ponder, from week to week, month to month, and year to year, in what manner they should construct their infant settlement -- mean while, the town took care of itself, and like a sturdy brat which is suffered to run about wild, unshackled by clouts and bandages, and other abominations by which your notable nurses and sage old women cripple and disfigure the children of men, encreased so rapidly in strength and magnitude, that before the honest burgomasters had determined upon a plan, it was too late to put it in execution -- whereupon they wisely abandoned the subject altogether.
Grievous, and very much to be commiserated, is the task of the feeling historian, who writes the history of his native land. If it falls to his lot to be the sad recorder of calamity or crime, the mournful page is watered with his tears -- nor can he recal the most prosperous and blissful eras, without a melancholy sigh at the reflection, that they have passed away forever! I know not whether it be owing to an immoderate love for the simplicity of former times, or to a certain tenderness of heart, natural to a sentimental historian; but I candidly confess, I cannot look back on the halcyon days of the city, which I now describe, without a deep dejection of the spirits. With faultering hand I withdraw the curtain of oblivion, which veils the modest merits of our venerable dutch ancestors, and as their revered figures rise to my mental vision, humble myself before the mighty shades.
Such too are my feelings when I revisit the family mansion of the Knickerbockers and spend a lonely hour in the attic chamber, where hang the portraits of my forefathers, shrowded in dust like the forms they represent. With pious reverence do I gaze on the countenances of those renowned burghers, who have preceded me in the steady march of existence -- whose sober and temperate blood now meanders through my veins, flowing slower and slower in its feeble conduits, until its lingering current shall soon be stopped forever!
These, say I to myself, are but frail memorials of the mighty men, who flourished in the days of the patriarchs; but who, alas, have long since mouldered in that tomb, towards which my steps are insensibly and irresistibly hastening! As I pace the darkened chamber and lose myself in melancholy musings, the shadowy images around me, almost seem to steal once more into existence -- their countenances appear for an instant to assume the animation of life -- their eyes to pursue me in every movement! carried away by the delusion of fancy, I almost imagine myself surrounded by the shades of the departed, and holding sweet converse with the worthies of antiquity!
-- Luckless Diedrich! born in a degenerate age -- abandoned to the buffettings of fortune -- a stranger and a weary pilgrim in thy native land; blest with no weeping wife, nor family of helpless children -- but doomed to wander neglected through those crowded streets, and elbowed by foreign upstarts from those fair abodes, where once thine ancestors held sovereign empire. Alas! alas! is then the dutch spirit forever extinct? The days of the patriarchs, have they fled forever? Return -- return sweet days of simplicity and ease -- dawn once more on the lovely island of Manna hata! -- Bear with me my worthy readers, bear with the weakness of my nature -- or rather let us sit down together, indulge the full flow of filial piety, and weep over the memories of our great great grand-fathers.
Having thus gratified those feelings irresistibly awakened by the happy scenes I am describing, I return with more composure to my history.
The town of New Amsterdam, being, as I before mentioned, left to its own course and the fostering care of providence, increased as rapidly in importance, as though it had been burthened with a dozen panniers full of those sage laws, which are usually heaped upon the backs of young cities -- in order to make them grow. The only measure that remains on record of the worthy council, was to build a chapel within the fort, which they dedicated to the great and good St. Nicholas, who immediately took the infant town of New Amsterdam under his peculiar patronage, and has ever since been, and I devoutly hope will ever be, the tutelar saint of this excellent city. I am moreover told, that there is a little legendary book somewhere extant, written in low dutch, which says that the image of this renowned saint, which whilome graced the bowsprit of the Goede Vrouw, was placed in front of this chapel; and the legend further treats of divers miracles wrought by the mighty pipe which the saint held in his mouth; a whiff of which was a sovereign cure for an indigestion, and consequently of great importance in this colony of huge feeders. But as, notwithstanding the most diligent search, I cannot lay my hands upon this little book, I entertain considerable doubt on the subject.
This much is certain, that from the time of the building of this chapel, the town throve with tenfold prosperity, and soon became the metropolis of numerous settlements, and an extensive territory. The province extended on the north, to Fort Aurania or Orange, now known by the name of Albany, situated about 160 miles up the Mohegan or Hudson River. Indeed the province claimed quite to the river St. Lawrence; but this claim was not much insisted on at the time, as the country beyond Fort Aurania was a perfect wilderness, reported to be inhabited by cannibals, and termed Terra Incognita. Various accounts were given of the people of these unknown parts; by some they are described as being of the race of the Acephali, such as Herodotus describes, who have no heads, and carry their eyes in their bellies. Others affirm they were of that race whom father Charlevoix mentions, as having but one leg; adding gravely, that they were exceedingly alert in running. But the most satisfactory account is that given by the reverend Hans Megapolensis, a missionary in these parts, who, in a letter still extant, declares them to be the Mohagues or Mohawks; a nation, according to his description, very loose in their morals, but withal most rare wags. "For," says he, "if theye can get to bedd with another mans wife, theye thinke it a piece of wit." This excellent old gentleman gives moreover very important additional information, about this country of monsters; for he observes, "theye have plenty of tortoises here, and within land, from two and three to four feet long; some with two heads, very mischievous and addicted to biting."
Copyright © 1998 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.
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Phillip Lopate, editor, is an essayist, novelist, and poet, whose books include: the personal essay trilogy Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, and Portrait of My Body; and Waterfront:?A Journey Around Manhattan. He has also edited Art of the Personal Essay and American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now.
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