Notes from the Underground

New York Proclaimed

by V.S. Pritchett, with photographs by Evelyn Hofer
Harcourt, Brace & World, 116 pp., $15.00

Mr. Pritchett said once that the English novel has to envy William Faulkner the lawlessness of his subjects. We end this patiently, almost desperately, cheerful little chronicle of Mr. Pritchett’s exile among us envying him the lawfulness of his natural home. He is a man who has elevated charm and cleverness to absolute virtues, and those happen to be the peculiar qualities which serve us least for understanding ourselves. The one tone about us that is of no use at all is the agreeable one.

“If Paris suggests Intelligence, if London suggests Experience,” Mr. Pritchett says, “then the word for New York is Activity. There is,” he tells us, “not an inactive man, woman or child in the place…. The prime example is the bum or the derelict…. The supremely passive man in theory, he will stop in the middle of the street as he crosses the Bowery, holding up his dirty hand at the traffic, and scream in the manner of madness at the oncoming driver.”

One charm of the English temperament is the refinement of its tolerance of the eccentric; but this quality does inhibit recognition of the insane. Mr. Pritchett is too kind to suggest it, but New York screams not in the manner but in the condition of madness.

New York has, as an instance, half the junkie population of the United States. Drug addiction is an illness of contemplation, but it is a habit that requires activity. I remember a musician telling me once that it isn’t the stuff that kills you, it’s trying to find it. The appearance in this case then is Activity; the fact is Resignation. New York is a city of persons who want to opt out and are not permitted to.

There will never be a way to look at the city except from the shoulders of Henry James. Mr. Pritchett ascends those shoulders from the same sense of duty he has brought to the ascension of everything in the city, but he is no more comfortable there than elsewhere. It is hard for him to accept so much hatred of one’s native place as James displays; yet a certain hatred of New York is essential to any true feeling for it. More than any other city I know, it can give the visitor the sense of being the native; to stop here is to be at once not just spectator but also victim, and to live in any city is to be more often the second than the first.

To James there was no word but Monster, and no image except the hallucinatory—“the darkened gorges of masonry (which downtown, in particular, put on at their mouths, the semblance of black ratholes, holes of gigantic rats, inhabited by whirlwinds)”—and no final impression but of “the vast money-making structure [which] quite horribly, quite romantically justified itself, looming through the weather with an insolent cliff-like sublimity.” James quite fixes us in our certainty that New York has no purpose but consecration to…

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