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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 Mammon; what we know and he could not yet have known is that the true tone of the city belongs to persons who have failed in that service.

Manhattan certainly has the grimiest bankruptcies and the most depressed general labor standards of any American city in which any of us could endure living. “New York,” Mr. Pritchett says, “is dotted with screamers on a scale I have seen in no other city in the world, although Naples has its share.” And Naples comes also to mind as one of the very few other cities where the poor are not only visible but pervading.

The fact is,” Mr. Pritchett observes, “that the sons and daughters of the immigrants did succeed.” I suppose this is an historical truth; if they had not, we should not have Long Island and Westchester County, to which the great grandchildren of immigrants flee every night and return to be as alien to us as their progenitors seemed to James and almost as much the cause of spite.

There are no consolations in New York except those argued by the historical sense; in the present tense, most immigrants are failures. And we often forget how many of our immigrants are country people who left the rural experience at its worst for the urban experience at its worst; our Italians, for example, are mainly Sicilians, as our Negroes are in so many cases up from the farms of South Carolina or Georgia. Even most of the Puerto Ricans seem to come from smaller cities than San Juan.

We have then a large peasant population, men who come from places where work is seasonal to a city where often there is no work at all. The Manhattan scene is surprisingly often one of contemplation; there are few stoops in summer in Harlem or the West Side that do not have their quota of men with nothing to do; the section looks like Danilo Dolci’s Partinico. The difference is that these men know they are bored, and it is a boredom continually interrupted by crises unknown to the apathy of country life. Here one is both miserable and harassed; the Harlem man you see hurrying down the street may only have been warned of the approach of his wife’s welfare worker. So many New Yorkers have to run just to be let alone.

Mr. Pritchett argues that “that there is no place where newness is so continuously pursued.” That would mean of course that there is no place where the new ages so horridly. Other cities have the charm of old soft ruins; we live with the reality of new hard ones. It is the city of the instant ruin. You ride the West Side among placards demanding “Robbins for Mayor” or “Blaikie for Borough President”; these are men who entered contests for election which have not yet been held and already they are former candidates, ruined before they could enjoy the tiniest fraction of time usually appointed for small political hopes. Those posters, old before they were new, are our Temples of Jupiter. Even the Hilton Hotel is a ready-made ghost.

Here then we are taught not the lesson of the past but the lesson of the present. We are different from everyone else in every other city, because we know what is being done to us. The word for New York, of course, is not Activity but Awareness.

This fact seems to me essential to any understanding of our real tone. It is to be noticed nowhere either in the words of Mr. Pritchett nor the photographs of Evelyn Hofer. One begins to think, in fact, that the great purpose of works in this format is to avoid giving the game away. Miss Hofer’s pictures of New Yorkers catch the New York face just once—and that on a movie poster. The face is James Cagney’s belonging, as the faces of the successful sons of our immigrants should, of course, to Los Angeles—the pupils a false blue, the mouth false of teeth but true is to smile; strung out is, I believe, the junkie word.

It is honorable of these visitors to take so much trouble not to give the game away. Miss Hofer shows her care most in two pictures of Central Park with every bottle cap and contraceptive and shard of glass picked up as painfully as Mr. Pritchett has excised every bit of dislike any man so sensitive would have to have felt. But just what would we be, after all, if we did not know at every moment we are alive here, that we are in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart? Nothing can make us charming; all that we have a right to ask is that we be given the due credit that we know.

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