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New York: The Writer in the Powerhouse

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

The 1920s marked the triumph of American entrepreneurship conceived as rugged individualism—nowhere more blatantly than in the city most famous for Wall Street. Hegel’s favorite student, as he called himself, John Augustus Roebling, the utopian communist and amateur metaphysician from Mühlhausen, had fled to this country from the Prussian police and had actually kept a kind of commune in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, where he first tested the wire rope he invented which made the Brooklyn Bridge possible. Everyone who recognizes its uniqueness still marvels over the central promenade—the latest bridges of course have no promenade at all. But Roebling, a Hegelian in Germany, in America a Transcendentalist, said, “It is a want of my intellectual nature to bring in harmony all that surrounds me. Every new harmony I discover is to me another messenger of peace, another pledge of my redemption.” In his “The Condition of the United States Reviewed by the Higher Law,” he urged us to consider the country not as a business partnership but a family—“a parental estate.” This amazing engineer actually believed:

Whoever discovers harmonies of nature, without being able to reconcile them, will discover that the idea of disharmony originated in his own mind, and was only reflected in that which surrounds him. Whatever you wish to perceive you can see…. Bring your own interior nature in union with the outer world, and harmony will be established.

This elevated promenade,” Roebling wrote in his prospectus, “will allow people of leisure and old and young to stroll over the bridge on fine days. I need not state that in a crowded commercial city such a promenade will be of incalculable value.” Roebling the everlasting visionary had designed the great stone towers after the Gothic cathedral in Mühlhausen. He never could separate the greatest engineering feat of his day from the ancient myth of connectedness and protection embodied in bridges. The citizen walking Brooklyn Bridge was now to be included and developed in some mighty work of harmony. The theme was not E.M. Forster’s wistful cry “Only connect!” but connection made social. This in the tumultuous brutal city of New York by synoptic experience of the greatest harbor, the already imperial city, always in sight of the immigrant’s passage and the power in freedom that became the immigrant’s dream.

2.

The drive to own and exploit every fraction of New York’s limited space was so marked early in the nineteenth century that the intellectual leaders of the city were able to conceive of a central park to keep the masses from crowding each other to death—the one-time Romantic poet and now editor of the New York Post, William Cullen Bryant, was a leader in this. What still astonishes and exhilarates about the plan offered by Frederick Law Olmsted before he became superintendent is the vision of a public place that would somehow elevate and expand what this extraordinarily practical visionary called the soul.

Olmsted detested the terrible regularity of New York streets, the gridiron plan, then suffering what Edith Wharton, a native daughter, said of the brownstones that once covered New York—“cursed with universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.” Olmsted wanted a rural unkemptness for his park, picturesque roads, and in the vast planting to replace the old swamp wasteland, wild plants, random tufts, a thick growth of low brambles, ferns, aster, gentians, irregularly spaced trees. And of course the outcroppings of rock. “Fine old trees may be left standing,” he wrote,

and to save them, the wheel-way carried a little to the right or left, or slightly raised or lowered. Such conditions…far from blemishes…add to other charms of picturesqueness, and they are a concession to nature, tending to an effect not of incongruity and incompleteness, but of consistent and happy landscape competition.

Olmsted in collaboration with the professional landscape architect Calvert Vaux and J. Wrey Mould designed every structure, miniature bridge, terrace, arch, stairway, fountain, bench, every piece of masonry work, fence, gate, lamppost, and mosaic design, without overlooking the innumerable details of every description that needed to be drawn for fabrication.

Olmsted described the park to be

throughout a single work of art, and as such subject to the primary law of every work of art, namely, that it shall be framed upon a single, noble motive, to which the design of all its parts, in some more or less subtle way, shall be confluent and helpful…. What artist so noble as he who, with far-reaching conceptions of beauty and designing-power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his interiors?

Of course Whitman was right to complain that the plan was suited to New York’s elite. Fifteen miles of perfect roads and bridle paths mainly attracted the “carriage-riding classes,” “the full oceanic tide of New York’s wealth and ‘gentility.’ ” But he admitted that the park “represented at least a trial marriage of art and enlightened enterprise, nature and the life of the city.” Even Harvard’s super-refined Charles Eliot Norton said that of all American artists Olmsted stood “first in the production of great works which answer the need and give expression to the life of our immense and miscellaneous democracy.”

Olmsted did see the representative New Yorker as someone walking through the woody Ramble, as he christened and planned it, taking in the air in a Wordsworthian access of sublimity. Little could he anticipate the sexual mayhem that became common in the Ramble during the 1960s. New York the “promised city” to the world—Yehudi Menuhin was to say in 1943 that one of the principal war aims was to get to New York—was to become in literature what another native son, Herman Melville, described as the city of darkness, of orphanage, of crushing anonymity. Still another native son, Henry James, was on his return to New York at the beginning of the twentieth century to lament the crush of democracy itself. James could be amusing about the pressure on Central Park; he compared it to an innkeeper compelled to take in everybody. But what he most admired, as a thrill to his majestic sensibility, was the power that the twentieth-century city now exhibited. The masses, especially as reflected in the immigrants thronging his old streets in lower New York, he called the agency of future ravage.

James like no other writer of the day on New York—not Dreiser in Sister Carrie, not Wharton in The House of Mirth, Stephen Crane in Maggie, Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives, or Howells in A Hazard of New Fortunes—caught in his impressions of a native’s return, in The American Scene, the physical thrill of modern New York, the boundless energy and impatience expressed in the harbor, the new skyscrapers and bridges. Before leaving the country thirty years earlier, James had thought of Europe as the great imperial idea, contrasting it with the “thin empty lovely American beauty.” Now in the presence of the powerhouse, he wrote that

The aspect the power wears then is indescribable; it is the power of the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing, as with the voice of the morning, in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions, and imparting to every object and element, to the motion and expression of every floating, hurrying, panting thing, to the throb of ferries and tugs, to the plash of waves and the play of winds and the glint of lights and the shrill of whistles and the quality and authority of breeze-borne cries—all, practically, a diffused, wasted clamour of detonations.

Of Brooklyn Bridge James saw only the force, and this he (perhaps subconsciously) identified with the mass surge he regretted.

The universal applied passion struck me as shining unprecedently out of composition; in the bigness and bravery and insolence, especially, of everything that rushed and shrieked; in the air as of a great intricate frenzied dance, half merry, half desperate, or at least half defiant, performed on the huge watery floor. This appearance of the bold lacing—together, across the waters, of the scattered members of the monstrous organism—lacking as by the ceaseless play of an enormous system of steam shuttles or electric bobbs (I scarce know what to call them), commensurate in form with their infinite work—does perhaps more than anything else to give the pitch of the vision of energy. One has the sense that the monster grows and grows, flinging abroad its loose limbs even as some unmannered young giant at his “larks,” and that the binding stitches must for ever fly further and faster and draw harder; the future complexity of the web, all under the sky and over the sea, becoming thus that of some colossal set of clockworks, some steel-souled machine-room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws. The immeasurable bridges are but as the horizontal sheaths of pistons working at high pressure, day and night, and subject, one apprehends with perhaps inconsistent gloom, to a certain, to fantastic, to merciless multiplication.

James’s impressionistic genius dominates the harbor and the bridge. This is truly, as he said of the ideal critic, “perception at the pitch of passion.” But what has he done with his own, his native city? He has turned it into an art object. In that extraordinary book of his late genius, An American Scene, James’s consideration of the life in the streets is that democracy is on a rampage, that the intrusiveness of people—some actually eating in these streets—is unbearable. The “land of consideration,” as he called the society he thought he found in England, seems wholly unintelligible in New York.

Did the old James of 1905 revisiting New York overlook anything of consequence in the modern city? Nothing whatever: this is already our New York, and none of us in our more harried moments at the rush hour can safely rebuff James’s picture of

the consummate monotonous commonness of the pushing male crowd, moving in its dense mass—with the confusion carried to chaos for any intelligence, any perception; a welter of objects and sounds in which relief, detachment, dignity, meaning, perished utterly and lost all rights.

The city has indeed become so pressing and unsafe that the crudity James merely sniffed at has been translated into a constant fear of the city—even on the part of those most stimulated by its possibilities.

James’s magnificently estranged assessment of modern New York could never have noticed what another sometime New Yorker, Tom Paine, did in early Greenwich Village—“The contrast of affluence and wretchedness is like dead and living bodies chained together.” The city becomes an aesthetic object when you become completely fascinated by the energy and multifariousness of the surface, when the urban mix comes to seem beautiful because it is such an exciting assault on your senses. The English critic Peter Conrad recently wrote an entire book about New York as art object in which the last word is the most telling. Our very existence in the city can be irrelevant.* A world city—and New York has become for the last half of the twentieth century the very capital of the century—is by the very nature of its fascination a city for visitors. Life in the Bronx, Queens, and most of Brooklyn seems to them as uneventful as Keokuk.

Still when London was a world city, Dickens had no trouble describing the routine life of the metropolis; nor did Balzac in a comparable time for Paris. But even the novelists of New York in our day are swamped by the excessive power and self-importance of the center, with its hypnotizing domination by magazines, book publishing, television, information, entertainment. The “glitzy” city, with its concomitant violence, is a landscape for journalists, for fleeting views, for unemployed actors reciting specialty dishes to yuppy computer programmers in restaurants. It is a godsend to the expert manipulators of illusion, layout, and news flash. Never, as in the press and television, were there so many conventional minds in power, and never was facile sophistication so evidently replacing intelligence. Never was so much blatant conformism, corporate ambition, and the crudest self-interest made so spectacular by images. The impersonation of art is a major industry now. Never were there so many painters, such mobs at the art museums, so much conspicuous and driveling fantasy manufactured and sold in the name of postmodernist sensationalism, so much music and information and entertainment in the unsleeping city twenty-four hours a day, so much empty emulation of fashion in the name of creativity.

As for myself—writing this very early in the morning, my time for writing anything, summoning myself at daybreak—I see not the brilliant New York night created for guests at the Plaza Hotel—but another daybreak landscape half a century ago. In 1932 or so working-class immigrant families rise together because at five Papa goes to work—sometimes to paint subway tracks and stations, sometimes even Brooklyn Bridge. Mama, a home dressmaker used to no America but her kitchen workshop, is too work-driven even for breakfast and drinks her tea at the old Singer sewing machine.

Even now, the hard pressures of the old life can turn my night into penance, something to get through before my work begins. But the morning is rebirth. Now, looking east to Central Park, I wait for the first light to hit the hard green metal partitions that divide terrace from terrace (where no one sits) above the clamorous street, along the vast housing complexes of “gentrified” Columbus Avenue. When the light finally hits those partitions and makes them glitter like ersatz emeralds, all that green rejoices me. It is so loud, strident, New York. I can now get up in good conscience. A little Bach with my coffee and I am off—and why should I not write about my landscape as well?

But mine does not always include what in my Brooklyn childhood we called New York—their city, not ours. Or as the taxi driver outside the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights said many years ago when I asked him if he couldn’t make better time to the airport going through Manhattan—“What Manhattan?” I can hardly believe some things in my own landscape of memory. Watching a demonstration of the unemployed in Union Square, I once saw police on all the neighboring roofs holding machine guns. It is easier now to remember my mother leading a pack of women to put an evicted family’s furniture back into the house. It is also more joyful to remember the old open trolley cars to Coney Island where the conductor collected his fares swinging from pole to pole along the outside platform. You knew you were approaching the water—finally—by the grass you saw between the tracks and the German beer gardens that announced the way to Steeplechase Park.

I also see myself as a small boy bringing my father’s Passover lunch to him as with a gang of painters he sits on one of the ascending cables of Brooklyn Bridge painting away on each side of him like an Eskimo propelling a kayak.

What a distance the bridge traveled as it flung itself across the river. Everything seemed far as well as powerful. New York the far flung, New York the city of distances, in which—other times, other customs—I read myself sick on the endless subway journey to and from college. The distance now seems longer than ever, time replacing space. The sense of being just a transient here, even in my native landscape, is difficult to bear.

But as Marianne Moore said of the city to which she was not born, the thing about New York—and not just in the fur district!—is “not the plunder but the accessibility to experience.” And that accessibility is so rife and ripe, comes in such cascades, such thunderclaps of too much proximity to other people’s faces, other people’s knives and forks and conversations as they sit alongside you at the next table, that you want to register so much impact, get it down on paper. Where, in the living voice, in the exchange between mind and mind, writer and reader, it may just be that community exists.

  1. *

    The Art of the City (Oxford University Press, 1984).

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