Out of Step with the World

Joseph Mitchell’s New York is long vanished. We can only argue about whose New York has succeeded it, but Tom Wolfe’s, painted in his broad, gaudy burlesque strokes, would have to be considered. With its lunatic obsession with money, New York from Reagan through Giuliani has become too grotesque to be captured by mere satire. Satire is subtle; turn-of-the-millennium New York runs irresistibly to grossness.

In The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe has a character die while dining in a fancy East Side restaurant and paints a scene, both hilarious and disgusting, in which the management’s only concerns are to get the body out fast and to collect the bill for the dead man’s unfinished meal. They end up shoving the body through a toilet window. It is hard to recall a more savage literary comment on New York’s character.

Some readers thought Wolfe unjustly cruel to the city, and maybe he was. Still, in the present New York people go out to dinner, pay a thousand dollars a bottle for the wine, and go home to three-million-dollar apartments while others are bedding down on sidewalks in cardboard boxes. Only burlesque can catch the spirit of it.

New Yorks come and go so quickly that literature has trouble keeping up with them. From Washington Irving to Poe to Melville to Whitman to Edith Wharton, somebody’s “old New York” has always been turning into a new city. Joseph Mitchell became its chronicler as F. Scott Fitzgerald was leaving the scene, and Mitchell’s city would have absolutely none of the gauzy romantic charm of Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald’s New York was a 1920 prairie boy’s dream of white towers and gloriously desirable girls, but Daisy Buchanan already belonged to a past as remote as Lillian Russell and Boss Tweed on the day Mitchell arrived in town. That was October 25, 1929. The stock market had crashed the day before.

Mitchell was not much for romantic charm anyhow, but in a dark time he saw and painted the city as a place with a great sweetness of character which eased the hard lives he recorded. His New York was born of the crash, hardened by the Great Depression, civilized by the sense of mission generated by World War II, and made genial by the Eisenhower era’s sense of well-being.

When he stopped writing in the 1960s the inevitable change was almost complete. The martini hour was ending; marijuana, hallucinogens, and the needle in the arm were the new way. The tinkling piano in the next apartment was giving way to the guitar in the park. People now had so much money that they could afford to look poor. Men quit wearing fedoras and three-piece suits to Yankee Stadium and affected a hobo chic—all whiskers and no creases. Women quit buying hats and high-heeled shoes and started swearing like Marine sergeants. College students, who had once rioted for the pure joy of it, began …

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