Imagining new york city shaun O’Connell


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Shaun O’Connell
Gotham, Metropolis, The Empire City, The Big Apple, Fun City, Sodom-on-the-Hudson, Wonderful Town, City of Destruction, Mannahatta! Over four centuries New York City has been named and renamed by those who have sought to capture its extraordinary reach and grasp in language. For writers who have set out to encompass the city’s magnitude in a range of literary forms and images, New York has been at once a city of imagination, aspiration, realization, celebration and denunciation. Hyperbole and dramatic disagreement are essential elements in the New York literary style. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed "New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world." Yet for columnist Murray Kempton "New York is just a failure," while for novelist Truman Capote "every street in New York could be taken as a party.” For essayist Alfred Kazin New York is a fabulous city, a kind of utopia, the city for writers, artists and other seekers. Parts of the city have been deemed marginal -- Norman Mailer wrote "Brooklyn is not the center of anything" and Ralph Ellison said “Harlem is nowhere” -- but Manhattan has always been the vital center of the city that not only never sleeps but never stops transforming itself.


No one gave the city more symbolic resonance than Walt Whitman, “a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,” as he named himself in “Song of Myself,” the opening aria of Leaves of Grass, his high-pitched celebration of his nation and city. “Mannahatta! How fit the name for America’s great democratic island city! how aboriginal! how it seems to rise with tall spires, glistening in sunshine, with such New World atmosphere, vista and action!” Thus does Whitman combine the contraries of New York – the region’s Native American past with the city’s ethnically diverse future. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman sought mystical union with New Yorkers who “cross from shore to shore” in his day and in the future. Writing in the mid-decades of the 19th century, he celebrated the city while its resources were strained by the arrival of immigrants, but Whitman went to Castle Garden to welcome these newcomers to America. While the city and nation tore itself apart over the issue of slavery, Whitman affirmed unity. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he said and wrote Leaves of Grass (1855, 1st ed.) to prove it.

A generation before Whitman wrote these word, when New York was still a semi-pastoral village, Washington Irving created the first lasting literary work of New York City in his mock-epic, A History of New York From The Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809), a campy account of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam that became New York when the English took it over in 1664. Irving assumes the pompous voice of Dietrich Knickerbocker in his gentle satire: “this thrice favored island is like a munificent dung hill, where every thing finds kindly nourishment, and soon shoots up and expands to greatness.”

For Irving, the small settlement huddled at the lower end of Manhattan island was “the delectable city of New York.” Yet, like so many New York writers after him, Irving expressed nostalgia for the lost, coherent city of his youth and apprehension over its problematic future. Knickerbocker concluded his account with a portrait of the old and embittered Peter Stuyvesant, the man who tried to contain New Amsterdam by building a wall (now Wall Street) against British encroachment. But the British took over and the quaint, Dutch colony was subsumed into memory. Ever after New Yorkers have been committed to a build-up, tear-down pattern of development and regret. New York “is, in a strange way, the capital of nostalgia,” for the city, particularly Manhattan, “absolutely refuses to remain as it was,” writes Pete Hamill in Downtown: My Manhattan (2004). A century earlier, Knickerbocker hoped that from his own home ground would “spring many a sweet wild flower, to adorn my beloved island of Manna-hata!” Unimaginable and exotic growths would soon spring from the island’s soil.

A decade after Irving’s History appeared, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman were born in what is now New York City. While Whitman saw the city’s bright promise, Melville portrayed its dark dangers in his fiction (Pierre, “Bartleby the Scrivener”) and poetry. In 1863 the city’s Irish immigrants rose up against being conscripted to fight in the Civil War and attacked African-Americans as scapegoats. Melville responded in “The House-Top,” a poem which portrays the city as an inhuman wasteland: “The Town is taken by rats – ship rats/ And rats of the wharves.”

Thus did Melville and Whitman, who never met, offer sharply contrasting images of the city, the symbolic center of the nation.


After the Civil War, New York City, no longer Melville’s “insular island,” became a humming metropolis. Central Park commenced construction, thousands of new immigrants arrived, seeking the promise of American life in crowded tenements; Robber Barons also arrived, seeking wealth in grand mansions; Tammany Hall sought to consolidate its political power, skyscrapers rose, ethnic ghettos festered and the gangs of New York (The Plug-Uglies, The Bowery Boys, The Five-Pointers among them) ruled the streets. William Dean Howells, Henry James and Edith Wharton, committed literary realists, recoiled from the city’s vulgarities and naked greed, but they chronicled in their compelling fiction and essays the changing social scene and they sought its elusive moral center.

Howells was the son of an Ohio printer, James was the son of a rootless middle-class, eccentric philosopher, and Wharton was the daughter of privilege, a member of Manhattan’s exclusive “four hundred,” so named because that number of the city’s social elite attended balls in the mansion of Mrs. William Astor in the 1850s. (After her mansion was torn down in 1897, the Waldorf-Astoria was built on the site; this, in turn, was razed in 1929 and replaced by the Empire State Building.) Howells and James met in Boston, which O. W. Holmes had deemed “the hub of the solar system,” where Howells published James’s stories in The Atlantic Monthly, the leading literary journal of the era. However, when Howells abandoned Boston and moved to New York City to write for Harper’s in the 1880s, he took “the literary center of the country with him,” observes Kazin, “from Boston to New York.” There, Howells wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), an epic urban novel that intersects a large cast of characters drawn from all social levels. They cooperate to publish a magazine, but a streetcar strike puts them at odds and results in tragedy. Class conflict shatters social coherence in a fractured city.

Henry James’s Washington Square (1880) shows how new wealth and ambition corrupted traditional family loyalties as the city surged uptown, leaving quaint Washington Square, where James was born, behind. In The American Scene (1907) James says goodbye to all that he had loved as a boy in the city, which he now called “remarkable, unspeakable New York,” reflecting his ambivalence. In 1904, on return from two decades in Europe, James was overwhelmed by the city’s growth, its “dauntless power” and its crass vulgarity. It was, he declared, a “monstrous organism” threatening to consume its inhabitants. Yet James was enthralled by the breadth and intensity of the city, “the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing, as with the voice of mourning, in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions.”

James met Edith Wharton, who was a generation younger, at a Park Avenue dinner party. “The Master,” as she called him, told Wharton to “Do New York!” in her fiction. In a series of compelling novels, Wharton did just that, balancing satire of her own stilted and repressive class with detailed recollections of its tribal habits, particularly in The House of Mirth (1905), where the city’s class system destroys a woman who seeks success without moral compromise. By the time Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence (1920), a novel about a New York aristocrat’s failed effort to escape his class destiny, Wharton was able to transcend bitter satire and find “good in the old ways” of New York high society, which had been largely eroded after World War I.

Howells, James and Wharton emphasized the city’s social and financial invidious distinctions. For them, post-Civil War New York was a stage set for the display of conspicuous consumption, capitalistic expansion and class conflicts resulting from avaricious social climbers and desperate immigrants. The city tested the limits of the American dream of democratic polity. Yet, above all, the city represented to Howells, James and Wharton the supreme artistic challenge: to “Do New York!”

At the turn into the 20th century, many ambitious, young writers focused attention upon the city’s dispossessed, those barred from “the great barbecue,” so named by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age (1873), revealing what Jacob Riis called How the Other Half Lives (1890). As New York incorporated boroughs into The City of Greater New York (1894) and established its identity as America’s Gotham, its writers chronicled more accurately and vividly than ever before its powers to create and destroy. As the city absorbed a wider range of citizens – the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” as Emma Lazarus put it in words inscribed at the base of The Statue of Liberty – so too did original voices contend over the city’s meaning and purpose.

Stephen Crane took his lead from Riis, exploring the city’s dark streets for exemplary tales of victimization, most dramatically in Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893), a brutal novella which shows that life in the urban ghetto was nasty, mean, brutish and short. Maggie, seduced and abandoned, ends up in the East River, unnoticed in an indifferent city. In “An Experiment in Misery,” a 1894 sketch of urban misery, Crane evoked a nation callous to the “other half.” “The voice of the city’s hopes were to him no hopes.”

Alternately, Horatio Alger portrayed the romance of urban life, the exhilaration of Manhattan. From Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York (1867) to Adrift in New York (1902), Alger showed how “pluck and luck” prevail, how character triumphs over circumstances, even in this perilous city. In counterpoint, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) described the extremes of success and failure that outlanders found in the city. Carrie becomes a star, her name in lights, but her lover, Hurstwood, commits suicide, “an inconspicuous drop in an ocean like New York.” Dreiser’s candid novel did not sell, but Alger’s implausible myths of benign New York were satisfyingly received by Americans who were moving off the farms into the cities.

O. Henry, whose urban fables were equally popular, wrote not of the elite “four hundred,” Wharton’s caste and class, but, in The Four Million (1906) and The Voice of the City (1908), he expressed compassion for the nameless “four million,” the true “voice of the city.” Abraham Cahan, an immigrant from Lithuania, edited the Jewish Daily Forward for half a century, providing expression for the city’s swelling Jewish immigrant colony. Cahan legitimized Jewish-American writing in The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), a great novel of the immigrant experience that portrays young David’s joy at seeing from Staten Island how America “unfolded itself like a divine revelation” and was embodied in the city. However, Cahan, a socialist satirist, also portrayed the cultural and moral costs of assimilation.

Adding to the ethnic mosaic of the city, Irish-American writers gave voice to the hundreds of thousand émigrés from Ireland since the Famine of the 1840s. In Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics (1905), a book of political comments shaped by William L. Riordan, George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany boss, affirmed the values that had made the American Irish successful in New York: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em!” Plunkitt practiced “honest graft” to become, in his view, “a statesman.” Candor and casualness characterized the Irish-American style. (New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling suggests that “New Yorkees is the common speech of nineteenth-century Cork, transplanted during the mass immigration of the South Irish.”) As Finley Peter Dunne, the most famous Irish-American writer of the era, has his bartender spokesman, Mr. Dooley, say, “When we Americans are through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.” If so, its music was composed by George M. Cohan, who incorporated the city’s street voices into patriotic (“You’re A Grand Old Flag”) and sentimental songs (“Give My Regards to Broadway”). Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant to the city, followed the example of his mentor with “Easter Parade,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and other celebrations of Broadway, the “Great White Way.” Cohan’s statue stands proudly in the midst of Time’s Square, a tribute to the city’s incorporation of ethnic voices into its discourse.


After the Great War, New York City overreached itself during the Roaring Twenties until the Crash of 1929 plunged the city and the nation into the Great Depression. However, for a decade, the city celebrated. “My candle burns at both ends;/ It will not last the night,” wrote Edna Millay in A Few Figs from Thistles (1922), “But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--/ It gives a lovely light!” The city in the 1920’s embodied an informing parable of the nation’s giddy rise and dizzying fall.

No one burned brighter or flamed-out quicker than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who named the “Jazz Age” and illustrated the wonders of the city in his lyrical prose poetry. “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, it its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the word.” However, The Great Gatsby (1925) conveys the disillusionments that wait on the other side of the bridge. Gatsby, the naïve dreamer, is killed, as is his faith that the promise of American life could be realized in New York City. When the Empire State Building opened in 1931, Fitzgerald viewed the city from its heights and realized that even New York “had limits,” that “New York was a city after all and not a universe.” He saw that “the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.”

Fitzgerald’s friend, novelist John Dos Passos, looking at the city through the eyes of a Harvard aesthete turned by the Great War into a political radical, saw from the start that New York was “the City of Destruction,” a proposition he demonstrated in Manhattan Transfer (1925), a “collective novel” that showed the city’s power to break the lives and hearts of its citizens. Narrated in fragmentary style, the novel combines modernist inventiveness with political pessimism, reflecting Dos Passes’ ambivalence about the city.

Edmund Wilson, a friend of Fitzgerald since their days at Princeton, became the great chronicler of the city’s erotic and artistic possibilities, particularly in Greenwich Village, in The American Earthquake (1925), but he was irked by overbuilding and preferred to remember “when New York was…bracing,…electric and full of light.” In the end, like his lover, Edna Millay, and his friend, Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson sought refuge elsewhere. For all three writers, New York City was a romantic dream and a chastening education, an artistic challenge and a symbolic landscape of spiritual realization.

Hart Crane’s epic poem, The Bridge (1923), his “mystical synthesis of America,” looks back to Whitman’s loose, long-line format in its celebration of The Brooklyn Bridge, which Crane studied from his Brooklyn Heights room. The poem preserves the wonder of Crane’s first shimmering vision of the city as Atlantis, though that city drowned, as would Crane, but Crane “somehow got New York City,” wrote Robert Lowell; “he was at the center of things in a way that no other poet was.”

After the Great War writers, celebrating and denouncing, stood in awe of the city’s powers. New York City held both the dream of success and the nightmare of failure. Writers showed it to be at once a city of destruction and a supreme challenge to the artistic imagination to invent forms commensurate with its capacity to wonder.


Harlem became the home of African-Americans who arrived in upper-Manhattan after the Great War; this “Great Migration” created “a site of the black cultural sublime,” wrote Alain Locke in a 1925 manifesto, The New Negro. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s was a burst of artistic expression that called attention to African-American genius, from Duke Ellington to Ralph Ellison, and articulated a resonant voice in the city’s chorus of self-expression. In Black Manhattan (1930), James Weldon Johnson praised Harlem as “a phenomenon, a miracle straight out of the skies." Others saw a sadder side. Langston Hughes called it “Harlem of the bitter dream.” All agreed with Hughes that “Harlem was in Vogue” during the 1920’s.

The range and variety of expression in Harlem of the 1920’s was dizzying, exhilarating and transient. W.E.B Du Bois led the way in his journal, Opportunity, calling for “high” cultural achievements, respectable expressions in the arts. At the same time the vitality of “low” culture, particularly the great creations of black jazz (Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and many more) rose from Harlem’s up-town streets, inspiring improvisatory writers who absorbed the rhythms and locutions of Harlem. Claude McKay’s contribution to Shuffle Along (1921), a peppy Broadway review, along with his novel, Home to Harlem (1928), and essay, “Harlem Runs Wild” (1935), repudiated respectability and celebrated street energies. Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1928) contrasted uptown and downtown Manhattan cultures and weighed the cost of blacks “passing” as whites in order to gain advantage in a racist society. Nella Larsen gave this theme even more forceful expression in her 1929 novel, Passing. In poetry and prose many spoke with ambivalent appreciation and denunciation of Harlem: Paul Lawrence Dunbar in The Sport of the Gods (1902), Countee Cullen in One Way to Heaven (1932), Wallace Thurman in Infants of the Spring (1932).

However, the most enduring myth of Harlem in poetry and prose was expressed by Langston Hughes, a Whitman-inspired émigré from the mid-west who came “to see Harlem, the greatest Negro city in the World.” In The Weary Blues (1926) he wrote “poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street.” In The Ways of White Folks (1934), a story collection, Hughes portrayed patronizing whites and compromised Negroes, those who struggled to sustain “the bitter dream” in Harlem. Does the Harlem “dream deferred” fester, or will it “just explode?,” he ominously asked America.

Hughes and other writers of the Harlem Renaissance shaped the visions and careers of later African-American writers, particularly Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Tony Morrison. Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) depicts a representative young man from the South who comes to Harlem, where he is enlightened and radicalized, becoming a Dostoyevskian “underground man” who was “invisible” to white America. Yet, in “Harlem is Nowhere,” a 1948 essay, Ellison granted that “if Harlem is the scene of the folk-Negro's death agony, it is also the setting of his transcendence.” James Baldwin, born and shaped by its mean streets, saw Harlem as a place of “bitter expectancy” in his essays, particularly those in Notes of A Native Son (1955), and in his fiction, particularly in Another Country (1962). “The vivid killing streets” of Harlem became the landscape of his imagination no matter how far Baldwin fled. Three quarters of a century after the Harlem Renaissance, Toni Morrison showed its lasting influence of pain and purpose in Jazz (1992), a novel that dramatizes the transformations, the great expectations and disappointments in the lives of Harlem residents. The novel centers on a murdered young woman, a victim of Harlem’s frustrated passions, offering an image inspired by Camille Bilops’s photographs in The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978). Morrison’s Jazz places the painful and powerful African-American in Harlem experience at the center of the city’s history. The Harlem Renaissance revised and enriched our sense of New York City.

In October, 1929 the failure of the stock market transformed the city and the nation. Variety, a theater journal, offered a succinct, sardonic review: “WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG.” However, by early 1939 hopes rose when the World’s Fair opened at Flushing Meadows, flaunting its optimistic theme: “Building the World of Tomorrow.” However, the Fair closed in late 1940 as the prospects increased of America’s involvement in Europe’s war against fascism. In “The Crack-Up,” a 1936 essay for Esquire, Scott Fitzgerald realizes that the days of wine and roses for himself and his city were over: “My recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept over the nation when the Boom was over.” Yet, by mid-century New York City had entered its Golden Age. It was “the supreme metropolis of the moment,” said English essayist Cyril Connolly. Boom, bust and boom again was the established, repeated pattern of the city.

The “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s, as W.H. Auden put it in “September 1, 1939,” produced a number of memorable works about New York. Nathaniel West, in his novel, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), saw fellow New Yorkers, desperate for relief from economic and personal miseries, turning to newspaper advice columnists for succor. In Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh (1940), the symbol of despair is Harry Hope’s bar, “a cheap gin mill of the five-cent whiskey, last-resort variety situated on the downtown West Side of New York.” Those who promised salvation in works by West and O’Neill were false Messiahs.

Henry Roth’s novel, Call it Sleep (1934), dramatized the struggles of a displaced Jewish immigrant family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Clifford Odets’ play, Waiting for Lefty (1935), so inflamed its audience that they rose in protest against exploitation, yelling “Strike!” Novelist John O’Hara offered in Butterfield 8 (1935) a hard-boiled, novelistic account of the power of the city to chew up and spit out not only the poor and ordinary but also the rich and beautiful. Alternately, Damon Runyon wrote tall tales, set in the Broadway of the 1920s, that presented the city in softer focus, stories eventually made into Guys and Dolls, a hit 1950 musical. That is, responses to the city during the Great Depression ranged from horror to nostalgia.

During and after World War II, New York City became a colossus of money and power, the Empire City, capital of the American Century. The literature of this period stressed the themes of maturation and realization in stories, poems and plays in which young men and women from the provinces confront the magnitude of a city committed to constant change. Some were suffused in nostalgia for a lost city of memory. In his collected Stories (1978), John Cheever beautifully evoked the wistful atmosphere of Manhattan’s lost glories, “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was filled with river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from the radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everyone wore a hat.” For Irwin Shaw the city evoked memories of lost romance, as in “Search through the Streets of the City,” a 1941 New Yorker story in which a man fails to inspire desire in a former lover and decides to abandon the city. For Cheever and Shaw the city provided transient flashes of beauty and the ache of memory.

The New York intellectuals were a group of social reformers and political radicals that wrote in The Partisan Review and other leftist, literary journals; they offered collectivist alternatives to capitalism and promoted models of literary modernism. Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy and many others brought to the city new artistic and political heat and light that made it the literary center of controversy for decades. They also advanced the careers of American literary modernists who offered stark images of the city. Arthur Miller’s drama, Death of a Salesman (1949), portrayed Willy Loman, a post-war representative man hemmed-in by high-rises and false dreams inspired by a money culture. Saul Bellow, a Partisan Review contributor, set memorable works in New York City: Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947) and most forcefully Seize the Day (1956), a novella that showed the city closing in upon another naïve dreamer who cannot bend to the city’s make-it-now style. The hero of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Holden Caulfield, is yet another innocent, lost on the streets of the city, who seeks to escape.

Hard times hit the city during the 1970’s-‘80’s. When New York City faced bankruptcy in 1975, Mayor Abraham Beame was unsuccessful in obtaining president Gerald Ford's support for a federal bailout, prompting the New York Daily News' notorious headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Writers quickly reflected the city’s fall from grace. Paul Auster brought arch post-modernism to his dark vision of the city in The New York Trilogy (1986), novels which show New York as a mysterious labyrinth, updating Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” For Sherman McCoy, the anti-hero of Tom Wolfe’s epic novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), there is no exit from Vanity Fair. Sherman imagines himself a “Master of the Universe,” but the novel shows that he is a fool of fortune who reveals the dark soul of “a city boiling over with racial and ethnic hostilities and burning with the itch to Grab it Now.” Like so many before him, starting with Irving, Wolfe celebrated the vitality of the city at the same time he mocked its greed and expressed anxiety over its future. Even the usually jaunty New Yorker joined in the criticism, when it commissioned graphic artist Robert Crumb to revise the cover portrait of Eustance Tilly, the top-hatted Regency dandy annually portrayed staring through his monocle, contemplating a butterfly. In February, 1994 Crumb made Tilley over into a scruffy-looking teenager, wearing an earring and a baseball-cap turned backward, standing among other drifters and misfits; the butterfly was replaced by a handbill for a triple-X-rated sex shop in Times Square.

However, the sordid city was soon cleaned-up: Times Square glittered with family-fare commerce and property valued soared once again. The golden city grew tarnished with time, chance and change, though it remains the bright center of enlightenment for the rest of the 20th Century.


The destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001 changed everything. In literature, as in life, this horrific event burned a clear line between before and after, challenging writers to shape new fitting emblems for adversity.

Every civilized person in the world, it was said, became a New Yorker. British writers treated the city as the symbolic center of civilization and its discontents. Martin Amis reconstructed the psyche of the lead terrorist in a compelling New Yorker story in 2006, “The Last Days of Muhhamad Atta.” Ian McEwan examined the anxious aftermath of 9-11 in a 2005 novel, Saturday, patterned in ironic contrast to Virginia Woolf’s post-WW I novel, Mrs. Dalloway.

American writers also bent the events of 9-11 toward allegory. Philip Roth’s novella, Everyman (2006), focuses on a man’s realization of his own mortality, threatened by natural and unnatural dangers. The work opens with the funeral ceremony of this representative American man, a former advertising executive who died alone after a successful career, several infidelities, three failed marriages and three left-behind children. Roth smoothly incorporates into this parable of inevitable loss the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. This horrific event, so vivid in our memories, has already become part of a historical pattern, Roth suggests. Influenza killed some ten million in 1918, “only one of the terrible years among the plethora of corpse-strewn anni horrinbiles that will blacken the memory of the twentieth century forever.” After 9-11, driven by a will to live, the 68-year-old Everyman moves to a retirement community in New Jersey; but, then, lonely, he decides to move back, risking, like all Manhattan residents, the dangers of another terrorist attack. 9-11 becomes just another reminder of human vulnerability, which he, representing every man and woman, has to accept.

The explosive events of September 11, 2001 in lower Manhattan still reverberate and disorient our imaginations. After 9-11 “Everything has changed, though nothing has,” suggests Jay Parini in “After the Terror,” a poem that seeks reassurances:

We're still a country that is ruled by laws.

The system's working, and it's quite a bore

that windows have been bolted just in case.
Claire Messud’s novel, The Emperor’s Children (2006), focuses attention on a group of privileged, post-college slackers who are shocked into the realization that life is real and earnest after the events of 9-11. The hero of Jonathan Sarfan Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2007), is a nine-year-old who searches New York for a lock that matches a key left by his father, who was killed during the September 11th attacks. John Updike’s novel, Terrorist (2006), examines the psyche of another representative man, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, an 18-year-old of conflicted (Irish-American and Muslim) cultural heritage who seeks salvation, “the Straight Path,” in a grubby New Jersey mill town in the shadow of glittering Manhattan. As a devout Muslim, he denounces his high school teachers, “weak Christians and nonobservant Jews,” who seem not to believe in the values they are paid to teach. At the novel’s end, Ahmad observes a midtown Manhattan crowd, “all reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day.” Updike’s prose shows compassion for the city’s passing crowd, but Ahmad judges them as “devils” and would see them burn.

Don DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man (2007), was inspired by a photograph taken by Richard Drew at 9:41:15 A.M., September 11, 2001, of a man falling or leaping from a World Trade Center’s burning tower. The novel deals, episodically, with the post-traumatic stress of a survivor who cannot free himself from the images of all that fell that momentous day.

New Yorkers met the destruction of the World Trade Center with “tough nostalgia,” suggests Pete Hamill in Downtown: My Manhattan. Their stoic memory of loss derives from the city’s history of immigration. Immigrants came to New York with a sense of the Old Country, at once lost and remembered; this “double consciousness – the existence of the irretrievable past buried in shallow graves within the present – was passed on to the children of the immigrants and, with diminishing power, to many of the grandchildren.” Where Updike and DeLillo see self-destruction, Hamill sees resilience among his fellow New Yorkers.


E.B. White, a graceful New Yorker essayist, celebrated his city memorably in “Here Is New York” (1949). “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” The city, as we have seen from this record of literary achievement, is also like fiction, drama, memoir and many other forms that writers have employed to evoke its wonders, is promises, its powers to create and destroy. Yet, looking back to the destructions of World War II and looking warily toward its future, White sensed the city’s vulnerability: “The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.” New York City’s best writers, before and after September 11, 2001. I agree.
“Imagining A New City” New York, (London: Gloria Books, 2008), pp. 419-437.

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