By Scott London
There was a time not too long ago when New York was the nation's literary capital, when would-be writers abandoned the provinces for the thrill of living where Fitzgerald and Hemingway lived, walking the streets that Howells and Wharton walked, drinking where Cummings and Dos Passos drank, eating where Thurbur and White ate. Those were the days when one took up residence in Greenwich Village to rub shoulders with the intelligentsia, establish a reputation, perhaps break into print. It was like Paris in the 20s and 30s, but a little closer to home.
New York is still a literary capital, of course, except most of the writers are gone. What's left are the editors, publishers, reviewers, journalists, and hangers-on. And the impostors, thrill-seekers, and poseurs. It's not surprising therefore that the publishing world, gripped by nostalgia for the golden days and lacking any fresh new voices, should look to the past for inspiration. Several memoirs have recently been published that recall New York in its glory days when it was still at the crossroads of art, literature, and politics.
"I think there's a great nostalgia for life in New York City, especially in Greenwich Village in the period just after World War II," writes Anatole Broyard in the opening lines of Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (Carol Southern Books/Crown, 160 pages, $18). "The Village, like New York City itself, had an immense, beckoning sweetness. It was charming, shabby, intimate, accessible, almost like a street fair. We lived in the bars and on the benches of Washington Square. We shared the adventure of trying to be, starting to be, writers or painters."
Broyard describes his adventures as a restless, young intellectual in the Village after the war, when "rents were cheap, restaurants were cheap, and it seemed that happiness itself might be cheaply had." Fresh out of the army, he opened a second-hand book store on Cornelia street, and enrolled in the New School on the GI Bill. For Broyard and his friends books were the opium of the times. "They were our weather, our environment, our clothing," he says. "We didn't simply read books; we became them." Between lectures with Erich Fromm, Gregory Bateson and other leading intellectuals, he would sit in Washington Square or at the San Remo bar discussing the latest abstractions of art and literature. The most memorable passages of the book describe his "sentimental education" with a quirky and manipulative lover named Sheri who "embodied all the new trends in art, sex, and psychosis."
Broyard was for many years a daily book critic for the New York Times, and later the senior editor of its Book Review. Over the years he earned a reputation as something of a critic's critic. He was profoundly well-read, gracefully articulate, and always -- always -- overcritical. It is difficult to imagine him writing any books of his own with such impossibly high standards, but he did manage to produce a number of stories and essay collections before he died in 1990. The dust-jackets of his first two books both state that "he is working on a novel," but writer's block, relentless self-criticism, and finally an attack of cancer prevented him from ever consummating his desire to be a novelist. Ironically, this little memoir, also unfinished at his death, reads better than most novels. A model of style, wit, warmth, and wisdom, it captures perfectly both the spirit of a young man coming of age and the spirit of New York at its height.
A similar memoir was published in the 60s by a young writer named Willie Morris. It was called North Toward Home and described Morris's journey from his native Yazoo City, Mississippi, by way of Texas, to the "immense and spectacular" Big City up North. "New York City in those very first moments was all radiance and adumbra for me, all swirling light and blending shadow." It was a well-crafted, amusing, and evocative book which even spent some weeks on the bestseller lists.
After settling down in New York and working as a magazine writer for a few years, Willie Morris eventually became the editor-in-chief of Harper's Magazine. He presided over the monthly in heady days of the late 60s when objective journalism began losing out to a new brand of subjective and subversive reporting known as New Journalism. Writers like Norman Mailer, Seymour Hersh, Alfred Kazin, David Halberstam, William Styron, Joan Didion -- the hottest bylines of the day -- wrote about the mood of the nation during the Vietnam War, about the struggles and yearnings of the civil rights movement, about the politics of sex, the My Lai massacre, "The Selling of the President," the 1967 war in the Middle East, and "The Confessions of Nat Turner." It was an intoxicating period, and Harper's was at the center of the cultural and political maelstrom. So too was Willie Morris. That is, until a fateful day in 1971 when he clashed with the magazine's business management and resigned in protest.
Morris recalls these and other events in his newly published memoir New York Days (Little, Brown, 396 pages, $24.95). Unfortunately, this book carries little of the energy and charm of its predecessor. It's hard to justify writing one autobiography, let alone two. Morris, who seems to be sensitive to the criticism, calls this a "sequel" to North Toward Home. But it's not -- not by a long shot. If mediocrity is the defining characteristic of a sequel, that's one thing. If it's meant to pick up where the other leaves off, that's another. But if a sequel is meant to build on the spirit of the original, then this is little more than a self-indulgent collection of anecdotes and loosely reconstructed conversations.
A flurry of attention surrounded the publication of New York Days a few months ago. Articles and front-page reviews in such magazines as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Book Review marked it as an important literary event. Why? It's hard to say. The prose has an effusive, chatty, distinctly Southern air but, beyond that, doesn't seem especially noteworthy. The subject matter -- the New York publishing world during the turbulent 60s -- is hardly original, or even interesting, at least not in this version. How about the author himself? Morris was no doubt talented, popular, and successful during his tenure at Harper's, but if he was so great someone else should have written the book -- that's what biographers are for.
I suspect that the answer to why this book is deemed an "event" at all is found in the final pages. That is, in the index. I've never seen a memoir with such a voluminous index -- it reads like a veritable who's who of the literary world. Here, every small- time editorial assistant, proofreader, and would-be novelist that Morris encountered seems to warrant our attention. "And then there were the secretaries, God bless them one and all!" Here is a fairly typical excerpt from page 292: "Only later, beyond the purview of this memoir, would I come to know and spend time with some of the nation's finest writers who would choose out of love for this land to live here: Peter Matthiessen, Joseph Heller, Jean Stafford, Shana Alexander, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Wilfrid Sheed, Betty Friedan, Budd Schulberg, John Knowles, Craig Clairborne." (Craig Clairborne was a food critic for the New York Times, by the way, and scarcely one of the "nation's finest writers.")
This memoir, it turns out, is a navel-gazing and name-dropping extravaganza of Gotham proportions. No wonder the literary bazaars of New York are all aflutter -- in this book they are the center of attention once more. But the sad thing is, if New York were still the cultural capital it once was, a memoir like this would never have been written.
"The New York intellectuals had their moment in history and it has passed," writes Diana Trilling in yet another recent memoir about the New York literary world. This book has received nearly as much attention as New York Days -- maybe more. But it's an altogether different book.
The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (Harcourt Brace, 442 pages, $24.95) tells the story of one of the century's great literary couples; it's part biography of the distinguished writer and critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), part autobiography, and part memoir of their marriage. Although her reputation was always overshadowed by that of her husband, Diana Trilling became a noted -- and notoriously prickly -- book critic for The Nation during the 50s, and later went on to write several books. For decades, the Trillings lived at the epicenter of the New York literary community.
Diana Trilling has no illusions about the literary world eulogized by Broyard and Morris. "The strange difficult ungenerous unreliable unkind and not always honest people who created the world in which Lionel and I shared, and to which we tried to contribute, are now most of them dead," she writes.
Although her portrait of the intellectual community from the 20s through the 50s is both compelling and insightful, it's anything but sentimental. And neither is her account of her husband's struggles as a writer and thinker, his recurring bouts of depression, their persistent financial difficulties during the Depression, and her doubts and insecurities as a woman, a wife, and an intellectual in her own right. Her life was a hard one, to be sure, but not a sad one.
Trilling, who is now 88 and virtually blind, painstakingly dictated the book, which may be one explanation for the strange beauty of the prose and the extraordinary clarity and candor of her narrative. This is not a perfunctory recollection of people and events like so many autobiographies, or a dewy-eyed nostalgia for things past, but an intelligent and altogether genuine portrait of two people and the world they inhabited.
"The intellectual world as I knew it in the middle decades of the century no longer exists," Trilling writes toward the end of the book, and "I deeply mourn its loss." Willie Morris shares the sentiment: "So many of my friends of those days are dead now, and others have gone their own way," he laments. "I can close my eyes now and hear the echoes of our laughter." And, Broyard, who once complained that the New York of the 40s and 50s was "as remote as Kafka's Prague or Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg," is now dead.
All that's left of that once-proud literary world are the memoirs -- and of course their editors, publishers and reviewers.
This column appeared in the Dayton Voice, February 17, 1994
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.