New York Diaries
edited by Teresa Carpenter
2012 • 512 pages • Modern Library
I hate traveling.
While my family, a French-American trio of inveterate wanderers, often and loudly protest that it is genetically impossible for me to be so, it’s true. A substantial part of it is because of the usual complaints about travel—airports stress me out, packing is a nightmare for a femme with size eleven shoes, sleeping in strange beds inevitably hurts my back—but a large part of it is simply being away from my orderly life. I have been told time again (and again and again) that this is the point of traveling: to get away from it all, or, as my father says, changer les idées. But I don’t have an all I want to get away from. And in any case, I completely lack the personal virtues and faculties to engage meaningfully with a specific place in the space of a handful of days.
So I hate traveling. But I love living places. Even during my year in Denver, a city that is decidedly not for me, I enjoyed the slow burn of getting to know it through its neighborhoods, farmers’ markets, seasons, used bookstores, public transit, cold nights, hot nights, roads, sprawling wide open spaces, libraries, my first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, mountains, and grocery stores (oh, why did I ever complain about the price of Greek yogurt at Safeway? I never had it so good!)—in short, the accumulation of experience that can only come with staying put. When I finally, finally, made the long awaited move to New York, I told Madame McBride two things. First, that when I got there, I was never going to leave. (This has since expanded to a predication of my peaceful death at the age of eighty on the island of Manhattan, after which I will buried like the Vikings of old, complete with funeral pyre, and leave my bafflingly considerable fortune to a pack of exceedingly smug terriers.) And secondly, that I was going to build my life there (here! Oh, how wonderful!) in a such a way that, a decade from now, I will be made up entirely of those little, daily experiences, the same way mountains are made up of rocks.
New York Diaries is all about that accumulation of experiences and how it can reveal the soul of a city—New York City, obviously. (This my second New York read this winter, which is quite on purpose.) It plucks diary entries from four hundred years (1609 to 2009, to be precise) to show the city through the eyes of hundreds of people. I knew about this ever since I first eyed this book back during my first weeks at the Tattered Cover, alternately confident that it was a sign and despairing that the universe was mocking me. But I had no idea that the book is arranged not in a more traditional chronological order, but in a calendar format that lists entries from across history on the day they were written. It’s an idea that editor Teresa Carpenter confesses to copying from The Faber Book of Diaries, which utilizes the same format to examine British history, in her introduction. It gave me pause at first, but I’m both a child of and avid student of remix culture; I was almost immediately won over.
Entries from the dawn of New Netherland discussing the wild landscape of New England stand shoulder to shoulder with entries contemplating the aftermath of 9/11. George Templeton Strong’s firm, florid style is in stark contrast to Andy Warhol’s frank, slightly selfish, and clipped notes. In 1947, Edward Robb Ellis internally screams that he should have been born here; in 1939, Christopher Isherwood takes a strong but respectful dislike to the city. Dawn Powell holds it at arm’s length in the thirties, but, by the fifties, is embracing it whole-heartedly:
There is really one city for everyone just as there is one major love. New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on—a bottomless investment of 21 years (I count the day I was born) of building up an idea of New York—so no matter what happens here I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy. (214)
Every selection, neatly, subtly, and expertly excised from its original context, is a window onto the city from a thousand different moments. (Well, nearly: the only misstep is the inclusion of a delightful passage from Michael Palin’s diary, describing a 1975 nude Monty Python photo shoot, which is much more about the shoot than New York or life in New York. I can see why Carpenter included it, however, because Palin’s writing voice is utterly charming.) Seeing New York as British territory during the American Revolution is fascinating, especially when those entries inadvertently expose colonialism through interactions with Native Americans. There are no entries from Native American perspectives, though, and the diarists do run towards the white and cultured (by elitist standards), regardless of actual income, although there’s a hint or two of diversity. An entry from Elizabeth Cady Stanton decries a nineteenth century immigration law banning certain immigrants; she fumes about religious conservatives’ part in the passing of the law, wondering if they think Christ only died to save white people.
The New York Diaries is both a celebration of the city and a Whitman’s sampler of writing. It gave me a handful of memoirs and collected diaries I need to read now, from Warhol’s to Toni Bentley’s. But I’ll leave you with one of the most striking entries, that of Philippe Petit’s, the man who tightrope walked between the Twin Towers. He writes of the mundanities of the day, but, eventually, he gives into sweeping poetics:
Leaning against the steel corner, I offer to myself, for a throne, the highest tower ever built by man; for a ceremonial carpet, the most savagely gigantic city of the Americas; for my dominion, a tray of seas wetting my forehead; while the folds of my wind-sculpted cape surround me with majestically mortal whirls… (252)
I rented this book from the public library.