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.