Tue January 3, 2012
'Diaries' Reveals New York Through The Ages
Most everyone's spirits are a bit deflated after the holidays. So, as a literary antidote, I recommend a just-published anthology called New York Diaries: 1609 – 2009. Editor Teresa Carpenter has collected four centuries worth of diary excerpts written by people, great and small, who've lived in or just passed through one of the greatest cities in the world. As a bulwark against the January glums, the voices from the past we hear in these entries reassure us that we're all part of a great cosmic parade, that restlessness and self-doubt have always been a constant of the human condition, and that tourists have been getting ripped off by New Yorkers ever since Henry Hudson stepped ashore in 1609.
In his diary entry for September 5th of that year, Hudson notes that he was greeted by "swarthy natives" wearing "skins of foxes and other animals." Hudson concludes his first impression of Gotham's original residents by saying: "They appear to be a friendly people, but have a great propensity to steal, and are exceedingly adroit in carrying away whatever they take a fancy to." (Of course, had those natives scribbled their own diary entries for posterity, they would have their own tales to tell of getting conned by Hudson and his crew, who traded mere "trinkets" for maize and tobacco.) Given the limitations of recorded history, however, Carpenter has unearthed an impressive range of New York diary entries. If not so diverse in race, the diarists included in this anthology are certainly diverse in class and politics. We hear from Tory foot soldiers engaged in the Battle of Long Island, piano manufacturer William Steinway dealing with workmen striking for an eight-hour-day in May of 1872, and Congresswoman Bella Abzug strategizing for New York City statehood during that same month almost one hundred years later. Carpenter's smart move was to arrange this collection, not chronologically, but day by day throughout the calendar year. Indeed, I think the most fun way to read New York Diaries would be to keep it by your bedside and limit yourself to reading the entries for each day because the effect, oftentimes, is of a chorus of voices, separated by decades, even centuries, unconsciously echoing the same sentiments and complaints. For instance, January 18th seems to be rife with minor health problems: In 1790 on that day, George Washington is "indisposed with an Aching tooth ... and inflamed Gum"; his grousing is followed by that of Tennessee Williams in 1943, who bemoans another case of what he jokes is his "occupational disease" — crab lice.
As you'd expect, so many entries here attest to the magic of the city: Mayor Philip Hone recalls an exotic exhibition of two giraffes in a lot on Broadway in July of 1838; and, my favorite diarist, ten-year-old Catherine Elizabeth Havens, in entries written during 1850, describes the wonders of A.T. Stewart's Department Store, as well as her own mother's childhood recollections of ice skating on the canal that's now Canal Street. Long ago, Havens tells us, those New Yorkers too poor to afford ice skates would simply polish a rib of beef and "fasten it on their shoes to skate on." Amidst these exuberant entries, though, other grittier images of New York push through: DeWitt Clinton in July of 1850 whines about city flies in his food; diarist George Templeton Strong a year later describes gangs of child prostitutes on Broadway. And, throughout the centuries of diary entries, the unavoidable voyeurism of New York City life intrudes: The painter John Sloan is transfixed in June of 1906 by a scene he spies in a room across from his own apartment: a baby dying in its mother's arms. Sloan writes that the mother held her child until it "started to pale and stiffen." He eloquently concludes: "Hope tried to fight off Fact, then Fact killed hope in her."
The one disappointment in this anthology is the lack of similar eloquence on the part of those bloggers whose posts Carpenter quotes for September 11th and its aftermath: one typical post reads: "The World Trade Center doesn't exist anymore. This is very weird." Maybe, the bloggers Carpenter chose weren't equal to the task of immediately capturing the city's greatest tragedy in language; maybe there's something about the spur-of-the-moment ease of blogging itself that weakens the intensity of those entries. One thing I do know is that I'm grateful that that momentous 1609 diary entry by Henry Hudson says more than: "Greeted by swarthy natives. This is very weird."