WALKING NEW YORK: REFLECTIONS OF AMERICAN WRITERS FROM WALT WHITMAN TO TEJU COLE
By Stephen Miller
Fordham University Press. 251 pages. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-8232-6315-8
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Writing about walking generally and not just in New York, Stephen Miller remarks that, “during the Depression, many Britons walked in search of employment.” My father was one of them, picking up work where and when he could and at whatever wages he could get. Like many others, he went back to work on a regular basis when 1939 and war brought full employment. A veteran of the First World War, he was too old for the Second so was given a job in a factory. Later, after the war ended, he used to take me for a walk every Sunday morning around the industrial town where we lived. At the time it seemed a fascinating place to me, especially as he would point out the many church steeples and tall factory chimneys that he’d climbed up during his younger days when he was a steeplejack. And there would be occasional encounters to arouse my curiosity, as for instance when a stranger gave my father a perfunctory nod and received one in return. “Who was that?” I asked, and was told that it was my Uncle Bill, someone I didn’t even know existed before that moment. My father had rejected his family many years before when, good Catholics all, they’d objected to his courtship of my mother, a Baptist. It was the kind of experience that I always felt only walking could bring. I might never have seen my uncle otherwise.
I’ve always walked, apart from when I’ve made long journeys on trains and buses, and have never owned a car. You see things when you’re walking, or at least you do if you’re alert to what’s around you. Miller points out that: “When many people walk nowadays, they are in an electronic bubble, talking or texting or listening to music through earphones. These people pay little attention to the urban landscape.” One wonders whether, if such a trend continues, any kind of literature about walking will die out, or perhaps just become a record of what one texted or heard through the headphones? The exterior world will simply be a blur of shapes passed but not seen.
I’ve had the pleasure of walking around New York, or at least parts of it. My experience, like that of many of the writers Miller discusses, was limited to Manhattan. I never got further than the bridge to Brooklyn, my excuse being that I was mostly walking between bookshops and they were in Manhattan. I wasn’t perhaps a true flaneur, strolling casually for pleasure, but I did take my time so that I could experience the streets, the buildings, and the people, as I pursued books I wanted. I suppose I was walking with a purpose in the way that someone like Herman Melville walked as he headed to work. Miller records that Melville had a job as a deputy inspector for the U.S. Customs Service. He did use an omnibus to take him part of the way, but I assume we’ve all done that at one time or another, and Melville’s job, when he arrived at work, involved walking along the piers of the Hudson River. Did the amount of time he spent walking have an effect on his writing? It doesn’t necessarily follow that a writer will want to register sights and sounds for use in his work. Walking for some writers is an aid to thinking, to sorting out thoughts and ideas about something that he may be working on or contemplating writing about. Miller, for example, doesn’t offer any evidence of walking in Melville’s novels and stories, though he does provide interesting comments on Pierre, a book that was unsuccessful in its days, and the classic short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Both are very much New York pieces of writing. Pierre, with its references to a bohemian community that included “fugitive French politicians, or German philosophers,” points to New York’s role as an immigrant’s city. Melville doesn’t stress this aspect, whereas some other writers did, and not always positively, as they walked around the streets.
Walt Whitman did like to walk and Miller lifts lines from one of his poems to show how he celebrated the sights of Broadway to such an extent that it almost “sounds as if it belongs in a brochure put out by the city’s chamber of commerce.” But he wasn’t always positive in his view of New York, and his journalism sometimes stood in contrast to the poems by referring to the dirt and crime that were features of the city alongside its wealth and variety. Five Points was a district noted for its poverty and waywardness, and policemen always patrolled there in pairs. Still, Whitman did incline towards a generally approving view of what he found in New York and, unlike some later writers, enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the streets: “I hail with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy, the demand for facts, even the business materialism of the current age.” And he also said that business is “an immense and noble attribute of man…..the tie and interchange of all the peoples of the earth.” What a contrast to Henry James who was scornful of some people he met who were acquainted with “’goods’ and shares and rises and falls and all such sordidities.” Miller rightly notes that James’s maternal grandfather was a linen merchant, and his paternal grandfather made a fortune in real estate, and it was the latter that gave James a “modest income” for life. There is nothing like biting the hand that feeds you.
The immigration question crops up in William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes, a novel which speaks for the Bostonian Howells’ view of New York. The central character, Basil March, wanders by chance into the Lower East Side and notes the social conditions in the area: “It was not the abode of the extremest poverty, but of a poverty as hopeless as any in the world, transmitting itself from generation to generation.” But he later observes that “the children of the earlier generation of immigrants, who were impoverished when they first arrived, have escaped poverty.” And Miller says that March also “revels” in the immigrant culture of New York. He and his wife shop at an Italian grocery store, dine at a Spanish restaurant run by a French lady and which has a Cuban for a cook, an “Alsacian” for a waiter, and a South American for a cashier. And Howells’ descriptions of New York at night put Miller in mind of paintings by John Sloan and George Bellows, artists associated with the Ashcan School. I have to say that I read Miller on Howells with a great deal of pleasure. He’s not a writer much talked about in Britain, at least not outside American Studies departments, but books like A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Rise of Silas Lapham are well worth reading.
Howells had explored some of the seedier side of New York in the company of Stephen Crane and Abraham Cahan. Miller has nothing to say about Cahan, whose The Rise of David Levinsky was described by Irving Howe as “a minor masterpiece of genre realism,” and “a critique of the immigrant rush to success with a melancholy sense of how inevitable that rush was.” But Miller does devote space to Stephen Crane whose Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is a small classic of social realist writing. Crane had, in Miller’s words, spent “many hours walking in New York – mainly on the Lower East Side and the Tenderloin District on Manhattan’s West Side – and he would write two novels and many journalistic sketches about New York’s underclass.” Maggie and its companion short novel, George’s Mother, paint raw portraits of slum life and the inevitable downfall of people like Maggie and George. She slides inexorably into prostitution and George drifts into bad company while his mother, who dotes on him, slowly succumbs to the worry and strain he imposes on her. Crane knew what he was writing about, having observed many like Maggie and George as he walked the streets. He walked because he wanted, as Miller says, to be convincing in “conveying what night-time in the city looked like.” Miller compares him to a cinematographer “shooting a film noir.” And it is Crane’s descriptions which still survive his melodramatic plots and sometimes mistaken attempts to re-create his characters’ speech. I think he was essentially a journalist and it may be that it’s necessary to consider his two short New York novels as extensions of his work for newspapers and magazines. He’s probably best remembered for his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage.
If Stephen Crane walked to observe and write about “New York’s underclass,” Jacob Riis also “walked with a purpose,” in his case to push for social reform. Riis had spent time as one of the “underclass,” walking, as he put it, “with the one aim of somehow stilling the hunger that gnawed at my vitals, and fighting at nights with vagrant curs or outcasts as miserable as myself for the protection of some sheltering ash-bin or door-way.” He eventually obtained work as a journalist, and years later would write a book, How the Other Half Lives, that brought him fame and had an effect on social policy in relation to housing, hygiene, and other matters. It was not that Riis was the first to write about such concerns, and Miller offers some interesting comments on earlier explorations of slum life. Immigration loomed large in several studies of the slums, the argument being that too many people were being allowed into the country and that some of them were of an unsuitable kind. Riis himself seems to have been prejudiced in certain ways again the Chinese and Jews. One critic, cited by Miller, referred to “the presence of unambiguous ethnic and racial stereotypes and slurs” in Riis’s book. Still, despite these drawbacks, How the Other Half Lives, complete with photographs that shocked people, did have a beneficial effect. Teddy Roosevelt, who would become President of the United States, said, “I used to visit the different tenement-house regions, usually in the company with Riis, to see for myself what the conditions were. It was largely this personal experience that enabled me while on the Health Board to struggle not only zealously, but with reasonable efficiency and success, to improve conditions.”
Theodore Dreiser liked to walk in New York, and said, “I was given to rambling in what were to me the most strangest and most peculiar and most interesting areas I could find…,” and he added that these included the grand, like Fifth Avenue and Broadway, but also mean streets in the Bowery and elsewhere. Dreiser, I suppose it could be argued, didn’t need to walk, other than for pleasure or to gather material, though to be fair to him it should be noted that, in his early days in the city, he had walked everywhere to save money. But in his fine novel, Sister Carrie, Hurstwood, the doomed central male character, is another of those who is the opposite of the flaneur and walks for a purpose. He is reduced to failed attempts to find work, and to begging, before his final decline into suicide in a shabby doss-house.
The black writer, James Weldon Johnson, rarely had to worry about money. A qualified lawyer, and the head of a high school in Florida, he was also, with his brother, a successful song writer. When he moved to New York he mixed with actors, musicians, artists, and others. And he walked, though not always because he enjoyed it. Miller notes that Johnson often accompanied a local politician who liked to promenade around the city. But Johnson later said, “These walks that seemed like nothing to him taxed me terribly.” But he does appear to have liked strolling around Harlem. Miller looks at Johnson’s work in general, including Black Manhattan and The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, though it could be stretching a point to claim that walking plays a significant part in either of them. Still, Miller’s comment are interesting, and as I doubt that Johnson’s work is known all that well in the United Kingdom, they are also useful.
It might be thought that Miller has mostly focused on nineteenth-century writers, but he does look closely at the work of Alfred Kazin and Elizabeth Hardwick, two twentieth-century New Yorkers who largely functioned as critics, though Hardwick did also publish novels and short-stories. And Kazin achieved some fame as an autobiographer, and as a chronicler of urban life: “No-one knows so much of the physical conditions of NY streets as I do – no-one gazes so attentively at the dreck, the fissures…..Because these have been my green fields all my life – and because I seem to have lived in these streets more than anywhere else.” But as Miller points out, Kazin’s A Walker in the City is not just about wandering around the streets, it is about his “intellectual awakening – his growing interest in the world beyond Brownsville. Kazin did not hate Brownsville; he felt constrained by it.” So, walking was a way of widening his horizons, sometimes even if that only meant a walk to the library: “There was a new public library I liked to walk out to right after supper, when the streets were still full of life. It was to the north of the Italians, just off the El on Broadway, in the ‘American’ district of old frame houses and brownstones, and German ice-cream parlours and quiet tree-lined streets.” What Kazin really loved to do as he walked was imagine he was in an older New York, the one that he knew about from his voracious reading. Miller refers to Kazin’s “walks into the American past,” and Kazin himself described how he could almost summon up the ghosts of Walt Whitman or the painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder as he strolled down streets where they had lived and worked.
Was Elizabeth Hardwick a walker in the city? Miller suggests she may have been, though he doesn’t sound sure, and she never talked about walking in her essays. But her short stories do have characters who go for walks around New York. There is, incidentally, a first-rate collection of Hardwick’s short fiction published by NYRB under the title, The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick. And her novel, Sleepless Nights, is firmly placed in the city. I can forgive Miller for not always being persuasive about whether or not his chosen writers were walkers, because his surveys of their books are usually quite astute. Writing about Hardwick, he mentions her dry sense of humour and quotes from her description of a party attended by various academics and intellectuals. They talk about poverty in New York. Miller says she finds these people smug even when their lives are a mess: “How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distress of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors. Divorce, abandonment, the unacceptable and the unattainable, ennui filled with action, sad, tumultuous middle-aged years, shaken by crashings, uprootings, coups, desperate renewals.” Miller adds the sly comment that the passage “could be a gloss on Alfred Kazin’s personal life.”
I’ve got to be honest and admit that I’m not too familiar with the work of Colson Whitehead and Teju Cole, the final two writers in Miller’s story, but his inclusion of them has aroused my interest. I liked his description of Whitehead as “pot-smoking Mad Hatter,” and the fact that he mocks those writers “who draw profound meanings from walking across Brooklyn Bridge.” As for Cole’s prose style, “it has nothing in common with Whitehead’s. It is dry, witty, and ornate.” Miller suggests comparisons between Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Cole’s Open City, and says that both novels are about “the ruminations of a deracinated New York – a person who has come to the city from somewhere else.” From what Miller says, I’m inclined to want to read both Colson Whitehead and Teju Cole.
In conclusion, Miller quotes Jeff Speck as saying that “walkability is the key to a city’s viability. The more walkable a city is, the greater the likelihood that it will thrive.” My own observations of various cities in Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and elsewhere, would seem to support Speck’s comments. But Miller, as I noted at the start of this review, wonders if flaneurs are a dying breed. Will the physical appearance of the city decline because no-one sees or cares anymore about what is happening to it? Will oddities of human behaviour go unnoticed? Will no-one pause to talk unless it’s to someone holding another bit of communication equipment miles away? Perhaps it won’t be as bad as that, and there will always be those who do bother to take note of what is there in front of their eyes. And who will delight in the sights and sounds they experience.
Stephen Miller’s Walking New York is a lively book and should appeal to both the sedentary stroller who likes to wander New York from the comfort of an armchair, or know what it was like in the past, and the more-active person who wants to not only read about the city but also experience it physically. And it has things to say to anyone interested generally in American literature. But if you do go for a walk, whether locally or in New York, leave your gadgets at home and look around you.