From the “necessary murder” to The New Yorker

Auden, as photographed in 1939 by Carl van Vechten

W. H. Auden was one of the major literary personages in New York in the 1940s. He was highly influential on his contemporaries, but he was also representative in some ways of the intellectual and political journey that many of his contemporaries took over the course of the latter thirties and 1940s. Continue Reading »

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A geography of its own

The publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima was a significant event in the history of American journalism and also in the history of the magazine in which it first appeared–The New Yorker. Hersey’s chronicle was a sensation when it appeared, as the entire editorial contents of one issue. (For more information on this famous issue, see this older post.) In addition to marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the event signalled the new stature that The New Yorker had assumed over the course of WWII. The magazine had now become a defining voice of postwar, metropolitan liberalism. Continue Reading »

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Weapons in the War of Ideas

Last week I mentioned that Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn probably owed some of its success to the fact that the book had been published in an Armed Services Edition and was one of the 1300 such books that were distributed for free to members of the military during WWII. Continue Reading »

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Ann Petry’s Street

An absurdly inapprorpiate paperback cover for Ann Petry's novel--typical of the great days of the "paperback revolution"

This image doesn’t have much to tell us about Ann Petry’s The Street. Continue Reading »

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A New Deal in journalism . . . and its end

The other day in class we briefly discussed Weegee and his distinctive way of depicting New York city in the 1930s and ’40s. Walker Evans gives us a somber, underground world, and his portraits show us usually solitary, often introspective and frequently bedraggled looking New Yorkers. Weegee, by contrast, portrays a vivid and dramatic–or, perhaps, melodramatic–city. Continue Reading »

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On a slightly different town

Paul Cadmus, The Fleets In -- produced under the New Deal Public Works of Art Program and rejected from the PWAP exhbition at the Corcoran Gallery in 1934

Rick has sent along some fascinating info about a key backstory for On the Town. Apparently, the Paul Cadmus painting above was the original inspiration for the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, which gave rise to the Bernstein-Comden-Green-Robbins Broadway production of On the Town, later to be adapted for the Hollywood Stanley Donen/Gene Kelley movie version. Continue Reading »

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“I ran away to Greenwich Village . . . where the people I met had sprung from their own brows”

Anatole Broyard, likely in the 1950s--"I was alienated from alienation."

In our discussion the other night, we didn’t get the opportunity to talk much about Anatole Broyard’s memoir of living in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. Before the moment’s left behind, I just wanted to draw your attention to one important element of his story that you might easily have missed. Continue Reading »

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“The great American epic of upward progress toward education, freedom, self-respect, and accomplishment”

The dust jacket fior the first edition of Smith's novel

That’s how New York Times reviewer Oliver Prescott described Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Continue Reading »

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“A New Kind of Urban Community”

Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General, standing before the UN General Assembly and Secretariat Buildings in the 1950s

As we discussed yesterday in class, one of the factors contributing to New York’s mid-twentieth-century renaissance were the massive construction projects that transformed the city’s landscape. These projects, which began in the LaGuardia years and continued during the mayoralty of Kenneth O’Dwyer, brought in huge sums of federal and state money for the development of highways, bridges, tunnels, and housing projects. Although it was financed mainly by UN funds, the construction of the United Nations complex on New York’s east side (1947-1952), in many respects epitomized these developments. Continue Reading »

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Unbelievable miniatures of the future

Tenements razed to make way for the Tilden Houses in 1958; Brownsville Houses are to right -- NYCHA archives



In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin describes the “uncanny” experience  of seeing new public housing projects planted amid the tenements he knew growing up.

Despite those fresh diagonal walks , with their trees and children’s sandboxes and Negro faces calmly at home with the white, so many of the old tenements have been left undisturbed on every side of the project, the streets beyond are so obviously just as they were when I grew up in them, that it is as if they had been ripped out of their original pattern and then pasted back in again behind the unbelievable miniatures of the future.


The photograph above, from the New York City Housing Authority archives (an invaluable resource!), gives an idea of what Kazin was thinking about.  Continue Reading »

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