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.
The big point I meant to emphasize about our main readings (White, Kazin, Broyard) for our last meeting is that, although they give us importantly different pictures of New York City, they converge on a common understanding of what the city meant in the 1940s. We can understand these writers to be emphasizing different locations in the city, which have different symbolic associations, and to be writing from different personal and institutional vantages–which, of course, affects how they view things.
E. B. White gives us primarily the New York of midtown Manhattan, which in his account is mainly a world of cultural sophistication and personal freedom. That’s a vision consistent with his publishing milieu and professional status. As a legendary New Yorker writer and as contributor to the new Holiday magazine, White speaks to us as a premier representative of the era’s burgeoning commercial magazine industry. During the late 1940s, New York’s commercial media were booming by offering entertainment and enlightenment to a newly wealthy and powerful nation. (The New Yorker‘s circulation rates jumped dramatically during and after the War, and Holiday was but one of many new or transformed magazines that prospered by offering consumer guidance to a quickly growing middle class.) In this context, White presented Manhattan as an alluring cosmopolitan island and a beacon for the world.
Alfred Kazin, on the other hand, gives us Brownsville and the New York of poor and clannish neighborhoods. It’s a city of stifling poverty, but also of ferocious energy and ambition. As we discussed in class, that picture was likely especially appealing in the late 1940s because of the way it dramatized the larger story of the assimilation of the descendents of working-class Eastern and Southern European immigrants into New York and into the American compact. If the 1940s were the period when Jews finally became accepted as Americans, Kazin’s memoir in part told an appropriate story of hunger, ambition, and implicit success.
We can also understand Kazin’s memoir, though, as marking the rise of a generation of young, mainly Jewish, leftist intellectuals (famously described as “The New York Intellectuals”) who began their careers writing for small, intellectually oriented magazines. Kazin first published sections of his memoir in Commentary, a legendary example of those little magazines which were targeted to small groups of like-minded readers. Along with people like Lionel Trilling, who we discussed in class, and other figures we’ll encounter this semester (e.g. Mary McCarthy), Kazin was a prominent member of the vibrant society of writers and critics who circled around these small-circulation magazines.
Broyard gives us a somewhat different milieu–the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village, which experienced a renaissance in the years after the War. Like the culture industries of midtown Manhattan, and like the world of leftwing intellectuals, the bohemian Village was ablaze with activity in the late 1940s and 1950s. It would nurture, among others, the Abstract Expressionists and the Beats and a rising generation of poets and novelists. Broyard’s memoir is a widely admired recollection of the artist and erotic excitement that burned in that world.
One reason for the great cultural fertility of New York in the 1940s may have been the fact that these distinct cultural milieux flourished independently but also significantly overlapped. Kazin was but one of a number of writers who leapt from Commentary or Partisan Review to The New Yorker and wider cultural prestige. Broyard, who hung out in the Village, operated an avant-garde bookstore and wrote poetry, also published cultural criticism in Partisan Review and ultimately went on to a highly influential career reviewing books for The New York Times. Many of these writers would have crossed paths at cocktail parties and other events. The circles in which they moved were at once autonomous and overlapping, and they intersected with other important subcultural mileux as well–all making for an atmosphere of excitement and mobility.
So, it is perhaps not surprising that, despite the fact that they differ in important ways, White, Kazin, and Broyard all take a similar view of the city. For each of them, it is a land of desire, where sexual and personal freedom, along with personal advancement, seems uniquely possible. Of course, the city has often been viewed in this way. But it may be that because it was in the midst of great wealth and relative social and political stability, New York in the 1940s held out this promise with particular clarity.
No one embraced the promise more fervently than Broyard. As he tells us in the preface to his memoir (published posthumously in 1993), he “took American life to heart with the kind of strenuous and ardent sincerity young men usually bring to love affairs.” What he doesn’t tell us is a fact that only came to prominence after his death. Although he was of African-American descent, since arriving in the Village, Broyard had been passing for white.
When this fact was revealed in the mid-1990s, it became a subject of great interest and controversy. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a superb profile (originally published, as it happens, in The New Yorker) of Broyard and a consideration of Broyard’s life choices. You can find the text of Gates’s essay here. You can also learn more about Broyard from the memoir of his daughter, Bliss. Philip Roth’s powerful novel about passing, The Human Stain is often plausibly said to offer a fictionalization of Broyard’s life. (Roth himself denies the association.)
For our purposes, it may be helpful to keep in mind that Broyard’s story highlights the uncertain status of the cosmopolitan ideal that New York upheld in the 1940s. White and Kazin both speak of the sense they shared with many New Yorkers at the time that the city was a uniquely tolerant metropolis where racial boundaries could be ameliorated and eventually overcome in a way that ostensibly could not elsewere. But to a very significant extent, this was an illusion, and these writers’ word also appropriately belie the appealing picture of tolerance and inclusion they prefer. New York in teh 1940s was to a certain extent a tolerant and open city, but it was also, like the rest of the United States, a racially segregrated society were African-Americans remained confined to second-class status. For Broyard, the Village offered not only artistic excitement and sexual freedom; it allowed him a personal escape.