‘Brazen Age’ a portrait of New York at the turn of the 20th Century

In “The Brazen Age,” David Reid paints a portrait of a frenzied and buoyant New York from the turn of the 20th century until a few years past World War II. It was an era that gave rise to burgeoning writers, artists and philosophers, a time when the city flourished because “it stood still” as Reid puts it. While war was devastating countries across the Atlantic, New York was largely unscathed, and to some degree the city grew out of the war.

Thousands of Europeans sought refuge in New York, most of them hoped for better lives away from the conflict. A culture of expatriates grew as a result. Hundreds of immigrants became some of the most influential New York writers and artists of their day, with the most notable success being Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita.”

Hundreds of more colorful anecdotes in “The Brazen Age” tell the tales of immigrants who had nothing, but succeeded in New York.

By the turn of the century, New York was considered the fountainhead of American life and culture. New York publishing giants along with the public dictated the tastes of the nation, and the rest of the world to a degree.

“Down to the first World War, (New York) had yielded precedence in financial fields to London, in artistic fields in Paris and in musical fields to Berlin,” writes Allan Nevins, a former journalist turned Columbia University professor.

Reid’s thesis shows that immigration was the boon that moved the city forward.

One grievance that can be said about Reid’s work is that his emphasis on the New York literati pushes other characters and scenes to the sidelines. Reid misses opportunities to explore how radio, film and television grew out of New York. He brushes radio as a “headline service,” deficient of relaying news as well as newspapers had, yet the effect that radio had on mass communication changed the global media landscape forever.

Reid will be leading a discussion related to his book at The City Museum of New York on March 30, which will be followed by a book signing and reception.


“The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art and Bohemia,”  published by Pantheon, is on sale for $30.00.