Downtown origins of American lit


Volume 23, Number 15 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 18 – 24, 2010


No need for a map or a Sherpa: This helpful sign at 25 Park Row takes you back to when it was “Newspaper Row.”

Downtown Origins of American Lit    

Poets, professors shaped early NYC literary scene


It’s not that nothing happens anywhere else in the world — it’s just that in New York, so much of it occurs with exceptional size and intensity. New York was not the only port for immigration — though many millions passed through here. The Great Depression darkened all of America, but the stock market crashed on Wall Street. When World War II ended, the whole nation celebrated — though nowhere with such exuberance and in such numbers as in Times Square. New York was not the first target of radical terrorism, only the most stunning and catastrophic.  

But as Emily Dickinson stuffed brief, brilliant poems into her desk drawer in Massachusetts (not far from Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Hawthorne’s Puritan Salem and the rigorous Boston of Emerson), the most fertile soil of this new republic’s literary life — as my professor in Introduction to American Lit taught me — was the sprawling multi-ethnic harbor of New York.

If my dear professor were alive, I would eagerly tell him that actually the literary history of New York began even before the city was New York. He’d have smiled like Atticus Finch as I told him of Jacob Steendam, born in 1653 and known as the first poet of New Netherlands. He was a clerk for the Dutch West India Company and lived on Pearl Street, where the oyster boats docked at the riverfront. He wrote a poem/parable entitled “The Complaint of New Amsterdam to Its Mother,” in which the narrator is this new Dutch harbor itself, an island paradise blessed by nature: “Two streams my garden bind, / From the East and North they wind, / Rivers pouring in the sea, / Rich in fish, beyond degree.”

Four years later the British Empire seized this prosperous, bountiful island and renamed it New York for the king’s brother. During British rule, Philip Freneau was born on Frankfort Street. Frankfort Street was named by New York governor Jacob Leisler for his birthplace back in Germany, and though the governor was hanged for treason, he would eventually rest in eternal exoneration after Parliament reversed the decision (though too late for the late governor).

Early in our city’s story, New Yorkers lived in the most fortified place on Earth, a heavily guarded military outpost that the British were determined not to lose. Not an easy place for Philip Freneau, an early political writer for independence. Though he had been in his time inaccurately referred to as the father of American poetry, his poem “On the City Encroachment on the Hudson River” decries the loss and spoiling of the mighty river to our west (which the native Lenapes believed was a god, the “river that flows both ways”). Written over two centuries ago, Freneau’s poem tells of matters still a concern to this day: “But cease, nor with too daring aim / Encroach upon this giant flood.” Freneau would live to see his city and this young nation free — though in 1832, he died while lost in a snowstorm after leaving a tavern in Freehold, New Jersey.

In 1798, Charles Brockton Brown came to New York to partake in an intellectual life he could not find in Philadelphia. Here he wrote the sluggish, morose “Wieland” — this new nation’s first gothic novel and forerunner of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The novel tells of a dark, religiously tormented family at the end of the 18th century, and I trudged through it (actually only some of it) in graduate school despite the brilliance of my professor Frank Hodgins.   

But the true literary history of New York begins with a scam in 1809 and the publication of “A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Although it was a satire on the city’s self-importance and ridiculed the contemporary politics of Gotham (“Goat Town” in Dutch), the public believed the inventive and totally fictitious explanation of the history of New York before English takeover. Diedrich Knickerbocker tells of the early Dutch explorers “attracted by the transcendent charms of the vast island…whereon was to be founded a city that should serve as his strong hold in the western world…where at present stands the delectable city of New York.” In truth there was no one named Diedrich Knickerbocker. The stories were all concoctions despite being embraced by New Yorkers — and when the hoax was exposed, its author Washington Irving was a celebrity.  

He was born the week the British agreed to a ceasefire in these thirteen colonies’ war for independence. Today on William Street (named for an English king), the street on which Irving was born has a Duane Reade adjacent to the Downtown classrooms of Berkeley College — where I now pass to my students what Professor Hodgins gave to me.  

“American literature begins when Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep under English rule but wakes in these new United States.” Most of my students, however, have never heard of Washington Irving — except for the high school — though nearly all had seen Johnny Depp in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Then again, I had seen the Disney animated version of it long before I ever left for college.

And there were all the newspapers published down here by people who established our journalistic foundation and began newspapers still read today. Alexander Hamilton published the “Evening Post” in 1801, later edited by William Cullen Bryant. Joseph Pulitzer, James Gordon Bennett, William Randolph Hearst, and Horace Greeley all began newspapers Downtown, and even William Bradford published the “New York Gazette” in 1725 from Pearl Street. His “Plymouth Plantation” was also assigned in Professor Hodgins’ Intro to American Lit — and though I was too distracted by modern writers and a luscious, fellow grad student to read much of it, I still spoke up often and enthusiastically in class as if I had.  

There was a time when twenty separate newspapers were published along Newspaper Row at what is now Park Row and Centre Street (“center” spelled the English way). Most of the buildings and tabloids are gone, but that tradition carried journalism to Abraham Cahan and “The Jewish Forward” as well as William Dean Howells, Joseph Mitchell, and our living legend, Pete Hamill. Samuel Woodworth was a reporter back in early New York and in 1823 began the New-York Mirror. His poem “New York” is an impossibly idealized vision of this “happy city where the arts convene / and busy commerce animates the scene.”  

Nathaniel Parker Willis lived on Nassau Street and became a contributing editor to Woodworth’s “Mirror.” Though primarily a chronicler of New York fashionable life, he did befriend Edgar Allan Poe — whose reputation he defended from Rufus Griswold’s attacks. Willis wrote plays, light fiction, and his poem “City Lyrics” follows two young lovers strolling Lower Broadway: “Come out, love — the night is enchanting! The moon hangs just over Broadway.” To get Willis’ rhythm the last word is pronounced with the emphasis on ‘way.’

Christopher Pearse Cranch also wrote of Lower Broadway, though from the weary eyes and staggering struggles of a poor woman selling apples near Wall Street: “Apples and cakes and candy to sell, / Daily before her lying. / The ragged newsboys know her well — / The rich never think of buying.” Like Freneau’s poem about saving the Hudson River, what Cranch’s eyes saw nearly two centuries ago is still seen today, amid even greater wealth though with identical indifference.

In “Five Points: 1838,” Laughton Osborn wrote of what remains of New York’s most infamous neighborhood: “Without, all wreck and nastiness; within, starvation, sickness, vermin, stench, and sin.”  

And we must remember the forgotten Fitz-Greene Halleck, known as the Knickerbocker Poet and according to William Cullen Bryant “the favorite poet of the city of New York.” Ten thousand gathered at the dedication of a dreadful, clumsy, overbearing statue of him unveiled along Literary Mall in Central Park (which he shares with equally awful statues of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns). Halleck’s 1819 poem “Fanny” was a popular satire of New York social life, and he edited books on British poets and served as vice-president of Authors Club of New York (Washington Irving, president). He wrote a hearty, poetic tribute to Tammany Hall decades before the Tweed administration forever besmirched the name of that once-powerful political organization: “For still dear to my soul, as ‘twas then to my eyes / Is that barrel of porter at Tammany Hall.”

 And then there was Herman Melville, the greatest fiction writer of America’s Romantic Age. He was born at 6 Pearl Street in 1819, and I loved reading “Moby Dick” — and read all of it — for Professor Hodgins’ class. I was enthralled by Ahab’s epic, mad, glorious obsession as well as by the depth and seemingly effortless clarity of Melville’s prose: “In tremendous extremes, human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril, well enough they know the cause of that peril, but the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.”

Though Ishmael sets out on the ill-fated Pequod from Nantucket, the story begins here: “There now is your insular city of Manattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme Downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowd of water-gazers there.”

Melville’s 1853 novella “Bartelby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is one of the most enduring visions of the hopelessness of a young man absolutely alone in New York. But Melville’s writing life would not be a happy one despite his great creations. He found great popularity early with his South Sea adventure stories, but he was destined to write of far more heightened matters which never in his life-time captured his earlier readers. He spent the last decades of his life in obscurity, as an embittered deputy customs inspector — often working along the piers at Gansevoort Street not far from here (the street was named for the Revolutionary War hero of his mother’s father, which only increased his own humiliation and sense of failure). “When I read Melville,” Professor Hodgins uttered quietly in class, “I want to call all my friends to see if they’re still alive.”

Edgar Allan Poe and James Fenimore Cooper wound these named and narrow streets though their stories really occurred a little further Uptown. Still, even after the city moved northward, writers always returned to the place where New York literature began; E.E. Cummings liked strolling Battery Park, John Dos Passos lunched on Washington Street, and while a merchant seaman, Eugene O’Neill roomed on Fulton Street. Finally, there was once the bookstore Fowler and Well’s Phrenological Cabinet at 308 Broadway. It carried the first tall, thin, green-bound copies of the twelve poems that made up the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” — written by Walt Whitman (the real father of American as well as modern poetry, who for a while lived at 12 Centre Street).  

“You’ve heard of Walt Whitman, of course,” I ask my students with detectable annoyance. Of course they have: the Long Island mall.

Feature writer Stephen Wolf is the editor of “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” (Columbia University Press) — the most extensive anthology ever assembled of New York poetry. He teaches English and Humanities at Berkeley College. This article is the second in a series about the literary history of Manhattan.