New York, New York, still capital of the world

Spanning 400 years, Teresa Carpenter’s selection of snippets from New Yorkers’ diaries reveals both the magic and tragedy of this great city.

Nathalie Rothschild

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If you thought New York didn’t need another tribute, you were wrong. There’s nothing superfluous about Teresa Carpenter’s New York Diaries, a new collection of journal entries spanning four centuries. This is an unconventional compendium of stories about life in the city by natives and visitors with a proclivity for reflection. They don’t all gush about being here, but, brought together between the same covers, the diarists remind us why so many have chosen to believe the promises New York City holds out.

The book certainly allows readers to indulge in nostalgia, to lament the passing of golden eras or to romanticise the mores of a sinful city. At the same time, though, the journal entries are also a reminder that even in Gotham, days can be mundane, sad and devastating. Cholera outbreaks, child prostitution and factory fires – the tragedies have been many. The insights into the city’s past residents are not always flattering, either. For instance, in 1861 the lawyer George Templeton Strong remarked on a book maintaining the right to hold slaves on religious and ethical principles: ‘It looks sound and sensible.’

Even so, what makes New York Diaries so compelling is that, as you read the 400 years’ worth of reflections, it feels like the layers of myth enshrouding the city slowly come off, only to reveal, still, a metropolis that fully deserves its nickname: the Capital of the World.

To compile the book, Carpenter conducted a seemingly forensic search through the archives of libraries, historical societies and private estates, selecting for inclusion the entries that she, for one reason or another, liked. The 100 or so diarists include the famous and the not-so-famous, revolutionaries and British loyalists, tourists and natives, heiresses and beatniks. Their entries are arranged to follow a calendar year so that on any given day you can dip into the book and find out what the diarists and the city were up to on that date in different eras.

On this day, 17 February, in 1777, Hugh Gaine, a colonial printer and journalist sympathetic to the British cause, noted ‘another Alarm of Fire’, but added ‘This was no more than a Chimney’. Meanwhile, in another part of town, Ambrose Serle, the secretary to General Sir William Howe and a British loyalist, was having dinner with his boss. They received information that ‘a Part of Maryland has taken up Arms, declared for the Crown, and disarmed many of the Rebels in that Province…’.

Other dates contrast entries of people living in different times and social circles who seemingly did not share anything in common – except, of course, that they kept diaries in New York. And so, on one and the same page, you’ll find entries by beat poet Jack Kerouac and President George Washington. On another, there are entries from Catherine Elizabeth Havens, a 10-year-old heiress from a wealthy shipping family, and from Dorothy Day, the radical journalist who co-founded the Catholic Worker.

Of course, this selection of diarists can only give a partial view of New York and its history, but, as far as snapshots go, most are pretty absorbing. At times, though, the non-chronological arrangement gives the book a disjointed feel, which is why reading it in a stretch can be the least satisfactory approach. Who could wait 50 pages to find out the fate of the pithy Augustus Van Horne Ellis’s canaries, for instance? Instead, jumping ahead to his next few entries, you’ll quickly learn that Sally laid two eggs only for the hatchlings to be killed by her mate Dick. Two days later Van Horne Ellis ‘shot a cat dead, dead, dead’. Did he think of Sally, perhaps, as he fought and died in the Battle of Gettysburg?

Other times, the book swings back and forth in time in single diarists’ lives. In his 15 December 1880 entry, Theodore Roosevelt recounts how, when Alice, his ‘sweetest little wife’, isn’t able to go on horse cart rides along the Hudson, he takes ‘the dear little mother’ instead. But at this point, the reader has already learnt of the deaths of Roosevelt’s wife and mother on the same day, Valentine’s Day in 1884. ‘The light has gone out of my life’, reads Roosevelt’s single-line entry from that day. So when we encounter him again, all excited about the future, it all feels unbearably tragic.

Another tragedy, of course, but this one city-wide, was the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. That day and its aftermath are chronicled here by various bloggers, but their posts stand out as messy, looking like their authors accidentally kept hitting the caps-lock key. Though they are written for public view, the blog entries seem a lot more emotional and personally revealing than some of the private journals cited elsewhere.

The calamity of that day doesn’t dominate the book, though, which also leaves plenty of space for the city’s thrills and quirks. The unparalleled magic and heart-swelling feeling that’s so unique to New York City is best conveyed by its newcomers and those passing through. As EB White wrote in his famous 1949 essay, Here is New York: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.’

And so the last word goes to journalist Edward Robb Ellis who, after arriving in New York by train, wrote: ‘[I] walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled I should have been born here!

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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