A couple weeks ago I noticed Walking New York by Stephen Miller in the nonfiction shelf of the library and decided to pick it up. I had just walked the Great Saunter and, as a writer, the subtitle “Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole” caught my eye.
The prevalence of walking in American literature that the book brings to light is fascinating. Early American literature in particular seems full of ramblers, or at least, Miller’s focus on the canonical makes the case for it. Walking New York provides insight into the lives of many revered American writers through the lens of their experiences in New York.
I personally learned a lot about Walt Whitman and was quite taken by some of his professional strategies. He seemed to invent the New York hustle:
“[h]e printed in the New York Tribune a letter Emerson had sent him about Leaves of Grass without getting permission to do so… Whitman also wrote and published unsigned reviews in praise of his own work” (36-37).
Miller’s text also introduced me to the work of Elizabeth Hardwick and now her book Sleepless Nights is on my to-read list. I really love this section of Hardwick’s “Crosstown” and Miller’s interwoven commentary:
“The narrator is trying to figure out what New York means to her. ‘New York. Even when you have been here so long, can it be your autobiography?’ Her deepest emotions have nothing to do with New York. ‘Not the scene of first love, disillusionment, parents, famly, formation.’ New York is mainly a daily hassle about little things” (189)
As a New York resident the glimpse into early, even pastoral up to point, New York City through the eyes of colonial writers and visiting British authors is another fun aspect of the book. For example in 1832 Fanny Trollope describes the scene of moving day in New York City:
“Rich furniture and ragged furniture, carts, wagons, and drays, ropes, canvas, and straw, packers, porters, and draymen… Everyone I spoke to on the subject complained of this custom as most annoying, but all assured me it was unavoidable” (12).
It’s reassuring to know that nearly two hundred years later, moving in the city feels about as stressful as when the city was just forming into a modern metropolis.
Walking New York has a strong labor and immigration narrative despite a disclaimer in preface that “[s]everal writers discuss issues that remain current—immigration, the culture of Wall Street, the regulation of capitalism— but this work focuses on writers, not issues” (pg xvii). The history of the city is necessarily tied to those two movements so it stands to reason that they work their way into the text regardless of Miller’s efforts to focus on the biographic.
Another note is that the book mainly covers Manhattan with some Brooklyn and a dash of Queens toward the end. While this isn’t a critique, as Miller has no control over where historical personalities chose to live, it is a consideration for future readers. If you’re someone more interested in the literary history of specific boroughs this might not be the best text for you.
One point of style I really enjoyed in the book were the maps. There are only four of them, but they give the reader a nice sense of geography while functioning as pictorial section breaks. They also bring to mind hiking guides, which is a nice analogy since the book is a sort of guide to the literary history of Manhattan.
“The historian Lewis Mumford wrote that ‘wherever one goes in New York, whether one knows it or not, one walks in the steps of Walt Whitman” (38).
I’d recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t mind a scholarly read (it’s published by Fordham University Press) and is interested in delving into the personal history of the featured authors. I’d also suggest it to anyone hoping to gain a deeper sense of the literary history of New York City. It’s a interesting book that offers a thorough history of one of America’s great literary cities and suggests the connection between rambling and writing.
In closing I’ll let Miller’s text and words from Alfred Kazin finish sum up walking in this strange labyrinth of a city:
” In another entry about Malamud [Alfred] Kazin noted, ‘I remember most of all his walking about the city ‘dreaming,’ dreaming aloud— it reminded me of the importance of such walking about, of its solitariness as well as its search for knowledge.’ Though writing about Malamud’s walks Kazin was mainly thinking about his own walks. When he was a young man, he was ‘constantly prowling and exploring New York, in search of my future without my knowing what I was looking for” (167).