The New York memoir

The Economist‘s books blog reviews James Wolcott’s memoir of 1970s New York as the latest in a long line of first-person accounts of living in the city.

There are certain precautions memoirists can take to inoculate themselves against the genre’s hazards. … Memoirists are safe so long as they appear to be eulogising someone or something other than just themselves. Of all the strategies employed to avoid narcissism, rhapsodising about a place is perhaps the most popular.

It identifies the “New York memoir” as its own sub-genre, complete with recurring motifs — the memory of low rent, the secret favourite places, the proximity of heroes (the review quotes E.B. White’s phrase the “nearness of giants”), the nostalgia of being young in the city, and the disillusionment that inevitably follows:

If vanity is the main peril of a traditional autobiography, then lamentation is the inevitable risk of the New York memoir.

I suspect this kind of lamentation might also be part of the survival armour one puts on, bit by bit, over decades living in the city. I’ve been struck by how many older New York friends of mine insist that the city is not what it once was — in their case, “once” means the 1970s. Yet they all continue to live here. (For my own part, I wish I could return to 1920s New York, to the time of Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.)

Perhaps this kind of blind spot is a necessary tool of survival, a kind of projection that focuses on the external, visible evidence of all the changes around you, rather than on what has changed about you since you arrived, heart in mouth, all those years ago. But to write well it’s essential to become aware of such blind spots. The review concludes:

Mr Wolcott has omitted the slow, tender and quite necessary suspicion that perhaps what made the era so great wasn’t New York so much as the brimming person he was when he first arrived there. The New York memoir, after all, is little more than an excuse—for the writer and reader alike—to celebrate all-consuming exuberance and ambition. The city can certainly engender such feelings, but so can being twenty-two.

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