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Dave Astor

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New York, New York in Books, in Books

Posted: 06/06/2013 10:56 am

It all started with The Magic Tunnel, which I read as a kid. In that children's chapter book, two 20th-century youngsters enter a New York City subway station and emerge in New Amsterdam in 1664 -- just before the English take power from the Dutch (and long before NYC's strange 2013 mayoral race).

Caroline Emerson's novel got me hooked on literature set (or partly set) in NYC, the huge metropolis with a fascinating history, diverse population and many things to see and do. I saw and did some of them -- from museums to baseball games -- while growing up in a nearby suburb, but was never yanked back in time until watching Mitt Romney campaign ads in 2012.

Many people growing up in or near other great cities in the U.S. and abroad have similar soft spots for literature set in those locales -- and I love many novels based in various cities I've occasionally or never visited. But, for me, fiction about NYC has a certain zing; perhaps it's because I've walked repeatedly in many of the neighborhoods that literature's characters also walk.

Another time-travel novel -- Jack Finney's Time and Again -- is one of the most evocative books set in "The City That Never Sleeps." A man goes back nearly 90 years to 19th-century Manhattan, where he finds danger and love (and an incomplete Statue of Liberty in Madison Square Park). Adding to the effect are some truly memorable 1800s photos -- a few of which depict buildings long gone. As old as NYC itself is, literature is one way we unfortunately realize that parts of the Big Apple's history are constantly being obliterated.

Not far from Madison Square Park is Greenwich Village, where many a fictional work has been set -- from Henry James' Washington Square to O. Henry's "The Last Leaf." The latter is an ultra-poignant short story that illustrates, among other things, how the now-affluent Village used to be a more bohemian place where a down-and-out artist could live.

Several Edith Wharton novels, including The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, are set in the ritzier environs of Manhattan. But the latter book also depicts NYC's harsh economic inequality (still very much with us) when Lily Bart falls on hard times.

Other novels, including James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, illustrate NYC's racial and ethnic diversity -- and tolerance or intolerance, as the case might be.

"Gotham," of course, is a place where people -- such as the lesbian protagonist in Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle -- go to escape the intolerance of some smaller towns. It's also a locale for seeking success and fame; think Herman Melville's Pierre. But NYC is also where one might feel angst and alienation -- as in Pierre, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" story and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Immigrants trying to make a life in NYC? One of the many novels in that category is E.R. Greenberg's The Celebrant, co-starring a family of jewelers and New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson.

The NYC music scene? Yup -- in novels such as Tom Perrotta's The Wishbones, which takes place in both New York and New Jersey.

Then there's a seriocomic novel -- Adam Langer's Ellington Boulevard -- that covers many of the Manhattan bases: gentrification, romance, the publishing biz, college life, living with a dog and more.

Among the numerous other books set or partly set in Manhattan? Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon.

Literature also spotlights NYC's outer boroughs, whether in Keyes' book (which has a Bronx scene), Franzen's book (Brooklyn moments), Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (also Brooklyn). Outer-borough characters are often (though not always) more down-to-earth than the glitzy types who inhabit books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which has scenes in Manhattan in addition to Long Island.

And -- getting back to children's literature -- the many NYC-oriented titles include the Eloise books by Kay Thompson, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold and Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by the recently deceased Bernard Waber.

What are your favorite literary works set in NYC? Or, if you want to expand on this, your favorites set in another major city in the U.S. or abroad?

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Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.

 
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