New York, New Yorker, New Yorkest

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Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. Edited by Phillip Lopate. Library of America 1998. 1050 pp. $40.00

New York: Poems. Edited by Howard Moss. Avon 1980. 345 pp. $5.95 (paper)

Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker. Edited by David Remnick with Susan Choi. Random House 2000. 480 pp. $26.95

Samuel R. Delany. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. NYU Press 1999. 203 pp. $19-95

An Anthology of New York Poets. Edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro. Random House 1970. 588 pp. $12.95 (paper)

David Lehman. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Doubleday 1998. 433 pp. $27.50

Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America since World War II. Harcourt Brace 1997. 404 pp. $14.00 (paper)

William Corbett. New York Literary Lights. Graywolf Press 1998. 345 pp. $16.95 (paper)

Nina Miller. Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York's Literary Women. Oxford University Press 1999. 292 pp. 12.99 (paper)

William B. Scott & Peter M. Rutkoff. New York Modern: The Arts and the City. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1999. 472 pp. $39-95

Of all American cities New York is the most. The most everything: the biggest, the richest, the bawdiest, the most envied, and the most reviled. Surely, it has been written about, painted, and doxologized more often than any other American city. Yet curiously the nation's greatest writers have tended to shy away from the city-not as their address but as subject matter. Even when they've lived here, ambitious novelists have preferred to take Europe, the ocean, or Midwestern psychopaths as their special domain. Except for Edith Wharton, who was advised by Henry James to stake her claim on the city (perhaps so she wouldn't poach on Europe), novelists of the first rank have dealt with New York mostly in works of reduced scale, such as James's Washington Square or Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (which, in any case, is set in the Greater Metropolitan Area, with only glimpses of the city). As Tom Wolfe complained when hyping his own wares, New York City has no chronicler comparable in authority and scope to Dickens or Balzac. The literary city of New York is a condominium, with no single landlord but a committee of tenants constantly litigating against each other.

This is not to that say that there has been a dearth of great novels set in New York, only that they are not by Pantheon-status writers-- Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Twain, and other contributors to the Library of America. Of fiction at shorter lengths there are granaries, and of poetry and non-fiction as well; that's to say, anthologies, whose editors have taken on those chores of social taxonomy usually assumed by the epic novelists. The best such anthologies (which include those by Phillip Lopate, Howard Moss, and David Remnick considered here) offer the literary equivalent of the oceanic sociability described by Walt Whitman in the single greatest poem ever written about New York, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (included in both Lopate's and Moss's books).

Whitman's vision subtends a great sweep of prime real estate and naval commerce, but also and most memorably that wide and ever-- flowing stream of other consciousnesses that is the distinctive quality of a true metropolis, along with the sense that one is dissolving in a flux of peoples, streets and centuries, an atom in the cyclotron of history:

Among those others were the one or two hundred writers and editors of the stack of books beside me, twenty inches high and weighing thirty-five pounds. These twenty-some volumes are but the latest lot to exit the ferry, so to speak, for the flow of New York-related books, like Whitman's flood of faces, is ceaseless, a cognate marvel (like those vast cemeteries one hurtles by on the expressway to JFK) of our amazing Babylon. Just as it would be inappropriate to review the faces in that crowd or the gravestones in Queens, some of these books will be noted without observing the protocols of reviewing, since they are remarkable only as part of the Mississippi of Product. …