Loathing & Loving New York

By Miller, Stephen | New Criterion, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Loathing & Loving New York


Miller, Stephen, New Criterion


Nineteenth-century American literary culture can be construed in part as a quarrel between admirers of New York and admirers of Boston. Many American writers looked down on New York as a vulgar place that was addicted to commerce. Emerson disliked New York; Thoreau hated it. Lydia Child, a Bostonian who moved to New York in 1841, said that in New York "the loneliness of the soul is deeper, and far more restless, than the solitude of the mighty forest." Yet Child, who wrote a column about life in New York for a Boston newspaper, was impressed by New York's "infinite varieties of character."

Several American writers--most notably Walt Whitman and Henry James--defended New York and criticized Boston. Whitman thought Boston was filled with effete snobs. James found Boston boring. In November 1904, when he was visiting the United States, he wrote to Edith Wharton: "Boston doesn't speak to me; never has, in irresistible accents, or affect me with the sweet touch of an affinity."

William Dean Howells could not make up his mind whether he preferred Boston or New York. "I look forward to a winter in New York with loathing," Howells told his father in 1891. "But it will be well for the work I am trying to do.... Between the two cities I prefer New York; it is less 'done,' and there is more for one to see and learn there." New York, he said, was "splendidly and sordidly commercial."

Howells first moved from Boston to New York in 1888, but he moved back to Boston in 1890--returning to New York a year later when he accepted the editorship of Cosmopolitan, which at the time was known for publishing quality fiction. He stayed in this job for only four months, but he maintained an apartment in New York for the rest of his life, though he lived elsewhere for extended periods of time.

In 1890 Howells published A Hazard of New Fortunes, which is about a writer/editor who moves from Boston to New York. Howells and his protagonist Basil March have much in common. When Howells began writing A Hazard of New Fortunes, he lived at the same address March lives at in the novel: 330 East Seventeenth Street. March walks around many parts of New York. So did Howells. Writing to a friend in 1888, Howells talked about his walks in the city: "I have been trying to catch on to the bigger life of the place. It's immensely interesting, but I don't know whether I shall manage it."

In several passages in A Hazard of New Fortunes, March takes a dark view of New York and commerce in general. "What I object to," March says, "is this economic chance-world in which we live, and which we men seem to have created.... And so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot: lying, cheating, stealing."

Though March makes many observations that Howells would agree with, he is not Howells's spokesman. Howells disliked many aspects of commerce, but he enjoyed the company of entrepreneurs. Reminiscing about his first trip to New York, Howells writes that, on the ferry to the city (he had spent the night in a New Jersey suburb), "I had the company of a young New Yorker, whom I had met on the boat coming down, and who was of the light, hopeful, adventurous business type which seems peculiar to the city, and which has always attracted me."

Howells started as a journalist from Ohio and became an influential literary figure in Boston in the late 1860s. In 1866 he was appointed assistant editor of The Atlantic Monthly; five years later he became editor-in-chief. He also was a successful novelist, publishing several novels in the 1870s and 1880s that were critical as well as commercial successes. By the mid-1880s, when Howells began writing a column for Harper's Monthly, he was the leading American novelist and critic. In 1908 he was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Howells's Bostonian friends were surprised and dismayed by his decision to move to New York. …

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