Growing Up in New York City: A Generational Memoir (1941-1960)

By Wolf, Howard R | Cithara, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Growing Up in New York City: A Generational Memoir (1941-1960)


Wolf, Howard R, Cithara


Preface

Michel de Montaigne asked himself famously in his Essays of 1580, "What do I know?" This apparently simple question opened the door to the history of personal and private writing: letters, memoirs, autobiographies, the personal essay, literary journalism, and, ultimately, to my own generational memoir.

Montaigne's question, like his near contemporary Shakespeare's soliloquies, initiated a Humanist-Renaissance exploration of the interior life that led in time to the English Romantic Movement in the first part of the 19,h century and, beyond it, to depth psychology and stream of consciousness (James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) at the turn of the 20,h century.

Montaigne is a good example of how world-changing and revolutionary language - even one sentence - can be when it inaugurates or summarizes an epoch of human consciousness. Descartes, Rousseau, Goethe (Poetry and Truth, 181133), Freud, and Marx also come to mind.

I have resolved in an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself (Rousseau, The Confessions, Book One, 17).

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they (Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Subject of the First Book, 1).

A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to hunt down and exorcize this specter; Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police-spies (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 55).

Needless to say, it helps - doubtless is necessary - for the thinker-writer to be a superb rhetorician and stylist.The only prize ever awarded to Sigmund Freud in Austria was the Goethe Prize for Literature on August 28, 1930.

Charles Lamb, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Sigmund Freud (The Interpretation o/Dreams, 1900), Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka (Letter to His Father /Brief an den Vater), George Orwell, and James Baldwin are a few well-known practitioners of personal writing or lifewriting who have helped establish, over time, the genre of what we now call "creative nonfiction."

These writers, past and present, sometimes are accused of being self-serving, egotistical, and narcissistic; but a close look at the good work in this area usually reveals a balance of subjective and objective elements and of centripetal and centrifugal forces. In fact, these forces often co-exist and constitute a unified field.

In the Preface to his Stories of Three Decades (1 936), Thomas Mann says that the chronological ordering of his stories constitutes "an autobiography, as it were, in the guise of a fable." In his The Freud Reader, Peter Gay, the intellectual historian, says about Freud's Interpretation of Dreams : "It is partly open and partly concealed autobiography..." (129).

If historians tend to proceed from external data to hidden motivation of key players, the personal essayist typically moves from the intimate level to the plane of sociology, politics, and history. He becomes, therefore, a generational memorist.

Generational history imprints itself, to say nothing of longer increments of time, upon the individual; whether they are minor or major forces in the world through which they move, people write their signatures micro- or macro-scopically on the scrolls and walls of the "cities" in which they live. In this sense, we all become in the fullness of time, as Emerson puts it, "representative" women and men.

Let me begin at the beginning and move forward in a straight line, or as straight as it can be, through my growing up in New York City - mainly Manhattan - during the 1940's and 1950's from Pearl Harbor to the edge of the Viet Nam War and then draw some generational conclusions from this personal history. …

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