July 12, 2024

The New York Literary Flâneur: A Syllabus

New York is the ultimate walking city. If ever a New World metropolis has seduced its inhabitants and visitors alike to play at being the flâneur, then it is the Big Apple. Despite the city’s dizzyingly exaggerated vertical axis, the street is a constant focal point. No-one climbs to the top of the Empire State Building to look upwards. The street is the stage. To be indoors in New York is to occupy the balcony with the audience. To walk is to perform; to take part in the multitude of intertwining narratives which are played out each day on the city’s sidewalks. Since New York’s very beginnings as a metropolis, writers have recognized and tried to capture this phenomenon. Each of these titles attempt to harness that ripple of energy that every walker senses when immersed in the New York crowd.

© Sharon Temple-Sowerby 2012

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Whitman’s “Calamus” sequence provides some of the first examples of a New World writer playing the flâneur in an American city. “To a Stranger” and “Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?” address that same narcotic draw of the stranger in the crowd as experienced in Baudelaire’s “À Une Passante”. Meanwhile, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” celebrates the universality of the crowd dynamic, gathering numerous narrative shards to create a cross-temporal mosaic of New York street life. Whitman is perhaps the first writer to recognize the erotic nature of the New York crowd’s embrace.

New York by Gaslight by George G. Forster

Journalist Forster laces up a sturdy pair of walking boots and sets off into the New York night intent on documenting the seamier side of the nascent nineteenth century metropolis. One of his many rambles leads to the infamous Five Points at midnight. Striding fearlessly into the back-alleys Forster shines a light on the ‘wicked city’, illuminating the squalor, drunkenness and prostitution found at every narrow turn. New York by Gaslight is a dazzling example of Victorian America’s penchant for urban sensationalism. Forster captures the sticky, brandy-stained hue of old New York after dark.

The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara by Frank O’Hara

This collection of poetry has all the sprezzatura of the 1960s gentleman about town. The seersucker suited O’Hara breezes through midtown Manhattan: “I am getting tired of not wearing underwear / and then again I like it / strolling along /feeling the wind blow softly on my genitals”. The poet’s camera eye is drawn to the exotic, whether that be the “glistening torsos” of burly workmen, or the array of international products now available to consumer America: “I just stroll into the PARK LANE / Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega”. This is the New York street at its most tantalizing.

Another Country by James Baldwin

“The train, as though protesting the proximity of white buttock to black knee, groaned….Then it began to move uptown, where the masses would divide and the load become lighter…” Vivaldo is a white hipster who prowls Harlem in search of jazz and girls, and is looked upon with suspicion by the community. Meanwhile, Rufus is a black jazz musician who is met with disapproval when crossing the downtown divide. Baldwin’s 1962 novel brutally exposes the de facto racial segregation of Manhattan and its intricate network of invisible boundaries.

The Evening Sun Turned Crimson by Herbert Huncke

A street hustler and petty thief once labeled by Times Square police as ‘the creep’, Huncke, who may or may not be the source of the term “beat”, was undoubtedly a major source of inspiration for the Beat Generation. His writing is overshadowed by the work of Kerouac and Burroughs, and yet despite lacking the sense of urgency and renegade energy which characterized cult novels such as On the Road and Naked Lunch, Huncke’s work is raw, pithy and has a closer proximity to the street. His stories read like barroom anecdotes. One short story from The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, entitled “Tattooed Woman” bares witness to gentrification in 1960s Manhattan. The wandering Huncke vividly depicts a mechanical ‘iron claw’ as a predatory beast picking through the rubble of the recently demolished Chelsea slums. Another, entitled “Cruiser on Avenue B,” discusses how Huncke is targeted by the NYPD on account of his appearance. His work is a forgotten treatise on Manhattan’s gradual expulsion of ‘otherness’.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz

Artist, filmmaker and writer Wojnarowicz worked as a rent boy in Times Square where he developed an intimate understanding of the street. In Close to the Knives his walks have no destination or motive, other than a momentary means of escaping destitution. The city that he sees is deeply nightmarish: a seemingly disembodied hand is spotted in the stink garbage – only for it to stir to life – attached to a filthy vagrant with a maggot infested wound. The shadow population that prowls Wojnarowicz’s Times Square are bathed in demonic red or gangrenous green neon. The city depicted in a state of chronic decay serves to parallel the spread of AIDS in 1980s New York, an illness which would eventually claim Wojnarowicz’s life in 1992.

Girls, Visions and Everything by Sarah Schulman

Lila Futuransky is a mournful heroine who walks the streets of the Lower East Side, intent on mythologizing her beloved lesbian community before it is swept away by the tide of gentrification. For Lila, 1980s Manhattan is “the most beautiful woman she had even known”. Her exploration of the city on foot is both sensual and meticulous. Schulman’s capture of the rapid and unforgiving state of perpetual renewal experienced in New York, particularly at street level, is peerless.

Open City by Teju Cole

Julius, the narrator of Open City, takes on a role similar to that of the nineteenth century Parisian flâneur, sensitive to the crowds which engulf him, yet simultaneously cut off from the world. A psychiatrist of Nigerian and German extraction, he wanders the New York gridiron confounded by his own rootlessness. Cole has a keen eye for urban detail, and like Baldwin, he is fascinated by the series of boundaries which continue to crosshatch the city. His first major work offers a vivid street by street description of contemporary Manhattan and its rapidly changing neighborhoods. This is New York flânerie for the twenty-first century.

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