Impressions of New York from a literary émigré.
Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939 (1976)
[At the end of Christopher’s brief visit in 1938, he had felt absolutely confident of one thing, at least. If he did decide to settle in America – and, by America, he meant New York – he would be able to make himself at home there. This, he said to himself, was a setting in which his public personality would function more freely, more successfully than it could ever have functioned in London. Oh, he’d talk faster and louder than any of the natives. He’d pick up their slang and their accent. He’d learn all their tricks. Someone had repeated to him a saying about the city: “Here you’ll find sympathy in the dictionary and everything else at the nearest drugstore.” This delighted him. He had accepted it as a challenge to be tough.
But now New York, on that bitter winter morning, appeared totally, shockingly transformed from the place he had waved goodbye to, the previous July. Christopher experienced a sudden panicky loss of confidence.
There they stood in the driving snow – the made-in-France Giantess with her liberty torch, which now seemed to threaten, not welcome, the newcomer; and the Red Indian island with its appalling towers. There was the Citadel–stark, vertical, gigantic, crammed with the millions who had already managed to struggle ashore and find a foothold. You would have to fight your way inland from your very first step onto the pier. Already, it was threatening you with its tooting tugboats, daring you to combat.
God, what a terrifying place this suddenly seemed! You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World, aggressively flaunting its rude steel nudity. We’re Americans here–and we keep at it, twenty-four hours a day, being Americans. We scream, we grab, we jostle. We’ve no time for what’s slow, what’s gracious, what’s nice, quiet, modest. Don’t you come snooting us with your European traditions–we know the mess they’ve got you into. Do things our way or take the next boat back–back to your Europe that’s falling apart at the seams. Well, make up your mind. Are you quitting or staying? It’s no skin off our nose. We promise nothing. Here, you’ll be on your own.
Christopher, trying hard to think positive thoughts, declared that he was staying. But the Giantess wasn’t impressed. The towers didn’t care. Okay, Buster, suit yourself.]
I came across my first copy of Christopher Isherwood’s combined narrative, The Berlin Stories, in what had been Muddy Waters, on Valencia at Twenty-Fourth. I grabbed it because it was extremely weathered; much of the binding was crumbling apart, the pages were well worn, and mysterious greenish blue splotches had soaked across various surfaces of the book—the New Directions first edition paperback. I was living in the Mission studio at the time, and it sat on my bookshelf for a long time. Many books tend to get picked up, many go on the shelf, and they are slowly read. Isherwood’s name surely appeared on some list somewhere, in the words of some critic elsewhere, or off the lips of some teaching assistant or professor whereby my notion of having him on the long list of works to be read originated in the first place. My friend Laura had occasion to be at the studio, pick up the book, and read enough to tell me about some alternative sex mentioned in the text, bringing an immediate peak in interest. Starting The Berlin Stories, I quickly felt engaged with the first of the composite narratives, Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood’s self-proclaimed parlour socialism, characters, and charming prose fed this initial enthusiasm. Not long after this, I put the book down in a waiting room and forgot to pick it back up, perhaps appropriately. Upon returning the next week, it was gone. Desperate to press on, I turned to the public library. Finishing The Berlin Stories, I have since read my way down the shelf of Isherwood’s books, and found his works to be delightful to read, well-written, and inspiring ever since.
Having long thought about Isherwood’s writings, and my own journey as a writer, I have noticed clear rousers of this predilection for Christopher Isherwood. He is often noted and celebrated as a prominent gay writer. He was a student of languages; travelling frequently and with relish, Isherwood eventually lived more of his life out of his home country than in it. His political tones tinged perfectly in my aspirant leftist ears. He blends the autobiographical details and moments with fictional storytelling in his prose, creating a sense of intimacy as you grow familiar with him as mere vessel for his cast of misfit characters. I find myself having much affinity for Isherwood himself, and his model as writer. His autobiographies are excellent too, and he had many interesting peers whom I have grown to appreciate as well.
Reading Christopher and His Kind was a great experience, as my love for Isherwood’s work had long since developed. Upon visiting friends in New York and walking through Manhattan, I came upon a $4.55 first edition hardcover copy of Christopher and His Kind at Housing Works. Snatching it up, I burned through it over the course of the long weekend, and came upon the excerpt above en route back to San Francisco. What can I say; I love New York as only one raised in the northern suburban sprawl of Los Angeles can do. New York is noise while the sprawl is silence. I love Isherwood’s quick image of New York: one that begins with confidence, but fades in the face of the city. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time on the same trip, and felt for the first time that I saw the city, in that grand visual where the city is unfathomably large and seething with action, regardless of you, your thoughts, your intentions or needs. His description becomes cold and alarming, just as the stark wall of the city is cold and alarming in its sheer scale and rigidness. Sometimes I feel similar feelings, to a lesser degree, passing from either the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. But New York feels alive, whereas San Francisco feels quaint once over that bridge. (To qualify, San Francisco does have a very special place in my heart.) I love when Isherwood says,
“You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World…”
as I enjoy the pulse and energy of the denser urban center, and identify with these words in particular. The subways of New York, while sometimes decrepit and rotting, convey a time and usage to me that speaks to its value as space and art in itself. When you are walking the tunnels (so delightfully reminiscent of the passages in subway systems like the Parisian Métro) or waiting at the platform, you can sense the city humming, feel the heat from the metropolis radiating over you in the yellowish subterranean electric light.
In the end, it turns out Isherwood ended up choosing the coast of southern California, and not New York, as his home in this country. He lived, taught writing, and wrote many of his later works while living in that Los Angeles sprawl mentioned above—including most notably the poetic representations of mid-century Los Angeles in A Single Man.* I have thought myself confident and bold enough to pick my life up and continue it in New York. I too would throw myself into the throng, elbow into the stream of the city’s life, and be present for all that the city could throw me. However, against the reality of moving to a new place that possesses much harsher weather and a frightful cost of living, my own confidence ebbs as well. At this point, I certainly hope that I myself do not live out my days in Los Angeles, merely because I have already spent eighteen years worth of them in that one place. As Isherwood was born and lived his early life in England but moved west to finish it in Los Angeles, maybe I can do the opposite and work my way gradually eastward from a childhood spent in outer Los Angeles, through San Francisco and onto New York, and eventually to London?
*A novel dedicated to the spectacular Gore Vidal, another writer whose work I admire highly. Vidal is also the author of a particularly good essay on Christopher and His Kind, in his collection: Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings.