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The Future of the City

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Conor Friedersdorf

New York is a lodestone to the literary talent of the entire United States. As a centre for the printing and distribution of books and magazines it has no New World and few Old World rivals. Where publishers are gathered together, there authors likewise must reside, or at least possess what the French call a pied-à-terre. New York's literary activity, therefore, is tremendous;--shoals of new books greet the view on every hand;--but this activity does not induce a literary atmosphere such as exists in Paris, because it is not coherent. The authors are scattered, like the tasteful buildings of the material city. Hence they do not make themselves felt. They have no common meeting-ground geographically or intellectually. They are lost amid the environing hosts of Philistines who have no literary sense and no literary interest. They are scarcely conscious of the existence of one another, except as they see the wares of the most popular of their number boomed on the billboards alongside patent medicines, cigarettes, and complexion powders. They do not rub elbows. They exert no more influence on one another than the pebbles buried in a pudding stone.

New York has neither a literary press nor a literary stage, in the sense in which both the press and the stage are literary in Paris. It has nothing to correspond with the open-air bookstalls along the quays of the Seine, before which thousands of bibliophiles pass their lives browsing among the classics and turning the leaves of musty old folios,--nothing to correspond even to the arcades of the Odéon, whither every one who makes or loves a book in Paris saunters to sip the sweets from the freshest blooms of literature. It has no literary Bohemia, like Montmartre and the Latin quarter, where impecunious geniuses spur each other on to chase chimeras (New York littereurs sternly disapprove of chimeras) and to hearten each other when the chase fails; and no literary court quarter, like Courcelles, Ternes, and Passy, where the smug arrivés review together their early struggles against obscurity and poverty, and gloat together over their successes. Indeed, it is the spontaneous and splendid literary solidarity of the French capital, rather than the quantity or even the quality of its literary output, that makes it an almost ideal place of residence for a literary man.

In the absence of the sympathy and support of his fellows, the New York writer would be helpless, probably, against the city's insistent and omnipresent commercialism, if he tried to resist it; but there is very little evidence that he tries. He seems to prefer to make a part of it. It is not that the New York writer is avaricious. No genuine American is. In a way he sets less store by the dollar than his Paris confrère,--the dollar is so much harder to get in Paris; but he is possessed of an inordinate desire to display the dollar, for the simple reason that it is the dollar which determines his literary rank. Literature is its own best excuse in Paris. In New York the only excuse for literature is an income. Not what he has done or is doing in a literary way, but what he is earning, gives the New York writer his rating, even with the members of his craft. The literary career is adjudged a dismal failure, if it does not procure a man as good a living as a business or professional career; and when it does not (and it rarely does) he who has chosen it must make it appear that it does. Live in a garret he may, by cunningly disguising his address; but he must dress and act before the world as if he were drawing at least a beggarly five-thousand dollars,--the "minimum wage" which the New York conception of respectability tolerates,--under pain of being discredited utterly. While the New York writer strives thus to hide his penury as if it were a badge of shame, the Paris writer flaunts his as a badge of honor. The latter does his utmost to differentiate himself from the bourgeois; the former offers the bourgeois that sincerest of all forms of admiration, imitation. In New York the man of affairs "patronizes" the man of letters. In Paris the roles are reversed. There is the man of letters who patronizes the man of affairs. To tell a New York litterateur that he looks and acts like a business man is to pay him the highest possible compliment; to tell a Paris litterateur the same thing is grievously to insult him.

-- Alvan F. Sanborn, 1906.

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