- Historic Sites
I. America’s Junction
All through the 1920s eager young emigrants left the towns and farms of America and headed for New York City. One of them recalls the magnetism of the life that pulled him there.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
The “Square” meant Sheridan Square, which was the epicenter of Greenwich Village. Regularly on Tuesday nights Bobby Edwards performed at Enrico and Paglierri’s restaurant, where he called his circle of admirers the Crazy Cat Club, or, in deference to the national origins of the hosts, the Circolo Gatti Metti degli Stati Uniti. We did not go to many movies. One did not come to New York to see movies.
In time I accepted it as a settled matter that I was just another frustrated writer, and I decided that if the dream that had brought me to New York was a fantasy without substance, there might be substantial consolation in the field of advertising.
So I applied for and landed a place as junior copywriter in a well-regarded advertising office at 247 Park Avenue. In the surrealist world of advertising I learned many things, perhaps more than I realized at the time. I had renounced, I thought, all ideas of being anything more than a hired pen. But there were indications that the renunciation was not absolute. I was able to place some miscellaneous articles in Scribner’s Magazine, and I began to read history seriously and build a reference library without articulating just why.
For twenty-eight long years I stayed on in advertising, but in the end I discovered what was right for me. I had been a slow learner. I had made many detours. Yet at long last I found my subject, American social and cultural history.
I tried again. Bruce Catton (born in Petoskey, Michigan) took an article entitled “Holiday Time at the Old Country Store,” and so I was represented in the first issue of American Heritage. Oxford University Press brought out a book, The Old Country Store, which won the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association. A flow of ideas for books and articles followed, either generated through my own efforts or in the form of congenial suggestions from editors and publishers, more, in fact, than I could ever hope to carry out.
Improving prospects made possible a return to Greenwich Village as the 1920s drew to a close. We bought a house in Bleecker Gardens, an enclosed and gardened enclave on the west side of the Village.
We stayed eighteen years, rearing two daughters in the heart of the city. After the years in advertising I wrote ten books of social history or biography and countless reviews and magazine articles. Now when I return from my Pennsylvania home to the New York of the late 1980s with its topless towers, its furious pace, its splendors and miseries, my mind turns back to the city as I first knew it.
But I am uplifted by continuing evidence that the allure that once drew my generation has not lost its magic.
And still they come.
They come from rural America, from hometowns and midland cities, from the mountain states and the Great Plains: fresh-faced literary hopefuls, struggling artists, jazz musicians, and drama majors, all with strange stirrings in their breasts, all tumbling into Gotham to measure themselves against the brightest and the best. More than can be shown in its statistics, New York was and is a Beulah land of the imagination. Blessed are those who are able to say with Walt Whitman:
“I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island.”