Returning to a strange, unrecognizable New York

Marktwain1867Like Joan Didion in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” countless authors have written their story of coming to the city, building a life here, and then realizing for various reasons that it was time to go.

But there’s a similar tale that isn’t told as often. It’s about living in New York, then leaving—only to return years later to a city that feels different, distant, not the home you knew so intimately.

It happened to Mark Twain. In 1854, at age 18, he left his city printer’s job for California, where he made a name for himself as a journalist.

In 1867 (three years before this photo was taken of Canal and Mott Streets) he found himself back in an indifferent, business-oriented New York.

He dubbed it “the overgrown metropolis” and mused about how “the town is all changed since I was here, 13 years ago, when I was a pure and sinless sprout” in letters to his former newspaper.

Mottandcanalstreets1870“I have at last, after several months’ experience, made up my mind that it is a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race, ” Twain wrote that August.

“Every man seems to feel that he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so he rushes, rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable—never has any time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.”

Henryjameswithfather1854“There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever—a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing.”

Twain would not stay in New York very long. Later that year he traveled to Europe and the Middle East, then settled in Hartford, Connecticut.

Author Henry James, above with his father, also felt like a stranger when he came back to New York in 1904 after years in Europe.

21washingtonplaceBorn and raised on genteel Washington Place in the 1840s, James was aghast at the new skyscrapers, which he deemed in The American Scene “grossly tall and grossly ugly” and “. . . extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted, and stuck in as in the dark, anywhere and anyhow. . . .”

He was struck by “the terrible little Ellis Island,”  trolley cars “stuffed to suffocation,” and the “melancholy monument” that was the new arch on Washington Square.

And James was really upset about NYU knocking down the school’s original college building…along with his childhood home.

Henryjames1913singersargent[Above, the NYU building that took James' childhood home's place on 21 Washington Place].

“The grey and more or less ‘hallowed’ University building—wasn’t it somehow, with a desperate bravery, both castellated and gabled?—has vanished from the earth, and with it the two or three adjacent houses, of which the birthplace was one.”

[Henry James in 1913, by John Singer Sargent]

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4 Responses to “Returning to a strange, unrecognizable New York”

  1. Maury Schott Says:

    I think the Henry James address you’re referring to is 21 Washington Place, not Street, which would be (if it existed) down adjacent to Battery Park City.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Ah yes, thanks! Washington Place.

  3. Mark LaPilusa Says:

    I love the 1870 photo of Canal Street. I would bet though that the photographer was standing on the south side of Canal Street between Mulberry and Baxter looking west. Mott would be a block and a half behind him.

  4. David Berger Says:

    In the 60s, I had an office in the NYU building that occupies the space of Henry James’s former home at 21 Washington Place. It’s right across the street from the Asher Building, where the Triangle Fire took place. We had classes in the rooms from which the girls jumped and didn’t know it.

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