« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The Eastern Frontier

New York City is Western too

 

When I lived in Wyoming, I used to drive across the plains for hours on my days off. I had a battered Toyota with a factory stereo, and I listened to stacks of cassette tapes purchased for 99 cents apiece at the record store in Cheyenne. One of them was Antonin Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, the one called the New World Symphony.

I was hooked on first listening, and when I learned that the Czech composer had written it after spending the summer of 1893 in the town of Spillville, Iowa, I began to hear it as a tonal epic of the American West. Its notes expressed the way the prairie unfurls in great empty yaws to the far horizon -- the way you can stand on a grassy swale and feel an urge to get lost in the waves of the land.

Four years later, I discovered I had misunderstood the dates: Dvorak actually composed the symphony several months before he went to Iowa -- or, for that matter, saw anything west of the Hudson River. In fact, he was living in an apartment near at the corner of 17th Street and Second  Avenue in New York City.

But I didn't feel cheated by this knowledge. It only helped erode a prejudice held too long by too many Westerners, those of us who grew up thinking of New York City as an effete or utterly hostile place, irrelevant to the healthy functioning of the respiratory system of the continent. Far from it: I have now come to think of New York as just about as Western a town as any in North America; more Western, in fact, than certain parts of the West itself.

There are moments when it is possible to see Manhattan Island for what it really is: a knob of hard schist in the midst of a tidal estuary near the mouth of a river brimming with Canadian snowmelt. Topography is the essence of New York. That swollen river, the grassy island, and a fine, wide, natural harbor created a convenient anchorage for European frigates eager to stuff their holds with fur and tobacco and copper. There was no more convenient portal to Indian country. And so Manhattan began as a version of a Nevada railroad siding, complete with a miserable little settlement of bars and drunks right by the loading docks.

Take the 1 Train down to South Ferry station today, walk four blocks east and see the outlines: a set of bow-shaped streets with names like Beaver and William and Pine and Pearl and Maiden. These streets today, lined with soaring fronts of limestone and clay, function as the ribs of the American financial system, encasing the New York Stock Exchange at the corner of Wall and Broad where a defensive stockade was erected for possible war against the Lenape, or Delaware, Indians.

It is possible, when standing in front of the exchange -- chartered at the base of a buttonwood tree to broker grubstakes in beaver fur, lumber and tobacco -- to see a slice of the East River (really, a tidal channel) and beyond it the leading seawall of Long Island. All of this glitter shot up because of what lay in the wilderness beyond, and the money it earned overseas after having been killed, logged, bound and crated. Lower Manhattan is the epicenter of American urbanity only because it stood, like the coaling junctions of the West, so close to the great blank spaces on the map.

The wharves surrounding the island created another business -- perhaps less important, at the time, than the trade in beaver fur, yet one that would have an enormous effect on American life in the coming centuries. At first it was a matter of convenience that British ships here offloaded the heavy pig-iron plates of novels first published in London, meant for second runs in the American market. This quirk of cargo storage was the seed of the mammoth publishing industry that today calls New York its capital, a floating rhizome of editors, cover artists, proofreaders, literary agents, publicists and writers. Most of the major publishing companies are here, and about half the magazines.

This means a giant helping of the words that Americans read in magazines or books are written, edited, massaged or otherwise conjured into being within a thin slice -- less than 10 square miles -- of midtown Manhattan Island wedged between the long-vanished wharves. It travels off to Alamogordo or Bakersfield or Carson City, democratic and generous, like a good opera house in a 19th century Rocky Mountain gold-mining town.

The transaction also works in reverse. Westerners have drifted here in a near-constant stream, like miners to the goldfields, to make a living with the quill or the keyboard. Mark Twain was one. So was Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker, born in Aspen, Colo., in 1892. Some of them are of a certain vain romantic cast -- "a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart," in E.B. White's phrasing -- but the majority are looking to secure a more tangible reward from the media world: a steady paycheck, a small apartment, their byline in a service magazine, a wry blog, a little single-coat of glamour.

One of these, a friend of mine, played in a punk band called Little Pork Chop, but edited a glossy fan mag for teenagers -- Super Teen -- that she preferred her friends never read. One long night, we had a conversation about leaving the city, something both of us knew would happen one day, and she told me about her favorite view of the city.

It was a homecoming view: a distinct swale in the Long Island Expressway near Calvary Cemetery, the resting spot of over 3 million dead, before the road dips down toward the mouth of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. The jagged flank of Manhattan (what Kurt Vonnegut called "the quartz porcupine") spreads itself wide for at least 30 seconds, and she is reminded of why she came. The day this view failed to move her, she swore, was the day she would give notice. She craved a mythological environment, a feeling familiar to Westerners. All of us here are carriers of that longing.

After several years in New York, I realized that my own favorite view is from the air, particularly flying in from the Atlantic at night, in winter, when it is possible to see the lighted smudge of the city on the edge of the freezing pane of saltwater and think about how it might have looked from the deck of one of those wooden frigates. This is when I like the city best: when it is possible to imagine the towers and the streets and the bridges and all the lights melting away to reveal what has always been there under the dull skein of modern life.

It wasn't for nothing that the French existential philosopher Albert Camus once walked into a bar here (no joke, it happened in 1947) and saw a sight "apparently straight out of a Western, (where) fat old actresses sing about ruined lives and a mother's love." That's New York: a base camp in the woods that didn't die, a mineral rush that didn't end. Age has mellowed the scene, but the essentials were never razed. To live in New York today, as many Westerners do, is to recognize the city's unity with what lies over the palisades on the far bank of the Hudson. Here is the core in the spool that unrolls to the mountains. New York is the West, under time's wrapping.