The Eastern Frontier

New York City is Western too

  • Shaun C. Gibson

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.

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