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Why I Live Where I Live

Some writers need to go abroad to see home clearly, but New York City has all I need.

Jon Han

The Southern writer Harry Crews once explained why he lived on three acres of uncleared land in the middle of a small university town 100 miles from the place in Georgia where he was born and raised:

I’ve tried to work—that is, to write—in Georgia, but I could not. Even under the best of circumstances, at my mama’s farm, for instance, it was all too much for me. I was too deep in it, too close to it, to make anything out of it. ... [On the other hand], I can’t write if I get too far away. I tried to work on a novel in Tennessee once and after a ruined two months gave it up in despair. I once spent four months near Lake Placid in a beautiful house lent to me by a friend—perfect place to write—and I didn’t do a damn thing but eat my guts and look out the window at the mountains.

As a writer, Crews knew that it had been his task to search for and find the geographic distance that equated with the inner distance necessary for his novels to emerge from the emotional swamp that is the natural dwelling place of all writing. Linked both to the past and the future, this little university town 100 miles from home was now home for Crews because wherever he could work (that is, write) was bound to become home. 

Once, in Houston, I brought a dinner table conversation on this very subject—why we live where we live—to an abrupt halt when I said, quite casually, that if everyone I knew died tomorrow I’d be OK because I’d still have New York. The sentence shot out of me, surprising (shocking) me as much as it did everyone else at the table. What, after all, could such a sentiment imply, much less mean? I realized that evening that while I’ve often described in an episodic or story-telling way my many encounters on the streets of the city, I’ve never tried to analyze my joined-at-the-hip relation to New York City. Why it was that, regardless of all other attachments, nowhere—and with no one!—else in the world did I feel as richly connected to myself as I did on the street in the city of my birth? I also realized that evening that while I’ve traveled a good bit of the world, and even lived for months at a time in parts of it, I have never begun a significant piece of writing anywhere except in New York. Completed work abroad yes, but started it no. It occurred to me then that many writers probably have the same relation to their place of abode as did Crews and, for that matter, as do I: Live where you can feel life on your skin and get it down on paper. A problem whose solution involves the mystery of temperament. 

In the opening chapter of The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing’s protagonist, the writer Anna Wulf (clearly a stand-in for Lessing herself), and her friend, Molly, sit talking. Molly has reluctantly returned from a vacation abroad, and she asks Anna, with some bitterness, why she’d had to come back to the dreariness of 1950s London, why she could not have remained in Europe. “Because this is the country we know,” Anna replies. “The other countries are places we don’t think in.” 

Anna’s observation—delivered in a section famously called “Free Women”—is that of a writer (Lessing herself) who equates thinking with the hard work necessary to encounter the genuine in her own thought and feeling—and London with the place where the inner freedom necessary to do so is to be found. By inner freedom, Lessing means what D.H. Lawrence meant when he said, “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. … Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.” For Anna Wulf, writing-thinking-London equates with diving in the Lawrentian sense of the word: That, in fact, is what The Golden Notebook itself testifies to. Molly’s sojourn abroad delivered sybaritic pleasure, but under continental blue skies, she was doing anything but thinking, much less diving. To the contrary, she was blissing out: the direct opposite of what Anna calls thinking.

Of course, it hardly needs saying that not all writers define the act of thinking as does Lessing’s protagonist. No one thinks harder than those who employ intuition as much or more than they do the faculty of reason that Lessing so prizes: The poet or the writer of magical realism or the creator of a Proustian sentence, all of whom, when successful, are certainly diving deep and taking the reader with them. 

A writer for whom sybaritic pleasure did equate with what Lessing called thinking and Lawrence called diving was Henry Miller; it was only through the obsessive pursuit of a free-spirited, anti-social eroticism explored 3,000 miles from his native environment that Miller could reach the part of himself that wrote with the unstructured, uncensored honesty that delivers the writing goods. The underside of bohemian Paris in the dead middle of the Great Depression is not only the setting for Miller’s masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer (published in 1934), it is the material through which he released the untethered voice that brought into visceral existence the drunks, artists, scoundrels, derelicts, prostitutes, and deracinated intellectuals who populate the book—some in search of Sadean pleasure, some in search of Enlightenment, some in search of a meal; all willing to engage at the most inconceivable levels of human exchange, all uniformly amazed at what they find themselves capable of saying and doing.

As he had been the same deadbeat in Brooklyn that he was in Europe, Miller knew firsthand, and long before he left the United States, that if you turned over the rock of respectability anywhere in the world this was what would crawl out from under it—and he needed not only to tell what he knew (especially to middle-class America), he hungered to send it up into the Western skies through a blaze of rocket prose that would do nothing less than electrify. For the ten best years of his writing life, Paris was talismanic for Miller only because it was the place in which he wrote the books that let him soar and dive. He often said he was afraid of leaving the City of Light and indeed, his fears were justified. In 1940, he returned to the United States, settled himself on a mountaintop in California where he happily became an unexceptional citizen of his own country—and never again wrote an original word.

Countless writers have become expats in order to write more freely about home than they ever could at home. One of these was Gertrude Stein who went to Paris in 1903 and spent her life in France writing about an America she had internalized but could not bear to live in. When she said of her hometown, Oakland, California, “There is no there there,” she was speaking about an inchoate vastness of American life about which she had much feeling but no clarity. In struggling to get a handle on a world she knew to be formative not only for herself but for the future of the West, she stumbled on a self-created English that helped usher in literary modernism: a movement that could not have been born in turn-of-the-century America itself but was certainly seeded by the self-imposed exile of Americans like Stein. 

Another language-changing writer was James Joyce, who also spent his working life physically far from the country of his birth yet metaphorically bound to it ’til the day he died. It was out of that Ireland, the one he conjured in his head, that Joyce intended, as Mary McCarthy put it, to make a literary revolution “whose strategy required his physical absence to foster mental concentration.” And so it did. Wherever he landed—Trieste, Paris, Zurich—it was the Ireland in his mind that provided the air that Joyce breathed, the songs he sang, the speech rhythms he worshipped. He was, for all intents and purposes, a man in exile rather than an expatriate. He never settled anywhere, never took part in the life of the various countries he perched in, never became anything other than a man in transit who hung around continental Europe for decades, living almost entirely in his head while he wrote and wrote and wrote to wrestle into shape, in the most brilliantly original English of his or any other century, all the thought and feeling about a haunted sense of home out of which he fashioned a fictional essence of human consciousness never before or since equaled. 

Very often, writers have felt themselves in exile while living in their native lands, and have transformed homegrown anomie into a galvanizing force not only for literary but for social change. In the United States, the Beat writers of the 1950s were, if anything, such a group. America’s cold war politics had created an atmosphere of threat so remarkable—children went to bed afraid that the Bomb would go off while they slept—that it was as if we had lost World War II, not won it. The Beats saw themselves as a group of visionaries whose writings would return the country to a lost sense of the innate holiness of life; (the term “Beats” was derived from their routine use of the word “beatitude.”) The major figures among them—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs—wrote to tell the world why they felt as alienated as they did, and why their readers should be feeling the same.  

These were people who knew themselves to be on the road to Enlightenment. This conviction easily persuaded them that they were emissaries obliged to spread the word. And what was that word? We must spend our years religiously celebrating the beauty of life and condemning all those who do not. They saw themselves as the Buddha had seen himself, as a man on a mission of conversion that could be accomplished only by wandering the earth. So the Beats wandered: all over the United States and halfway around the world as well. These wanderings were memorialized by Kerouac, who was perpetually on the road in the United States, and Ginsberg, who spent years (metaphorically speaking) writing poems in one ashram or another. After a while the wander itself became home territory; and the work of the wanderers underwritten by an angry love for an America they were forever leaving in order to forever mythologize. For most of their lives, not one of the Beats could stay put.

Paolo Pellegrin, aerial view of New York City, 2010.
©Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photo

Then again, there was Robert Frost and Flannery O’Connor and Emily Dickinson, writers who seem hardly ever to have left the house. For these writers, a sufficiency of human experience lay close at hand in the writer’s interaction with the weather, the neighbors, the in-laws; the death of a child, the betrayals of marriage, the shock of their own emergent characters. For them, the sheer wonderment of life crystallizing repeatedly through the daily encounter with the quotidian provided a lifetime of writing.

It was in this camp, as it turned out, that I belonged. I became one of those writers who, when away from home—in my case, New York City—was filled with such a basic absence of well-being that I sometimes imagined myself under citywide house arrest. In no place else in the world, it seemed—as Anna Wulf might have put it—was my intelligence capable of expanding, much less diving. 

To complicate matters, the home I am speaking of was not the place I was actually born in, rather it was one, though only a subway ride away, I had, metaphysically speaking, to journey to. The journey I speak of was the one taken from the outer boroughs—in my case, the Bronx—to Manhattan; one that many of my generation have described as the longest in the world. It was the trip taken by those of us who came from working class, immigrant homes to what we thought of as the center of art and intellect, literary success and political influence, glamour and cultivation. Many of us did indeed penetrate quickly to the center of one or another of these larger worlds, but for many more of us, me included, the glittering enterprise remained elusive: perpetually within reach but never quite within grasp. I went to school but the degree did not gain me a profession. I left the Bronx but only for a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. I began to write, but nobody read me beyond the streets of Greenwich Village. 

Thus, I became that other kind of Manhattanite: a walker in the city; and discovered that nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like joining the endless stream of people moving steadily, as blood moves through veins and arteries, along these democratic streets. The relief I felt stepping daily into the anonymous crowd was almost indescribable; and then relief morphed into vigor, and vigor gave me vital information. Walking day after day on pavements inscribed with savvy, laughter, and anxiety, what struck me almost viscerally was the sense of expectation that seemed to rise and fall before my very eyes, and then rise yet again. I soon understood that it was this expectation that supplied New York with its unique brand of energy: avid, noisy, fast-moving; wild to get into the act. That was it, really, getting into the act. Clearly, there was no doubt among this crowd that there was an act to get into: even, or perhaps especially, if it need be self-created. Daily, I experienced the multitude of ways in which people in New York scrambled not merely to survive but to provide a platform on which to perform. Street theater in the city was there on demand: at a traffic light, on a bus, in a store, in your own apartment when you opened the door to the plumber or the electrician. It was as though every man, woman, and child in town was ready at a moment’s notice to ad lib an exchange that, given enough story-telling time, would transform an event into an experience. It was this impulse that, soon enough, infused an atmosphere I came, permanently, to call home. 

To this day, the street achieves for me what I so often cannot achieve for myself: composition. When it does I never fail to realize that this is my deepest need—to know not the peace and excitement of love, marriage, or continental adventure, but of composition. The promise of narrative that flashes repeatedly out of the mass of swiftly moving figures—always leaving in its wake scraps of conversation, profiles of dramatic beauty, gestures of humor and despair—that, again and again, restores me not necessarily to meaning but to an affection for life that fills me—stomach, arms, chest, and brain—with peace and joy and the longing to dive.

On Sixth Avenue at 34th Street, a couple, somewhere in their forties I’d say, is walking rapidly toward me. The woman’s hair is the color of brass, the man’s shoe-polish black; her nails long and blood-red, his bitten to the quick; her eyes flash, his are defeated. As they come abreast of me, she brings all the nails of one hand together, shakes them in the air beneath her companion’s nose and demands exasperatedly, “Don-choo unner-stann the facts of life?”

At the corner, waiting for the light to change, two women are standing beside me. “So, how’s the boyfriend situation?” one asks. “I slept with someone the other night, but it’s not gonna work out,” comes the answer. Why, her companion asks. “He was a great performer, but it was like going to bed with a tender bull.” The other shrugs, “Every woman’s dream. What’s your problem?”

On Park Avenue, a middle-aged couple wearing expensive clothes and tired faces emerge from an elegant building. “You don’t get the point at all,” she says just past the doorman. “You never have, you never will!” The man stops dead at the end of the awning. “You’re insulted, aren’t you?” he says softly. “My lack of understanding. It’s an insult to your very person, isn’t it?” 

I lie in bed that night thinking, how on earth could I ever live anywhere but in New York? And know that I never will.