A Backward Glance: Firsthand Accounts from Diaries, Autobiographies and Memoirs

“St. George’s” by Gene Schermerhorn

In 1888, Gene Schermerhorn, a member of an old New York family, ended a series of letters to his young nephew in the finest spirit of personal recollections:

Now my dear Phil I have tried to tell you what this great city was like when I was a boy but little older than yourself, and I hope I have succeeded in interesting you somewhat. I have begun with my earliest recollections of New York and I will leave it now about 1856 when the population was only 629,810…It is estimated now at over 1,500,000.

I cannot help looking forward and wondering, if it can possibly be that you can tell of as great changes. It is my firm belief that you will be able to do so and that you will live to see the entire island as thickly built as it is now below 59th St. and perhaps the district above the Harlem also. Or it may be that you will see changes that I don’t even dream of, although my faith in the future of New York is unbounded…I hope you will sometimes enjoy reading what has given me so much pleasure to write for you.

Your loving Uncle Gene

First hand accounts like these are sparks of New York life.  Many writers, including Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell, have illuminated the city, but the words of New Yorkers outside of literary circles, people like Gene Schermerhorn, are often equally eloquent and distinctive. Unlike histories, contemporary diary entries, letters, and other eyewitness accounts offer a view of New York life that is umblemished by the sensibilities of a later time.

“Harlem Bridge at the End of Third Avenue’ by Gene Schermerhorn

One such example is the unusual and enlightening first-hand account from Adriaen van der Donck, a passionate citizen of New Amsterdam who challenged Governor Stuyesvant’s dictatorship and who unsuccessfully petitioned the Dutch government to take control of New Netherlands away from the Dutch West Indies Company, forseeing the threat of an English takeover.  Van der Donck, New York’s first lawyer, wrote in detail to the Dutch government about the land’s fabulous natural resources and, uncharacteristic for his time, admired and appreciated to some degree the island’s native inhabitants.

The sweet ruler that influences the wisdom, power, and appearance of man, of animals, and of plants, is the air.  Many name it the temperament or the climate.  The air in the New Netherlands is so dry, so sweet, and healthy that we need not wish that it were otherwise.  In purity, agreeableness, and fineness, it would be folly to seek for an example of it in any other country.

Other compelling first-hand accounts are that of two prolific and articulate nineteenth-century diarists, Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong. Hone and Strong were prominent citizens whose voluminous diaries overlapped to cover the years from 1828 to 1875, a time of New York’s tremendous growth. Hone was a successful businessman, mayor and popular social figure; Strong a patrician lawyer, erudite and cultured, who helped shape Columbia College and fledgling cultural and civic institutions.  Their diaries are among the best accounts of nineteenth century New York, and both have been skillfully edited into very accessible volumes by Alllan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas.

Hone, worrying about rising living costs in 1835 wrote, “Everything in New York is at an exorbitant price.  Rents have risen fifty per cent. for the next year. [sic] I have sold my house, it is true, for a large sum; but where to go I know not.”

George Templeton Strong reflects in 1851:

It’s quite terrific to see the strides extravagance and luxury are making in these days. Langdon’s arrangements for his ball tonight remind me of the fact. Though I thought a few years ago that I was or might be hereafter tolerably well off, I’m satisfied from the way the style of living grows and amplifies that I am to be always poor, relatively speaking, and perhaps some day an absolute pauper, unable to live in New York.

Strong also conveys the prevailing prejudices of the day throughout his diaries:

Womens’ rights women are uncommonly loud and offensive of late.  I loathe the lot.  The first effect of their success would be the introduction into society of a third sex; without the grace of woman or the vigor of man; and then, woman, being physically the weaker vessel and having thrown away the protection of her present honors and immunities, would become what the squaw is to the male of her species – a drudge and domestic animal.

A rare voice is that of Isaac Lyon, a lowly cartman who hauled furniture through New York’s streets while George Templeton Strong read Greek and Latin at Columbia College and Philip Hone frequented literary clubs and the theater:

New York is what might be most emphatically termed a fast city. Yes! the very fastest in all creation. Its men are fast, its women are fast, and so are its horses. Its merchants are fast, its brokers are fast, and so are its swindlers. Its steamships are fast, its railroads are fast, and so are its politicans. Its churches are fast its theatres are fast, and so are its saints and sinners. Everything goes with a rush – everybody is always in a hurry – and any man who is of the city-born, can always recognize a fellow New Yorker in any part of the world, by the fastness of his movements.

One of the many charming illustrations in LETTERS TO PHIL

Lyon’s irreverent words provide a more inclusive portrait of the city. His gritty reminiscences reflect the working class nativist distrust of lawyers, doctors and the clergy, hostility to the largely Irish immigrants who threatened the availability of jobs, and a powerful emotional bond to George Washington. Lyon’s path intersects that of Hone and Strong in a most unexpected manner: all three avidly bought rare books and recorded their triumphs and losses at the auction houses and in bookshops. Lyon’s accounts of besting men like Hone and Strong at book auctions are delightful reading.

As we enter the twentieth century, John Sloan’s New York Scene from the Diaries, Notes and Correspondence 1906-1913 is a glimpse of early bohemian Greenwich Village sunsets and street scenes through the eyes of a great artist of New York:

September 15. …. The leaves in Madison Square are commencing to show the touch of fall, very beautiful rich color and the brass trimmings of the automobiles dashing by Fifth Avenue suggest a picture to me.

We also share young Alfred Kazin’s enthrallment as he sees the New York beyond his 1930s Brooklyn ghetto in A Walker in the City, and the poignant voices of Anzia Yezierska , Piri Thomas, James Baldwin, Paule Marshall and others who recounted the struggles of young immigrant and ghetto children to find a place in a complex society.

There are various anthologies of New York’s rich diversity in first-hand observations, reflections, commentary and elegies. One outstanding work is historian Bayrd Still’s Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present, which contains the thoughts of nearly six hundred anonymous visitors and well-known personalities.

And the list goes on and on.  People throughout our short history have had strong and often visceral reactions to New York.  They love it or they hate it.  They reach for the stars or they hit rock bottom.  We’ve heard these stories retold over and over again, but there’s nothing like hearing them, or at least reading them, as firsthand accounts.

Click here for a selected bibliography of titles related to this entry.

This post originally appeared on this blog on December 10, 2011.

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