Delany, Sarah and A. Elizabeth with Amy Hill Hearth. Having our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First One Hundred Years. New York: Kodansha, 1993.
At the ages of 101 and 103, the African-American sisters who lived together their whole lives recount their experiences during the civil rights movement. One doggedly fought her way into an all-white public school system as a teacher, the other became the second black licensed dentist in New York State.
Ellis, Edward Robb. A Diary of the Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist. Introduction by Pete Hamill. New York: Kodansha, 1995.
This generous selection from Ellis’ voluminous diaries offers a vivid and memorable portrait of twentieth-century New York.
Haswell, Charles. Reminiscences of an Octogenarian in the City of New York 1816-1860. New York: Harper Brothers, 1896. 114 illustrations including an excellent, large folding map of New York in 1817.
Haswell, a successful marine engineer, died at the age of 98. His recollections span seventy years and are uniquely organized by mayoralty terms.
Hone, Philip. Nevins, Allan and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds. The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1927. Various reprints.
Hone, a former mayor of New York and popular social leader, recorded everything from parades and celebrations to calamities such as the great fires of 1835 and 1845.
Kazin, Alfred. A Walker in the City. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951.
The distinguished literary critic’s lyrical memoir of his discovery of the New York beyond Brownsville.
Kisseloff, Jeff. You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890’s to World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
Moving, evocative oral histories of 137 diverse New Yorkers—immigrants, union workers, a survivor of the Shirtwaist Triangle Fire of 1911 and society figures representing ten disparate neighborhoods. Kisseloff provides a brief historical introduction preceding each district. Illustrated with photos of people and places.
Lyon, Isaac C. Recollections of an Old Cartman (Old New York Street Life). New York: New York Bound, 1984. Atypical of his fellow cartmen (a cross between today’s cab driver and teamster) Isaac Lyons collected rare books and wrote poetry. These reminiscences were originally published in the Newark Journal in 1872. Lyon’s working class distrust of the upper class professionals, anti-immigrant fervor, and reverence for George Washington, broadens our knowledge of mid-nineteenth century New Yorkers.
Morgan, Helen M. A Season in New York 1801: Letters of Harriet and Maria Trumbull. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969.
The teen-aged daughters of Connecticut’s Governor Trumbull were sent to New York for a year to receive an upper-class social education. Their animated letters to the family at home provide a rare, first-hand account of early eighteenth-century New York high society doings.
Page, Tim. The Diaries of Dawn Powell. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1995. Powell, a gifted, struggling writer who lived in Greenwich Village in the mid-nineteenth century and who was resurrected and honored in the late 1980’s, kept a diary in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her ascerbic wit and devastating characterization of actors, ad men, artists, and other New Yorkers in her novels is echoed in the diary’s entries.
Schermerhorn, Gene. Letters to Phil: Memories of a New York Boyhood 1848-1856. Foreword by Brendan Gill. New York: New York Bound, 1982. With 34 drawings by the author.
“Gene’s letters are truly extraordinary memoirs utterly packed with tiny oddments of history and his drawings…meticulous and fine-lined, full of the smallest detail, underscore his love for these small but significant memories.” (The New York Times Book Review)
St. John, Bruce, ed. John Sloan’s New York Scene: From Diaries, Notes and Correspondence 1906-1913. Introduction by Helen Farr Sloan. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Illus.
Sloan, an Ash-Can School painter, created some of the greatest scenes from New York City life in the early 1900s. His notes are a peek into the artist’s mind at work as he roams the city seeking subjects for his paintings and drawings of daily life.
Still, Bayrd. Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present. New York: New York University,1956. Reprint, Columbia University: 1994, with a new introduction by Edward Spann.
The nearly 600 excerpts from contemporary essays and letters by well-known personalities such as Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens as well as anonymous observers are woven into an historical narrative.
Strong, George Templeton. Nevins, Allan and Thomas, Milton Halsey, eds. The Diary of George Templeton Strong. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952. 4 vol. Various reprints.
An extraordinary diary kept by a prominent New York lawyer from 1835 when he was a student at Columbia College until his death forty years later. Strong was extremely accomplished, cultured, and opinionated—his musical criticism filled two volumes and there is an entire volume on the Civil War that includes his first hand accounts of the Draft Riots.
Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
A lyrical account of a Puerto Rican boy in Harlem and his early struggles with drugs and crime. After time in prison, Thomas turned his life around and became a writer and poet. This inspiring classic has remained in print for more than thirty years.
Van der Donck, Adriaen. New Netherlands: A Description of the New Netherlands. Edited with an introduction by Thomas F. O’Donnell. 1655. Reprint: Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
The first book written by a resident of New York, intended to motivate the Dutch government to appreciate the splendid natural resources, fine climate and other attributes of their colony. Van der Donck describes the American Indians he observed and knew. According to Russell Shorto in his authoritative The Island in the Center of the World, Van der Donck’s words, first translated into English in 1841 and reprinted in 1968, were inadequately translated and a new edition is forthcoming.
White, E.B. Here is New York. New York: Harper and Row, 1949.
Published as an essay in Holiday magazine, it was quickly issued in book form, and has been reprinted many times over the years. White’s words are arguably the most often quoted about the city because they are quintessentially timeless and evocative.