The Greenwich Village Literary Heritage by Alan Wexler

While wandering through the narrow and winding streets of New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, it’s difficult not to stumble upon connections to America’s literary heritage from the early 19th century to the recent past.

Perhaps the quirky street pattern of the Village, a far different one from the rigid grid of perpendicular, parallel and numbered streets and avenues just to the north, helps explain the allure this enclave has had over the centuries for generations of equally quirky writers and other creative artists who lived and worked within its environs.

Before the 1820s, Greenwich Village was indeed a village of sorts, a remote country outpost, north of the hustle and bustle of old New York, and then concentrated south of Canal Street on the lower end of the island of Manhattan. Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and yellow fever, unchecked until modern sewage and sanitation could contain them in latter years, often ravaged the residential districts both east and west of lower Broadway. People died in large numbers, old and young, rich and poor alike. The poor, crowded into the wretched slums that became the Lower East Side, could do little but watch as their friends and family members sickened and died during these periodic plagues that often struck during the warmer summer months. The more affluent had the luxury of moving away from these horrors, and the pastoral suburbs of Greenwich Village beckoned them.

Washington Square Park, which had been just a few years before a cemetery for poor people north of the city, soon became an attractive residential district that brought the more well-to-do up from the squalid congestion of lower Manhattan. Greek Revival townhouses, with their mini-colonnaded facades, soon appeared along its boundaries, many still surviving on the north side of the park, and the street became a residential strip for those affluent refugees. The one at 18 Washington Square North became the home of the grandmother of a writer often identified with Greenwich Village (but who spent little of his career in America), and who set one of his most memorable works within it: Henry James, author of Washington Square.

Yet even before Henry James, before the Bohemians of the 1910s and 1920s, before Jack Kerouac and the Beats of the 1950s, before Bob Dylan and the Folk Music scene of the 1960s, Greenwich Village had been drawing its share of literary lions.

In 1809, the American Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine died in a wood frame house at 59 Grove Street, now occupied by Marie’s Crisis, a piano bar aptly named for both Marie Antoinette, who lost her head in Paris when Paine lived there during the French Revolution, and for one of his polemical works, The Crisis, that cheered on the American revolutionary cause with the phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

The great chronicler of the early American frontier, James Fenimore Cooper, upon his return from Europe in 1833, took up residence with his family at 149 Bleecker Street, then a newly fashionable district, right next door to where the legendary entertainment club, The Bitter End would later host the early careers of such show business legends as Bob Dylan, Jerry Seinfeld and Madonna.

Louisa May Alcott, author of that classic account of Civil War era life in Boston, Little Women, lived and wrote some of that novel between 1867 and 1870 in a house her uncle had built more than ten years earlier at 130-132 MacDougal Street, a stretch of the Village now crowded with falafel joints, comedy clubs and bars for binge-drinking students from nearby New York University.

By the 1890s, the great tides of immigration into Manhattan from Southern and Eastern Europe, the onslaught of all those “tired, poor, huddled masses,” and especially all of that “wretched refuse” from Europe’s “teeming shore”, soon caused the well-to-do of Greenwich Village to pick up stakes and relocate to tonier neighborhoods uptown around Madison Square Park and beyond. The area now known as the South Village then became more Italian in its demographic makeup. Neighborhood cafes frequented at first by Italians after work would later become venues for Beat poetry recitals in the 1950s and introduce the practice of sipping syrupy espresso from tiny cups to hipster America long before anyone ever heard of Starbucks. The more genteel bluebloods and Knickerbocker descendants of the original Greenwich Village had decamped from their quaint neighborhood of tasteful row houses that rapidly were transformed into cheap apartments and rooming houses.

The more creatively inclined of that era and the years afterward gravitated toward Greenwich Village, drawn not only by the abundance of affordable housing, but by the unique charm of its streets, not as squalid and crowded as the Lower East Side which had become so overpopulated by then so as to make it a candidate for the “Calcutta of North America.”

In 1917, a recent Vassar College graduate named Edna St. Vincent Millay moved to Greenwich Village where she embarked on a literary career that would make her one of the most widely read poets in America. At one time she lived at 75 1/2 Bedford Street, a house so tiny it was not only typical of the small buildings of Greenwich Village but also still stands today as the most narrow house in Manhattan.  Nearby, stood a former brewery and one-time tobacco warehouse which, in 1924, Millay and some of her literary friends turned into the Cherry Lane Theatre. The Cherry Lane staged the early works of writers like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill, as well as the New York premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and spawned dozens of other playhouses that flourished during the early years of the Off-Broadway theater scene

Millay’s Greenwich Village roots extend back to before her birth.  Just before that 1892 event in Rockland, Maine, her uncle’s life had been saved at a Greenwich Village hospital, St. Vincent’s, and in gratitude her parents bestowed that middle name upon her.

Not only are the former homes of well-known writers to be found on many of the quaint and narrow streets of Greenwich Village, but also there are a fair number of bars and other hangouts to be found, some of which can still be visited today. An 1880s era bar over in the West Village, once habituated by seafarers and longshoremen from a once-active nearby waterfront, the White Horse Tavern, can boast some literary luminaries among its now departed clientele. Among the most well-known was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who, on his last tour of America, embarked on his final drinking spree at the White Horse, and died soon after at St. Vincent’s Hospital due to complications of what doctors termed “an alcoholic insult to the brain.”

The novelist most identified with the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, was a White Horse regular during his days in Greenwich Village, and reportedly was expelled from the establishment on several occasions for becoming excessively drunk. He memorializes the experience with a mention in his 1965 novel, Desolation Angels of seeing the graffiti scrawl: “Go Home Kerouac” on the wall of the toilet.

History and real estate are inseparably linked in understanding any New York City neighborhood. By the 1970s, Greenwich Village, although largely protected from wholesale demolition by landmark preservation laws, could not be protected by the rising tide of gentrification that has inundated other once less than fashionable areas.

Although many buildings and streets look about the same as they did more than a century ago, Greenwich Village rents and real estate prices have soared so that once again, as it had been in the early decades of the 19th century, it has become an enclave for the upper class. For the most part, the artists and writers who live in Greenwich Village tend to be only the most successful and affluent. But stroll through its byways, visit some of the bars and other haunts of Village writers of days gone by, and you still get a palpable sense of what was once here and the literary visions it inspired.

 

Select Bibliography:

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868-1869. New York: Bantam Classics, 1983.

James, Henry. Washington Square. 1880. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1998. 

Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. New York: Riverhead Books, 1965.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Collected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2011

 Paine, Thomas. The Crisis. 1776-1783. Digireads.com, 2009.

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One thought on “The Greenwich Village Literary Heritage by Alan Wexler

  1. Pingback: The Greenwich Village Literary Review, Spring 2014 Vol. I, No. 1 | The Greenwich Village Literary Review

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