Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Recommended Reading: New York in the Fifties by Dan Wakefield

I loved this memoir of being a writer in the 1950s in New York City. I’m always a sucker for anything about New York in the 50s, and since this is about a group of writers, I was immediately drawn to it. I also met author Dan Wakefield who teaches nonfiction at the Converse College Low-Residency program where I teach and he was a fount of wonderful stories from back in the day (i.e. I’m paraphrasing, but there were endless examples of something along the lines of, “I remember the day I got the phone call from Maxine Kumin to join the group celebrating with Anne Sexton, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize”).

So New York in the Fifties is a book filled with those sorts of stories—not in a name-dropping way but in a wonderful, “I wish you’d been here” sort of way. The book was originally published in 1992 and reissued in this new edition by Pif Press.

I also liked that there was a fair amount of reporting, too, that Dan didn’t simply rely on his own experiences and own memories, but sought out people he’d known back then to get their impressions of the same events and experiences. He also interviewed some famous acquaintances who weren’t necessarily his friends back then but who would have to be included in any writerly remembrance of the time: Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg.

The book is organized by topic, not a simple chronology, so there’s a chapter on the Beats and on the influence of jazz and romance and life at Columbia University and psychoanalysis and so on.

Enticing excerpt from the introduction:

“Even while it was all happening, I knew that the time and the place were special. I remember walking down Broadway in mid-town and seeing people I identified as tourists and feeling sorry for them because they didn’t live in New York! I felt privileged to be there, and now I feel proud as well, of the friends I had and the work we did and will continue to do for as long as we have the time and chance. Whatever we’ve done was shaped by the fortunate fact that we started out in the most exciting city of its era, a mecca that, like Paris in the twenties, exists now only in memory. Its naming now seems legendary: New York in the fifties.”

More details about the book on amazon.com.

More about author Dan Wakefield

Other non-fiction books about groups of writers I’ve enjoyed reading:
Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals by David Laskin
Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.