My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
–Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig” (1920)
It’s difficult to walk even a few steps in this New York City neighborhood without facing a literary landmark. A perfect place for an English professor. Let’s start with Washington Square (1881) by Henry James. I admit I’m no fan of James’ fiction, but this short novel does a good job of setting the scene of late 19th century New York society when more well-to-do folks began the trek of moving uptown and farther away from ethnic immigrants. Dr. Sloper, a flourishing physician who marries well, does exactly that. The house he has built is probably similar to the one James knows intimately: his grandmother’s, which stood at 18 Washington Square North. Death carries away his son and beautiful wife, leaving him with a dull-witted daughter, Catherine, who cares more for sugary treats than education, and who is pursued by a young man, Morris Townsend, who is interested in her dowry. This is a novel with singularly unattractive characters.
Manhattan Transfer (1925) written by John Dos Passos a few doors down at No 3, is a much more interesting novel, one of the first to use a multi-genre approach: narrative interspersed with newspaper stories, obituaries, film reviews—almost a scrapbook that illuminates its many characters. It is precursor to his USA Trilogy, which is in the same vein. (Dos Passos is portrayed in the rather unfortunate film Hemingway and Gelhorn.) Edward Hopper, the painter, also lived on this side of the square facing the famous Washington Arch, designed by Stanford White. A film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, details the “crime of the century”—the murder of White by Harry Thaw, who discovered that his wife, Evelyn Nesbitt (played by Joan Collins), had an affair with the playboy architect.
Poet E. A. Robinson, painter Jackson Pollack, and the namesake of the Whitney Museum all lived nearby. Robinson won the first Pulitzer ever awarded for poetry and went on to win three Pulitzers in all, including one for his book length poem Tristram. Eleanor Roosevelt lived at 29 Washington Square in the 1940s. The Washington Square Hotel—a comfortable boutique establishment with a fine restaurant—has played host to both Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. The former expired at a much too early age drinking at the White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson Street).
The New York University campus includes the building that was the scene of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911), which killed 146 workers—mainly young immigrant women. The fire is the subject of two young adult novels: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Threads and Flames by Esther M. Friesner. Check out the Asch Building at 29 Washington Place; plaques note the site and the effect of the tragedy on improved labor conditions.
A little distance from Washington Square is the excellent Tenement Museum (https://www.tenement.org/), which offers insight into the living conditions of Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants; it includes one floor that functioned as a garment factory. Near this museum is Kossar’s Bakery, which is mentioned in the wonderful The Bialy Eaters, a nonfiction piece by Mimi Sheraton that traces this tasty concoction on a worldwide tour. A bialy is only a dollar and well worth it, particularly when freshly warm. A few blocks from the Tenement Museum is the Merchant’s House Museum (http://merchantshouse.org/). Irish domestics lived in the attic bedroom, and the comfortable accommodations for the merchant and his family are stark contrast to the cramped rooms in the Tenement Museum.
But back to Washington Square and its neighbor Greenwich Village. My favorite author of the Village is Calvin Trillin, who grew up in Kansas City, but who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1963. In fact, he leads an annual food trek during the October New Yorker Festival that has been on my bucket list for years: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/06/nyregion/06trillin.html?_r=0 . He writes equally well with humor or dead seriousness. His James Thurber Prize honors his Tummy Trilogy, three fabulous books about eating in America, while Killings features essays about murder and death. His About Alice is a four-hanky read about his wife. In honor of Trillin, check out Murray’s Cheese Shop or cafe at 254 Bleeker Street.
My authors pilgrimage included seeing the very narrow—only nine feet across—house of Edna St. Vincent Millay whose poetry inspired the line “burning the candle at both ends.” Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Irving Washington wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at his sister’s home (11 Commerce Street).
Edgar Allan Poe sought relief for a head cold at the Northern Dispensary at Waverly and Grove Streets. By the way, Waverly is named in honor of Sir Walter Scott and his novel Waverley although the sign maker didn’t quite get the correct spelling.
Nearby is George Segal’s sculpture in a triangular park that commemorates the Stonewall Inn uprising that signaled the Gay Rights movement. Down the block is Three Lives Bookstore—a nod to Gertrude Stein—where readers might find some of the books mentioned here.
Other writers to consider for a literary-based trip to this area, acknowledging that this is still a limited list. . .
Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, lived in the Village. Notably, the Meatpacking District lay just north. Today’s visitors should take a walk on the High Line, the elevated walkway, formerly a railroad line that transported livestock, which begins at the new Whitney Art Museum and extends for 1.5 miles north.
Walt Whitman, America’s “Great Gray Poet,” was one of the Bohemians who hung out in the Village. The later “Beats” continue this legacy: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg.
Cherry Lane Theatre, started by Edna St. Vincent Millay and friends, is located in a charming area of short streets. Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, and Samuel Beckett are just a few of the playwrights whose work has been performed there.
On St. Luke’s Place, poet Marianne Moore lived at 14 St. Luke’s Place. Her neighbors included Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) at number 12 and Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy) at number 16.
Sometimes places and history come together at just the right time. The February 27 entry from The Writer’s Almanac focused on Lincoln’s 1860 anti-slavery speech, which made him famous and secured the presidential nomination. http://writersalmanac.org/note/feb-27-on-this-day-abraham-lincoln-give-an-anti-slavery-speech-at-cooper-union/
I immediately walked the few blocks to Cooper Union Foundation Building at Astor Place. Buildings take on much more significance when paired with a good read.