Going on 16 years of leading literary tours in Greenwich Village, and we’ve become quite a well read group of guides. (And since it’s also a pub crawl, we may have gained a refined taste for the spirits and a high tolerance to boot!)
More often than not our patrons recognize only a handful of the authors we mention, and have read even less of their works. We are proud to expose people to the richer literary tapestry of American authors. And since we’re often asked for reading lists, we’ve put together our top 10 favorite books on the tour that you’ve probably never read, but should.
So please, pour yourself a fresh pint and enjoy!
10. The Genius, by Theodore Dreiser
Currently out of print (but copies can be found), this book was entirely written in Greenwich Village in the 1910’s. The main character, Eugene, is commonly believed to be Dreiser himself (one hopes the title is more satirical than self aggrandizing) and also inspired by the artist John Sloan. A good portion of the novel is set in turn of the century Greenwich Village, and at one point Eugene even moves into the street address of the iconic House of Genius (torn down by the beloved NYU), one of several apartments Dreiser lived in during his stay. The Genius is a longer novel, and written in the Naturalist movement, which for it’s time was new and refreshing but for modern sensibilities can feel belabored. Yet throughout he paints a beautiful picture of old New York, and of the contrasting values of rural America to NYC’s urbanity. The Novel explores the universal themes of love, desire, marriage, infidelity- all while following the path of a struggling artist striving for fame and fortune and battling the colliding values of being true to himself while conforming to the principles of society. For true lovers of New York and of life in the village, this novel is a literary snapshot of a unique time.
9. Common Sense, by Thomas Paine
Okay, who hasn’t heard of this? Foreigners maybe. And given the current state of education in this country perhaps anyone born after 1990, but for the rest of us Common Sense is a familiar title. It was that Revolutionary War thing. But have you read it? Thomas Paine’s work is so passionate and strong it is still quoted by politicians even to this day (although our current President mis-attributed a quote of Paine’s as being George Washington’s). His passions and ideals were way ahead of his time. This county still has yet to reach the ideals of Thomas Paine. At its printing Common Sense was the second most owned publication in the colonies, second only to the Bible. Near the end of his life Paine felt there was still so much work to be done for the sake of justice, he came back to the neighborhood that has always represented rebellion, speaking out against injustice, where the pen was truly mightier than the sword- Greenwich Village. Perhaps his spirit has been encouraging this neighborhood for over 200 years. Or, given the amount of writing happening here now, maybe just under 200 years….. Common Sense was certainly very topical dealing with current events of the time, but it’s a great way to remind you what the spirit of this country was, hopefully still is, and where we still wish to go.
8. The Last Leaf, by O. Henry
A short story, really, but in traditional O. Henry style very poignant with a poignant twist at the end. It’s a quick, touching story about a group of artists living in a tucked away colony in Greenwich Village, struggling to make themselves known, to create their masterpieces. One of them, a young girl named Johnsy develops pneumonia and loses the will to live, much to the consternation of her friends. In 5 short pages he evokes a rich and sentimental story that is well worth the small amount of time it takes to read. As I said, it’s only 5 pages. You can find it online. Seriously go read it right now. Facebook isn’t going anywhere. Go. Read. We’ll wait.
7. A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill’s memoir is a sentimental homage to growing up in Brooklyn during and after the war. His stories of childhood innocence remind us how similar and pure we all were at one time. Much of the book deals with his time in the village as a struggling artists during the 1960’s, the decade that stands out to most as the great artistic era of Greenwich Village- but art and rebellion in the village were as old as the soil by the 1960’s. Nevertheless Hamill’s memoir is personal, affecting, inspiring, and is almost journalistic in its recollection of that time. Hamill wrote for the Post and Daily News, hobknobbed with celebrities and politicians, but even more importantly was a major figure in the Lion’s Head Tavern (now Kettle of Fish) and if you’ve been on the tour we highly recommend this read.
6. 10 Days that Shook the World, by John Reed
An outspoken socialist and journalist, John “Jack” Reed was connected with nearly every great writer and thinker in the village during his day: Max Eastman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Floyd Dell, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Upton Sinclair, Louis Untermeyer, Jack London. He was a major contributor to The Masses magazine and a champion for the working class (at a time where sweatshops in Greenwich Village and NYC were quite common). But he gained his greatest distinction being the only American allowed on Russian soil during the Russian Revolution. 10 Days That Shook the World is a fascinating inside look at the Revolution from the commoner’s viewpoint: from soldiers and old women, from screaming pulpits to sidewalk posters. It could very well be the best American view of the Russian Revolution as it was happening. It is especially fascinating to read now, with the global hindsight of the eventual outcome of the revolution: the rise of the Lenin, the dictatorship of Stalin and the eventual collapse of Russian Communism. The book unknowingly gives us clues of this inevitable downfall: reporting on how the new regime was wresting control from people all in the name of the people; subverting the media to be a pulpit for the party. The book and Reed’s life were later made into the movie, Reds, and many of the Village scenes were filmed along the path of the tour!
5. Washington Square, by Henry James
There is a strange sweetness and idyllic quality to this otherwise melancholy novel written in 1880. The plot is simple: a father-daughter relationship- not a good one from the beginning, not a bad one at first, but slowly devolving as suitors come round more interested in her money than her. James grew up in Washington Place, around the corner from his grandmother’s home on Washington Square North (both buildings are gone- his birthplace thanks to our friends at NYU). The novel subtly evokes the Washington Square of his youth. It’s hard not to be taken aback by lines describing the “quiet solitude” of Washington square, the peaceful emptiness of the park. James was forever nostalgic with the New York of his youth and quite outspoken in his distaste for the way the neighborhood quickly changed. (Yet another ongoing theme of Greenwich Village). Ironically for our tour James despised the bohemianism that was becoming pervasive in the village, for which it garnered it’s long reputation. Again, lovers of literature, New York City and the Village will find this novel an absolute treat.
4. Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
Wharton was born into wealth in Washington Square North, at a time when quickly the village was blossoming as a bohemian hotspot. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel adeptly captures this bohemia that was inciting one of the first and biggest social transformations to affect the city and the nation. Wharton was born into old New York Wealth, yet had a disdain for the constricting rigidity of high society. Like James she set the novel in Washington Square at the time of her birth, (she wrote it in 1920, but set it in the 1870’s) but unlike James she embraced the bohemian revolution that was pervasive in the village of the 1910’s and 20’s. She was also an advocate of women’s rights which were at it’s first peak just prior to publication of the novel. The story follows a young man who is being preened to marry the woman he “should” but suddenly falls for a childhood friend returning from Europe- a woman fully embracing a free-thinking artistic lifestyle- independent, proud, breaking from old New York values, and (most tragically for the protagonist Newland Archer) divorced- thus making his love for her scandalous. A brilliant, moving and passionate novel, well earning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
3. Wicked Pavilion, by Dawn Powell
Dawn Powell should be a more recognized figure in American Literature than she currently is. Rarely on the tour do I see a nod to the affirmative when mentioning her name. After her death her books fell out of print, but when her diaries were published it reawakened an interest in her novels. They are all wonderful. Fun reads, tongue in cheek- she captures the numerous characters that made up the New York populace from the 40’s – the 60’s. All her books are fantastic, but Wicked Pavilion is a good starting point. Set mainly in Greenwich Village just at the end of WW II, it revolves around a group of artists and the closing of a beloved bar/restaurant that was central to their lives. (An interesting parallel to our tour….) In the process she paints a lively, vivid picture of 1940’s New York.
2. Another Country, by James Baldwin
Another Country has cemented James Baldwin as a modern literary genius who fully captured the human condition- through multiple and varying points of view. This emotionally charged novel is dark and gritty in it’s honesty, and he masterfully tackles race relations, struggling marriages, the complexities of sexual orientation, bi-racial relationships, lost dreams, lost souls…he packs the novel with characters who are so richly flawed and yet so tragically compassionate- so fully human. Set in the 1950’s in Greenwich Village, Harlem and Paris (the three most influential locations in Baldwin’s personal and literary life). The novel was shocking for its day, brutally honest, regarded as offensive and obscene (thus becoming a best seller) and now stands out as almost a period piece for the latter wave of bohemianism in the Village. Baldwin’s depictions of love and sex are stark, honest, bleak and beautiful- be it heterosexual, bi-sexual, bi-racial or gay- and in every way it is human. Even today it is more than the average reader is comfortable handling, but Baldwin seems to understand so many sides of humanity that is no wonder at the end of his life he was such a kind, gentle, empathic, understanding man. A brilliant novel by a unique literary genius.
1. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes
There are 3 seminal novels of the Lost Generation: The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Barnes’ Nightwood. Nightwood is by far the superior novel. The prose is more intelligent and challenging, the themes are heavier, and it is more thought provoking. It’s only weakness in comparison is that the other two read more easily. Nightwood requires thought. But good novels should require thought. Nightwood is less well known, partially because she was a woman, and also because she writes about more of what that time period would refer to as the “darker underbelly” of society (lesbians and cross-dressers and single moms- oh my!). But if you are the type to be turned off by that, don’t be. Barnes was considered by her contemporaries (Hemingway/Fitzgerald, Joyce, Dylan Thomas) as being one of the best female writers of her day. Set both in Europe and America, it follows the tragic yet captivating character of Nora, a woman who is passionately loved by many yet struggles to find love herself. The novel deserves all the accolades it receives and more. If you only read one book from this list, read Nightwood. http://www.literarymanhattan.org/book-review-nightwood/