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One small island, 200 years, and a literary wingspan that stretches from Walt Whitman to Bret Easton Ellis. In a straightforward and detailed manner, O'Connell (English/Univ. of Mass., Boston; Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape, not reviewed) explores the mutual benefits derived from the affair between the multifaceted, breathing creature known as New York City and the scores of great writers who either called the city home or passed through with their perceptions indelibly altered. If the city's fame or infamy grew, in part, from the pens of such luminaries as Washington Irving, Edith Wharton, and two Wolfes (Thomas and Tom), it is also true that it was New York that helped make their names and unsettle their morality. All sides are accounted for here: the poets (such as Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg), the playwrights (Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets), the catalysts of the Harlem Renaissance (W.E.B. Du Bols, James Weldon Johnson), and the fictional characters themselves (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities) as plot summaries from the landmarks of New York literature are weaved into the historical narrative, acknowledging their power to reflect the realities of their time. O'Connell, a dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian, writes with a detached voice that gives his work legitimacy but deprives it of that quintessential Big Apple prerequisite: attitude. (Though at times he cannot help but wave a pennant for his own hometown, pointing out, for instance, that Dickens preferred the more colorfully painted houses of Boston over those of Manhattan.) With so much territory to cover, he does not tarry long on any one author, but more often than not comes up with the right anecdote to capture the flavor of a particular period. For a city that is anything but shy, a chronicle of its authors and their masterworks reveals an embarrassment of riches.

Pub Date: Aug. 11th, 1995
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: History Beacon