Whether a pastoral marshland inhabited by the Canarsie Indians or a hub for newly arrived immigrants, New York’s Greenwich Village has always possessed a solid sense of community, and that especially held true for its vibrant literary scene.
The area nestled within the confines of 14th Street and Houston and flanked from east to west by 4th Avenue and the Hudson River became a literary hotspot during the early twentieth century, and though its history has been well-documented, it never hurts to brush up on the details, especially with the Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book & Ephemera Fair coming up this weekend. Below we humbly offer a brief overview of this quintessential New York neighborhood.
As World War I gathered steam in Europe, Greenwich Village was quickly gaining a reputation in the United States as a welcoming enclave for bohemian artists and writers. Magazine publishers and art galleries vied for space among speakeasies and nightclubs along the Village’s little streets. George Nathan and H.L. Mencken took over the reins of Smart Set magazine in 1914, publishing work by up-and-comers like Eugene O’Neill, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Consider also the bookshop of Frank Shay 4 Christopher Street that sold everything from children’s books, socialist manifestos, and work by Shay’s personal favorites like Joseph Conrad and Walt Whitman.
Fast-forward to the 1950s when members of the Beat literary movement made the Village home. Counter-culturalists like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso explored new methods of writing as conduits of literary and personal expression. Also during this period, the Village Voice newspaper attracted readers from across the country. Serving as a bellwether for advocacy journalism, writers like Norman Mailer, Erika Monk, and John Wilcox contributed to the Voice, firmly establishing it as a leader in investigative reporting.
Though the lure of cheap rent and a writerly community has largely been replaced in recent years by fashionable boutiques and luxury apartments, visitors can still find remnants of Greenwich Village’s literary past. Tours and pub crawls offer walking excursions through the district, stopping at such landmarks as the infamous White Horse Tavern, where authors frequently bellied up to quench their thirst. It’s also where Dylan Thomas downed eighteen shots of whiskey before turning up dead three days later. Also on any itinerary worth its salt is the house at 75 ½ Bedford Street, which, at 9 ½ feet across, enjoys the dual reputation as being the narrowest house in New York and also as onetime residence of Margaret Mead, William Steig, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The corner of Bleeker and McDougal Street was once home to the San Remo, another watering hole for the Beat literati. Also on McDougal is the home of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, who lived there from 1867 through 1870 before heading back to Concord, MA. Edith Wharton lived in Washington Square, so did Henry James and John Dos Passos--in short, you can hardly take a step without coming headfirst into a corner where an author found solace and inspiration.
Want more details on the Village scene? The Encyclopedia of New York, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale University Press) will set you on the path to literary enlightenment.
Will you be taking in the sights after the fair? Did we miss one of your favorite Village writers? Let us know in the comments below!