BOOK REVIEW | New York Diaries: 1609-2009. Edited by Teresa Carpenter

Andy Warhol was too pooped to party and decided to dye his eyebrows instead. George Washington ruminated on the many visitors who came calling on his wife, Martha. And, on a far more poignant occasion, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his diary, “The light has gone out of my life,” upon the deaths, on the same day, of his wife and mother.

There is a diarist in all of us, and the beauty of New York Diaries, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author Teresa Carpenter, is its universality. We relish connecting with 400 years of emotions, raw and unedited, that are presciently similar to our own. Here you will discover the private thoughts of some of the most famous and not so famous people who populated the streets of the city so great they named it twice.

The book begins on January 1 and takes us day by day through the year, with excerpts from the journals of luminaries including Camus, Coward, Edison, Ginsberg, O’Neill, Poe, Twain, Whitman and many more. By turns gossipy and boozy, astonishing and enlightening, New York Diaries is a fascinating and essential read for anyone enamored with the minutiae of Gotham’s famous denizens.

The city’s lesser-known lights are also represented. James Cruikshank, a New York merchant, reflected on the financial crisis that engulfed the city in 1834 and President Andrew Jackson’s refusal to come to the city’s aid. (A similar crisis some 140 years later prompted the New York Daily News’ immortal headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) “A fearfull [sic] struggle is going on between the Government and New York,” noted Cruickshank. “The old General [President Jackson] has passed through many a dark struggle without flinching, and it is not to be supposed that he will flinch now when our very liberty is at stake.”

Sara Astruc, an online diarist, left New York after Sept. 11, 2001, and now lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her piece titled “Requiem,” from Oct. 9, 2001, begins: “Four in the morning. I didn’t sleep. The dreams are strong, vivid, of frozen people and terror. I’ve mostly stopped crying, except late at night in the tub with the water running so the neighbors don’t hear. The neighbor whose bedroom backs up to mine doesn’t meet my eyes anymore.”

New York Diaries has its share of 9/11 remembrances, and they reawaken us to the anguish of those who had to go on in the face of this great tragedy. Yet there is solace in every story, as well as those by New Yorkers who lived during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam.

There is the stoic faith of Philip Vickers Fithian, a Presbyterian chaplain assigned to George Washington’s army: “At ten we have Orders to march up the River for Mount-Washington,” he wrote on Sept. 3, 1776. “Adieu, New-York; perhaps forever!”

Walt Whitman, sitting alone in the basement of his Brooklyn home on the evening of Dec. 26, 1864, recounts opening his brother George’s trunk, delivered earlier in the day from the front lines in Virginia.

“There were his uniform coat, pants, sash, papers, memoranda, a revolver, a small diary, and photographs of his comrades (several of them I knew killed in battle). Mother looked everything over, laid out the shirts to be washed, the coats and pants to hang up, and the rest were carefully put back. We have not heard from him since October 3rd; either living or dead, we know not.” Readers will know the answer on the next page.

For students of history, New York Diaries reveals intimate, whimsical, profound, sobering and indelible portraits on such seminal moments as President Washington’s first State of the Union address, the death of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, the end of World War II — even the first incursion of Europeans into the city’s Upper Bay on Sept. 11, 1609, some 402 years to the day before 9/11.

For transplanted New Yorkers, the many out-of-towners who make annual cultural pilgrimages there and those who long to experience a city unlike any other, New York Diaries is an indispensable bedtime companion. Every page is a delicious slice of the Big Apple.


Karl Schnittke moved from New York City to Atlanta 20 years ago. He is Publications Editor at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

About Kathy Janich

Kathy Janich is a longtime arts journalist who has been seeing, working in or writing about the performing arts for most of her life. She's a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Americans for the Arts and the National Arts Marketing Project. Full disclosure: She’s also an artistic associate at Synchronicity Theatre.

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