A Walker in the City: Inspiring and Daunting

November 20, 2011.

Brooklyn, New York

It’s nearly midnight. I’ve just closed the book A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. Outside Flatbush Ave. pulses with movement and light in the rain. The wet streets glisten and double the images of white headlights approaching, red taillights receding, and green traffic light swaying above.

The Express Lube carwash sign glows brightly, but the flag in front of it flutters wanly in the wind, its thin sodden fabric no longer furling, Under the large scarlet letters CAR WASH the burnt-out remains of another sign are faintly visible. But the last two letters burn brightly. OIL CHANGE has become merely GE.

High above the street looms a huge billboard with Adam Sandler’s face inviting us to his Christmas movie Jack and Jill. And above the billboard a huge blue logo accompanied by a single word in white letters: CHASE.

A woman heading this way onthe dark street fights the rain with a flimsy umbrella. From a distance she resembles a pteradactyl, giving the contemporary urban scene a touch of prehistoric mystery. Thousands of windows have a view of this same street, so perhaps I shouldn’t imagine that I am the only one watching this one woman in this particular place at this moment of time.

I think about the connections and differences between the life I’ve just read about and my own. Just five miles from the high-rise condo building on Myrtle Ave. where I am staring out the window, Alfred Kazin’s Brownsville still exists. His memoir, written in 1946 when he was still in his early ’30’s, already described a lost place, a place of immigrants yearning to breathe free, a place the author both loved and hated.

Alfred Kazin

I actually met Alfred Kazin in the 1980’s when he lectured at Goshen College and I was a professor there. He was at that time about 68 years old, only five years older than I am now. I thought he was ancient. The only one of his books I had read at that time was On Native Grounds. In graduate school it was considered an example of “old school” literary criticism.

Among New York Jewish intellectuals in the 1940’s-1960’s, where Kazin earned his literary and cultural street creds, his least honored work was his three-volume autobiography. Considered too personal to  “count,” with his peers at the time they were written, the three books that begin with A Walker in the City (and also include Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew) may well become the most classic texts of his long and voluminous career. I now understand why A Walker in the City rates so well as a coming-of-age memoir even though it is basically a collection of essays rather than an integrated narrative. The secret lies in the layering of childhood and adulthood, the vivid sensory detail and the emotional intelligence of the narrating author.

How does a writer remember such vivid physical and emotional detail from childhood? Kazin is almost as gifted as Vladimir Nabakov in doing so. Here’s just one example. As he plays a game called Indian trail, “the greatest moment came when I could plunge into the darkness down the block for myself and hide behind the slabs in the monument works. I remember the air whistling around me as I ran, the panicky thud of my bones in my sneakers,and then the slabs rising in the light from the street lamps as I sped past the little candy story and crept under the fence.” Every child runs. Only a one in a million adults remembers running this way.

Flannery O’Conner once said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.”

The drama of childhood is all about newness, ritual, feelings expressed and unexpressed, attachment and loneliness. The experience may well be small, the space limited, and the information scant, but a great writer makes the most of quotidian materials.

I am awed by this ability. Sometimes, reading the work of really great memoirists, I feel very small because they seem to be able to remember and evoke such profound detail. Then I read an article in The New York Times last week about talent and its correlation with working memory. After that one, I feel like that woman on the street struggling against the wind, her umbrella offering no shelter.

Anybody out there know what I am talking about? I suspect that part of the solution to this problem is to write and write and write. Sometimes the detail comes back that way, the perfect metaphor flashes with light. The sidewalks of memory glisten in the rain. One thing is sure. If I don’t write a lot, I’ll never remember beyond the broad, sunny, surface. If I want to get to the double image, I’ll need to sing, a lot, in the rain.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Classic Memoir/Autobiography, Personal Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to A Walker in the City: Inspiring and Daunting

  1. rubyredsusan says:

    What a great post, Shirley. The timing strikes me – as I’m about to leave this weekend for another long writing and meditation retreat with Natalie Goldberg. There’s a reason why Natalie calls what she teaches “writing practice” and couples it with the practice of Zen meditation. The practice itself – pen to paper, hand and arm moving along with my heart – really does seem to lead me to an increasing ability to express memory and detail the way Kazen describes running. I’ve been doing writing practice in an odd assortment of notebooks now since the early 90s, and most of the time I’ve thought what filled those pages was a lot of meandering junk. But I’ve kept them anyway. I’ve spent the past month reading those notebooks, and I’m amazed. Not only I have been ‘meeting myself again for the first time,’ but I’ve found nuggets of vivid memory recorded there that I’d since forgotten. What a gift! Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of lovely “junk” in those pages, but I finally get what Natalie has been teaching me: if I keep my hand moving and my heart open, these little “gems” will come pouring out every now and again. I just have to have patience with the practice.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Ooh, Susan. I’m jealous — and so happy — that you’ve decided to go back to Natalie’s workshop. Please give her a big hug from me.

      I am not at all surprised that you are finding some treasures in your earthly vessels of journals.

      Patience with the practice is a good mantra. Thanks much for the comment, and please come back again.

    • Thanks for the nice words, Susan.

  2. Wonderful essays with a New York flavor, Shirley. If you haven’t already, you might also consider E. B. Whites’s “Here is New York,” and Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel.” I particularly enjoy Mitchell’s story about McSorely’s Old Ale House.

  3. ShirleyK says:

    I don’t know, Shirley. Write and write and write? Mightn’t that just egg the imagination on, cause it to breed with increasing ferocity? Till the words lie glistering* on the page, perfectly brilliant but unfaithful to the small, long-ago event?

    *The word is from the King James.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Shirley, very provocative. I have to ponder this one. You’re saying that keeping the hand moving across the page and the mind still could lead to fiction rather than memoir?

      Perhaps. Fortunately, for me, I can ask my mother to check a lot of these facts. One of my best reasons to write now.

  4. I’m fascinated by people’s varying degrees of memory recall re: childhood (or anything!). Some people just seem to have very strong memories–like a talent. Not just writers. My mother-in-law, for example, can remember so much about her growing up it’s amazing. I can’t remember much at all! I sometimes wonder if it is a matter of intelligence (hope not) or having paid attention because you weren’t blocked by anxiety or shyness or whatever. I don’t know. Your post, which I enjoyed, did bring to mind this quote I give students from a review in the NYTBR, 9/14/97, of volume two of Doris Lessing’s autobiography:

    “The siestas are rendered with a specificity that probably originates in the moment of writing rather than in raw memory, ‘fond memory, fond lying memory’ (insofar as they can be distinguished and autobiographers know they can’t, really), but the writing of the moment is itself memorable…”

    Here’s the Lessing quote: “On my back, arms stretched, I took posession of my cool body, that thudded, pulsed and trickled with sounds. I flexed my feet. I tested my fingers where smells of roast beef and carrots lingered. The golden syrup of the steamed pudding sent intense sweetness into my brain, and made my nostrils flare. My forearm smelled of sun. The minute golden hairs flattened as I blew on them, like wind on the long grasses along the ditches. Silence. The dead, full, contented silence of midday in the bush.”

    Maybe not trying to “remember,” so much as putting oneself there, in the moment, in the writing, is the trick!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Oh, Paulette, I loved this! I hope everyone who reads this post also finds this quote. Yes! I know this kind of writing, and I have even done some of it. Less well than Lessing, :-), but well enough to know what you mean, I think.

      Some sage said that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, and I think this is true. It’s also never too late to re-experience what faint traces you have remaining in your memory.

      Here’s my problem. If all you remember is happiness, perhaps it’s never too late to recover some conflict (needed for a good story) also. 🙂 Just put yourself back there and breathe in the words that come.

      Do you agree?

      • ShirleyK says:

        If I may jump in, here? Maybe shirleyhs needn’t have noted her thudding bones when she scampered past the barn, but there has to have been a barn, and indeed, she scampered. Her sneakers slapped hard–and only now as she records the scene does it occur to her that her bones were panicking, thudding.

      • shirleyhs says:

        ShirleyK, yes, you’re right. It is the adult writer who is re-living what went before in his life and who now has the language to turn the experience into art. it takes more than memory of the physical things and events, however. The things become ideas in Kazin’s skillful hands.

  5. Wonderful post, Shirley. Recovering those sense memories does take faithful practice, I think, but they do come. They are no more fictional than any other memory. Even if, as I age, my earliest memories do seem fictional, in the sense of being utterly created. Why? Perhaps because they’ve been held and burnished and stripped by the mind for so long. But I think when they carry a genuine feeling, they are real. Being faithful to them to get at the emotion they contain is the key, I think.

  6. ShirleyK says:

    Oh, and shirleyhs? To me, the idea of anybody having to dredge for conflict in their past is quite beyond the pale. You are one extraordinary soul.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    Well, I am discovering quite a bit of conflict as I probe more deeply. But I was blessed to have a happy childhood, and being true to the happiness as well as the conflict is my challenge right now.

  8. Friesen Group says:

    I’ve come back to this post and the comments several times. When I walk and walk in a city, I construct my own map of the city. Not only roads and paths appear on this map, but neighborhoods, shop owners, friends’ living spaces, coffee spots, and markets gradually fill in the map grids. The more intentional I am about being aware and present as I walk, the more the map is populated.

    Perhaps memoir writing is a little like walking a city and making a map. We write and write to remember and create a map for ourselves, our children, and our community. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, perhaps memoir is one way of re-mapping the world where we find ourselves. And, it is in the quotidian – powerfully described by a great writer – that we find ourselves, once again, at home.

    -Kathleen

  9. Shirley says:

    What beautiful words, Kathleen. Yes to all! I have a map in my brain now of certain areas of this city. But it will never be as deep and vivid as Kazin’s.

    By the way, I purchased the E.B. White book Here is New York. I think you would love it too. Great with both mapping and the quotidian.

    Thank you for gracing these pages.

  10. Pingback: Imagining new maps « Resources for Organization Development

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