“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” So goes the famous first line in Sylvia Plath’s roman à clef The Bell Jar about her fateful summer in New York City. Plath is hardly the first literary great to take on the Big Apple during the brutal but magical summer months; authors such as Paul Auster and Michael Chabon have long found inspiration in New York’s nooks and crannies. Here, a literary tour of NYC, a varied and colorful city, as seen through the eyes of writers with equally distinctive perspectives.
‘Lightning rod,’ said Sammy, pulling away. As if in spite of all he had been told one evening last week by the bland and reassuring Dr. Karl B. MacEachron of General Electric, who had been studying the electrical atmospheric phenomena associated with the Empire State Building, from Saint Elmo’s fire to reverse lightning that struck the sky, he was suddenly afraid.
In Michael Chabon’s wrenching but beloved novel about the early history of comic books, Sammy and Tracy bond atop the Empire State building during a lightning storm. This iconic building is visible from much of the city, but to get the full experience, you should check it out when it’s lit up at night—and if it’s on a warm summer evening from a friend’s rooftop, all the better. Although, if you want a more authentic-to-the-book experience, keep an eye on it during summer thunderstorms: In an average year, the building is hit by lightning 25 times a year.
2. Starry Night
The club was really a loft space on the third floor of a walk-up on Houston and Seventh Avenue. The building was run-down and scary-looking, like maybe it looked like a crack house (or what a crack house looks like in my imagination, which I am sure is not really what one looks like), but I figured it wasn’t actually dangerous because there was a very trendy barbecue restaurant right next door and the 1 train was right around the corner. During the day, this neighborhood was as normal as toothpaste, but to me it felt like I was in Chinatown in another city, like I was in Paris or in a Pink video. I felt out of my league.
Love is confusing, and so is SoHo. In her YA debut, Isabel Gillies writes a love letter to New York through the eyes of a young girl falling in love, hard. Once Wren meets Nolan, nothing makes sense, and she’s faced with the difficult decision of following her heart or her dream. Here, Gillies writes about the gritty glamour of SoHo and the confusing and well-documented mix of the posh and the poverty-stricken, often within the same city block. While we can’t vouch for this particular intersection, SoHo tends to be bustling and happening at all hours, and if that’s your thing we’d certainly recommend a summer night stroll there.
3. The Bell Jar
By standing at the left side of the window and laying my cheek to the woodwork, I could see downtown to where the UN balanced itself in the dark, like a weird green Martian honeycomb. I could see the moving red and white lights along the drive and the lights of the bridges whose names I didn’t know.
For The Bell Jar’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, nearly everything about New York City feels nightmarish, alien, and wrong. If this sounds depressing, well, it is—but Plath also gets at the overwhelming nature of the city that colors so many people’s first experiences with it. From her room on the Upper East Side, Esther can see the U.N. building lit up at night, and is struck by its “Martian honeycomb” qualities. We don’t think it’s a particularly funny-looking building, but don’t take our word for it: Replicate Esther’s view by strolling past it in midtown, right by the East River.
4. Sunset Park
He remembers running into her some years back on Houston Street in the brightness of a late afternoon at the end of spring, the beginning of summer. She was on her way to her high school prom, decked out in a flamboyant red dress, as red as the reddest Jersey tomato, and Suki was all lit up with smiles when he chanced upon her that afternoon, surrounded by her friends, happy, affectionately kissing him hello and good-bye, and from that day forward he held that picture of her in his mind as the quintessential embodiment of youthful exuberance and promise, a singular example of youth on fire.
Gillies isn’t the only author to wax poetic about Houston Street, where several storied and culturally rich neighborhoods converge in a whirl of honking taxis. Paul Auster writes about an early summer afternoon on Houston, and idealizes it to the point that it comes to embody youth and freedom. We love this image, and suggest curious readers check out the Lower East Side/East Village border, which is full of quirky, artsy establishments (vintage stores, bars, cafes) that might evoke some of Auster’s joy in you.
5. Chronic City
This was in the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, on Fifty-second Street and Third Avenue, on a weekday afternoon at the end of summer… Workplaces fascinated me, the zones where Manhattan’s veneer gave way to the practical world.
Oh, Midtown. Love it or hate it, it certainly makes an impression with its soaring skyscrapers and visually dramatic architecture. Here, Jonathan Lethem takes us to the heart of midtown and shows us something we hadn’t thought about before: Workplaces as liminal spaces where form gives way to function. Though honestly, we’re more excited about the air conditioning in the dead of summer, especially after standing on a sweltering subway platform waiting for a stale breeze from an incoming train.
It was a sunny day this time, a balmy day in June. The air was so light it seemed pure and refreshing, even here in the Bronx. A perfect day, in short; Sherman took it badly. He took it personally. How very heartless! How could Nature, Fate—God—contrive such a sublime production for his hour of misery? Heartlessness on all sides. A spasm of fear reached down to the very bottom of his descending colon.
It’s a well-documented theme in art: The artist, narrator, or protagonist is unhappy, and furthermore, insulted that life around him or her seems to be going on normally. Tom Wolfe paints a beautiful sunny day in the Bronx where, Sherman, full of dread, is walking into a riot he has incited. If you’re headed up there on a summer day, we’d recommend something a little less stressful and a little more peaceful, like reading on the lawn at Fordham’s campus. There, you can soak up some rays, and avoid Sherman’s cognitive dissonance regarding the lovely weather.
He took Val to this place called Barge Music, just over the Brooklyn Bridge, where the orchestra played chamber music floating out there on a barge in the East River. They heard a Russian program, which was very emotional, Val said, telling Clover and me all about it later. Which was why when Julian took her out on the roof-deck during intermission and took her in his arms and kissed her all of a sudden, with a view of the whole skyline winking behind them, she just couldn’t resist.
Esther’s disorienting experience with New York City in The Bell Jar can be seen as a foil to Charlotte Silver’s debut, a middle grade coming-of-age novel. Silver captures the excitement and magic of falling in love with New York City for the very first time. Here, she talks about the popular concert series Bargemusic and the romantic pull of the glittering skyline at night. If you can find a good spot in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the skyline is absolutely breathtaking, and you can experience exactly what Valentine does (although we can’t promise Julian will show up).