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New York: A Documentary Film | Article

Interviews: Writers

E. L. Doctorow 

Born in the Bronx in 1931, Doctorow was known for his mix of historical figures and fiction in his novels. After serving in the military from 1953 to 1955 and working as a reader for CBS Television, Doctorow began his career in publishing. As editor-in-chief at Dial Press, he worked with such writers as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

On New York As A Place for Rapid Development:
"The upper classes, the nouveau riche, moved further and further north to get away from the infusion of immigrants from various parts of Europe -- Germany and Ireland and later, Eastern Europe, Italy -- and so the building went apace and, as I think I've described somewhere, a mansion would appear in a field, and the next day there would be a street going past with a horse and carriage on the street. A sense of the pace of life, that was very predictive of what we think of as the 20th or indeed the 21st century, was already established in New York in the mid-19th century. It was always a high-tech city. It was always the place where the first technological and engineering marvels were established."

On The Home For His Imagination:
"To me, New York is life and that's where it happens, that's where it occurs. Every writer has basically two homes, the place he lives physically and the home for his imagination. Jack London was from California but he didn't really find the home for his imagination until he went up to the Yukon. I'm fortunate enough in having both homes in the same place."

On Multiplicity:
"If you imagine an ordinary moment at an intersection in New York City, a street light -- some people are stopped and others are in motion, some cars are stopped and others are in motion -- if you were to put that in film terms, in a freeze frame, and hold everything for a second, you would realize that there's a universe there of totally disparate intentions. Everybody going about his or her business in the silence of their own minds with everybody else, and the street, and the time of day, and the architecture, and the quality of light, and the nature of the weather as a kind of background or field for the individual consciousness. When you think about that, that's what happens in the city, in that somehow the city can embrace and accept and accommodate all that disparate intention at one and the same time. Not only in that corner, but in thousands of corners. It's really an astonishing thing."

On Why He Loves The City:
"What do I love about it? That it is a phenomenon, in my eyes, a source of wonder. Within the space of a half-hour, hours walk, you're going through many different cities. The character of neighborhoods changing radically from one block to another is astonishing to me. That everyone who lives here has a different idea of the city because always, in the internal navigation we make, the city, the center of the city is our home, our apartment, our small place, and the rest of the city radiates from that center, from that store downstairs where you buy your newspaper or milk, and that's always different for everybody."

On New York's Attraction For Writers:
"New York has always attracted the loners. And it wasn't only Poe, Melville also walked the streets down here. Melville's classic story BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER -- about a clerk down at Wall Street who rejects everything and refuses to function -- was another expression of the perception of the kind of writer who would be attracted to New York in the first place. The whole idea about us all is we are a community but we won't admit it. We thrive best when we think of ourselves adrift in a sea of strangers."

Allen Ginsberg

This American poet was an outspoken member of the beat generation. Ginsberg is best known for "Howl," his 1956 poem attacking the American values of the 1950s. 

On The Lower East Side:
"It's a poly-global consciousness centered on trying to make a living. Poly-, because there are a lot of languages or many different cultural groups. Global, because they come from all over. Consciousness, because they are all aware of each other and aware of themselves as specific types with traditions. Even reflected on so simple and ordinary a level as a variety of restaurants here -- from Chinese, Japanese, Philippine, Italian, Ukrainian, Polish, Thai, Burmese, all up and down First Avenue. You can see them all. Maybe 15 different Polish restaurants, or Ukrainian, or Russian. As well as all-American brownie cafes where you get coffee and brownies, or old-fashioned vegetarian places, or odd Polish meat stores, or bakeries, Jewish bakeries. So it's a culinary consciousness -- stomach consciousness."

On New York As A Poem:
"So the poem of New York will have many jump cuts like MTV or like music video. Jump cuts, cutups, juxtapositions, collages -- where you paste up one postcard of Venus De Milo next to a postcard of the Empire State Building, next to a postcard of the Statue of Liberty, next to a postcard of Jack Kerouac under the Brooklyn Bridge, next to a postcard of the Lower East Side as it looked in 1910, the way it looks right now, next to a postcard of Wall Street. What do you get out of that? You get Kerouac walking into Wall Street carrying the Statue of Liberty's flame."

On Jazz:
"Jazz is the greatest contribution that New York has given to world culture. "When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake" said Plato out of Pythagoras. He disapproved of changing the mode of music because it meant destabilization of the older society. But when people began moving to a different rhythm, that affects the whole body and thinking process and a new consciousness rises. So I think New York's ultimate contribution is an inquiry into the nature of human consciousness manifested with the different arts. It may be too much to claim that world consciousness was changed by jazz perception from New York, but New York was like a magnifying glass that focused all of these perceptions and inventions that originated in the Bateau Lavoir in Paris, or New Orleans, or in Mississippi, or in Liverpool, or elsewhere. It served as a magnifying glass where all of the rays could be focused and then spread out over the planet."

On The Birth Of The Beat Movement:
"First of all, there was a realization of the ecological fix the planet was in. There was a spiritual liberation, we sort of suddenly woke up and found that the world was spaceless, endless, and eternal, not just New York City closed in by the buildings, that we were walking around in the middle of the universe, not in the middle of America -- America was in a universe. It wasn't just this closed-in claustrophobic America. We were all interested in the texture of consciousness itself and so were interested in Eastern thoughts, Buddhism, meditation. We were also interested in exploring consciousness with marijuana or LSD or mushrooms. I was gay and Burroughs was gay. We were living together on East 7th Street in 1953. And it seemed absurd that we would have to play a role of making believe that we were not gay and were likely to fall in love with women. We were not likely to fall in love with women, but with boys. And I took it for granted that was where I was and he was. Yet it seemed forbidden or censorable. So it was a question of candor -- of breaking through the media, and through censorship, and through public consciousness with a candid view of what people really were like, thought like, fantasized, loved, smoked, and amused themselves with. And it was actually very amusing. It wasn't a rebellion -- it was like the nation itself was rebelling against human nature. It was a group of people that were later called "Beat" that were just sort of proposing to live like human beings and to be candid and friendly and frank and open, to end the beclouding of consciousness with public hypocrisy."

Margo Jefferson

Jefferson is a former cultural critic for the NEW YORK TIMES. In 1995 she received a Pulitzer Prize for her writing. She has been a staff writer for NEWSWEEK and a contributing editor to VOGUE and 7 DAYS. She has been a professor of Journalism at New York University, and a lecturer in literature and popular culture at Columbia University, where she also received her M.S.

On Learning From New York:
"Everyone's always going to some other neighborhood. You start sampling the food. Or if you're Irving Berlin or Eubie Blake, or any jazz musician, you're going to hear other kinds of music, you're going to Broadway. You're learning how Victor Herbert constructs a waltz, even though you're a ragtime pianist."

On American Cities:
"I think, probably, socially, in some ways New York may be the least American city. It represents too many things that Americans really don't entirely want in their lives. You know, I pray to God it is, and will remain, the most American of cities, because it is the urban equivalent of that thing that all Americans seem to cherish, which is this myth of our constant ability to find new frontiers, to change, to adapt, to follow some kind of dream vision that is pragmatic but also utopian."

On New York As A Place For Artists:
"New York, for decades, offered a perpetual series of "golden ages" to artists. You constantly had to measure yourself against the best and you had to watch them, which meant that your imagination and also your sense of what the market could stand got very, very sharp. You could also travel across the country, find out what other people wanted, then bring it back to New York. New Yorkers know how to borrow wildly. You know, Louis Armstrong was not a New York musician. He went from New Orleans to Chicago to New York and when he arrived here, he taught those New Yorkers. New York needs that infusion."

On Reinventing Yourself:
"You're supported by everything in New York if you want to be a performing artist. You come here, you can change your name. You leave home, you come here, you're severed from family obligations -- the old identity drops away as soon as you come to New York because you're coming to New York, if you're an artist, to be someone else. Already, you're performing. It's all in the streets around you, and the speed, and the way people talk about their first impressions of New York, the images they use. Duke Ellington says it's the "Arabian Nights." Somebody else says, I think it's Edna St. Vincent Millay, "you can hear the noise." There's this sense of being dislocated from all your usual organs, sensory apparatus, if you will. You're in a fairy tale, your senses are completely dismembered in some way and you reconstitute yourself."

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