book New York in the Fifties by Dan Wakefield

reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling

Published in Issue No. 133 ~ June, 2008

Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties, originally published by St.
Martin’s Griffin in 1992, has recently been reissued by PIF Press and
Greenpoint Press, making a unique work of nonfiction available to new readers. Depicting the writers, journalists, social reformers, and musicians who lived in New York City during what most remember as an uneventful period in American artistic culture, Wakefield’s book is a compelling recreation of a time and place that shaped the nation’s intellectual tradition. Describing his own experience as an undergraduate at Columbia University alongside that of other literary luminaries who comprised the supposedly “Silent Generation,” such as John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Jack Kerouac, Mark Van Doren, and C. Wright Mills, Wakefield’s book gracefully presents a range of voices while maintaining its own sense of stylistic unity throughout.

One of the most impressive aspects of Wakefield’s memoir is the way the author’s life experience becomes a window through which the reader observes larger trends in literary and cultural history. The end result being a narrative that is at once diverse and anchored in its protagonist’s story, this trend in New York in the Fifties is exemplified by the descriptions of traveling to New York by train. For example, Dan Wakefield writes when describing the journey from his Indianapolis home to “the nation’s greatest city”:

The train stations of America’s cities were not simply points of
arrival and departure, loading docks for people and baggage, but awesome, vast cathedrals for the continent crossing railways that first connected us into one country…When I went away to college at Columbia, my mother and father saw me off at Union Station with hugs and tears and promises to write, as if I were a soldier going to the front. (20-21)

Using his experience as a starting point when depicting the sudden
mobilization of Americans by railroads, Wakefield’s description examines not only the societal impact of this transformation, but also portrays its having been romanticized in artistic culture on a national scale. His trip to college, then, becomes a manifestation of both technological changes and their representation in the arts, all of which are unified by the finely crafted and engaging narrative of Dan Wakefield’s experience as a young traveler.

Similarly, an incisive commentary on literary fact and fiction pervades New York in the Fifties, addressing the supposedly uneventful nature of this key decade, the believed impact of the beat generation, and many other topics as readers follow Wakefield through first jobs and freelance assignments. This aspect of the book is particularly apparent in the discussions of Jack Kerouac’s performance at the Vanguard, in which he writes:

Perhaps others felt as I did, that Kerouac was not only giving our generation a bad name (“beat”), but by his antics he was also – a worse crime – giving writers and writing in general a bad name, making them look like the foolish clowns that the worst of our parochial hometown critics took us to be. (176)

While narrating his experience seeing Kerouac perform, Wakefield suggests that, in their creating “the myth of a generation,” beat writers not only overshadowed those who adhered to tradition, but presented a romanticized vision of literary life in which rebellion matters more than craft (203).
Forthright and insightful throughout, this assessment of how writers and their writing are perceived in retrospect is woven throughout New York in the Fifties, the end result being a memoir that situates personal experience in a broader historical context, remaining engaging and enjoyable all the while.

New York in the Fifties is a dazzling, intelligent read. Five stars.

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Kristina Marie Darling, an English major at Washington University in St. Louis, received a nomination for a Pushcart Prize in 2006. Her chapbooks include: Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), among others.