After two elegantly written, consistently engaging, critically praised, ambitious if not entirely satisfying novels, the prodigiously gifted Colson Whitehead has given the reading public every reason to follow his career closely. Now he surprises us with a perversely daring book–a series of thirteen meditative essays on New York, certainly a change of pace. Small enough to slide into your pocket, at 158 pages and 5″x7″ trim, it suggests the old companionate volume of Stevenson’s or Thoreau’s essays you might take along on a country hike. Except these are determinedly city-bound reveries. One way to think about them, in fact, is as a revival of the urban sketch.
In its heyday, the urban sketch was a byproduct of the concurrent rise of newspapers and population growth in metropolises. The public showed an increasing appetite for light essays, character sketches, vignettes and urban panoramas, which were to be found on the back pages, or feuilletons, of daily journals and magazines. Style was at a premium: The urban sketch was expected to be witty, effervescent and worldly–naïfs need not apply. Baudelaire, musing on the evolution of that “lyrical, supple” prose he envisioned for his prose poems, observed: “This obsessive ideal is above all a child of the experience of great cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.” Rhapsodic, ironic, elegiac and disillusioned, the urban sketch, for all its sparkle, tended toward melancholy. Joseph Roth, a master of the form, characteristically began a piece on Berlin nightlife: “Sometimes, in a fit of incurable melancholy, I go into the standard Berlin nightclubs not to cheer myself up, you understand, but to take malicious pleasure at the phenomenon of so much industrialized merriment.”
The urban sketch spread from England and the Continent to the United States: To take New York alone, such literary lights as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Margaret Fuller, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Djuna Barnes, Paul Morand, Henry Miller, Christopher Morley, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell all tried their hand at such series, striving to capture the city’s elusive soul. They make wonderful reading today. Still, the urban sketch fell into a decline, thanks to changes in literary taste, the drying-up of markets for belletristic writing and the suburbanization of America.
Enter Colson Whitehead, gallantly taking up the form. Not that this writer hasn’t always written about New York. His first novel, The Intuitionist, a witty, imaginative fantasy about an elevator inspector who doesn’t need to look at the machinery to grasp its functioning, treated the city as a mythological, stylized backdrop of power and corruption, similar to Gotham in Tim Burton’s Batman film. His second novel, John Henry Days, offered an engrossing, Nashville-like convocation of lost souls on the make in redneck America, with New York the fallback media-hype center, where freelance journalist and publicist bed in drunken mutual solace. But now he is treating New York directly as his subject matter, employing some of the classic organizing devices of the urban sketch, such as time of day (“Morning,” “Rush Hour”), season (“Rain”), place (“Subway,” “Central Park”) and so on. It is moving to watch Whitehead patiently reworking these old tropes, fully conscious of his enterprise’s antiquarian aspects. And he writes wonderfully, commanding a lush, poetic, mellifluous prose instrument.