nocturne.gifWe’d be remiss as NYC lit bloggers if we didn’t note the recent two-part Q&A series on the Times‘s City Room blog, in which William C. Sharpe, an English professor at Barnard, takes questions on the city at night. In November, Princeton UP published his book New York Nocturne: The City after Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography.

Sample exchange:


Your books sounds like a fascinating study, Dr. Sharpe. A few years
ago, I took a course comparing the literature of Charles Dickens and
Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the professor noted that both writers used their
experiences of the built environments of London and St. Petersburg in
their works of fiction. Dickens in particular was known for walking the
streets of London at night by himself. I wonder if there are writers in
your study that also walked the streets of New York City at night (in
good and not-so-good neighborhoods, like Five Points?) and incorporated
those experiences into their works of art or literature?

— Posted by Roseann F.


The activity of walking the night streets to stimulate creativity
and shake off depression seems to be as old as the city itself. The New
York contribution begins with George Foster, who published a guide
called “New York by Gas-Light” in 1850, and Walt Whitman, who even as
he praised the darkened city in his early poem “The Sleepers” (1855)
was warning people in his journalistic articles, “Don’t go wandering
about the streets or parks unnecessarily in the evening” because “New
York is one of the most crime haunted and dangerous cities in
Christendom.” While there are plenty of writers who walked at night —
such as Stephen and Hart Crane, Federico Garcia Lorca and F. Scott
Fitzgerald (though he might have been too drunk to notice much) — I
more readily think of the painters, such as Edward Hopper, who was able
to paint “Nighthawks” because he was one, or Willem de Kooning, who
strolled through Chelsea with the poet Edwin Denby during the
Depression and showed him how to look at the “dispersed compositions”
on the sidewalk: “spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections
of neon light.”

Rest of the series here and here.