Monday, May 23, 2011

"They are simply dull, solid, one-hundred percent Americans, who have never been in a night club in their lives," or, New York and "the Real America"

As preparation for a trip this week to New York, I decided to read a Robert Benchley piece from 1928, "The Typical New Yorker," collected in The Benchley Report. Benchley opens with a bit of throat-clearing that perhaps shouldn't have been surprising, but was:
One of the most persistent convictions reported by foreign commentators on the United States (a group which evidently embraces all unoccupied literates of England and the more meditative sections of the Continent) is that the real America is represented by the Middle West. Aside from the not entirely adventitious question of who is to decide what "the real America" is, there arises a fascinating speculation for breeders and students of climatic influence as to why a man living in Muncie, Indiana, should partake of a more essential integrity in being what he is than a man living in New York City. Why is the Middle Westerner the real American, and the New Yorker the product of some complicated inbreeding which renders him a sport (in the biological sense) and a man without a country?
There are two points of interest in that paragraph. First, the obvious one: as Ecclesiastes told us ever so long ago, there is nothing new under the sun, and it's probably safe to assume that urbanites have been being drummed out of the "real American" category since the Articles of Confederation. The second interesting bit is the reference to Muncie: Benchley's article was published (in the Yale Review) in 1928, a year before Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture pinned Muncie down as the heart of the heart of the country; apparently it already had that reputation.

Benchley goes on to question the pervasive notion that country life is superior to city life:
I remember once a mother whose three children were being brought up in the country (and very disagreeable and dishonest children they were, too) saying, with infinite pity of the children of a city acquaintance, "Just think, those kiddies have probably never seen a cow!" Just what sanctity or earnest of nobility was supposed to attach itself to the presence of a cow in a child's life I never could figure out, but there was an answer which might have been made that her own kiddies had never seen the Woolworth Building or the East River bridges at night. Among the major inquiries that will one day have to be made is one into the foundation for this belief that intimacy with cows, horses, and hens or the contemplation, day in and day out, of great stretches of crops exerts a purifying influence on the souls of those lucky enough to be subjected to it. Perhaps when the answer is found, it may help solve another of the pressing social problems of the day--that of Rural Delinquency.
As a refugee from the rural, I heartily agree!

Benchley's actual point is to draw a distinction between the experience of the ordinary New Yorker, going from home to office back home on the same treadmill walked by everyone, even those vaunted Middle Westerners (who surely "have to attend to some sort of office work during the day aside from contemplating Nature in its more magnificent aspects"), and that of the visitor, for whom
New York is the Shrine of the Good Time. This is only natural, for outsiders come to New York for the sole purpose of having a good time, and it is for their New York hosts to provide it. The visiting Englishman, or the visiting Californian, is convinced that New York City is made up of millions of gay pixies, flitting about constantly in a sophisticated manner in search of a new thrill. "I don't see how you stand it," they often say to the native New Yorker who has been sitting up past his bedtime for a week in an attempt to tire his guest out. "It's all right for a week or so, but give me the little old home town when it comes to living." And under his breath, the New Yorker endorses the transfer and wonders himself how he stands it.
I'll be in town for work, so perhaps I can manage to occupy some middle ground--a mix of the treadmill and the ginmill, tiring my friends just enough that they won't object to seeing me when next I land?


  1. I've forwarded this post to everyone I've ever stayed with in NYC. With my apologies.


  2. Glad to be of service. Having gotten back to my hotel last night at around 1, far, far, far later than I'm ever out in Chicago, I felt Benchley over my shoulder all day.