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  • Writer's pictureBecky Fifield

New York Diaries, 1609–2009

I spent a lot of time chronicling my life from the time I was 8 until I was about 21 or so. I find that when I write other things (fiction, research papers, poetry, blogs) I don’t feel the need to journal as much. It is fortuitous that those diarists captured in New York Diaries, 1609–2009, (Modern Library, 2012) did.

Teresa Carpenter does not arrange the selected snippets of text in a chronological order. Instead, she starts with January 1, and then includes diary excerpts from a variety of New Yorkers celebrating the New Year throughout time: John Bigelow in 1844, William H. Bell in 1851, John Sloan in 1906, and Judith Malina in 1953. Then she proceeds to January 2. The format is compelling, meshing the New Yorkers stories in a way that would be lost in a chronological arrangement. The editing of the diary passages is smart, as is the combination of the known and unknown: young girls, Clare Sheridan, Simone de Beauvoir, Andy Warhol and George Washington. Voices smash together, debutante, communist, labor, gay, Federalist, high wire daredevil (obviously, Philippe Petit). The snippets capture the season, the clatter, the effort, the squalor; within these carefully culled selections are the scenes and the life original to New York.

I particularly am fond of George Templeton Strong’s turns of phrase:

February 29, 1836

I have taken up my pen again after an interval of two months, caused partly by my ardor for laziness and partly by my ardor for science, exemplified in blowing up my hand. Mem[orandum]. Never to pound chlorate of potass[ium] and sulphur together again without thick gloves and never to pound them at all when I can help it.

Such is the risk of inquiry, and documentation.

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