Becoming the grid: memory and space in 20th century American literature

By | September 10, 2021

Guest post by Alice Levick

This is a story of girl meets boy. Girl finds boy online, girl travels across the Atlantic in search of boy, girl visits the places boy has left behind, reads his letters, examines his blue prints. Girl discovers boy is responsible for the displacement of hundreds of people, girl goes off boy a bit.

And it wasn’t just this boy. There were other boys. And girls too.

For this is not a story which concludes with monogamy or matrimony. However, it does end in publication.

My research for the postgraduate thesis on which Memory and the Built Environment is based took me to New York for the limited period bestowed on me by a 90-day tourist visa. I wanted to know the city. I wanted it to like me. I wanted it to like me so much I did all sorts of out of character things to ingratiate myself. So this part is not unlike a love story. If you’re of a cynical bent.

But where it deviates is the parts which took me deep into windowless library basements and through the streets of East Tremont in the Bronx and to long silent days rooting through boxes full of uncategorized papers in rooms without heating, sitting at tables next to strangers with odd physical tics who liked to stare, or sitting in cars with people I didn’t know because they offered to drive me across the Cross-Bronx Expressway or to Jones Beach.

My fixation with the boy, Robert Moses, is one part of this story. Without him, New York would be a different city entirely. For good and ill. (Look him up. Or read Robert Caro’s book about him. Or you could read my book. But Caro has a Pulitzer.)

But, as I say, there were other boys. There was Marshall Berman, whose magnificent book All That is Solid Melts into Air made me feel an uncanny sense of familiarity, of inexplicable connection to the intimacies of someone else’s life; someone else’s grief. He also led me to Moses, and to a deeper understanding of the city, its palimpsestic nature, its ability to hold many histories. Its lack of sentimentality.

I came to know Berman’s Bronx a little, its low wide streets and green spaces, but this was also thanks to Howard Kaminsky, who I met at the Bronx County Historical Society, where he was conducting research for his book about the borough’s disappearing landmarks. He called me kiddo and took me to White Castle and drove the Cross-Bronx with me in the passenger seat, tape recorder in hand, enabling me to participate in that quintessential city experience of being stuck in a traffic jam from Parkchester to Washington Heights. And it was thanks to Sam Goodman, who worked in the Office of the Bronx Borough President and said Chandlerian things like, “No one in this city will spend a dime unless they can make a quarter.”[i]

Back in Manhattan I looked for Joan Didion, my heroine, her immaculate detachment and sparse prose spurring me to walk the streets of the Upper East Side, seeking her tiny shrouded form between Elio’s and Lenox Hill, asking people I met for her phone number like a spurned lover.

In Manhattan, I found Renata Adler, who spoke at a reading about truth in non-fiction versus fiction. The latter can become, she said, “true in a different way,” while when it comes to the former one must understand that “all sources are human liars.”[ii] I asked her a question and she asked me if I was a writer. I wondered if she was calling me a liar.

I also found Shellie Sclan, Marshall Berman’s wife, who took me to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on West 111th and Amsterdam and told me that when she first moved to the city she would force herself out of bed on a Saturday morning and “just start walking. And things would happen.”[iii]

In Manhattan, I found my mind increasingly taken up by the grid system; by numbers and corners and avenues and coordinates. I felt in my body what DJ Waldie wrote about his childhood home in Los Angeles County: “That evening he thought he was becoming his habits, or – even more – he thought he was becoming the grid he knew.”[iv]

In Manhattan, I felt I was part of something only on the street itself, where, together with other walkers, I moved in the same direction, navigating correctly and so enfolded into the city’s momentum. I moved with the grid, and with the subway lines, and the city accepted me, pushed me forward. If you stop, if you misunderstand the grid, you become caught in the machinery of the system and become a dysfunctional element. To make the city like me, I had to come to terms with its orientation. I had to become the grid I did not yet know.

I decided to write a different kind of story. I decided to write about home. I looked for people who had felt the disorientation of homesickness and rooted themselves regardless. The story became about them. So, it is not in the end a story of girl meets boy. But it is still a love story.

Memory and the Built Environment in 20th-Century American Literature cover image

Alice Levick is currently working for the Civil Service and is an independent scholar. After completing her doctoral thesis in 2018, she taught at the University of Exeter, UK as a postgraduate teaching assistant. She worked on her thesis over the course of seven years, during which she also worked as an editor for Risk Books. Her articles on American fiction and urban space have appeared in the European Journal of American Culture, HARTS & Minds, and US Studies Online, in addition to a chapter in the multi-contributor work, Time, the City, and the Literary Imagination (2021), edited by Anne-Marie Evans and Kaley Kramer.

[i] Goodman, Sam. (2015), “Walking the Grand Concourse with Sam Goodman”, Municipal Arts Society, Jane’s Walks, New York, 12 April.

[ii] Adler, Renata. (2015), “The NYRB and McNally Jackson Present: An Evening with Renata Adler”, McNally Jackson, Prince Street, New York, 7 April.

[iii] Sclan, Shellie. (2016), Personal interview, 25 April, in Memory and the Built Environment in 20th Century American Literature by Alice Levick.

[iv] Waldie, D.J. (1996), Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, New York: St Martin’s Press.

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