Literary Love Letters to NYC


From time to time, we all second-guess why we live in New York — especially in the wake of a pleasant holiday weekend away. It’s crowded, expensive, and after awhile all of the ambition can become downright annoying. We’ve wanted to shout to new arrivals, “Turn back!” but we can’t, because at the end of the day, we love this city despite its many flaws. As have many of our favorite writers. However, the quotes we’ve assembled here are not without their own troubles. We regret to inform you that Paul Auster is missing from this list and we assure you that we feel horrible about it, but we couldn’t find a longer passage in his many books about New York that would make the cut. Perhaps you could suggest one?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

Here is New York by E. B. White

“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is the third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. ”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

“‘New York!’ he said. ‘That’s not a place, it’s a dream. When I was your age it was Chicago. Now all the little black boys run away to New York. Out of the fire and into the melting pot. I can see you after you’ve lived in Harlem for three months. Your speech will change, you’ll talk a lot about ‘college,’ you’ll attend lectures at the Men’s House…you might even meet a few white folks. And listen, he said, leaning close to whisper, ‘you might even dance with a white girl!'”

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

“The deep hush of the morning after a failed third-world coup seeped up from the streets and coated the silent towers. I was proud of New York, now more than ever, for it had survived something another city would have not: its own rage.”

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

“The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would. New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind.”

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

“I began, in my second Chelsea spring, to take a vague sauntering interest in my neighborhood, where the morning sun hung over the Masonic headquarters on Sixth Avenue with such brilliance that one’s eyes were forced downward into a scrutiny of the sidewalk, itself grained brightly as beach sand and spotted with glossy disks of flattened chewing gum… the women of New York, saluting taxis in the middle of the street, reacquired their air of intelligent libidinousness.”

Just Kids by Patti Smith

“I walked down Second Avenue, Frank O’Hara territory. Pink light washed over rows of boarded buildings. New York light, the light of abstract expressionists. I thought Frank would have loved the color of the fading day.”

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters

“It isn’t like the rest of the country — it is like a nation itself — more tolerant than the rest in a curious way. Littleness gets swallowed up here. All the viciousness that makes other cities vicious is sucked up and absorbed in New York. It is truly the great city of the world — an organism in itself — neither good nor bad but unique.”

Underworld by Don DeLillo

“Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day — men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.”

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

“‘Feel like I’ve been here before, a bit,’ said Ian, levering his eyes open at the moment a cab stopped before them and wound down its window. ‘Familiar, like from another life or something. That’s weird, innit? Considering I–‘

‘Taxi Driver,’ said Alex flatly, removing bags from the trolley. ‘Manhattan, Last Exit to Brooklyn, On the Waterfront, Mean Streets, Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story, On the Town, Serpico, The Sunshine Boys, Sophie’s Choice–‘

‘All About Eve,’ broke in the driver. ‘King Kong, Wall Street, Moonstruck, The Producers, Plaza Suite, The Out-of-Towners original and remake, The Godfather parts one and two, Kramer vs. Kramer, and freakin’ Ghostbusters. We can do this all morning, my friend. The meter’s running.'”