New York’s Age of Genius
David Reid borrows the title of his rambling “interpretive historical essay” about 20th-century New York cultural iconography from an observation Gore Vidal made in The New York Review of Books decades ago.
Except for a brief interregnum, Vidal wrote, the United States had been at war from Dec. 7, 1941, until Aug. 15, 1973. “Between 1945 and 1950,” Vidal declared, “the empire turned its attention to peaceful pursuits and enjoyed something of a golden or at least for us not too brazen an age.”
Mr. Reid, an essayist, author and editor (“Sex, Death and God in L.A.”), explores the fulcrum of this age of genius in “The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art and Bohemia” (Pantheon Books, $30).
His book actually opens in 1944, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s punishing four-borough campaign motorcade, and his purview extends well beyond the three years, 10 months and 10 days defined by Vidal to encompass the trial of Max Eastman, the socialist editor of The Masses, for sedition during World War I, and the Beat generation in the early 1950s.
In between, the author introduces readers to a standing-room-only salon in which Weegee, the photographer, waxes rhapsodic about the newspaper PM (“You could tell PM readers on sight. They looked like people from another planet waiting for someone to take them back to their leader … which, of course, was PM”); C. Wright Mills, the Columbia sociologist, describes militant labor leaders as “the new men of power”; and Simone de Beauvoir writes curiously of “something in New York that makes sleep useless.”
Roughly half of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential vote was cast in New York, which, Mr. Reid argues, is where the cultural Cold War began, where genius mattered to the public intellectuals and private wannabes and where Louis Simpson, a classmate of Allen Ginsberg at Columbia, tossed his wristwatch out a window “because we are all living in Eternity now.”
Boxing has always been a vehicle for ethnic succession, and Mike Silver focuses on the first half of the 20th century in “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing:A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, $29.95).
“Getting knocked down and picking yourself up to continue the battle,” Mr. Silver, a sports historian, writes, “can be seen as a metaphor for life’s ups and downs.”
From 1901 to 1939, he writes, 29 Jewish boxers were recognized as world champions (about 16 percent of the total) and more than 160 were ranked as top contenders in their divisions. By 1928, he writes, “Jewish boxers comprised the single largest ethnic group among title contenders in the 10 weight divisions.”
Mr. Silver affectionately recalls an era when boxing rivaled baseball in popularity, when Benny Leonard was “the first Jewish-American pop culture icon” and about which Philip Roth could write with authority: “In my scheme of things, Slapsie Maxie was a more miraculous Jewish phenomenon by far than Dr. Albert Einstein.”