The city of New York is known for being the central and cultural heart
of America. People were drawn to New
York because of its allure and believed the depictions of New York from the
literature wrote about it. When writing about this infamous city, reoccurring themes
in the stories appear including monetary status and a sense of a glamourous
underworld community. New York City has long been emblematic of the American dream
and literature about New York celebrates its success and highlights its faults.
Both linguistic and thematic commonalities
appear across New York texts and these become the clichés of writing about New York.
New York is a divided city composed of
different neighbourhoods, therefore stereotypes are attached to the different
communities. The focus of this essay will be on Damon Runyon’s stories about
the Broadway community and the stereotypes that are attached to this area. Broadway
will be focussed on as it ‘exerts its cultural dominance over the rest of the
and many saw Broadway as the whole of New York2.
Comparing Runyon’s stories to writings
on other neighbourhoods allows for shared features to be seen across texts.
These then showcase the overall clichés and stereotypes of writing about New York.
Runyon is a self- confessed user of clichés in his writing stating, ‘I took a
little section of New York and made a million dollars from it’3. Runyon’s
successful formula was to use the clichés of Broadway including exclusivity,
glamour and money to create a fictional world that outsiders wanted to know
about. Runyon pried into the neighborhood of New York and developed a relatable
language to readers of Ruyonease (slang) as well as telling stories of the
darker underworld of the city. The clichés of writing about Broadway usually differ
to that of other neighbourhoods in terms of characters and language which
promote Broadway to be a more glamourous district. However, there are a number
of common themes across New York writings including wealth, poverty, nostalgia
and exclusivity. Exclusivity is the principal cliché of the city. New York was
the place people wanted to know about, read about and get involved in. The commonalities
shared across New York literature are the clichés of writing about New York.
New York is a divided city with different neighborhoods, each having their own clichés.
The over-arching one in New York writing is exclusivity and detachment. As Materassi
suggests, New York is like most urban settings in twentieth-century literature
a place of division and isolation4. Runyon’s
stories follow the sub-cultural prohibition era lives of fictional characters
including gamblers, chorus girls and bootleggers, all interacting within their
own exclusive community. Many characters are known by nicknames based on their personalities
such as “Good Time Charley” and “Dave the Dude”. The use of
nicknames creates a selective in-the-club feel to Runyon’s writing
as a nickname is gained from familiarity and being part of the exclusive
Broadway society. Characters appear in multiple stories creating a fictional private
Broadway community. Runyon creates an intimate Broadway club through constant common
characters, using nicknames and slang which the characters use and understand. When
reading Runyon’s stories, like other writings of New York, you see the city
through the character’s eyes and you feel included in their community
is a clear cliché of New York writing and Patti Smith’s book Just
Kids shows her journey to become part of the exclusive community. In her
autobiography, on multiple occasions she name-drops notable celebrities such as
at her first reading, she has ‘the cre?me de la cre?me of New York’s
downtown scene including Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Joe Brainard and Bernadette
her. This places Patti Smith as a member of the high-end artists clique of New
York. New York held the stereotype of hope that you could move there with a
dollar to your name and become a star. Smith struggles to make it in New York but eventually she is
successful and breaks her way into the exclusive New York art scene. Her book
fulfils the cliché of hope and the American dream that in New York you can
Runyon created his own character dialect known as Runyonease where he used
slang words. It became the belief that all people in New York used these slang
phrases to outsider readers. Examples of these words are ‘pancake’ meaning an attractive
woman, ‘guzzle’ meaning to kill and ‘noggin’ meaning a head. As Runyon once
claimed there is no made up language6, so he took the language he experienced in the
city and used it across his literature which then made it a fundamental feature
in his writing about New York. Although initially readers may have found it
difficult to interpret the meanings, Runyon’s constant repetition and use of
these words made the slang become common parlance. Runyon’s slang became a
cliché of his writing and became representative of what was believed to be the
language used in in New York.
to Runyon’s use of slang, in Call it Sleep
Henry Roth uses language to create his version of the New York voice in. Roth
does not use slang but uses phonetical sounds to portray the New York accent:
“‘If I blyibm duh ywully ylyod, den he wonthe hilyt me so moyuch, myaytlybe’7. This
speech can only be deciphered through speaking the words aloud and it relies on
how the words are spoken. The main
character, David, is Jewish and speaks in Yiddish. The Yiddish dialogue is
written in Plain English which helps make the reader feel as though they are
part of the Jewish community because they can understand this language, unlike
the stylized New York accent which is difficult to read and interpret. This
linguistic feature follows the cliché of New York’s exclusivity because by
developing a distinct language for the New York accent it isolates those who do
not speak that language.
New York writing has different clichés for each
distinct neighbourhood. Broadway is heavily glamourized in literature as it
carries the American Myth of it being a central place of performance. Walt Whitman coined the term ‘underworld complex’8
. This cliché is about the popularity and interest in Broadway’s illicit
underworld activities such as prohibition drinking, gambling and nightclubs. For
example, Runyon’s stories fitted this stereotype by telling the story of Burlesque
dancing in Neat Strip. Viola Rose is a burlesque dancer; ‘she has big blue
eyes, and hair the colour of sun-up…Her skin is as white and as smooth as ivory’9,
and her sexuality is promoted in her appearance. The emphasis on her looks, her
blonde hair and her pure, white skin plays to the traditional stereotype of a beautiful
woman. Runyon’s depiction of the male
reaction; ‘wishing there is a murder handy that they can commit for her’10
enhances this and shows the sexual power and domination she has. Despite
Burlesque dancing being illegal, it was greatly popular and known for being the
key form of entertainment in New York. People travelled far to ‘see a little bit of
leg’11 and so
wanted to read about it in the writings of New York. Runyon’s literature
encapsulated the cliché of New York as the cultural and entertainment capital.
The cliché of Harlem is that it is a place of
happiness. City of Refuge, pitches
Harlem as the ideal place of the American dream, a place of prosperity- ‘everyone in Harlem had money, it was a land of
Similarly, the character Jake in Home to
Harlem longs to return to Harlem. Despite feeling like home initially, the
reality of the Harlem lifestyle is depicted as being fueled by desires and
motivated by consumerism undermining the idea of hard work leading to success.
The Congo club is described as ‘a jungle atmosphere pervaded the room, and,
like shameless wild animals hungry for raw meat’13.
This dehumanizes the visitors to be like animals in search of prey. This
expresses a different view of Harlem, not of the prosperous
and glamourous city neighbourhood, but as a fake one. Despite the excitement of
Harlem being seen as a place of plenty, the reality was that it was a
neighbourhood with a consumerism undertone to it which links to the “underworld
complex” cliché we see in Runyon’s literature.
New York City is a fast paced, energetic environment with a constant
sense of possibility that just around the corner something extraordinary could
In Runyon’s writing about New York, the format and pace of his text is
comparative to the speed of the city itself. His writings echo the cliché of the
perpetually moving city, a city that never sleeps. Runyon’s use of active verbs shows constant
urgency. He captures the breathless sentiment of the unceasing movement of the
city in his sentences; ‘traffic copper takes a peek at the situation, and calls
for the reserves from the Forty-Seventh Street station, and somebody else sends
for the fire truck’15.
Action is highlighted in the sentence by the combination of independent clauses
with present tense verbs16.
The visuals of the city are interconnected with the conjunction of ‘and’ which
expresses the busy setting of the city. New York was a culture of doing, not
being and Runyon’s literature showcases this cliché with his use of the present
tense presenting immediacy.
Runyon’s literature does not follow the cliché
of having the element of nostalgia about New York, because it is written in the
present tense. Patti Smith’s Just Kids
follows the cliché of nostalgia as she explores her past. Autobiographies are
an expression of self and the telling of your own story. Smith adopts a
particular fairy-tale style to her story of finding her place in New York. In
the opening of her autobiography, she steals a purse and claims it was ‘hand of
fate pushing me on’17.
Her nostalgia for this moment is evident and she attempts to makes her crime
trivial and seen to be a necessity. The cliché of writing in autobiographical
form is that the writer can justify their own perceptions18 and keep up their own reputation. The nostalgia
cliché is throughout Smith’s literature as she glorifies her past. Her fond memories of her childhood visiting Coney
Island, which she describes as being ‘wonderful’19 show
this. She writes with a reminiscent, positive quality about her experience in
New York, fulfilling the cliché of nostalgia and links to the American Dream as
she worked hard and succeeded in becoming famous.
New York is a city captivated by wealth and
money, and writing about it encapsulates its dominance in society. In Runyon’s
fictional world, money is the focal point. Characters constantly talk of their
“scratch” (money) and their society revolves around the illegal monetary
exchange of gambling. The story Bloodhounds
on Broadway describes the character Marvin Clay as a ‘very prominent in
society ‘because he had ‘plenty of scratch’20.
Characters’ lives depended on gambling and showing off their money. This is comparative to The Great Gatsby where Daisy’s voice is described as ‘full of money’21.
A person’s social status was intrinsically linked to their monetary standing so
because she has money, she, like Marvin Clay in Runyon’s story, has power in
society. One cliché in writing about New York is the importance of money and
the effect it has on your life, whether you have wealth or not, and it is a key
subject matter in the writings.
The literature of New York carries a sentiment
of hardship and lack of money. Caleb Crain claims ‘New York low life became a
literary staple’22 and can
be seen in Runyon’s story Breach of
Promise where he states, ‘nobody is working and making any money’23.
The men in Runyon’s stories are often touts in the gambling trade, but the
hardships of their life are never fully shown. Instead, there is the sense of
just getting by. Runyon’s stories were written around the era of the Great Depression
(1929-33) so clichéd happiness was needed as a form of escapism. The
reality of this difficult time is depicted in the image Times Square Breadlines (Appendix 1) which shows the queues for
food in 1932. This suffering
highlights the failures of the American Dream. Patti Smith in her autobiography
uses this poverty stricken literary theme. She talks of having little money,
being settled in a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel and at the museum being ‘only
be able to buy one ticket whilst the other waited outside’24.
However, due to her nostalgic retrospection we can see how there is a more light-hearted
tone to poverty in her writing, and her story romanticises it.
It is far easier to write about poverty when not in it25, so
despite both Runyon and Smith writing about the sufferings, it is only touched
upon. These writings of New York have the
commonality of just carrying on with life despite its hardships.
The cliché of New York is that it is a stage for
one to prove themselves and become successful26
following the idea of the American Dream. As expressed in the Frank Sinatra’s
song New York, New York ‘if you can
make it here, you can make it anywhere’27
is the cliché that surrounds New York. The song itself is a love song to New York,
written by Broadway musical veteran Fred Ebb , with lyrics referencing the hope
of becoming famous. The success of ‘making it’ is evident in the writing of
Patti Smith. She enters New York saying ‘no one expected me. Everything awaited
giving the vision of hope as she began her journey. The idea of anticipation
and expectation is a clear cliché in writing about New York.
New York texts
are interconnected by the cliché of New York being home. In Henry Roth’s Call It sleep we see the character of David leave his home when
visiting the museum with his aunt. Here we see him become an outsider and
quickly become isolated from his surroundings the further he travels away; ‘the
more aloof grew the houses, the more silent the streets. David began to feel
uneasy’29. Being an
immigrant, David feels alienated in the overpowering city of New York but finds
security in his culture and specific area in New York. This connects to the
idea of the exclusive community. Each neighborhood in New York literature holds
the idea of home to characters. In Runyon’s stories, home for the characters is
Broadway, Harlem is home for Jake in Home
to Harlem and Chelsea is the home for Patti Smith in Just Kids.
Runyon’s stories carry the stamp of the Roaring
Forties and inter-war years. Broadway is presented Broadway as an area of
glamour and underworld activities ruled by gangsters. His stories went on to be
used in films and musicals such as Guys
and Dolls (1950) based on the story the Idyll
of Sarah Brown. Runyon’s common themes across his literature now become the
cliché of what we believe life to have been like on Broadway during this time
period. Likewise, other texts on New York become a staple depiction of their neighbourhood
in the time period in which they were written. The combination of the commonalities
in these texts themes show the clichés that are attached when writing about New
There is no singular cliché to New York writing. It is a multidimensional city and this is apparent
in the writings about it. Money, consumerism and hardship are key themes used by
writers which reflect the prominence of them in New York society. Writings
about New York show extremes, such as the struggle of being jobless in Just Kids and to the big spenders in
Runyon’s stories. The hopes and dreams when arriving in New York are also
commonly written about showing the reality of the American Dream whether it is
success or not. Exclusivity is the main cliché in writing about New York with
each district having their own individual community and distinct population. To
write about New York you must immerse yourself in it. Runyon’s fictional world shows
this with his written slang and fast paced storylines mirroring the city life.
New York has a nostalgic cliché when written about and each area holds the idea
of home for the characters and authors. In conclusion, there is no singular
cliché when writing about New York City. Each district of New York has certain
topics attached to it but the common themes and linguistic devices between them
become the collective clichés of writing about New York City.
Homberger, New York City: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Signal Books, 2002) p. 217.
2 Hans, Bergman, God
on the Street: From the Penny Press to Melville, (Temple University, 1995).
3 Runyon, Damon, (1940) in Taylor, William, In Pursuit of Gotham (Oxford University
Press ,1992) p. 163.
4 Mario, Materassi, ‘Shifting Urbanscape: Roth’s ‘Private’
New York’, New Essays on Call It Sleep,
ed. by Hana Wirth-Nesher, (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 31.
5 Patti, Smith, Just
Kids (Bloomsbury, 2010), p.181.
6 Henry, Call It
Sleep (Penguin, 1977), p. 359.
7 Roth, p. 359.
8 Schwarz, Daniel R, Broadway Boogie Woogie, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
9 Damon, Runyon, On
Broadway, (Penguin, 1990), p. 48.
10 Runyon, p. 481.
11 George, Beiswanger, ‘Broadway Letter’, The Kenyon Review ,5 (1943), p. 115.
12 Rudolph, Fisher, City
of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, (University of Missouri
13 Claude, McKay, Home To
Harlem (Northeastern University Press, 1987), p. 38.
14 Martin, Arnold, ‘The city’s glory, seen by writers’, New York Times, September 27, 2001.
15 Runyon, p.284.
16 Schwarz, p.145.
17 Smith, p. 25.
18 Julie, Watson, Reading
Autobiography (University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
19 Smith, p. 109.
20 Runyon, p. 76.
21 Scott, Fitzgerald, The
Great Gatsby, (Scribner, 1925), p. 120.
22 Cyrus Patell eds, The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York
(Cambridge University Press: 2010), p. 94.
23 Runyon, p. 16.
24 Smith, p. 109.
25 Patell, p.94.
26 Patell, p.54.
27 Fred, Ebb, “New York, New York”(Capitol
28 Smith, p.25.
29 Roth, p. 147.