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Traveling the World from Home, with Village Authors

For most of us right now, traveling the world to explore places or cultures different from our own is not an option.  But fortunately through the works of some great Greenwich Village authors, we can safely explore places (and times) very different than our own, and enjoy a bit of the escape we may not otherwise be able to experience.  Here’s just a sample:

John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World

The original German language version of Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook the World.”

Greenwich Village journalist and Patchin Place resident John Reed wrote what is considered the definitive account of the 1917 Russian Revolution, based upon his own first-person accounts in Russia at the time and the close access he had to many revolutionary leaders.  Reed went to Russia on assignment for Greenwich Village-based The Masses magazine to cover the growing  unrest.  The book was first published in 1919, and Reed died only a year later in 1920.  He was buried in the Kremlin wall necropolis, the only American to be granted that honor by the Soviet government.

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in the film version of A Raisin In the Sun.

Hansberry’s classic tale of a family struggling against racism and economic injustice on Chicago’s South Side was the first play written by an African American woman to be performed on Broadway. It’s no surprise that Hansberry is therefore so strongly associated with America’s ‘Second City,’ but she was in fact living in Greenwich Village when she wrote the play, and remained there for the final twelve years of her life until her death in 1965.  Hansberry initially lived in a small apartment at 337 Bleecker Street, just north of Christopher Street; after the success of Raisin, she purchased and moved to the townhouse at 112 Waverly Place, which she continued to own and occupy until she died of pancreatic cancer at just 34 years old.

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Baldwin spent much of the 1950s living, writing, or hanging out in the cafes and bars of Greenwich Village. He was an integral part of the literary scene found at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street and the San Remo Cafe on MacDougal Street, and lived for several years on Horatio Street.  It was during this time that he wrote what was perhaps his most shocking work for the time, the controversial but critically-acclaimed Giovanni’s Room, which tells the tale of a bisexual American man living in Paris and his affair with an Italian bartender named Giovanni who is set to be executed.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Born Samuel Clemens, Twain lived at 21 Fifth Avenue at 9th Street (demolished) and 14 West 10th Street (extant) in Greenwich Village.  In spite of his big city digs, Twain gained fame for his tales of the antebellum South, most prominently through his characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckelberry Finn.  The books continue to attract a vast readership, and controversy, one hundred fifty years after their publication.  Considered classics of American literature which inspired generations of American writers, these were among the first books to use American vernacular speech, and transport the reader to the Mississippi riverfront of the mid-19th century, though they were actually written decades later.

Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Khalil Gibran

The Lebanese-American writer/poet/philosopher lived and wrote in an artist studio at 51 West 10th Street (demolished).  Though raised a Maronite Christian, Gibran’s writings were inspired by Sufi Muslim mysticism, the Baha’i faith, and transcendentalism, among other sources.  His most widely read work, The Prophet, published in 1923, begins on a mythical island called Orphalese, where the sage Almustafa has been waiting for twelve years for a ship to bring him back to his home.  As he struggles with his feelings of sadness about leaving his adopted home, Almustafa shares his philosophy of life, love, work, and everything in between, and takes the reader on a spiritual journey as he contemplates his physical journey home. The book ha inspired generations of writers, philosophers, and iconoclasts.  Read more about Gibran and his home on West 10th Street here.

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia

Willa Cather.

Cather grew up in Nebraska and made a name for herself writing about life on the Great Plains, but she did most of that writing from various residences in Greenwich Village, including 60 Washington Square South (demolished), 82 Washington Place (extant), 5 Bank Street (demolished) and 35 Fifth Avenue (extant).  Cather’s work combines the immigrant experience with the challenging life of farmers on the American frontier in Nebraska and Colorado in the late 19th century — an experience she knew well growing up, and immortalized in these three books of what are often called her “Great Pains Trilogy.”  Like Twain, she wrote about a time and place she knew but was no longer in; the books were published several decades after the time in which they are set.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom The Bell Tolls

Hemingway (left), with Harold Loeb, Duff Twysden (in hat), Hadley Richardson, Donald Ogden Stewart (obscured), and Pat Guthrie (far right) at a café in Pamplona, Spain, July 1925. The group formed the basis for the characters in The Sun Also Rises — Twysden as Brett Ashley, Loeb as Robert Cohn, Stewart as Bill Gorton, and Guthrie as Mike Campbell.

The novels of Hemingway, who lived for a time at the Hotel Earle (now the Washington Square Hotel) on Waverly Place, are among the most evocative works of the “Lost Generation.”  They also immerse the reader in France and Spain during this troubled time between the world wars, whether the bohemian haunts of Paris or the blood-soaked streets of Segovia during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway is credited with almost single-handedly elevating the obscure Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona and its running of the bulls into a mythic event of international renown with his inclusion of the event in The Sun Also Rises.  Pick up either novel and find yourself in a very different time and place where the world seemingly teetered on the edge of destruction and wrenching transformation (well, maybe not that different….).

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon.

Perhaps no work conjures up the image of the dark and seedy underbelly of the pre-hippie, pre-tech boom San Francisco like The Maltese Falcon.  The book introduced the world to iconic hard-nosed gumshoe detective Same Spade, who later appeared in several other of Hammett’s novels.  As an added escapism bonus, The Maltese Falcon follows a criminal conspiracy which reaches as far as Constantinople and Hong Kong. Hammett lived at 14 West 9th Street and 28 West 10th Street in the 1930s and 40s, at the height of his fame.

Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are

One could easily make the case that no work by a Greenwich Village writer — or perhaps any writer — successfully transports the reader to another place than the surprisingly dark but beloved children’s classic Where The Wild Things Are. Sendak not only wrote but illustrated the book, which features young Max, who after being sent to bed without supper for making such a mess of his house, is transported through a jungle-like environment to an island inhabited by hostile and malevolent creatures known as “wild things.” Max eventually intimidates the creatures into submission, and becomes their king.  After enjoying his power and freedom on the island, Max eventually becomes homesick and returns to his house, much to the creatures’ chagrin.  The tale is considered one of the first children’s books to explore the psychology of children, particularly their need to cope with feelings of anger.  Sendak lived in and wrote Wild Things in a basement apartment at 29 West 9th Street; after the success of the book, he bought a home in Ridgefield Connecticut but also maintained an apartment a few blocks away at 40 Fifth Avenue.

If you’d like to purchase one of these or many other amazing books from a local independent bookstores, here are some of their websites to explore:


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