The Boy Detective, A New York Childhood by Roger Rosenblatt ’58. This memoir breaks the usual memoir mold; it takes us on a meditative walking tour of Gramercy Park and its environs, where we get to witness the narrator’s mind as it ruminates, remembers and imagines. The narrator has just taught a class on memoir writing at a Manhattan campus and decides to revisit the haunts of his childhood. As he wanders the streets on this winter night, his mind is drawn back to his boyhood, to what he knows of the history of the neighborhood – the authors (so many! James, Wharton, Twain, Nathaniel West and more) who once resided there – and he meditates on the parallels between his boyhood days, when he fancied himself a stealthy private eye, and his career as a writer. His mind goes back and forth and where it will, seemingly free of any censorship. Instead of introspection alternating with scenes where characters and dialog take center stage, any events from the past are part of his thought and never poke their way into the assertion that they represent objective reality. He walks and thinks, and we get to witness a mind that flows, makes associations, uncovers memories, observes, and seeks wisdom. At one point he refers to Wallace Steven’s poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.” Like Stevens, he merges inner and outer world.
He grew up in a spacious apartment on Gramercy Park. He remembers his young life as one with dramatic swings from austere non-communication at home to adventure outside on the streets of New York. He was a boy detective, scouring the surroundings for clues and noting (sometimes pursuing) suspicious pedestrians. But even this morally upright life of ferreting out the bad guys was not ideal. He longed for a sidekick, a Watson or perhaps a Tonto, someone who might say kemosabe and lend a hand cooking up and resolving plots. Sometimes the reader gets to assume this part (“Are you with me, pal?”). Though eventually he got such a friend, back in his days as boy detective, as on this winter night, he was on his own, alone with his mind.
The book, though poignant and sometimes bleak, is mostly funny both in a droll way and in a laugh out loud way. The riffs into boyhood fantasy are the best. He’s somewhere in the windy, dangerous British isles, hoping to recapture the all-important formula when the bobbies storm in with sushi. “o tempura o mores,” he muses.
I had a bit of a bout with heartbreak when I read his view on an unnamed school he attended. I think it would be fair to say that he did not like it. What? There went my illusion of a school in the late fifties attended by so many writers who have entertained and educated me: Thomas, Calkin, Chevigny (who at least did get a nod) Goldschmitt, Schiffrin, Mottahedeh, Davis Chaitman, Bryer, Schrag, and a little later Waldman and Cott. Where was the crucible of intellectual fervor I had imagined? Alas. But the narrator understands how the fantasy of the thing and the actual thing might be at odds. He worshiped Auden – that was until he met him.
Much of what animates more traditional memoirs is missing – the longing for love and the struggle to make a name. Roger met his wife when he was a teen. Success as a writer and also as an educator seems to have dropped in his lap. And yet, and yet. . .
He doles out some advice to writers. He tells them (us) to make sure we deal with what is common to all humans. How can we miss? Suffering is universal. We’ll all go the way of chimney sweepers. The lesson I think is to nail down a way to walk in the world in the face of advancing oblivion.
I lived in this neighborhood for many years, too. Much earlier, in the year the Titanic sank, my father was a second grader at PS 40 on Nineteenth Street.Michael Kimmelman has been taking us on virtual walks around the city in The Times while we’re on lockdown.Here is a virtual walk where heart, soul, memory and place comingle. If the unnamed school still has a course on New York writers, this work should be first on the syllabus.