I have just finished reading Edward Rutherfurd’s epic New York. I have been a fan of Rutherfurd’s style ever since I first read Sarum twenty years ago. His formula of telling the sweeping story of a signifiant place over the centuries through the lives of ordinary people really makes a place come alive.
As an Australian who has never visited the USA, everything I know about New York comes from literature and the media. I know it as the backdrop of the television programs that bring American culture to the world, and the centre of the financial hub of US economic might and imperialism. Rutherfurd’s book did not tell me very much that I did not know about New York, but it made the people who inhabit the city real to me, and it gave me a new understanding of how central the city is to the politics and polity of the USA.
Running at over 1000 pages, the book opens in the Dutch trading post of New Amsterdam in the mid 17th century, and ends with a dialogue between father and daughter, descendents of the first appearing characters, in 2009. The book describes in great detail the conflicts of colonial times, the American revolution (aka the war of independence) and the civil war. The importance of immigration to the USA is brought out in the book in every era, as is the importance of trade and politics, both of which seem to ultimately win out over religious faith, common decency and family loyalty.
This is a book about power; a book about a city of great power. One of the things which I found frustrating in reading this book, and which perhaps reflects the reality more than many US citizens would be prepared to admit, is that the non- WASP characters, although prominent for a short time, all fall away. The native Americans, Africans, Jews, Italians and Hispanics who appear in the book just fade away. Their influence is important, but ultimately the story of New York is the story of the WASPs, the wealth and power of Trinity Wall Street, the NY Stock exchange and the ‘respectability’ that comes from what most people in other parts of the world would regard as obscene and ostentatious wealth.
If I ever do get the opportunity to travel to New York I will read this book again in the plane on the way there, and look forward to visiting some of the significant sites mentioned there. But for someone who is not a New Yorker, and not a multi-millionaire, this book is not a book which offers any hope for the world. In fact, it is rather depressing. Greed and the lust for power are alive and well in the world, and New York is their capital city. Rutherfurd’s book does not celebrate this, but it does not offer any hope that it is likely to change either.