the most excitingly vocal and ruggedly combative of American critics


“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia,” wrote the Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott in a review of George W.S. Trow’s polemical memoir, My Pilgrim’s Progress. But entitled on what terms? Wolcott is easily displeased by writing concerned with golden ages, slipping standards and vanished values. Trow was accused of wearing his “doldrums” about the dumb present as a badge of integrity; Gail Pool was found guilty of “moping” in Faint Praise, her monograph about the decline of American book reviewing; the nostalgia in Frank Rich’s memoir Ghost Light had come “too early.” Yet despite his tendency to touch on, or brush past, such particularities, Wolcott’s beef really lies with the nostalgic impulse itself. “Sugarcoating the past is unworthy of someone with Trow’s brilliance,” he decided. “Where these books don’t take you,” he wrote in the final line of a piece about Harvard memoirs, “is beyond nostalgia.” How much space do Wolcott’s proscriptions leave for his own trip down memory lane, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York? Even less than it seems. Not only has he taken a bat to the genre but others have beaten him to his subject. Greenwich Village of the 1950s, Wolcott once noted, “has been fictionally satirized by Dawn Powell and Wallace Markfield, replayed like a nostalgic newsreel in Dan Wakefield’s New York in the ’50s, reduced to a cigarette flicker in Herbert Gold’s Bohemia: Where Art, Angst, Love and Strong Coffee Meet, restaged like a Strindberg play in Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia.” New York City in the 1970s has been getting similar treatment recently. “You could have an apartment all to yourself for less than $150 a month,” wrote Luc Sante in 2003 about the Lower East Side in his essay “My Lost City.” “We needed to raise four hundred fifty dollars, a month’s rent and a month’s deposit,” Patti Smith recalled of life with Robert Mapplethorpe in her recent memoir, Just Kids.

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