One of the greatest pleasures of working on “Manhattan Beach,” the novel I published this year that’s set in New York in the 1930s and ’40s, was the reading I did for my research. My sources ranged from books so rare and technical that I couldn’t get them in physical form — Navy deep sea diving manuals from the 1940s, for example — to literary classics I had never read, like Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” Nella Larsen’s “Passing” and Luc Sante’s “Low Life.” In the end, fiction proved most revealing of the mood and textures and collective memory of the period — even a flawed novel could teach me a lot, and cheesy detective fiction was indispensible. I tried to keep all my reading together on the shelves of an antique desk I bought years ago from a relative. I would stand in front of the growing mass of books and run my eyes over them as I waited for a synthesis to coalesce in my mind of the many worlds I was trying to internalize. Very gradually, it did. Here are a few discoveries that helped.
THE TOWN AND THE CITY, by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s first published novel, is the autobiographical story of his Massachusetts family’s gradual decline. It describes the dislocation brought on by World War II: men and women leaving their homes and drifting into packed train stations. After the war, these uprooted youths reappeared in cities as members of the Beat Generation.
THE STREET, by Ann Petry. The story of a single black mother trying to sustain herself and her young son in Harlem, this novel is a horrifying account of a woman crushed by a toxic mix of racism and sexism.
NIGHT SHIFT, by Maritta Wolff. As an author in this period Wolff was unusually frank about women’s sexuality and daring in her willingness to write (albeit melodramatically) about race. Published in 1942, this page-turner about the demimonde of a Midwestern city examines the rules and realities governing female behavior.
YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II, by Jeff Kisseloff. Organized by neighborhood, this trove of interviews serves as a reminder that New Yorkers have been bemoaning their changing city for well over a century. Kudos to Kisseloff, who published this book in 1989, for jumping on these stories when the Gilded Age was still in living memory.
PADDY WHACKED: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster, by T.J. English. The title belies the serious content of this book, which traces the scourges of early Irish-American life — alcoholism, gangsterism, corruption — to the trauma and oppression the Irish suffered under English rule and the subversive (and escapist) habits they cultivated in response.
LIFEBOAT, by John R. Stilgoe. This utterly original work is both a study of the sturdy, whaling–style lifeboats that were long the standard, and an exposé of the poor seamanship and lack of sailing knowledge that cost the lives of many, many people who tried to use them. Ultimately, Stilgoe raises all-too-relevant questions about emergency preparedness.
WOODY, CISCO, & ME: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine, by Jim Longhi. This affectionate memoir, written by a friend of Woodie Guthrie who sailed with the singer on multiple voyages during World War II, details harrowing storms and torpedo attacks. It also describes the bright spirit and infectious charisma that made Guthrie a folk hero.