Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Edward Robb Ellis was a journalist, diarist, and consulting editor for the The Encyclopedia of New York City. His classic narrative history, The Epic of New York City, was first released in 1966. The 599 page story is a delightful read, for the most part. Ellis’ work covers a period of time spanning from the “discovery” of Manhattan in 1524 to the run-up to the 1965 mayoral elections, making it a very a very timely and topical book when it first came out. It is often funny, written in a style that mostly flows very well, and contains a large number of details and anecdotes that lend it a unique flavor and some insights into New York life in the past.
But for all of that, the book does not work as well as secondary literature for historical research as it does as a document of its own time. Much of the material is dated, and some of the anecdotes reproduced are presented as factual whereas other sources suggest that the same stories have been embellished. Ellis’ language is sometimes tinged with the paternalistic views held towards African American by white liberals of the day (although his sympathy appears wholly genuine), women are largely absent from the ranks of important contributors to New York’s rise and growth, and, in a few scattered places, it is hard not to cringe; the chapter that is ostensibly about mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s ascension, for example, contains a section about the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its “Japan Day”: one paragraph ends with the Japanese ambassador’s pledge on that day that his country intended to stay out of the European war and to keep it out of Asia, the next begins with a cheap, condescending “Ah, so?”
At the same time, it is hard to miss the sense of unease that was spreading in the mid-1960s and that would explode in 1968 (in New York, in the US, and, indeed, throughout the western world) in the slant and bias that colors Ellis’ writing. And it is hard to miss the beginning decay of New York’s social fabric, especially at the book’s very end, where the author lists the “staggering” problems facing the city in 1965. On balance, then, The Epic of New York City is a very worthwhile read.