No Mere City

No Mere City


As someone who moved to New York City seven months ago, I’m aware that it could be a daunting experience. The swell of buildings, the swarms of people, everything can be overwhelming. Sensory overload is commonplace. Last semester in my Gallatin Freshman Writing Seminar, “Gimme Shelter,” I read Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye To All That,” and Rosalyn Dorot’s 1899 advice manual “The Coming Bachelor Girl.” I immediately identified with the sentiments expressed in both works: despondency, romanticism, excitement, and anxiety. “Goodbye To All That” takes up the idea of longing and searching for “home” in a tumultuous, foreign environment. Similarly, “The Coming Bachelor Girl” explores the phenomenon of young women’s emotional engagement in moving to New York City.

Both Rosalyn Dorot and Joan Didion provide commentary on the risks, rewards, and motivations for living in New York City. In “The Coming Bachelor Girl,” published in The Woman’s Home Companion, Dorot addresses the ever-growing group of young women who desire to move to New York. The nineteenth century served as a time of urban migration for young women, as evident in Dorot’s observation that “it is quite the fad nowadays to be a bachelor girl.” As such, Dorot sought to educate and prepare young women for the landscape of life in the city. In “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion revisits her time as a bachelor girl in New York City. Though written nearly seventy years after “The Coming Bachelor Girl,” Didion navigates within the framework that Dorot establishes, offering more intricacies to the narrative of a young, single woman in New York City. Dorot merely establishes that bachelor girls are moving to the city in order to pursue their dreams. Didion complicates the narrative of a bachelor girl by diving into their psyche. Dorot observes bachelor girls, while Didion is a bachelor girl. Didion and Dorot both show that romanticizing the city lends to profound disillusionment. However, an evolution in the ideology of personal character between the nineteenth and twentieth century emerges in the different ways each author treats the disillusionment. While Didion portrays it as a mechanism for growth, Dorot characterizes it as something that should instill fear and deter young girls from moving to the city. This contrast reveals a broad shift in widespread understanding of success and personal growth over the course of a century.

Dorot and Didion establish romanticism as a prevalent force that characterizes life in the city for newcomers, especially youth.  Dorot claims that life in the city “sounds so grandly independent” for many bachelor girls, and this romantic ideal of what city life entails is revealed to be a leading motivation for moving to the city.  Dorot continues her commentary on the prevalence of romanticism through a discussion of a latch-key that “jingles so merrily.” An interesting thread emerges between independence “sound[ing]” appealing and the “jingle” of a latch-key. Perhaps Dorot is suggesting that sound can be misleading; what one hears about the city isn’t necessarily how it is. This latch-key gives tangible form to the realization that a new life of possibilities has begun. It symbolizes the start of a new life as a new woman. However, this life relies on dreams that are revealed to be fallacies. The city isn’t a place in which one’s fantasies last; instead, they succumb to an overwhelming reality. For Didion, and many other youth, New York isn’t only spatial but temporal; it’s a place that “began” (225). Didion states, “I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me” (225). The word “began” denotes when something starts; in Didion’s case, it’s when her emotional, albeit romanticized, connection to New York commenced. Her vision of New York was dependent on ideas that were “programmed by all of the movies [she] had ever seen and all the songs [she] had ever sung and all the stories [she] had ever read” (226).  By listing the sources of romanticism in a series of phrases connected with the word “and,” complexities are added to Didion’s idealization. Similar to Dorot’s bachelor girls, Didion believes that she is qualified for the city but discovers her preparations aren’t sufficient.  While in a hotel during her first night in New York, Didion was sick in her room and didn’t call a doctor because she “knew none” (227). She didn’t call down to the front desk either because she “didn’t know how much to tip whoever might come” (227). After this revelation, Didion asks, “was anyone ever so young?” ( 227). The use of the word “young” doesn’t connote age but naiveté. This distinction allows the tether between romantic views and youth to emerge. Both Didion and Dorot describe youth as a factor that magnifies romanticism.

Dorot claims that the disillusionment a bachelor girl will experience is overwhelming and cautions them not to move to the city unless they are truly prepared. While the latch-key initially was a symbol of hope and independence, it transforms into an object that symbolizes “rent day and board bills, plain prosaic things that always sound so discouraging to talk about” after a week. This statement is ironic because Dorot mentions them because they are discouraging. Along with educating girls about life in the city, Dorot means to dissuade them from moving there. She compares the weight of carrying a latch key to a “burden” as heavy “as the old man of the sea.” In Greek mythology, the old man would latch on to sailors, ask for a ride across a stream, then refuse to let go. Through this simile, Dorot urges the bachelor girls to reconsider moving to the city; everything isn’t as it appears Things that seem empowering are actually restricting. The latch-key is “merely a delusion and a snare” (para 4) Once a bachelor girl realizes that the life she imagined is not the life she will live, it will be too late. Dorot urges the bachelor girl to remain at home and prepare for city life more.  She desires that young women “measure [their] chances for success in any field before [they] start out” (para 10). Dorot doesn’t view the city as a place to experiment, but to continue work on something at which they are already successful. Dorot insists that the bachelor girl rethink her move to the city due to the overpowering disillusionment.

Contrarily, Didion views the city as a place for growth, and even romanticizes the disillusionment itself.  Didion becomes disillusioned with the city as soon as she arrives on a DC-7 in a dress that seemed “smart” for Sacramento, but wasn’t “smart” for New York (225). This immediate disillusionment causes Didion to have to immediately adjust. The title of her essay “Goodbye To All That” speaks to this. Didion is saying goodbye to her old self and New York, as the piece was written on the occasion of her leaving New York for Los Angeles.  Didion recognizes that she has to take on more responsibility. Unlike Dorot, Didion welcomes the idea of struggling for her independence. She didn’t ask her father for money because, if she accepted financial help, “[she] would never know if she could do it by [herself]” (229).  Didion is able to look beyond her struggle and determine that she was “in love with the city the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again” (228). Didion paints an entirely different picture of New York than Dorot. She characterizes it as a place that forced her to evolve and not be able to “lay [her] finger upon the moment it ended” (225). This is because New York still hasn’t stopped affecting her. It generated change within her that hasn’t ceased. Didion is still intoxicated by New York.  The city, for Didion, was an arena for personal growth.

Dorot uses work as a deterrent to caution young women about moving to the city and champions fame and monetary success. Dorot cautions young girls about the perils of having to “work, work, work” (para 5). Dorot warns that “this is a work-a-day age.” Dorot asserts that women should be on the track to “be something” and uncover their genius. However, they should do it outside of the city first because “there is no better place in the country to live after you have succeeded.” Thus, their chances of achieving fame are increased. This is sound advice because city life isn’t easy, but Dorot is inhibiting her bachelor girl’s opportunity for growth.  She is prioritizing fame and wealth over growth and development. Dorot situates the city as a place that is best experienced when one is already successful, that is, after one has already undergone such personal growth.

Didion, in contrast to Dordot, discusses the emotional distress and growth that one experiences in the city and stresses the importance of work. Didion states that she “can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was” (225). The use of the word “heroine” connotes infallibility. However, the heroine soon became defeated and engulfed by the city. She realized “that those days before [she] knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later” (226). This statement reveals the emotional trauma of living in the city. Therefore, emotional work was needed in order to survive in the city. Nothing could protect Didion from the city. Instead, she had to perform work on herself in order to insure that she could survive the tumultuous nature of it all.

Upon analyzing the works of Dorot and Didion, a change in ideology about the use of a city emerges. While Dorot views the city as a destination for those who have already achieved success, Didion views it as an arena for growth. While Dorot’s “The Coming Bachelor Girl” was written to protect young women who aspired to move to the city, it also reflects a more outdated mindset that the city is a place in which dreams fail, not flourish. Contrarily, Didion writes of a New York that provoked immense growth. The struggles were worth it. This echoes the generation change between Dorot and Didion. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the city transformed into a place that inspired growth and helped develop character. In modern times, it is seen as a place in which young people go in order to struggle and test themselves. Throughout their struggle, they build character and become stronger. Only the strong can survive the turbulent nature of New York City.

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “Goodbye To All That.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1968.

Dorot, Rosalyn. “The Coming Bachelor Girl.” Woman’s Home Companion June 1899. Page 18.

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