The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem Essay - Critical Context

Ned Rorem

Critical Context

It may be useful to think of The Paris Diary as a late development of a subgenre of modern American literature, the expatriate memoir. Such books as Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), and Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle’s Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (1968), as well as many others, chronicle the bohemian life in Paris during the heroic age of modernism, the 1920’s, especially as it was experienced by young American artists living there. The Paris Diary has in common with these works its setting, the presence of important cultural figures, and a peculiarly American sense of naive excitement at being a part of it all. Rorem’s book is among the last examples of this genre, however, taking place as it does in the 1950’s and among comparatively minor figures: not Igor Stravinsky, but Georges Auric; not Stein, but Alice B. Toklas; not Hemingway, but Julien Green. It is also a diary rather than a memoir, and this formal difference is significant: The authors of those books looked back at a time gone by rather than chronicling it as it happened, because the expatriate life was coming to an end as New York, rather than Paris, began to dominate the international cultural scene.

It is therefore entirely appropriate that Rorem should continue his diary at home, in New York, and that The New York Diary should be such a different kind of book. The reflective, introspective character of this volume is an important departure from other books of its kind. No longer concerned with recording external events in the world of celebrities, its inward quest for the self was an early warning that something new was happening in American culture. The New York Diary, indeed—in its pacifism, in its insistence on honesty even at the risk of offending, in its acceptance of homosexuality, in its perception (in a long passage on the effects of mescaline) of drugs as tools that might be used to explore the self, and even in its youthful narcissism—can easily be seen as a forerunner of the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s.