The last mad Empire on earth

Dylan Thomas writes home from New York

Today’s letter comes from Letters of Note: New York, a newly-published collection of correspondence about the Big Apple from the pens and typewriters of Italo Calvino, Anaïs Nin, Ralph Ellison, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Kahlil Gibran, Helen Keller, Martin Scorsese, and many others. More info here.

On 23 February 1950, at the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association on the corner with Lexington Avenue (now more commonly known as the ‘92nd Street Y’), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas took to the stage and beguiled a thousand poetry aficionados on the opening night of his first tour of America. Two days later, dizzied by the reaction to his poetry and overwhelmed by the urban jungle in which he found himself, he wrote home to his wife, Caitlin. Thomas toured the United States three more times over the next few years, on each occasion beginning in New York City. Sadly, it was on his fourth visit, in November of 1953, at St Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, that Dylan Thomas died.

My darling far-away love, my precious Caitlin, my wife dear . . .

Here, each night I have to take things to sleep: I am staying right in the middle of Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers infinitely taller & stranger than one has ever known from the pictures: I am staying in a room, an hotel room for the promised flat did not come off, on the 30th floor: and the noise all day & night: without some drug, I couldn’t sleep at all. The hugest, heaviest lorries, police-cars, firebrigades, ambulances, all with their banshee sirens wailing & screaming, seem never to stop; Manhattan is built on rock, a lot of demolition work is going on to take up yet another super Skyscraper, & so there is almost continuous dynamite blasting. Aeroplanes just skim the tips of the great glimmering skyscrapers, some beautiful, some hellish. And I have no idea what on earth I am doing here in the very loud, mad middle of the last mad Empire on earth: – except to think of you, & love you, & to work for us. I have done two readings this week, to the Poetry Center of New York: each time there was an audience of about a thousand. I felt a very lonely, foreign midget orating up there, in a huge hall, before all those faces; but the readings went well.

I’ve been to a few parties, met lots of American poets, writers, critics, hangers-on, some very pleasant, all furiously polite & hospitable. But apart from on one occasion, I’ve stuck nearly all the time to American beer, which, though thin, I like a lot & is ice-cold. I arrived, by the way, on the coldest day New York had had for years & years: It was 4 above zero. You’d have loved it. I never thought anything could be so cold, my ears nearly fell off: the wind just whipped through that monstrous duffle. But, as soon as I got into a room, the steamed heat was worse: I think I can stand zero better than that, &, to the astonishment of natives, I keep all windows open to the top. I’ve been, too, to lots of famous places: up the top of the Empire State Building, the tallest there is, which terrified me so much, I had to come down at once; to Greenwich Village a feebler Soho but with stronger drinks; & this morning John Brinnin is driving us to Harlem.

And now it must look to you, my Cat, as though I am enjoying myself here. I’m not. It’s [a] nightmare, night & day; there never was such a place; I would never get used to the speed, the noise, the utter indifference of the crowds, the frightening politeness of the intellectuals, and, most of all, these huge phallic towers, up & up & up, hundreds of floors, into the impossible sky. I feel so terrified of this place, I hardly dare to leave my hotelroom – luxurious – until Brinnin or someone calls for me. Everybody uses the telephone all the time: it is like breathing: it is now nine o’clock in the morning, & I’ve had six calls: all from people whose names I did not catch to invite me to a little “poity” at an address I had no idea of. And most of all most of all most of all, though, God, there’s no need to say this to you who understand everything, I want to be with you. If we could be here together, everything would be allright. Never again would I come here, or to any far place, without you; but especially never to here. The rest of America may be all right, & perhaps I can understand it, but that is the last monument there is to the insane desire for power that shoots its buildings up to the stars & roars its engines louder & faster than they have ever been roared before and makes everything cost the earth & where the imminence of death is reflected in every last power-stroke and grab of the great money bosses, the big shots, the multis, one never sees. This morning we go down to see the other side beyond the skyscrapers: black Harlem, starving Jewish East Side. A family of four in New York is very very poor on £:14 a week. I’ll buy some nylons all the same next week, & some tinned stuff. Anything else? . . .

Remember me. I love you. Write to me.

Your loving, loving Dylan


Books of Note