The 92nd Street Y has been a cultural gathering spot of Manhattan for 140 years. It is no surprise then that influential authors today still flock to the historic community center to share their work with the city.
George R. R. Martin, Toni Morrison, and Judy Blume have all graced the stage of 92Y, as it is more commonly known, hoping to connect to other authors as well as their audience. However, when authors book an event here, they know that this will not be just another book signing or meet-and-greet.
The 92nd Street Y was created in 1875 to “inspire action by bringing together today’s most exceptional thinkers and influential partners for social good,” according to their formal mission. The Y began as a vehicle for easier circulation of the arts. Artists of all kinds- dancers, music, photographers, and painters looked to 92Y as a place to get started.
Here, they first showcased work and subsequently catapulted into the mainstream. For instance, renowned New York City painter, Frank Pack held an exhibit at the Kaufmann Lounge of the Y long before he was famous. Thanks to the Y, new artists could reach their audience at a faster rate, opening the Upper East Side community’s eyes to a world outside Manhattan.
But we wanted to know specifically how the Y’s mission has intersected with literature over the years, and so on August 19th, 2015 we met with Sophie Herron, program administrator for 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, to ask her in person. In the last seventy-five years, 92Y has focused more and more on the literary part of their mission.
Herron told us that everyone working at the Y is, in fact, a writer. In terms of the concert hall one contributor to the center says, “It’s interesting because that stage has carried all important writers for 70 years.” Just to name a few writers that have visited the concert hall: Arthur Miller, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank McCourt, Elif Batuman, Gary Shteyngart, and John Ashbury.
Despite working there for only two years, Herron says that working at a place that is looking to reflect and illuminate human relations is “inspiring” and “a reminder of what you can do by telling your own story and listening to others.”
If you are interested in attending a future event at 92nd Street Y, most readings start at $15. In addition to holding talks and lectures, the Y provides many classes and competitions. Classes are workshop-inspired with students sharing their work and analyzing the most famous works of other authors. Discovery is a poetry competition meant to help young writers find their voice, with the winner earning a cash prize as well as getting her or his poem published.
Since its founding in 1875 through to this day the 92nd Street Y adds depth to the conversations across all arts, but especially literature, being held across New York.
The above article was written by Tabita Gnagniko, a 10th-grader from The Beacon School in the Summer of 2015 as part of a partnership between Literary Manhattan and the New-York Historical Society Summer Scholars program. Click here to learn more.
Truman Capote: In 1963 Capote read from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, at the 92nd Street Y. Just two years after the book had been released as a film starring Audrey Hepburn, the reading is said to have captivated the audience, according to Sophie Herron, administrator of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, speaking to Literary Manhattan. In December 1964 Capote read from his next major novel, In Cold Blood, also on the stage of 92Y, marking not only the book’s first stage reading, but its unveiling to the public generally speaking.
Harper Lee: Following the release of Lee’s second and final novel, hundreds of fans gathered at the 92nd St. Y to listen to Mary Badham, the woman who played Scout in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, read from the newest novel.
Oliver Sacks: The “poet laureate of medicine” recorded a conversation at the 92nd Street Y with science author Jonathan Weiner on the subject of longevity.
Dylan Thomas: At the Kaufmann Auditorium of the New York Poetry Centre, a part of the 92nd Thomas began his first tour of forty venues in front of a crowd of a thousand people. The Poetry Centre became a place where he did many of his readings. Thomas finished writing his radio drama, Under Milk Wood, in New York and the first and only sound recording of the piece by Thomas took place at 92Y on May 14, 1953.
Kurt Vonnegut: This author was a frequent speaker at the 92nd Street Y, an Upper East Side institution located at 92nd street and Lexington Avenue. Vonnegut’s first appearance at the 92Y’s Poetry Center was on May 4, 1970, the day National Guard troops fired on student protesters at the Ohio University, killing four people. During the event he read an excerpt of Breakfast of Champions a full three years before the book was published, and discussed the shootings with the audience. When he returned to the Y 13 years later, in 1983, he again addressed the Kent State shootings and read three antiwar speeches. In total, Vonnegut visited the 92Y seven different times. The 92Y has played host to many famous New York authors and is a very important place in Manhattan literature.
During a speech at the 92Y in 1983 Vonnegut said:
If you are a New Yorker, if you are a writer, it’s part of your civic duty to appear at the Y—at least once.
Elie Wiesel: This author held annual lectures at the 92nd street Y and spoke 180 times on their stage. His first time was in 1967; his first speech was centered around his own works, but he frequently shared his analysis of Christian and Hasidic stories. During his 180th performance, Hillary Clinton joined him on stage, as did a youth chorus and a Grammy-winning violinist. He famously said in one of his recorded speeches, “think wiser and feel deeper” always influencing his audience to live empathetically/