Great White New York by Elizabeth Minkel
It’s a shame, really, that the grown-up snow day means working from home and periodically going out to shovel the front walk. If you were a sensible eleven-year-old, you spent blizzards playing outside or sitting in your pajamas watching daytime television (never mind that “working from home” might mean the same thing). If you’re one of the lucky adults blessed with a proper, do-nothing snow day today—and if you aren’t looking forward to finally catching an episode of “The Dr. Oz Show”—you may as well curl up with a good book. At the very least, you’ll make everyone who had to trudge into the office today (read: me) ridiculously jealous.
But what’s appropriate snow-day reading? My first instinct is to go for the other extreme: something tropical, or a desert scene, or maybe some Faulkner—try conjuring up summer in Mississippi on a day like today. But perhaps it’s best to grab the bull by the horns and actually read stuff about snow: long Russian winters, Orhan Pamuk, anything on this list, composed by the Guardian books staff during a snowier-than-usual British winter.
I think, though, that one of the best snowy reads you’ll find today was penned more than a century ago. The blizzard that struck New York in 1888—the “Great White Hurricane”— remains one of the worst in recorded history. More than four hundred people died, commuters were trapped on trains for days, and though the city itself only received a few feet of snow, the resulting snowdrifts were three stories tall (my hometown, Saratoga Springs, was apparently the worst hit, with fifty-eight inches of snowfall).
The Times’s coverage of the storm—they called it “annoying and detrimental” and “a surprise party of the worst kind”—is absolutely delightful. It’s hard, at times, to tell what’s vaguely tongue-in-cheek and what’s simply the reporting style of the Gilded Age (New Yorkers who couldn’t receive daily milk and newspaper deliveries “began to seriously question whether life was worth living after all”). But the heartwarming stuff is pretty great:
Stories were told, jokes were cracked, and jovial good-fellowship prevailed. Nobody put on any airs. The aristocratic banker and merchant was "hale fellow well met" with the artisan, helpful to the shopgirl, and kind to the inevitable old lady whom even the blizzard couldn't keep at home.
The complete failure of the city’s infrastructure led to serious changes, including shifting telephone and telegraph lines and elevated subway tracks underground (if only the fallout from the last blizzard could do the same for our current infrastructural problems). But even if the storms of the twenty-first century bear little resemblance to the Great White Hurricane, the closing description of New York City in the snow will always ring true:
It's hard to believe that in this last quarter of the nineteenth century that for even one day New York could be so completely isolated from the rest of the world as if Manhattan Island was in the middle of the South Sea.