When Americans do rediscover their past it is as if they have stumbled upon some wonderful new gift. A world where fantastic amusement parks - much grander, and weirder, and more frightening and beautiful than anything we know as amusement parks today - rise along the shore of Coney Island.
A world where a city full of dwarves and midgets sits cheek-by-jowl with a tin hotel shaped like an elephant and filled with prostitutes. A world where people pay money to watch premature infants struggle for life in incubators, where they sleep on fire escapes, buy cracked eggs for a penny a dozen, step warily around gangsters dressed like Mexican bandits on the streets of New York. A world where politics matter, teenage girls give fiery speeches on every street corner; where cars and movies and even psychology spring into being overnight.
Well, all this is a world infinitely more strange and enticing to most Americans - and, let's face it, to most people, period, as the whole world is steadily razed and paved over with Americana - than the bombastic fantasies about spaceships and teenagers and automatic weapons that now dominate our culture.
It is in New York that remnants of the past are most visible in America. Or rather, it is in New York that we see the true nature of what has happened to the past in America, for in fact the past has not disappeared at all, it has just been moving too fast and become all jumbled up together.
America's existence has simply coincided with the sudden acceleration of time, so that all things speed by us too fast for us to catch more than a glimpse of them; so that our endless recapitulations of this century, that millennium, become no more than a wad of random images - hula hoops, flappers dancing the Charleston, the Great War, Muhammad Ali, Vietnam, Elvis, the Bomb? - that fall apart in our hands.
But New York is a great city, and things tend to fetch up in great cities. They are the cosmic sewer catches of our time, and they allow us to stop, slow down the flickering film to a human speed, look at that old building, this mysterious sign still lingering unobserved among the jostling and oblivious crowds. In Dreamland (my book) it is 1911, when people are streaming to America from all over the globe - a million or so Jews, Italians, Paddies, Bohemians, Africans, Germans, Swedes. The world is new (well, new enough).
They are coming to New York still, from all over to the world - sometimes to the very same neighbourhoods. Parts of New York's Lower East Side that were a Irish and German slum in 1850, a Russian-Jewish ghetto in 1900, are now crowded with immigrants from China, Vietnam, India, and elsewhere. They have almost as hard a road ahead; there are still hundreds of garment sweatshops in the New York area alone.
It's anybody's guess on what screen they now project their hopes and fears - television perhaps? Or computer video games? Yet it is hard to believe they are as vibrant, as rough and frightening and enchanting, as what new Americans encountered on the shores of Brooklyn a hundred years ago.
Kevin Baker is the author of `Dreamland' (Granta, 22 July, pounds 15.99)Reuse content