Washington Square and Washington Square

(Note: Updated w/ pictures and links)

As Cyrus noted yesterday, and as Meg indicated in her lecture to our students on Monday, we take the setting for James’s Washington Square to be anything but incidental. To push that point a little harder I want to offer a chronology of the Square’s history, adapted from Emily Kies Folpe’s It Happened on Washington Square (Hopkins, 2002). One of the things I’m hoping to suggest here is that Dr. Sloper’s preoccupation with surfaces — both as a physiognomist and in his attention to the exterior details of his houses — is related to the efforts of urban planners to make over the Square, to give it a pretty surface. But, as recent construction efforts in the Square have reminded us, the spot has a rather spotty history, one that belies Sloper’s confidence in surface appearance.

The chronology:

1797-1822: New York suffers recurring yellow fever epidemics, with particularly bad years in 1798, 1805, and 1822. Washington Square, as Meg noted, is used in this period as a “Potter’s Field,” a place to bury the poor, slaves, criminals, the unknown dead, and undesirables generally. Public hangings take place at the northwest corner of the Square. During the 1822 epidemic, residents flee deeper into what is now the West Village, where new homes and businesses quickly spring up.

1825: Nearly full, Potter’s Field is officially closed and no more burials are permitted. As the growing city fills in the gap between lower Manhattan and the Village, city officials look to develop Potter’s Field.
1826: The Common Council votes to turn the Potter’s Field into a military parade ground, then a public park. This attracts the attention of wealthy businessmen, who soon fill up the houses in the surrounding area.

1831: The state legislature grants a charter to the University of the City of New York (later NYU). The first group of students begins classes the following year.
row.jpg1829-1833: “The Row” built at the North side of the square, numbers 1-13. Numbers 18-26 (1829-1839) are also red brick, Greek Revival style. (The 1830s witnessed a burst of Greek Revival architecture in New York; the style can be taken as a statement of republican civic virtue, of the sort Dr. Sloper fancies himself to possess.) Number 18, demolished to accommodate 2 Fifth Ave., was James’s grandmother’s home. Through much of the 19th century, the north side continued to attract rich and leading citizens, while the south side was populated with immigrants living in tenements.

1834: Stonecutters’ Riot breaks out in response to tensions over free labor versus convict labor (see my previous notes on marble quarried by Sing Sing convicts). Dispute arises out of the University’s decision to rely on convict labor in erecting new school buildings. As our colleague Daniel Walkowitz writes: “The events surrounding the [riot] make it clear that both military authority and the economic achievement of the mercantile class were real, but that the enduring order they attempted to project and defend was only that — an image.”

1835: The Morning Herald declares: “The most fashionable end of town is now decidedly Washington Square and the surrounding neighborhood. … The elegance and beauty of this section cannot be surpassed in the country.”

nyu1850.jpg1837: NYU’s original “University Building,” pictured at left, begins construction. (Demolished in 1894 and replaced by Main Building, now known as “Silver.”)

1843: April 15. Henry James is born at 21 Washington Place.

1849: May 10. Riot at Astor Place Opera House, which we’ve posted about before. James’s family lives on 14th Street at 6th Ave.

1850s: Immigrants begin filling up tenements on Bleecker Street, find work at nearby factories. Many aristocrats choose to move uptown to escape the industrialization, and the park slowly falls into disrepair.

1861-65: The Square deteriorates further from heavy use as a training ground for Union soldiers during the Civil War.
[Here’s where we move beyond the novel’s setting, but not yet its composition]

1870: Washington Square redesigned: strict symmetry of the old parade ground rejected in favor of curving pathways outlined by plantings and interrupted by small, round gathering places.

1873: Economic downturn throws the neighborhood around the Square into disrepair and increases class tensions.

1875: Unable to afford living in New York, James moves to Europe, where he will remain nearly all his life.

1880: Washington Square serialized simultaneously in American and England.

[Now we’ve moved slightly beyond the chronology that concerns the novel’s plot or production]:


1889: Arch in Washington Square commemorates the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as president.

How can this overview help us read James’s novel?

The chronology suggests, first of all, that the Square and its inhabitants are deeply bound up with commercial culture. The Square is enabled by mercantile interests, even as Dr. Sloper imagines that it serves as a shelter from the commercial culture found farther downtown.

If the Doctor sees Washington Square as representing a model of bourgeois privacy or domesticity, we need to think more carefully about what’s being kept out of his sanctuary. The answer is pretty much everything we’ve been talking about in class for the last several weeks: poverty, disorder, riots, immigrants, the whole Five Points shebang. 1834, the year before Sloper moves his family up to the Square, was known as the year of the riots, and yet, as Walkowitz notes, the merchant class labored mightily to create an image of containment and contentment in their newly renovated neighborhood.

In spite of the narrator’s efforts to make it seem otherwise, the Square, in the 1830s, doesn’t yet have a “social history,” at least not in the sense he and Sloper value; the new inhabitants invent the appearance of one and use it to cover a different kind of social history: one of class division, crime, slavery, disease.

We can also see again that Sloper’s genteel flight uptown isn’t much different than his nephew Arthur Townsend’s. Arthur “always tr[ies] to keep up with the new things of every kind” and wants to move uptown. (He also cites Longfellow inappropriately, suggesting he’s not too bright.) But we also read early in the novel that the houses on Washington Square North, when Sloper moved there, were supposed “to embody the last results of arch
itectural science.” They are the “new things of every kind” in 1835; they only have the “look” of a social history, although the novel, like the Square, works hard to make you forget this. Please ignore the bodies under the sidewalks and pretty bushes.

This little sleight of hand trick is crucial to understanding the novel and its characters. In spite of the fact that he works to create a safe, domestic, interior space, the Doctor is consumed with appearances, surfaces. The exteriors of his houses speak to this, especially the one in Washington Square, with a front balcony and drawing-room windows: his interiors and the house’s occupants and goods will be on display. We would call this, following the turn-of-the-century cultural theorist Thorstein Veblen, conspicuous consumption. He has a fondness (like the even wealthier tennants of nearby Colonnade Row) for marble–stone that’s susceptible, as are people, to polishing. His preoccupation with exteriors makes him believe he can see through false facades. He thinks he can read immutable aspects of personality–Morris’s “vulgar nature”–simply by scrutinizing his facial features.

But the park has taught us that surfaces can deceive even careful observors. Are people what they appear to be on the surface? (Morris may well be, in which case the Doctor needs to ask whether he knows what’s going on beneath Catherine’s rather simple appearance.) Sloper himself eventually admits to his daughter that he isn’t everything he has appeared to be: in that horrifying scene in the Alps he says to her: “I am not a very good man.” This confession unsettles her. Things may not be what they appear. “Men so clever as he,” she thinks, “might say anything and mean anything.” And neighborhoods as pretty as the Square might be covering up all sorts of meanings as well.

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