Social Networks, 19th-century novels, Gossip Girl

Wednesday night, when the new NYU Bookstore (726 Broadway) kicks off its inaugural programming season by featuring our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, Brooklyn-based writer Caleb Crain will be reading from his piece on the literature of nineteenth-century New York’s affluent classes. In the chapter Caleb spends some time with Nathaniel Parker Willis, “the writer who invented the concept of [New York's] upper ten thousand.” As Caleb notes, Willis remained somewhat ambivalent toward the upper classes and their social rituals, but he was particularly insightful about the role “fashion” played in shoring up the elite’s boundaries:

What did American fashion reward? “Conspicuousness in expense,” Willis wrote with dismay. (A few years later, he would identify New York as “the point where money is spent most freely for pleasure.”) He hoped that this preference was temporary and that Americans could change it by force of will. But he feared that no one would bother to take the problem seriously. Like Willis himself, fashion seemed trifling to most people. He insisted it wasn’t, because it determined which virtues the ruling class would welcome into their beds and thereby into the elite.

I couldn’t help but think about Caleb’s piece while watching last night’s season premiere of Gossip Girl, a guilty pleasure I justify in part because it so clearly positions itself in a Whartonian tradition — or perhaps one that stretches back to Willis — of simultaneous discomfort with and celebration of New York’s moneyed classes. (Whether or not Gosssip Girl‘s tween/teen viewers here or in the hinterlands comprehend the levels of satire at play in the show is another subject for another day.)

This afternoon, New York Magazine‘s Vulture blog posted an amazing interactive chart by which the show’s viewers or other curious onlookers can account for the dense network of sexual activity and romantic relations among the show’s characters. That chart itself reminded me of something else I’d wanted to blog, though it focuses more on Victorian British rather than New York fiction: new work by a team of Columbia University computer science and English Ph.D. students mapping the social networks represented in nineteenth-century novels. (A Berkeley computer science Ph.D. student blogged about it in a post widely re-tweeted by digital humanities types.) Maybe Vulture blog and the Columbia folks can team up to create a similar map of literary New York — something that goes beyond the incestuous network of this one TV show? Caleb’s piece would be a good starting place for discovering inroads into such networks.

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