At the end of my first post on Irving for vWNY, I cited the author’s description of New York as a “great crowded metropolis, so full of life[,] bustle, noise, shew and splendour,” so changed from the “quiet little City” of his youth. “It is really now,” Irving wrote to his sister, “one of the most rucketing cities in the world and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort for instance) in the time of an annual fair – Here it is a Fair almost all year round.”
George G. Foster’s New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches (1850) is a portrait of that city — or at least, the city that emerges when the sun goes down and the gas-lights come on. As William Chapman Sharpe points out in New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950 (2008):
The installation of gaslight in London’s West End in 1807 ignited a series of innovations that permanently rearranged the rhythms of everyday life, transforming traditional patterns of industry, commerce, leisure, and consumption. The concept of ‘nightlife’ was born, along with the twenty-four -hour workday. With reliable lighting came safer streets, late shopping, and vastly expanded entertainments. The illumination of the city changed the very way people thought about — and thus lived in — the night. Darkness, so long a barrier to human activity, quickly became a stimulant. (p. 2)
Foster’s Gas-Light describes, in vivid detail, the effects of that stimulant on mid-century New York. The text itself is designed to serve as something like a gas-light trained on the city: his avowed purpose, stated at the outset, is to penetrate beneath the thick veil of night and lay bare the fearful mysteries of darkness in the metropolis.” Right away, the enquiring mind who glances at the first page of Foster’s book will find the promise of all the things that the would one day become the stock-in-trade of tabloids like the National Enquirer:
festivities of prostitution, orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkennes and beastly debauch, and all the sad realities that go to make up the lower stratum — the under-ground story — of life in New York!
Exclamation point! Foster, a journalist and litreary aspirant, was a pioneer of what Stuart Blumin describes, in his introduction to our edition of Gas-Light, as “the new literary genre of nonfictional urban sensationalism.”
As we mentioned on the first day of the course, Foster begins begins by invoking the motif of the “walk down Broadway,” invoked with tongue-in-cheek humor as a safe haven from the promised depravities soon to be seen: “Fashionable, aristocratic Broadway! Certainly we shall find nothing here to shock our senses and make our very nerves thrill with horror.” Nudge, nudge.
Foster’s first chapter takes us on a nocturnal jaunt through the shadows of the city, and it ends with the dawn. Already we’ve seen brief depictions of “the sisterhood,” and Foster shines his light on “the public prostitute” at the end of his second chapter. She is the woman who “sinks willingly to the lowest type of human degradation” and thus “goes, in utter recklessness of herself and the world, to add one more to that frightful phalanx of female depravity which is the terror and the curse of an enfeebled and depraved civilization.” With that, our tour is over for the night, and Foster tucks us safely into bed — alone, presumably: “Let us forget, in sleep, these dreadful sights and gloomy reflections.” The night-time walk is the governing metaphor of Foster’s narrative: each of his chapters takes us on a “tramp” through an area of the city, and many of them explicitly deposit us safely back in bed at the end.
Foster’s narrative as a whole makes use of something like the rhetorical device known as praeteritio (also called apophasis or paralipsis) in which the speaker reveals something by promising not to talk about it. Here’s an example from Melville’s Moby-Dick: “We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare.” Gas-Light operates through a kind of reversal of praeteritio: Foster’s ostensible goal is to promote the virtues of “civilization” at its best, but he does so by showing us exactly the kinds of things that the virtuous shouldn’t be looking at. Of course that means that the book functions in a way that is opposite to its avowed intentions: it can be read as a kind of guidebook that will show those who are looking for trouble precisely where to find it.
We’ll take another tramp through Foster’s text on Wednesday. Good night!