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coleFrom its first sentence I had a hunch that Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) would have been a perfect fit for the Writing New York syllabus Cyrus and I tinkered with for almost a decade, and when we eventually take up the course again — Inshalla — I take very seriously the possibility of using this novel to close the semester. Our final text has varied over time: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, most often, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The final emphasis on sunshine and shadow, utopia or dystopia, varies depending on how we end, but Kushner’s plays, more than any thing else we teach, have seemed to wrap up some big narratives that run through our course: the relationship between performance/theater and urban life; the legacies of immigration; the real-world force of imaginative acts (especially ways of imagining the city itself); the meanings and uses of history; and issues of identity (consent v. descent), assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. Something about Open City, from the start, promised to take up most of these issues but also others: the impact of 9/11; New York as global city; and — another favorite trope in New York and other urban writing — the appeals of flânerie.

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place to set out into the city,” the book begins. James Wood suggests Sebald as Cole’s model here, an influence Cole himself isn’t shy about, although he’s also given nods to Calvino. But the first thing I thought about as I tried to ease myself into a relationship with Cole’s narrator, Julius, was Rousseau’s posthumous Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), which like Open City serves as a meditation on psychology and memory as much as it dwells on political theory or current events. Rousseau described his book, a sort of coda to his Confessions, as “a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint.” Rousseau was more obsessed with his public reputation than Julius appears to be, perhaps, but the digressive character of both books, which seek to recreate thought processes and external stimuli, come off feeling like the books’ production processes actually form a significant portion of their contents. If Open City feels digressive it’s because it’s about digression, as a habit of mind, an educational program, a psychological defense.

Julius never reveals too much about the means by which he acquires knowledge about the city, or art, or music, with the exceptions of a quick nod to Internet radio, his current book list, and some descriptions of his formal education, including his friendship with a former teacher. But it feels like Julius’s habits must be somewhat in harmony with Cole’s own writing process. (That said, I don’t really feel the need to assume too much about Julius is autobiographical. I like Cole’s comments, on the misguided conflation of Julius/Cole, from this interview, in which he acknowledges a passion for Mahler he shares with his character: “I could not write about Mahler in that way if I did not have an interest in Mahler. Julius probably knows more about Mahler than I do (laughs). But he knows a lot less about jazz and hip hop than I do. So he’s not me.”)

If the novel’s episodic structure is a significant component of its content, this suggests a lot about the book’s take on issues of temporality and history. Julius’s thoughts — his stimulation to new knowledge about the place he inhabits, his recall of episodes from the past — depend as much on his “aimless wandering” as anything else. But perhaps we should speculate about a gap between Julius’s habits and Cole’s. Julius simply recalls things: he encounters runners from the New York Marathon while walking near the Park and remembers an anecdote about “Phidippides’ collapse,” the instant death of the first marathoner. He comments in detail on the classical music playing at a Tower Records fire sale. Are these details Cole just had in his arsenal? Or, more likely, is his own research underwriting Julius’s apparently brilliant marshaling of dozens of historical details? It’s not hard to imagine early versions of some of these sketches being drafted on the fly, out and about, in a writer’s notebook, then fleshed out with aid of research later. You walk, you think, you notice things. You probably take notes on street names, peculiar buildings, historical details recorded on plaques here and there, odd architectural details that suggest the past lives of some buildings, the CD being played in a store you wander into, the details of Alexander Hamilton’s epitaph, and then you do a bunch of Googling when you get home to deepen your understanding of where you’ve been and what those places had been and seen before you got there. Reminds me a little of our friend David Freeland‘s approach in Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.

It’s this obsession with New York’s history and the curiosity — and expertise — of the flâneur that appeals most to me about Julius. How could it not, when a walk near Trinity Church almost inevitably winds up with the magnetic pull to the waterfront and thoughts on Melville? We’re to assume that Julius, or Cole, or both, perhaps, has become a New Yorker by way of this relentless curiosity about the city’s past, about the island’s prior occupants, and through a whole lot of reading. And yet Julius’s curiosity also leads him to take in the stories of other current inhabitants, including the histories that brought them here, which often have to do with warfare or conflict on other parts of the globe. Julius has a thing for New York history, but the boundaries of that history for him are extraordinarily capacious.

One of my favorite passages in the book — the one that really sold me on the whole thing — comes fairly early. It offers an extreme take on the kind of stuff I’m talking about here, historical obsessions and personal identity and whatnot. But it also suggests something beyond Google-gained insights about surroundings. It’s one of the weirdest and, to me at least, most beautiful episodes in the novel. The fifth chapter begins with a moving narrative of a Liberian prisoner, held indefinitely in a Queens prison for attempting to enter the country with a false passport. (“The lawyer they assigned to me said I might have had a chance before 9/11.” And later: “I don’t want to go back anywhere, he said. I want to stay in this country, I want to be in America and work.”) This episode, which has received a fair amount of attention from critics, is followed by one less examined but equally moving: Julius’s encounter with a “a Haitian man in the underground catacombs of Penn Station” who offers to shine Julius’s shoes. In spite of his antipathy to the traditional shoe-shiner’s set-up — the “elevated chairs in the shops and hav[ing] someone kneel before me” — Julius goes ahead and makes himself a customer anyway on the old man’s insistence.

What happens next is rather extraordinary, even in a book that consists almost entirely of reverie. As the man begins to tell Julius his story, betraying the trace of a Caribbean French accent, we gradually get the sense that he didn’t flee Haiti in the twentieth century at all, but in the 1790s. He is, according to his own account, a refugee from the Haitian Revolution, a survivor of New York’s nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemics, a resident of the racially mixed neighborhoods around the Five Points, a freeman who purchased his sister’s freedom before purchasing his own, the proprietor of a school for free blacks. All of this passes us by almost imperceptibly as Julius narrates. I had to go back and read the man’s story twice, since nothing in the novel to that point — and nothing, really, in what comes after, either — brushes this close to magical realism. Julius hardly seems to notice anything odd with the man’s story. He lets the man finish the shine, heads outside, tightens his scarf against the cold, and notices various signs of the war in Iraq. If he worried he’d been time-traveling, he doesn’t betray it. Instead, he continues to imagine he’s stumbled into the New York of the Civil War Draft Riots. He narrates rather matter-of-factly:

That afternoon, during which I flitted in and out of myself, when time became elastic and voices cut out of the past into the present, the heart of the city was gripped by what seemed to be a commotion from an earlier time. I feared being caught up in what, it seemed to me, were draft riots. The people I saw were all men, hurrying along under leafless trees, sidestepping the fallen police barrier near me, and others, farther away. There was some kind of scuffle two hundred yards down the street, again strangely noiseless, and a huddled knot of men opened up to reveal two brawlers being separated and pulled away from their fight. What I saw next gave me a fright: in the farther distance, beyond the listless crowd, the body of a lynched man dangled from a tree. The figure was slender, dressed from head to toe in black, reflecting no light.

Unlike his encounter with the bootblack, this situation resolves itself, rationally, “into a less ominous thing: dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold, twirling in the wind.” But the temporal rip that allowed Julius to hear the voice of a past citizen, to listen to a story — akin to the Liberian prisoner’s — that’s too easily forgotten, provides us with a sense of how history works for Cole. His city is a palimpsest, as commentators on the novel have repeatedly pointed out. But it’s up to us — our obligation, even — to do the hard work of reading through those layers.

Anyone else have favorite/key moments so far?


This Friday, March 9, several of our Networked New York presenters will talk about spaces in the city around which literary communities and cultural “scenes” have emerged, from bookstores to Charles Pfaff’s beer cellar to urban blogs. In my take on the conference theme, I’d like to think about the operation of a similarly influential space – New York’s first free-standing reading room.

When we think of a reading room today, we might imagine the quiet, sanitized reading rooms of academic libraries. But for its earliest developers in the United States, the reading room, as much as a place to read or to retreat, was a place to interact socially and engage politically. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, advertisements for reading rooms emphasized the access they afforded to a variety of publications in addition to the opportunity to consume those publications in a shared space. These descriptions list collection materials alongside details of comfortable furnishings and promises of refreshment, suggesting that early American reading rooms, more so than their modern counterparts, were valued as establishments of sociability.

“In the Reading-Room.”

In October, 1797, Arondt Van Hook, a tannery owner and former jailor, opened on 149 Water Street what contemporaries called the first “Reading Room in America.” From eight in the morning until ten in the evening, the reading room provided visitors a selection of periodical and other texts as well as coffee and biscuits. The room itself, “pleasing and comfortable,” as one editor puts it, invited customers to settle in and immerse themselves in the available literature. Payment terms were designed for lounging readers instead of potential book buyers; subscriptions, made by the quarter, month, week, or day, permitted use in the room of any of the books with which it was furnished. For four cents, even the most casual reader might enjoy a sitting.

This affordable reading arrangement appealed to professionals and tradesmen as well as low-wage earners and travelers passing through the city. In his advertised business prospectus, Van Hook emphasizes that his reading room will cater to a wide range of people and interests: “This collection shall consist of Magazines, Reviews, Annual Registers, Handbills, Newspapers, Prices Current in the different States, and Pamphlets of every description, gathered with impartial profusion.” And, in the case two guests decide simultaneously on the same work, Van Hook promises, “there will be such provision made of every new article, that several gentlemen may be supplied at once, with the same production.”

Although hundreds of public libraries had been built throughout the previous century, most of them operated informally out of schools, churches, and printing offices and did not include areas where patrons could read the books they contained. Van Hook, on the other hand, gave visitors access to the material in his collection only for as long as they remained in his reading room. Not quite a library and not quite a bookstore, Van Hook’s new establishment was, more than anything, a common space for members of a community to practice reading. The reading room attracted visitors of a range of class and status and then compelled those diverse visitors to congregate within its walls. The dynamic atmosphere and close quarters invited readers to observe and read alongside one another as well as to engage in discussion concerning the most relevant texts of the day. Reading at Van Hook’s was a collective, rather than private, activity, generating what we might think of as an early social reading “scene” in Manhattan.

“The Reading-Room of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.---Discussing the News from Chicago.”

Van Hook’s new business was a sensation. An early reviewer declares, “We are happy to inform the public, that Mr. Van Hook’s plan of establishing a READING ROOM in this city, meets with merited success.” Another asks, “Where can a winter’s evening be more usefully or agreeably spent than in the Reading Room, where a delicious repast is prepared for the amateurs of literature?” Within a month of Van Hook’s opening, plans for other reading rooms began to circulate. One paper reveals that “Proposals are issued at Baltimore for a Reading Room, nearly upon the same plan with that designed by Mr. Van Hook in this city.” In New York, a group of “genteel Ladies,” frustrated by their exclusion to Van Hook’s, announced their desire to have “a similar institution for the instruction” of women.

Although Van Hook died of yellow fever in September, 1798, organized spaces for communal reading continued for years to be created according to his model. Of his successors in New York, a Frenchman, Hocquet de Caritat, became one of the most well-known. Hoping to produce through his room a community of intellectual and literary men, Caritat warns in his published solicitation that “it is not sufficient for gentlemen to give their subscriptions: their personal attention is also requisite.” According to Caritat’s vision of the reading room, in the evenings, “when the hurry of business is over, the subscribers will frequent the room for the purpose rather of exchanging ideas by conversation, than of seeking entertainment or instruction in the perusal of books.”

About the images: “In the Reading-Room” was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1890, with an article, “Old New York Taverns,” which details the development of New York City taverns from Dutch houses of entertainment in New Amsterdam to the Tontine Association’s establishment of City Hotel in 1792. “The Reading-Room of the Fifth Avenue Hotel” is from an 1871 issue of Every Saturday. Although this image appeared more than 70 years after the creation of Van Hook’s reading room, it suggests the diversity of patrons, the communal atmosphere, and the spectatorial practices of reading typical of early national reading room establishments.


Gothamist has a photo of the recently unearthed WSP tombstone and more information:


About James Jackson, whose stone this is:

In just under a week the unearthed tombstone has been dusted off and, the NY Times reports, belongs to one James Jackson who died in September of 1799.

The New-York Historical Society believes that he resided at 19 East George Street (the former name of Market Street), and was a watchman and grocer. They say, “There are many fewer Jacksons than I would have expected in the directory. Chances are this is him.” It’s suspected he may have died from yellow fever, which was rampant in the city at the time.

The inscription on the stone, which was just 2 1/2 feet underground, reads: “Here lies the body of James Jackson, who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” And while the body hasn’t been found yet (it may have been moved when the area was developed), parks commissioner Adrian Benepe declares: “They’re going to try to unravel the mystery of James Jackson and how the headstone came to be there,” as well as find his body.

Yes, it certainly sounds like yellow fever to me. Someone should have published a necrology, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find him there. Young, poor, Irish immigrants were disproportionately represented among the dead during the yellow fever epidemics of the turn of the nineteenth century. Some thought it resulted from intemperance and a heavy meat diet, but it had more to do with living in damp, unsanitary conditions or in the marshy east side, where the mosquitoes that carried the disease were more likely to breed. (It would be another century before people understood that was the case, however.)

It does seem odd for a tombstone to turn up in a potter’s field — especially one this wordy.

A passage from Anna Alice Chapin’s apocrypha-laden Greenwich Village comes to mind:

In 1795 came one of those constantly epidemics of yellow fever which used to devastate early Manhattan; and in 1797 came a worse one. Many bodies were brought from other grounds, and when the scourge of smallpox killed off two thousand persons in one short space, six hundred and sixty seven of them were laid this particular public cemetery. During one bad time the rich as well as the poor brought there, and there were nearly two thousand bodies sleeping in the Potter’s Field.

People who had died from yellow fever were wrapped in great yellow sheets before they were buried,– a curious touch of symbolism in keeping with the fantastic habit of mind which we find everywhere in the early annals of America. Mr E.N. Tailer among others can recall years later seeing the crumbling yellow folds of shrouds uncovered by breaking coffin walls, when the heavy guns placed in the Square sank weightily into the ground and crushed the trench vaults.

It would be interesting to examine, in fancy, those lost and sometimes non-existent headstones of the Field,– that is, to try to tell a few of the tales that cling about those who were buried there. But the task is difficult, and after all, tombstones yield but cheerless reading. That the sleepers in the Potter’s Field very often had not even that shelter of tombstones makes their stories the more elusive and the more melancholy.

She does go on to offer anecdotes about a few of the tombstones that were known to populate the Potter’s Field before Washington Square gentrified in the 1830s.

For more on yellow fever in 1790s New York, you could do a lot worse than read the fifth chapter of this book. (Ahem.) There’s some great stuff on page 204, for instance, which references both the death of large numbers of young Irish in 1795 and later epidemics (the worst that decade being 1798, when 2,000 died; around 500 died along with James Jackson in 1799), as well as the medical rationale for burying yellow fever victims out of town. One physician even lobbied hard to end the practice of Christian burial in the city, especially the vault-style burials at Trinity Church, which he believed were polluting the atmosphere above ground with pestilential miasma and generating the almost annual epidemics.

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With July 4 recently behind us, I’ve been thinking a little about the history of Independence Day celebrations in the city (and elsewhere). As my friend Farrell pointed out last week, we came pretty close, as a nation, to celebrating July 2. John Adams would have had it that way, and waxed prophetic in a letter to his wife, Abigail, about what he foresaw as a great national holiday:

The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha,
in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp
and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and
Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this
Time forward forever more.

charles adams.jpgMaybe it was Farrell’s quoting that letter, or maybe it was the fact that I finally had a chance to see the John Adams HBO miniseries, or perhaps it’s that, in the wake of the film, I’ve been reading an old biography of Abigail I’ve had sitting around forever, but I’ve had the Adamses on the brain in the last week, and it has me thinking about their poor kid Charles, who came to New York in the 1790s to be a lawyer and died a drunk in the gutter in 1800, only 30 years old.

“Let silence reign over his tomb,” his younger brother Thomas wrote. John seemed to concur: “There is nothing more to be said,” he wrote.

Poor Charles, the only New Yorker Adams. Did the city kill him? His story would seem to be the template for a temperance melodrama, the kind that P. T. Barnum made popular half a century later. I first ran into Charles’s story because he had, early on his arrival in the city, become a member of the literary circle I wrote about in Republic of Intellect. He appears to have been a rather lackluster member, though, irregular in attendance, and only really considered part of the club for a year or two. I wish I’d had time to do a little more with his story, but books having deadlines and all I let it drop. This book has a bit more, and there’s a website or two out there with various speculations on the cause of his depression and alcoholism, including the possibility that he was gay. The HBO series makes him a victim of his dad’s devotion to politics; in real life, but not on TV, he made a major journey to Europe as a child with his dad and older brother JQA, then returned in the company of some friends — crossing the Atlantic without parents at age 10 or so — and was diverted and delayed by several months. At one point his poor mother thought him shipwrecked.

If Charles’s friends, once he’d settled in New York in his twenties, knew about his problems with booze, they were pretty circumspect in their diaries and correspondence. One close friend and fellow club member, Elihu Smith, mentions Charles frequently in his voluminous diary and provided medical attention to Charles’s family on occasion. He never mentions Adams’s personal problems and may not have been aware of them. In any case, Smith died two years before Charles did, a victim of the city’s recurring yellow fever epidemics, so he clearly missed the worst of Charles’s decline.

Smith does include in his diary, however, a few descriptions of early July 4 celebrations in New York, and I found myself thinking about these too last week. In 1796 Smith wrote in his diary: “It being the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the day was observed as a festival–& I devoted it to visiting [friends]. Called at [James] Kent’s–[William] Dunlap’s–[William] Woolsey’s–[Isaac] Riley’s–[William] Boyd’s–[Amasa] Dingley’s–: [Richard] Alsop [was] here–He, Wm. [Johnson] & myself drank tea at S[eth] Johnson’s. S[eth], Wm. & I went into the [public] Bath–after which we spent the evening at S[eth] Johnson’s.” The names he mention form a little catalog of literary, legal, and medical professionals his own age, many of them, like himself, Connecticut expats. Several of them would become quite famous in their own time.

The following year Smith was less social in his celebrations and even seemed a little annoyed by the holiday: “The anniversary of American Independence–celebrated with increasing parade & noise,” he noted in his diary.

Smith’s friendship with Adams allowed him one unusual experience related to the history of Independence — in particular the question of how that history would be written and remembered. On 30 November 1796, four years to the night before Charles would die on the eve of John Adams’s failed bid for re-election, Elihu met the President at Charles’s home in New York. His description of the encounter may be interesting to people who’ve cultivated some familiarity with the Adams story:

This, tho’ not the first time of my seeing him, was the first time of my being in his company; & till now I had a very imperfect idea of his countenance. The opportunity was good, & I spent near two hours with him. Some interruptions broke the chain of a conversation, concerning the origin of the American Revolution, which promised to be very interesting. Mr. Adams considers James Otis as “the father of the Revolution.” Mr. Otis’s publications have never been collected. Mr. Adams exprest a fear lest there should never be any good history of the Revolution written. The ground of this apprehension was, that the material facts have never been published; that they were in the memories of individuals, who were dying, one after another; & that no person qualified for the purpose, was employed in collecting the anecdotes which these individuals might afford. He remarked that, could their papers be published, the most authentic history, or the best materials for such a history, would be found in those of the Tories. He particularized Hutchinson, Oliver, & Sewall, who died a short time since, in Nova Scotia. These men, he knew, preserved notes of all the events, & had the originals of the principal papers; but, events having happened so contrary to their wishes, expectations, & endeavour, it was to be feared that their executors & friends would suppress or destroy them, from a regard to the honor, or reputation, of their authors & possessors. In the course of some remarks on Pennsylvania, Mr. Adams said that “William Penn was the greatest land-jobber, that ever existed; & that his successors in the administration of that government, had continued the same policy.” The remainder of the conversation was on the topics of the day; & the state of parties in this State. Mr. Adams’s manners are more agreeable than I supposed them to be. There is no affectation, or pride observable in him; yet he can hardly be called a sociable man. It is not proper to judge from one interview only but such is the impression left by having been once in his company; &, for at least an hour, alone in his company.

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The Bowery Boys have been busy recently chronicling the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed much of the area now known as the financial district. Don’t miss their thrilling podcast or the follow-up post from today recounting a tremendous explosion in a munitions warehouse a decade later, a devastating reprise to the blaze.

great fire map.jpgI’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which the Great Fire’s scars are still visible. Walk down Wall Street, for instance, and almost everything dates from the immediate aftermath: huge Greek Revival structures built of stone — as little wood used in construction as possible, so as never to feed such a fire again. (Bowery Boys borrow the map at the right from CUNY’s Virtual NY entry on the fire.)

I’d taken the devastation sort of personally, too. When I spent a couple summers in the city doing my dissertation research (for the project that would later become my book, Republic of Intellect), I’d take the train downtown after the N-YHS closed and walk distances mentioned in the diaries and letters I was working with. How long did it take to get from Cedar to the Battery? What would a late-eighteenth-century walker in the city have seen? Heard? Smelled?

I also visited cemeteries at Trinity and St. Paul’s, looking for names I knew, or taking in just how many headstones bore the dates of yellow fever outbreaks (1798, 1805, etc.). I was particularly eager to find the burial place of my project’s chief protagonist, a young Connecticut-born physician and poet named Elihu Hubbard Smith, the organizing force in the club I was writing about. Smith had died in the 1798 epidemic, and I’d seen references to him being buried at the Presbyterian Church on Wall Street.

Problem was, there was no Wall Street Presbyterian Church to be found; nor was there any sign of its cemetery. Even though I knew Trinity was Episcopalian rather than Presbyterian, I checked its cemetery’s burial register anyway, just in case, but as expected I had no luck. Dissertating in a pre-Google Books age, I gently set aside the question of where Smith’s body now lay and went on to wrap things up and graduate.

wall street-1824.jpgA few years later, and a lot more ephemera on the Internet, I returned briefly to the question of Smith’s burial as I was preparing the book for publication. I learned from some Presbyterian Church websites that the Wall Street Church had been lost in the Great Fire. (You can see it in the fore to the right in this 1824 image; Trinity lurks in the background.) I assumed its graveyard was overbuilt when the church was replaced by whatever stone structure sprung up at number 5 Wall Street. I even tried to correspond with some official church historians to find out if they knew about graves being moved, but with no luck. Would some descendant of Smith’s sisters have dug him up and carted him back to Connecticut? I’d probably never know.

Though I’m long since done with the book on Smith and his circle, The Bowery Boys podcast scratched the itch to know where Smith’s body rests. I tried googling a bunch of related terms, and these days, thanks mostly to Google Books, there’s a lot more online. I gather the cemetery remained on Wall Street until 1844, when according to one book on NYC graveyards, it was “removed” — but to where? Even more intriguing, I found a lead via the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, which apparently has a manuscript blueprint of the Wall Street cemetery. At least I can find out where in the cemetery he would have been. I’ll have to become a member to go access the document, but I should probably be a member anyway, right? (If I had been writing a different sort of history I would probably have become one to complete the book.) By coincidence, the Society is currently having a moving sale, and all the titles from its online store are 50% off the listed price through the end of the month — an appealing offer if slogging through the names of the dead sounds like good times.   

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(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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Today’s Times article anatomizing the passengers of a random Q train car is a fitting follow-up to Cyrus’s post yesterday. Reporters interviewed 99 out of 128 passengers for information about national and ethnic origin, age, employment and such; the piece suggests — as pieces about subway riders are wont to do — that the subway serves as a microcosm for New York’s “tapestry.” In the parlance of another era, we’d call it a “democratic conveyance,” a mode of travel that  forces people from difference walks of life literally to rub shoulders. To use one of Cyrus’s pet phrases, we could consider the subway an engine of cosmopolitanism.

I was reminded by the piece of a late-eighteenth-century account of travel by stage from New York to New Haven. It comes from the diary of a 25-year-old NYC physician and poet named Elihu Hubbard Smith, a central figure in my book Republic of Intellect. Here’s his take on his fellow passengers, 29 November 1795, just following New York’s yellow fever epidemic that year:

We were six, beside the driver: an old, greasy, gouty, lecherous Jew; a huge Irish manufacturer of Fleecy Hosiery; a South Carolina merchant; a middle-aged, decent Frenchman; a young mercantile Hamburger who spoke French & English; & myself. The Israelite was for fun and singing; but no one sung. He & the Irishman discust politics & The Fever. The Frenchman & the German, first fell on the French Emigrants, next on the Fever–& lastly upon this country. All these topics they handled, with prodigious volubility, in French. The Carolina growled a little, & muttered something on merchandise: I was silent. . . . A rambling talk, on religion, at Supper, gave opportunity to all the guests to discover their infidelity; & the Hebrew, in particular, disclaimed Moses & the prophets; & emphatically pronounced this sentence, that–‘from Genesis to Revelations, all is trumpery.’

The Times article makes a point that 8 passengers with iPods refused to be interviewed, raising the well-worn specter that headphones are going to cause us all to be bowling alone someday. Nevertheless, the point remains that most subway riders wouldn’t be as engaged with their fellow commuters in quite the way Smith was with his — even though he clearly positions himself above them as an observer. And that doesn’t even get to the issue of New Yorkers then and now who, by virtue of class, never condescend to ride with the rest of humanity.

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“The First Lowering” is a long chapter: Tom Brown’s evocative reading lasts 25.41 and vividly captures the frenetic action that accompanies the first chase after a whale.

The “dusky phantoms” who appeared at the end of the last chapter turn out to be Ahab’s personal boat crew, “smuggled on board, somehow, before the ship sailed.” Pequod‘s mates and sailors are startled. Ahab was not expected to lead a whaleboat himself on this voyage and his “boat had always been deemed one of the spare boats, though technically called the captain’s, on account of its hanging from the starboard quarter.” Ahab’s crew is led by the harpooneer Fedallah, who is described in this way:

The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning his ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; — a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

Ishmael’s description immediately establishes a connection between Fedallah and the devil that has dominated commentary on Fedallah by Moby-Dick scholars. I’ll have more to say about that critical commonplace in the days to come.

As the chapter progresses, we focus at intervals on each of the four boats led by the captain and his three mates, as Ishmael’s prose struggles to capture the intensity of whale-hunting:

Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world; — neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted Sperm Whale.

It’s his first time in a whaleboat, and let’s just say that it’s eventful. Remember those cenotaphs in “The Chapel“? Ishmael comes close to needing one of his own.

“The First Lowering” is read by Tom Brown. The illustration, The Sighting (2012), is by Tom Wilson



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