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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.

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One late and last addition to our Networked New York panelists – Edward Whitley, author of American Bards: Walt Whitman and Other Unlikely Candidates for National Poet (2010) and Co-director of The Vault at Pfaff’s, a digital archive of art and writing produced by New York City bohemians in the mid nineteenth century. Visitors to The Vault can examine poetry, drama, fiction, social commentary, and art generated by patrons of Charles Pfaff’s beer cellar (which Karen Karbiener will discuss at Networked New York as a “living archive” of Walt Whitman’s experience in the city). Founded in 2006, The Vault includes biographies of people connected to the saloon, an extensive annotated bibliography of works by and about Pfaff’s bohemians from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and digital reproductions of all 157 issues of The New York Saturday Press, the literary journal to which many of these writers and artists contributed.

Whitley is also co-developing The Crowded Page, an NEH-funded computing project which enables users to map the social networks of literary and artistic communities. A great digital tool for thinking about some of the questions we’re asking at Networked New York, The Crowded Page challenges the idea of a work as the product of a single creator, seeking to make visible “the ways in which a complex network of friends, editors, neighbors, lovers, and fellow artists and writers informs the creative process.” At this stage, users can play around with data representing the mid nineteenth-century Pfaff’s community as well as the artist community centered in Greenwich Village between 1910 and 1920.

Whitley will be presenting “Digital Social Networks and New York’s First Bohemians” as part of Panel 2 (11:15-12:30, Community, Production, and Place) on March 9. For an updated list of panelists and complete schedule, visit the conference website.

Image from The Vault archive: “Urban and Suburban Sketches: The Bowery and Bohemia,” Scribner’s Magazine, January 1894.  

 

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4:00 – 5:30, Panel 4: Blogscapes and Digital Interaction (19 University Place, Great Room)

We’re pleased to be able to conclude a day of discussion about New York networks and communities with a panel comprised of New York bloggers, who will talk about the impact of digital landscapes on collaboration and publication in the city. Our panelists make up an exciting group of commentators on and observers of New York’s spaces, happenings, and literary and cultural traditions. Here’s a bit more about two of the blogs that will be represented, with more to come on the rest of the panel later this week.

The Bowery Boys, begun in 2007, is named for a gang who inhabited the streets north of the Five Points in the mid-nineteenth century as well as a group of comedic actors playing New York city characters in films through the 1940s and 50s. The acclaimed podcast and blog features conversations and posts centered around specific people, places, and moments in New York’s history, such as “Macy’s: The Man, the Store, the Parade” and “The Blackout of ’77.” As the bloggers, Tom Meyers and Greg Young, explain on their website, “The more people become interested in the city’s past, the less likely it is to be bulldozed.” You can follow them on Twitter @boweryboys.

Walking Off the Big Apple provides a catalog of up-to-date information on museums, parks, and cultural events in New York, but it specializes in offering self-guided, historically-informed walking tours by neighborhood through the city. (One I enjoyed following recently: A Walk From Lincoln Center to Zabar’s) The blog is run by Teri Tynes, whose mix of writing about and work on art and urban life happens to correspond nicely with our conference theme. When not strolling the streets, Tynes is an editorial and social media consultant for artists, writers, and filmmakers. Twitter: @TeriTynes.

Bryan and Cyrus suggested not too long ago a helpful list including these and other blog-based resources for New York City cultural history. And for more information about Networked New York, visit the conference website.

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We’re very excited to have Marvin J. Taylor of NYU’s Fales Library presenting the conference’s keynote address on Friday afternoon. Following panels on professional networks, material spaces, and literary coteries in the city, Taylor will discuss the Downtown New York arts scene of the 1970s as a “scene,” looking at what constitutes a “scene” and how social capital, monetary capital, and gentrification affected Downtown artists.

Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, founded in 1994 the Downtown Collection, which attempts to document the radical and often collaborative artistic production and culture that evolved in SoHo and the Lower East Side during the 1970s through the early 1990s. Today, the collection contains more than 12,000 printed books and over 15,000 linear feet of manuscripts and archives, including the personal papers of artists, documents of galleries, theatre groups, and collectives, and materials regarding AIDS activism and off-off-Broadway theater. Taylor is editor of The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984 (Princeton UP, 2006) and co-curator of the 2006 exhibition, “The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984.” (The New York Times wrote of that exhibition: “Remember Downtown? No, no, not the sanitized, respectable SoHo and Chelsea of today, but the real down-and-dirty Downtown, when the East Village was an art scene, punk and new wave rock assailed the ears, graffiti spread like kudzu, and heroin and extreme style were the rage.”)

Taylor has also held positions at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and the Health Sciences Library at Columbia University. In addition to his work on Downtown artists, Taylor began at NYU in 2003 the Food Studies Collection, which now holds more than 55,000 volumes and is the largest collection about food in the country. He is currently editing 101 Great Cookbooks, 500 Great Recipes, which will be released later this year, and he continues to write about Downtown New York, English and American masculinities, and queer theory.

For the full program of Networked New York, visit the conference website.

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As we get ready for Networked New York on March 9, Annie and I will be posting additional information about conference sessions and presenters. Our first panel that Friday morning considers emerging commercial spaces, professional associations, and institutional alliances in nineteenth-century New York City.

Here are the details:

10:00 – 11:15, Panel 1: Institution and Enterprise (19 University Place, Great Room)

1. Joey McGarvey, “‘The Good, the Great, and the Gifted’: An Introduction to the New York Fruit Festival”

McGarvey acquaints us with a spectacular event in New York City’s publishing history – the 1855 Fruit Festival at New York’s Crystal Palace. Sponsored by the city’s new Book Publishers’ Association, the Fruit Festival brought together for a feast of pears and apples some of the country’s most notable booksellers, publishers, and writers. Examining RSVPs to the event, contained in the papers of the Association’s secretary, McGarvey traces several generative themes: the uncertain place of successful female authors in mid-century professional print culture, the American investment in producing a national literature, the competition among New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to be considered the publishing capital of the U.S., and the struggle of publishers and authors to reconcile the demands of art and of commerce.

McGarvey is an M.A. student in the English Department at NYU, where she is completing her thesis on gender and genre in the Fruit Festival. In her time away from grad school, McGarvey is an editorial assistant at Knopf. She is also a founding member of the [tk] review.

2. Reed Gochberg, “Miniatures and Museums: Philanthropy, Cultural Institutions, and Edith Wharton’s Tableau Vivant”

Gochberg proposes a re-reading of the well-known tableau vivant scene in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), where Lily Bart recreates a painting by Joshua Reynolds. Although literary scholars have suggested that this moment represents the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age, Gochberg explores it in relation to the operation of the city’s art galleries and museums, arguing that Wharton’s scene inverts both their aesthetic and philanthropic concerns. As she demonstrates Wharton’s pessimism about the ability of these establishments to restore beauty and bring “high culture” to a city motivated by status and money, Gochberg offers new ways of thinking about contact and conflict among New York’s nouveau riche, its longstanding elite, and the city’s cultural institutions in the late nineteenth century.

Gochberg is a doctoral student in English at Boston University, where she studies late nineteenth-century American literature and culture. Her research interests include American intellectual history and urban cultural history.

3. Kristen Doyle Highland, “Finding New York City in the Bookstore”

Moving between the rise of the dedicated bookstore in nineteenth-century New York City to contemporary battles to save the independent bookstore, Highland’s presentation explores how the physical space of the bookstore has come to frame ideals of urban life and community.

Highland is a doctoral student in the English Department at NYU, specializing in Early American and antebellum literature. Her research interests include the print culture of early national America, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture, and the Atlantic world. She is currently working on a dissertation, titled, “At the Bookstore: Literary and Cultural Experience in Antebellum New York City.”

For the full program of Networked New York, visit the conference website.

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