The Brooklyn-based writer Caleb Crain is the author of “The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class,” a chapter in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York that looks at narratives of New York high life from the mid to late nineteenth century. He is also the author of the 2001 book American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (Yale UP) and a frequent contributor to such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Nation, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. He maintains the weblog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, from which he has selected a number of pieces in the print volume The Wreck of the Henry Clay (2009).
Caleb’s piece for the companion could alternatively been called “High Life, with a Glance at the Low,” since he includes a significant treatment of the sunshine/shadow dynamic that structured many accounts of nineteenth-century New York City. But as fascinating as the lower depths were to armchair slummers in the nineteenth century, readers then as now also loved to peek into the world of New York’s elite. Of the insider expert and literary celebrity Nathaniel Parker Willis, Crain writes:
Fashion was Nathaniel’s god. But he wrote about it with more insight, nimbleness, and edge than any of his contemporaries. On a city without an opera: “Like a saloon without a mirror.” On the depreciation of courtesy in New York: “Politeness has gradually grown to be a sign of a man in want of money.” On a sudden vogue for a fabric still posh today: “‘She had on a real Cashmere’ would be sweeter, to a number of ladies, as a mention when absent, than ‘she had a beautiful expression about her mouth,’ or ‘she had such loveable manners,’ or ‘she is always trying to make somebody happier.’”
For all his talent, Willis never wrote a solid book. The need to earn a living fettered him to magazine ephemera, a fate he accepted with a pose of tragic resignation: “The hot needle through the eye of the goldfinch betters his singing, they say.” After he abandoned sacred poetry in early youth, Willis’s ambition took a conventionally serious form only once, in a public lecture on fashion at the Broadway Tabernacle in 1844. In the lecture, Willis made explicit his peculiar, and peculiarly democratic, understanding of fashion, which he called an “inner republic.”
He began by defining fashion as “a position in society” that different cultures awarded to different traits. In France, it went to intellectual and artistic achievement; in England, to beauty and cocksureness. In both countries, according to Willis, the “first principle” of fashion was “rebellion against unnatural authority,” because fashion forced the ruling class to acknowledge people of merit born outside it. The particular acknowledgment that he had in mind was sexual, although he didn’t say so explicitly. Through fashion – that is, through a selection of spouses prompted by fashion – the English upper class ensured that their children would be attractive and bold, and the French, that theirs would be intelligent. Although the principle of fashion might be revolutionary, its effect was conservative, by a kind of sexual engrossment.
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.
We’re thrilled to have Caleb serve as a tour guide through the fascinating world of nineteenth-century New York’s fast set.