Speed Levitch

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On Monday Cyrus quoted a bit from the opening paragraph of Foster’s New York by Gas-Light, our text this week in vWNY. Here’s a little more:

NEW YORK BY GAS-LIGHT! What a task have we undertaken! To penetrate beneath the thick veil of night and lay bare the fearful mysteries of darkness in the metropolis — the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkenness 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! What may have been our motive for invading these dismal realms and thus wrenching from them their terrible secrets? Go on with us, and see.

Here Foster offers us a useful example of a recurring figure in city writing: the narrator as tour guide, escorting the reader into the city’s lower depths, recesses and dark corners that would likely be off limits in real life. Part of the attraction for arm-chair tourists and virtual slummers, of course, was the titillation provided by descriptions of such festivities and orgies, which could confirm one’s middle-class sensibilities and provide soft-porn satisfactions all at once. On these points Foster delivers. But he also comes off as a bit of a prude and less than sympathetic to the lives of the “wicked and wretched classes” on whom the gas-light falls. On this point he exemplifies a specific model of the urban tour guide, one traced by our friend Eric Homberger to the “stern-faced Virgil” of Dante’s Inferno, a text popularized for nineteenth-century Americans in a new translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Here’s a taste of that text:

“Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!”

These words in sombre colour I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: “Their sense is, Master, hard to me!”

And he to me, as one experienced:
“Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.

We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect.”

And after he had laid his hand on mine
With joyful mien, whence I was comforted,
He led me in among the secret things.

There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,

Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
For ever in that air for ever black,
Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.

And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said: “Master, what is this which now I hear?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?”

And he to me: “This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise.

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them.”

And I: “O Master, what so grievous is
To these, that maketh them lament so sore?”
He answered: “I will tell thee very briefly.

These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.

No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass.”

Longfellow’s translation wasn’t published until the late 1860s, but he worked on it for decades. In 1840 he had delivered lectures on Dante to the New York Mercantile Library Association. “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter In”: Homberger tells us that this line in particular was repeated over and over in sermons and city literature. It was even posted above one of the entrances to the Tombs, the infamous New York City prison where Melville’s Bartleby (and countless real-life counterparts) died.

Foster doesn’t take his readers into the Tombs. He mentions the prison a few times, and in his final chapter notes the “morning roll,” one of the rituals of daybreak in the nineteenth-century city:

At the Tombs the morning roll is about commencing, and by the dim light of his dark lantern, policeman after policeman brings in the report of his watch, and deposits the culprits along the sticky and oozy benches. The magistrate, with spectacle on nose, deciphers by instinct the mis-spelled returns, and consigns the miserable wretches one after another to the welcome cells, to be thence despatched to the Penitentiary, the Hospital, or Potter’s Field — either fate a glorious relief from all they have been able to accomplish for themselves unaided in the world. (195)

Virgilian, alright. Foster opened his book by saying that these peeks into dark corners would allow “Philanthropy and Justice” to “plant their blows aright,” but he seems to be set in his conviction that the social divisions he witnesses are natural and not susceptible to reform. Along the way his narrator may have begrudgingly disclosed the appeal of the Five Points entertainment culture, the Bowery B’hoy and G’hal, and other pleasures of the social “under-ground,” but here he seems content to consign that under-ground to the Potter’s Field. It’s a moralizing strain that will appear in much reform writing of the later nineteenth-century, though it will eventually be contested by the underclass itself.

By way of postscript: The introduction of the tour guide figure provides us with occasion to mention our favorite New York City tour guide, Speed Levitch. In The Cruise, Levitch makes a nod to the Virgilian tradition in New York tour guide literature, dividing him and other famous historical and literary figures between rival tour companies Apple and Gray Line: “Spartacus, Brutus and his conspirators, they were Apple tour guides. Willie Wonka, he was Gray Line. Attila the Hun would have been a great Apple dispatcher, whereas Virgil would have worked for Gray Line.” Virgil’s placement must have something to do with his unflinchingness, his dour pronouncement of justice: the miserable deserve their misery.

Levitch’s philosophy of Cruise and Anti-Cruise — the freedom afforded by urban life and the forces marshaled against it — would suggest that Virgil and Foster would both likely fall on the Anti-Cruise side of things, which reminds me that when Levitch offers a discourse on the Anti-Cruise in the film, one of the chief examples he serves up is the Tombs. Embedding is disabled, but this will take you to the relevant clip.

Previously on PWHNY:

New York Nocturne
Darkness and Daylight
Sunday in the Park with Speed

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Speed Levitch at Bethesda Fountain, Central Park. Sunday, 8 May 2011.

One of my favorite people, one of my favorite places. Can’t think of much else I’d rather have done on a sunny spring afternoon in New York.

Previously on PWHNY. And elsewhere.

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