The novel, that is, not the Park itself. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Park, past and present, we recommend exploring the archives of this excellent blog.
My initial impulse in teaching James’s novel has always been to take the title and setting seriously, to take what we know about the actual history of the development of Washington Square — its origins as a Potter’s Field, the history of class conflict surrounding its development and renovation over time — and read it against the narrator’s account, early in the novel, of the Square’s development and the Slopers’ place on it. (In taking the setting seriously I’m following Marcus Klein’s excellent treatment in Arizona Quarterly many moons ago, which is worth digging up if you have access to the print run in your library.) Last year Cyrus posted an overview of the approach we’ve taken and I offered up the timeline I use in lecture to contrast the novel’s admittedly partial memory with a more verifiable set of events.
One of the more interesting disjunctions between the novel and the Square’s actual history is the fact that the Slopers arrive on the Square — ostensibly to escape the clamor of commerce farther downtown — right on the heels of the Stonecutters’ Riots, in which laborers and masons resisted the city’s and University’s decision to use convict labor to build what would be NYU’s gothic University Building (pictured). I wrote a little bit about this issue last year — as well as about the contemporaneous development of another ritzy neighborhood, Colonnade Row, on the newly cut Lafayette Place, which bisected a mixed-class leisure space, Vauxhall Gardens, and undoubtedly helped pave the way for the Astor Place Riots there only a few years later. All of this unrest the novel would push to its symbolic margins. The Washington Square of James’s novel exists blissfully unaware of class conflict pushing right up against its borders.
Yesterday morning in lecture I took this contextualization so far as to suggest a parallel between the lawyer in Melville’s Bartleby and Dr. Sloper: each is subject to a certain blindness, to borrow a phrase from Henry’s older brother, William. Certainly the lawyer’s cozy kissing up to John Jacob Astor in Bartleby anticipates Dr. Sloper’s complicity in a market economy he thinks he has risen above. (We talked earlier in the semester about ways to read Bartleby in the context of the class conflicts that culminated in the Astor Place Riots.) And just maybe, I suggested, Catherine Sloper has a little bit of Bartleby himself in her. When it comes time to get married at the novel’s end, as good heroines are supposed to do, she simply prefers not to.