The aim of this morning’s lecture in Writing New York was to situate Walt Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass within the nineteenth-century city’s worlds of print, from the highbrow publishing industry to cheap print, penny presses, flash weeklies, and urban pornography. Depending on which Whitman critics you read, he hews closer to high or low. I suggested he wanted to have it both ways: ever a joiner, he wanted to bring together the best of both worlds.
At one point, while talking about the so-called “Flash press,” I did geek out considerably, telling the story of how a bundle of these rare “sporting” men’s periodicals, mildly pornographic and thoroughly anti-authoritarian, made their way from an early-20c sportswriter’s private collection into the American Antiquarian Society. For the last dozen years or so, cultural historians have been poring over them aiming to understand more about 19c New York subcultures of style, sexuality, and reading. Other rare examples of these magazines have turned up in the city’s municipal archives, where they were long ago submitted as evidence in a rash of obscene libel trials in the 1840s, right about the time Whitman was editing his nativist newspaper, The Aurora. I mentioned Donna Dennis’s account of this legal history last week; you can also read key samples of this material in an anthology published a few years ago by some urban historian whose work I admire quite a bit.
If you want to understand why I would geek out about the preservation of this sort of ephemera, let me just offer one example of the fascinating work these materials have allowed cultural historians to undertake. In the on-line quarterly Common-place a few years back, James Cook — a cultural biographer of P. T. Barnum and editor of a thoroughly engrossing Barnum reader — drew on some material from flash weeklies to tease out some new understanding of the mixed-race origins of American popular culture. He starts his piece by recalling Charles Dickens’ famous account of the a dance hall in the Five Points, which featured a black performer who later became famous as “Master Juba.” Later in his essay Cook points out that most people have assumed Dickens catapulted Juba to stardom, but some new evidence from flash weeklies helps us flesh out the story: “We now know a good deal more” about Juba than ever before, Cook writes. We know
that his real name was William Henry Lane, although he generally performed as Juba or Master Juba; that he was born in Providence, Rhode Island, during the late 1820s, part of the first generation of African Americans to come of age following emancipation; that soon after Dickens