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.”