Reading, Writing, And History


Mr. Werstein’s book is vivid, though somewhat confusing; his fondness for inventing conversations and for “dramatizing” incidents which, Heaven knows, might be supposed to carry their own dramatic values built in, leaves one hard put now and then to know where actual history stops and touched-up history begins. But it would be hard to overstate the horror of the draft riots very much, and for the most part this book gives a faithful picture of the occasion. It is a picture whose grim significance speaks for itself.

For it becomes clear, reading this one on the heels of Mr. Moore’s book, that the urban frontier in America had its own horse-alligator thesis, arising for much the same reason as Kentucky’s. America was being built from scratch, and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who survived the miseries of the steerage in order to set foot on the New World at the mouth of the Hudson believed, as much as the western pioneers ever believed it, that they were somehow approaching a Garden of Eden where all things would work out for their good. They got into a jungle, fully as dark and menacing as anything the Kentucky frontier ever had to offer, and they needed to have the same care for their scalps; the environment taught them that only the primitive virtues counted for much, and when the pressure of an enormous civil war came down on them, loaded with intangibles that are hard enough to see even at a century’s distance, they acted about as one might expect. The draft riots were the hideous result.

The horse-alligator, in short, is there, deep in the subconscious, in the city as well as in the country. It may be that this nation was built up too fast, and that certain values were ignored in the building. Whatever the answer, a critical re-examination of the way in which it all happened is very much in order. Two more different books than these by Mr. Moore and Mr. Werstein could not easily be imagined, yet in the end they teach very much the same lesson.