September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Bathing Belles Lettres
In the September 5 issue of Harper’s Weekly , the novelist and critic William Dean Howells reported on a visit to Rockaway Beach in Queens. The bathers were rather too numerous for the refined Howells, a self-described “friend of quiet and seclusion” who was clearly out of his element, but otherwise their behavior was exemplary: “The popular joy of our poorer classes is no longer the terror it once was to the peaceful observer. The tough was not visibly present, nor the toughess, either of the pure native East Side stock or of the Celtic extraction; yet there wert large numbers of Americans with rather fewer recognizable Irish among the masses, who were mainly Germans, Russians, Poles, and the Jews of these several nationalities.” While regretting that “you can no longer know citizen and countryman apart by their clothes, still less citizeness and countrywoman,” Howells surmised that the “Americans” came mostly from Long Island while the “foreign-looking folk” were city dwellers.
His demographic survey complete, the paragon of American literature bought a ticket for the shoot-the-chutes but chickened out, deciding instead “to enjoy the pleasure of others in it.” After doing so, he conjectured that “the experience of shooting the chute must comprise the rare transport of a fall from a ten-story building, and the delight of a tempestuous passage of the Atlantic, powerfully condensed.” He also investigated the sideshows, including one with “X-ray apparatus for showing you the inside of your watch,” and found the same combination of fascination and pathos that strikes most modern observers. The account concluded with a culinary note: “Of course there was everywhere soda, and places of the softer drinks abounded.” A note at the end assured anxious readers that Howells’s report would be continued in a later issue.