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Fear And Yearning In Old New York

July 2024
4min read

THE THEME OF the evil city versus the moral country is at least as old as Aesop, who in the sixth century B.C. told of the Country Mouse who visited the Town Mouse but soon turned tail: “Too many dangers to suit me”. As Alfred Kazin made clear in the February/March 1983 issue, this ancient fear of the city had enjoyed a long run in our own country, especially as applied in the last century to gaslit New York, the new metropolitan wonder of the industrial age. Farm journals implored the young to resist the lure of the city, and the Populists called it “the enemy’s country.” The National Police Gazette , closely read in every country barbershop, thrived on tales of urban vice and crime and ran regular features headed “Glimpses of Gotham” and “Noose Notes.”

But New York City’s bad name as Sodom-on-Hudson was diffused most widely by the itinerant hook agent. Anytime during the last half of the nineteenth century, a polite stranger could be expected to appear at the door of the American farm home or to comer the farmer down at the horse bam. He gave his name and explained his errand. He was a theological student, he said, or, if he looked older, he mentioned that he had got his cough in the late war. And he spoke somewhat as follows: “It is the desire of every American to see New York, the largest and most wonderful city in the Union. You will probably be visiting our great metropolis one of these days, and I am calling to give you an opportunity to examine the authoritative new book— not sold in bookstores —in which you may read of the splendid sights and the novel sensations, but also the dangers and temptations, of the great city.

The canvasser then brought out from under his coat a prospectus, entitled The Secrets of the Great City , or perhaps it was called Lights and Shadows of New York Life . And he kept on talking: “Even those who may never visit New York will be interested in this account of the city’s wonders as well as its sordid side, its social shams and clever sharpers, its marble palaces and dark dens, all so different from the wholesome life we know in the plainer and more practical parts of the country. Notice the fine wood engravings. Here is the table of contents. The text has been praised by members of Congress. Read what a minister in Linton, Indiana, says. The book is copyrighted, as you can see. [Points to copyright notice.] Just sign on the line, right there, if you please. Will you prefer the Arabesque leather binding with marbled edges at eight fifty? [He does not use the word dollars .] Or with full gilt it is ten. Most of your neighbors are taking the full-gilt style.”

And now to the contents:

A man in Vermont, according to Matthew Hale Smith, author of Sunshine and Shadow in New York , proposing to visit the city, first made his will. Prayers were offered in the Congregational church for his safe return, and with good reason. According to Smith, “New York is … full of traps and gins, pitfalls and snares and gentlemen from the country are the persons who generally fall into them. The author goes on to give an example of what he is talking about. A Western merchant, passing through New York with a load of butter on his way to Boston, a man of good standing, in fact a “class leader in his Church,” took a stroll around New York to see the sights. A respectably dressed and good-looking woman asked him to treat her. He thought the adventure would provide interesting material for a letter. So he went in to treat. Then she treated him—to a Mickey Finn. The next thing he knew—hours later—was the sound of the prayer bell in the Midnight Rescue Mission. Missing was his watch, hat, coat, and a thousand dollars.

He took the experience, on the whole, rather well. “I had rather lose my money,” he said, “than my good name.” So he filed no complaint with the police.

Pretty and unsophisticated girls from the country, in New York looking for honest work, were the object of particular solicitude by the authors of the genre books. It seems there was danger everywhere, even in church. A young woman attending Sunday services in a fashionable church should look out if an affable stranger offered to share his hymn-book with her. This opening gambit happened to a young woman named Flora, from Norwich, Connecticut. Well, one thing led to another, and she ended up as a “parlor girl” in a “house” in Eighth Street. “Avoid the first step,” implored James Dabney McCabe, a Virginian with a clerical background, a writer who did not know any more about the fashionable classes than he did of the dives; but he had a point of view, all right.

INDEED, THE EARNEST authors sometimes seem to defeat themselves. So intent are they on describing in meticulous detail the gaslight temptations of city life that they often make sin seem downright attractive. The splendid bar, the elegant cut-glass decanters, the voluptuous back-bar nude, the pretty waiter-girls—“such a scene,” one modem scholar as written, “can hardly be called discouraging.”

The same warnings of confidence men, of swindlers and pickpockets, of painted women, all spelled out in fascinating detail but couched in morally judgmental language, appeared in the illustrated weeklies and also in the “story papers” typified by Robert Bonner’s phenomenally successful New York Ledger and the dime novels published by Erastus Flavel Beadle and Irwin P. Beadle, such as Honest Harry; or The Country Boy Adrift in the City . Splendid exemplars, all, of “haymow literature.” Harry, incidentally, in an unusual reversal of roles, bested a gang of New York hoodlums both in a street fight and in smart repartee.

Visualize the nineteenth-century farm wife, her isolation, her long days in her drab calico dress, washing, cooking, ironing, picking bugs off potato plants; her longing for pretty clothes, for neighbors, for new horizons, for art and music. Music? Imagine her fantasies after supper under the kerosene lamp, reading in her subscription book how Mrs. Pierre Lorillard Ronalds of New York society danced till dawn at her own costume ball, appearing as “Music” with a harp in her hair, designed in Paris and illuminated by tiny gas jets, wearing a short, short dress and little bells on her scarlet boots, just like the ones sported by the waitresses in a Water Street dive. Sodom, indeed! Or, wistfully, the farmwife learns that wonderful stockings could be purchased at bargain prices on the Bowery; stockings with a story—“made in England for the Emperor of Siam, and stolen from his caravan at great risk.” Again, she could read that in New York there were as many street walkers as Methodists, and that the urban rich lived empty lives filled with orgies and hollow gaiety and were terribly unhappy despite their elegant mansions, liveried servants, and ormolu clocks.

Who shall say—not this writer, certainly—that the shudders over wicked New York did not make life more bearable down on the farm? In the end, as we know, New York survived the denigration and was and is “a great place to visit. ” Some 17.1 million visitors converged on the city last year, more than entered any other metropolis in the world. Where else, after all, could one find seventy museums; hear steel bands playing at noon in front of the Public Library; be handed a pamphlet on vegetarianism by a youth in a saffron robe; or catch a glimpse of Beverly Sills or Burt Reynolds at a crosswalk near Bloomingdale’s.

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