Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Underworld and a Book Series I'd Like to See

Randall Stephens

Over 100 years ago the sociologist Emile Durkheim observed “There is no society known where a more or less developed
criminality is not found under different forms. No people exists whose morality is not daily infringed upon. We must therefore call crime necessary and declare that it cannot be non-existent, that the fundamental conditions of social
organization, as they are understood, logically imply it.”

Just like a sociologists to make that sort of generalization. "Over the ages, man has . . ." But, he was right, right?

The history of ever-present crime tells us about the parameters of a society and reveals something profound about social structure. But there is also a deeply historical component to it. A criminal act or a perpetrator in one era may also be deemed law-abiding or acceptable in another era.

Historians can also learn something significant about the past by looking at all those outcasts, misfits, pariahs, and unfortunates, who show up in police records or make cameos as
evil foils in pulp novels. Besides that, it makes for interesting history. No one needed to tell that to Hebert Asbury. His books like The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld‎; The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld; and The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld are serious page-turners. Asbury wrote the latter "to chronicle the more spectacular exploits of the refractory citizen who was a dangerous nuisance in New York for almost a hundred years, with a sufficient indication of his background of vice, poverty, and political corruption to make him understandable." But, it was, more than anything, a good yarn.

So, I imagined a collection I'd like to see: a
Lowlifes of America Series, which might include excerpts from the memoirs of scoundrels, rakes, and what have you. It could also include selections from letters back home from infamous gamblers, biographies of notable sporting men, the diary of an inebriate, articles from the penny press, account books of a New York madame, and on and on.

In the fall of 2008 I interviewed Patricia Cline Cohen Timothy J. Gilfoyle and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz for Historically Speaking on a related subject: "Sporting Male Weeklies in 19th-Century New York." Here's an excerpt:

In the 1840s a collection of sporting men's weeklies, called the flash press, reported on the sexual underworld of New York City. The papers—with titles like the Flash, the Whip, the Rake, and the Libertine—were widely condemned by the city’s moral reformers and middle-class evangelicals. But that did nothing to diminish the popularity of the flash press. In oyster bars and brothels scattered across the city, bachelors read local gossip and scandalous stories of treachery in the sex trade industry.

In 2008 Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz published The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York (University of Chicago Press). Their landmark study sheds light on the rowdy sexual cultures of a bustling metropolis. The book reveals much about mid-19th century views on race, sex, consumption, religion, and morality.
Randall Stephens: Why had so few historians used “flash” newspapers before the 1980s?
Patricia Cline Cohen: The “flash” newspapers of the early 1840s didn’t surface in any library or repository until the mid-1980s, when eighty-six issues of the Flash, the Whip, the Rake, and the Libertine were brought to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) by a New Hampshire man whose father had acquired and then carefully saved the set in the early 20th century. That first owner was George Underwood, a well-known New York City and Boston sportswriter who covered the boxing world. Our hypothesis is that the flash papers—which covered sports and particularly boxing—had been retained by one of the original editors and then handed down in sports journalism circles until Underwood got them, somewhere between 1910 and 1930.
Timothy J. Gilfoyle: Some issues could be found in the New York City District Attorney Indictment Papers in the New York City Municipal Archives. Most were related to the libel charges involving the flash press editors. But these prosecution files contained only single issues, so historians who might have seen them as the indictment papers were processed after 1975 would never have known how many issues of the various flash papers were ever published.
Cohen: Scholars have long known about the many satirical newspapers that existed in the 1830s-1850s. The English weekly Punch is the leading example, with its cartoons, sharp political humor, and masculine community-building attributes. But Punch is quite tame compared to the New York flash papers, which took the sexual underworld of the big city as their main theme. The U.S. did not lack for humor papers either; many cities had short-lived weeklies with jokes, tall tales, and local gossip, written by and for “loafers,” young men who proudly embraced this term of opprobrium. But scholars haven’t used them much. They haven’t been objects of collection; they have survived mainly in isolated issues. What is unique and significant about the four papers published in New York City between 1841 and 1853 is that we have a lot of them, perhaps 75% of the entire print runs, and they reveal an alternative sexual universe.
Stephens: Could you say something about why these periodicals emerged in the early 1840s, ran for a few years, and then ceased?
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz: Quite simply, the courts shut them down. New York did not have anti-obscenity legislation at the time. But conservative forces were able to use the power of the common law to charge the editors with “obscene libel.” Judges then followed the rules of English courts, which were oblivious to what we now call First Amendment freedoms. These rules shaped the definition of obscene matter and limited evidence presented to the court by the defense. The editors were found guilty and served terms in jail. Interestingly enough, after they served their time, a number of them had fascinating, even important careers. . . .

1 comment:

Randall said...

Helen Horowitz just told me about the Subterranean Lives series published by Rutgers University Press.

"Subterranean Lives," says Rutgers UP "reprints first-person accounts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by members of oppositional or stigmatized subcultures; memoirs by men and women who lived, whether by circumstance, inclination, or design, outside of the bounds of normative bourgeois experience."

Very interesting titles:

Horrors of Slavery: Or, the American Tars in Tripoli
William Ray
Edited and with an introduction by Hester Blum

Autobiography of an Androgyne
Ralph Werther

The Road by Jack London
Edited by Todd DePastino

The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz-Hugh Ludlow
Edited by Stephen D. Rachman

With the Weathermen by Susan Stern
Edited by Laura Browder