May 19, 2003

Low Life, Luc Sante

Here are 356 pages of enjambed facts on New York City's low criminal life from 1840 to 1919, laid out neatly by subject (theater, drugs, police, orphans, riots). Figurative and specific characters repeat from subject to subject, as do waves of immigration, unrest, graft, fiscal panic, and fire after fortuitous fire. Everything happens three or four times, getting bigger and more professional and dirtier by the half-generation. All the specifics are horrible: brass eye gougers, child-gang saloons with child-prostitutes, riots the size of battles, disease, crowding.

Edith Wharton wrote about "Old New York" at the end of Sante's period. Two books could be made of the border between his version and hers. One could be on the power relations between the people they described - nothing is made in Low Life; death rates are terrific; all the money, and most of the people, have to come from some marginally more stable world.¹ Another could be on the difference and similarities of their nostalgia. Sante's was both for the abandoned cheap Lower East Side he lived in in the 1970s, and the shreds of neighborhood and myth it had; and those myths were half post-WWI radio and movie plays made of scraps of memory of the late Bowery and gangland and immigrant days; and their loyalties and turfs dated back to Civil War stresses.

Petty error of fact: he gets the intent and itinerary of Fanny Trollope's visit to the States wrong. He cites the 1949 edition of her Domestic Manners of the Americans; maybe she obfuscated it herself. More oddly, he writes that "...about the rest of America she is remarkably unsnobbish, and her book was something of an advertisement for the young country." That isn't what the Tories in England thought; it isn't what she meant; and I don't think it was the received view in Cincinnati in Trollope's day. More on that later.² Sante, drenched in accounts of bloodshed and immiseration, might not have taken her descriptions of the unmannered provicials as she meant them.

¹ See Fat of the Land, Benjamin Miller, for how the working poor lived in and on garbage.

² A biography of Fanny Trollope says "...wax figures of Mrs Trollope appeared in the form of a goblin; she was portrayed as an ugly harridan talking to a black devil... and satirized... One American reviewer commented on the 'curious coincidence of her name' (p. 174; Fanny Trollope, Pamela Neville-Sington.)

ISBN: 0-679-73876-2

So wrote clew in Cities. , History (19th c.). | TrackBack
And thus wrote others:

How can I reach Luc Sante? My Grandfather was in the Hudson Duster's in New York from 1921 and found some errors in Mr. Sante's information about the Hudson Dusters.

yclept: Becky at November 11, 2003 07:42 AM

Try writing him at the publisher's address. The most recent publisher is Farrar Straus & Giroux.

yclept: clew at November 12, 2003 02:01 PM

what are some possible thesises of the book that i can write essays about

yclept: at January 13, 2004 07:43 PM



yclept: David Leahy at May 27, 2004 03:55 PM

Your correspondant Becky who wanted to know how to contact Luc Sante might like to know that his email address is:

yclept: Leo at August 1, 2004 09:19 PM

Thanks. I've forwarded that to the address Becky left; grandparental information shouldn't be wasted.

yclept: clew at August 1, 2004 09:42 PM
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