For one thing, it is beautifully produced; for another, it is rich in incidents, characters, quotations, ideas: rich in learning. Eric Homberger knows the mid-19th century Manhattan scene as well as anyone now alive can, and he has the art to bring it tolife again. He has a cast of hundreds, but never loses command of it, and involves us so successfully with the huge urban family that not only do we feel really well-acquainted with its members, we also feel deeply involved in their struggle between sunshine and shadow (to use their favourite metaphor) to make New York a successful modern city. This was no easy task, given the speed with which the place grew, from 200,000
in 1830 to four times that on the eve of the Civil War (and to two and a half million by 1890). That struggle - to enjoy the best of the new, without sacrificing the best of the old, particularly the spirit of community - is Homberger's theme. He explores it through four carefully correlated essays, on "the lower depths", the building of Central Park, and on the careers of two notorious citizens of the period.
In his subtitle he also identifies his preoccupations as "Corruption and Conscience". This has to be understood in a Pickwickian sense, for although his tone throughout is too gentle to be called ironical, irony is nevertheless built deep into his narrative structure. Mid-19th century New Yorkers were a self-righteous race (except for Boss Tweed, who was content to be an affable rogue) and they tended to justify their wishes, whatever those might be, in terms of the highest principle.
This did not always match the facts. For instance, the motives which brought Central Park into being were extremely mixed, and nobody, not even Frederick Law Olmsted, the Park's designer and first superintendent, fully understood what the project meant. When the Park was at last opened, New Yorkers fell in love with it (they have remained so ever since) and began to shape its nature and uses along lines unforeseen or un-desired by the promoters. Central Park, in short, illustrated the limitations as well as the wisdom of "conscience", or sunshine.
Another major achievement of conscience was the Metropolitan Health Act of 1866, which meant that for the first time something effective was done about the appalling filth of the city streets; it also held out the hope that one day something would be done about the equally appalling slums. Previously hogs had freely roamed Broadway and its neighbour alleys: what they found to eat can readily be inferred from the most striking batch of statistics in the book - in its first six months the new Board of Health removed 38,314 loads of night soil, 103 dead horses, 3,865 dead dogs and cats, 20,045 lb of unsound veal, 155,520 of unsound fish, and 92,260 barrels of offal. No one can carp at these figures, but Eric Homberger makes it plain that the poor, who probably benefited most from the change, were at no point consulted, while the middle classes who supported it were chiefly moved by a fear of cholera. What is more, the Act would never have got through but for the purely partisan interests of the Republicans, who saw a chance to limit the patronage, and therefore the political power, of the Democrats of Tammany Hall (similar calculations explain the free hand granted to Olmsted over Central Park - and indeed the free hand given to Robert Moses by the La Guardia administration 70 years later).
Irony or no, the outer chapters of the book on the whole illustrate a comparatively unambiguous victory for sunlight. The full-scale individual portraits of Homberger's inner chapters are not only his most original contributions, but do most to underminethe stark categories of corruption and conscience. "Madame Restell" (real name, Caroline Ann Trow: she was English by birth and upbringing) was New York's most notorious abortionist, and in 1878, in her old age, was driven to suicide by the odious and ridiculous Anthony Comstock, America's best-known bluenose (or crusader for "purity"). Comstock had no compunction about Madame Restell's fate, boasting that she was the 15th person he had driven to suicide. To a 19th century reformer the story was straightforward and highly moral: procuring abortions was not illegal in Madame Restell's youth, but an enlightened society had gradually corrected that, and by 1878 she faced seven years in jail if convicted. Only one of her enemies saw that the real problem was not the abortionist but the social conditions which drove desperate women to seek her out. To my mind the true objection to Madame Restell was that rather too many of her patients died, but this is a point which Eric Homberger does not discuss.
Much less distressing to read, but equally ambiguous, is the story of "Slippery Dick" Connolly, one of the chief members of the Tweed Ring, who made his escape to Europe with a large slice of his profits when the law closed in, died in affluent exile, and has taken more than his fair share of obloquy ever since. Eric Homberger does not waste time trying to exonerate Connolly, though he does point out that in his position it was almost impossible to be honest; but he rescues him from glib morality, humanising his story and using it to undermine the more sanctimonious critics. Connolly was a victim of politics - I was going to say pure and simple, but it was politics impure and complex - and politics was a central opportunity for the greedy, unscrupulous, buccaneering generation which was building New York. Connolly was no worse than a hundred others in both parties and all walks of business.
Eric Homberger is well aware that he is holding up a mirror to his own times, from which they may learn if they choose, but he nowhere says so. Nor does he attempt to justify his historical investigations. His restraint is understandable: this is self-evidently a fascinating work which will make its readers see New York and its history - identical terms, after all - with fresh eyes; and has its applications to other times and places also.Reuse content