Saturday, July 27, 2019

Old Books from my Library #6: The Secrets of the Great City

    Is this book thing getting old? Maybe.  Then again, today is Day Six, and were this "Kama Sutra  Week," I suspect that by Day Six reader interest in unusual sex positions might be flagging. So what hope can old books have?
      But it's Saturday, so I'll leave you with the title page of what is the oldest book in my library, Edward Winslow Martin's* 1868 The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, The Mysteries, Miseries and Crime of New York City.
     It is a textbook example of 19th century lasciviousness disguised as virtue (a dynamic, now that I think of it, that has continued with ease into the 21st century). Few self-respecting Victorians would sit down to savor the goings-on within brothels and clip-joints without first sprinkling a few shakes of moral censure over their repast. We aren't ogling "the darker sides of city life," oh no no no, we are investigating them and learning what to avoid. Reading what Martin dubs "a simple narration of actual facts ... designed to warn the thousands who visit the city against the dangers and pitfalls into which their curiosity or vice may lead them." These are the places you shouldn't go, the stuff you shouldn't do. 
     "It hoped that those who read the book will heed its warnings."
     So yes, we get public parks and schools, the newspapers and investment houses of this teeming city of over one million souls. But that's mere smokescreen; then we're off to the business at hand, in chapters with titles such as "Poor Girls" and "The Street Boys" (not sure why males get the definite article that females are denied. More important perhaps). "The Social Evil" "Assignation Houses" "Street Walkers" "Dance Houses" "Thieves" "Divorce Lawyers" "Swindlers in General"—you get the idea. 
     I should probably give a sense of the writing style. A typical foray into Gotham by "a beautiful maiden, born in a village on the Sound," pure as the driven snow, "reared in innocence and virtue until she reaches her seventeenth year" and makes the fatal mistake of visiting New York City for the first time:
      She is dazzled with its theatres, its balls, its Central Park, the Broadway confuses and intoxicates her, but opera has divine charms for her musical ear and she is escorted night after night by a man with a pleasing face and a ready tongue. .. She is persuaded to take a glass of champagne. She is finally persuaded to drink an entire bottle of champagne. That night the world is torn from under her feet. She has tasted the apple of death.
     Pregnancy and ruin quickly follow. She struggles as a seamstress or a dry-goods clerk, but is only postponing her inevitable plunge into the river (almost needless to say, with a cry of "Mother") from whence she will be dragged out, days later, "a mere greenish mass of festering corruption."
     The male version of this transit, which I will spare you, is amply illustrated on the title page, above, which was the real reason I bought the book—I think I paid $1 for it in a threadbare shop. I gave a framed color photocopy as a parting gift to a friend who was heading to New York to work for a newspaper, and posted it on my older son's Facebook page when he headed off to NYU. So far he seems to be heeding its warning and avoiding the company of The Fancy. 

* The author of such lurid fare—this book was "not for sale in the book store" and could only be purchased by subscription—would not use his actual name. Edward Winslow Martin was a pseudonym for James D. McCabe, a Virginian, born in 1842 and educated at the Virginia Military Institute. He served the Confederacy during the Civil War, and wrote some 30 books, including guidebooks, plays, a collection of religious martyrs, plus biographies, including one of Robert E. Lee, whom he corresponded with.



  1. Love the whole series, including today's episode. Unfortunately, Secrets is not available from Amazon, though it's probably not necessary to actually read the thing, since we've gotten more than an adequate taste of its contents. And I hope that Neil's son continues to avoid Fancy -- would that I had done so in my youth!


  2. The book thing will never get old for me. If you decided to spend the rest of your career writing about nothing but old books, it would be just fine with me.

    1. A journalistic predecessor of Neil's, Vincent Starrett, did just that. His column titled "Books Alive" appeared in the Tribune for 25 years. He is interred in Graceland Cemetery beneath an open book rendered in marble and inscribed "The Last Bookman."


  3. Very old books can be fascinating. Unfortunately, their very age can also make them extremely fragile. My wife inherited some "coffee-table size" illustrated histories of the Civil War. They lie flat, on top of a bookcase, with other books piled on top of them to keep them compressed. They may be somewhat valuable, and they are interesting to look at, but since they're also about 125 years old, we never touch them.

  4. "She was young. She was pure.
    She was new. She was nice.
    She was fair. She was sweet seventeen
    He was old. He was vile. and no stranger to vice.
    He was base, He was bad. he was mean.
    He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat,
    To view his collection of stamps.
    And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
    'Have some Madeira M'dear." Flanders and Swann


  5. This one sounds interesting. A fave time period for study too.


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