Overshadowed New York
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Overshadowed New York
Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York, Donna Dennis. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem, Robert M. Dowling. University of Illinois Press, 2007.
New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, William Chapman Sharpe. Princeton University Press, 2008.
The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance, Shane Vogel. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

One way to think of New York's cultural history is as a procession of scenes that arise, attract first adherents and then newcomers, the latter of whom are inevitably told that they're arriving too late. The party's over, done with. Djuna Barnes, for example, responded to death knells of Greenwich Village bohemianism as early as 1916, just one year after the formation of the Provincetown Players. Newcomers invariably create scenes of their own—and then repeat the pattern of declaring passé what they've created when the next set of newcomers arrives. One irony of this pattern is that for all of its associations with modernity from the late nineteenth century forward, New York is a city that seems to encourage its denizens to live in the past. As Colson Whitehead puts it in The Colossus of New York (2003): "No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet café plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now" (3-4). New York, it seems, is always already over, its secrets exposed, its hotspots discovered by the masses, its authenticity drained by commodification, its bohemian frontiers closed, and the literature of New York—at least a good portion of it—would seem to be born of the sense of loss generated by that viewpoint.

The books under review here all participate, to varying degrees, in this characteristic pattern of reasoning, this cycle of attraction, transformation, mourning, and renewed attraction that [End Page 853] has so often marked both the city's culture and commentators' nostalgic accounts. They also share a particular prism through which to view the city's cultural history, a prism that dates back at least to the mid-nineteenth century: the idea that the city conjoins two worlds, the world of sunshine and the world of shadow. And as many have before them, these city guides promise to uncover, especially by tending to the world of shadow, the traces of a grittier, more vital time and space than our own. If nineteenth-century reformers sought to expose New York's shadows and thereby eliminate them, the scholarship addressed in this review essay collectively longs for hidden corners, their pleasures, and dangers.

In its original formulation, the sunshine/shadow formula aimed to alleviate poverty and call the wealthy to account for underwriting urban misery. In 1868, Matthew Hale Smith published Sunshine and Shadow in New York, which included biographies of notable New Yorkers, vignettes about the high life and the low, and discussions of literature, publishing, entertainment, religion, crime, and politics. The distance between sunshine (New York's often decadent upper crust) and shadow (its impoverished masses) was already an established trope by the time Smith took it up. Urban guidebooks had long featured narrators who adopted the pose of the flâneur, leading middle- and upper-class readers into shadowy corners of the city's most notorious slums (including the Five Points); celebrated tourists, including Charles Dickens, made similar trips and published famous accounts. Producers of urban pornography sought to capitalize on the sexual exoticism the lower classes held out for upper-class readers and exposed the sins of the wealthy—the "mysteries of Bond Street"— to those trapped below them. Although journalists like George Foster, author of the sensational and popular New York by Gaslight (1850), often had nothing but disdain for New...