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  • Class Acts: The Astor Place Riots and Melville’s “The Two Temples”
  • Dennis Berthold

On 9 May 1849 a petition appeared in the New York Herald urging William Charles Macready, the English Shakespearean, to continue his performances at the Astor Place Opera House. Two days earlier, in a well-orchestrated attack that mirrored assaults Macready had suffered elsewhere on his final American tour, a group of “Bowery b’hoys” led by Tammany Hall’s Captain Isaiah Rynders had driven Macready from the stage with catcalls, rotten eggs, and the vile-smelling drug asafoetida. Shaken, Macready canceled his next performance and decided to leave New York immediately. The next day several petitioners met with the actor, persuaded him to continue, and then published the following letter:

To W. C. Macready, Esq., Dear Sir:—The undersigned, having heard that the outrage at the Astor Place Opera House, on Monday Evening, is likely to have the effect of preventing you from continuing your performances, and from concluding your intended farewell engagement on the American Stage, take this public method of requesting you to reconsider your decision, and of assuring you that the good sense and respect for order, prevailing in this community, will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performances.1

Among the forty-seven signatories were Washington Irving, Cornelius Mathews, Evert Duyckinck—and Herman Melville. In reaction to the petition, Rynders and other leaders of the Native American Party posted handbills all over the city asking: [End Page 429]

The Crew of the British steamer have
Threatened all Americans who shall dare to
express their opinions this night, at the
English ARISTOCRATIC Opera House!
We advocate no violence, but a free expression of
opinion to all public men!

American Committee2

Although the charges against the British crew were groundless, they inflamed the xenophobia and class antagonisms that, as Sean Wilentz has shown, had been building in New York society for several years.3 On 10 May, buoyed by the Herald petition, Macready took the stage in Macbeth. The result was disastrous. Ten to fifteen thousand working-class New Yorkers gathered outside the Opera House and pelted it with bricks and stones. The mob dispersed only when the National Guard fired into the crowd, killing twenty-two and injuring thirty-eight. Workingmen’s blood flowed on the streets of New York for the first time in a class struggle that Iver Bernstein believes paved the way for the New York City Draft riots of 1863.4 The precipitating action was the well-intentioned but ultimately inflammatory petition signed by Herman Melville, the rebellious proletarian of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), who was now publicly identified with New York’s upper-class partisans of law, order, and Anglophilia.5 While these basic facts are well known, they have been isolated from discussions of Melville’s literary productions and largely ignored in studies of his ideological development. One reason may be that Melville, who typically scattered topical allusions throughout his narratives, avoided all direct references to the Astor Place riot, even though it remained a vital topic of discussion throughout 1849, when he was writing Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) at lightning [End Page 430] speed. Had he not signed the petition, we would have no evidence that he even knew the riots occurred. Another and more significant reason may be that Melville’s support of the petition belies the critical stereotype of Melville as champion of the common worker and wily subverter of aristocratic pretension. David S. Reynolds offers a recent example of Melville’s “ruthless democracy” (a phrase Melville applied to himself in a letter to Hawthorne) when he suggests that Melville consciously emulated the prose of Ned Buntline, the popular dime novelist.6 Yet Buntline, under his real name, E. Z. C. Judson, was tried and convicted as the ringleader of the Astor Place mob, a mob Melville publicly opposed. More recently, Nancy Fredricks argues for Melville’s “valorization” of the lower classes, despite his patrician background and growing disinclination to write for popular audiences.7 These are only two examples...