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  • Visual and Theatrical Culture, Tenement Fiction, and the Immigrant Subject in Abraham Cahan’s Yekl
  • Sabine Haenni*

I am an ardent collector of slums. I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.—H. C. Bunner, “The Bowery and Bohemia”


I had become as infatuated with the Ghetto as eastern boys were with the wild west.—Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens


In comparing his infatuation with the ghetto to a boyish enthusiasm for the Wild West, Lincoln Steffens imagines the immigrant ghetto as a site potentially outside the social control of the American cosmopolis, a site where grown men can engage in exciting and potentially dangerous games. Steffens’s account, familiar from previous decades, recirculates an image of the ghetto proletariat as “savage,” but his comment must also be understood in the context of the 1890s, a time when the Wild West had become a site of re-creation in all senses of the word (not least because the frontier was officially closed), evoking cultural phenomena ranging from the later Buffalo Bill shows to the emerging Boy Scout movement, all of which were part of a “wilderness cult” that imagined the West as a place of “endless adventure, play, and freedom.”1 For H. C. Bunner, the slums do not evoke a residual, playful, and specifically American savagery but instead replace the monuments of Western civilization—from palaces to art galleries. His comment reflects the explosion of public leisure [End Page 493] consumption in the late nineteenth century, when the “new” middle class embraced respectable vaudeville and other formerly disreputable amusements. But even as Bunner expresses his lack of interest in high culture, its evocation legitimizes and reifies slumming while marking the ghetto’s difference from an industrial-commercial “culture of abundance.”2 In these accounts, the ghetto emerges as a site that exists on the margins but is nevertheless experienced in terms of the paradigms of mainstream amusements. As a liminal site of commercial entertainment, the ghetto is both potentially dangerous and safely classifiable within middle-class tourism.3 Bunner and Steffens were not alone in their infatuation. By the 1890s the existence of the ghetto had not only spurred the tenement-reform and settlement-house movements—as well as other attempts to assimilate ghetto residents into the urban moral order—but it had become a site of strange fascination. As the narrator in Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) remarks, “The East Side was a place upon which one descended in quest of esoteric types and ‘local color.’”4 Urban local color became a legitimate object of realist fiction after the publication of William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), a novel in which the protagonist spends much time in the ghetto lamenting the absence of artists capable of reproducing its picturesqueness. Many other tenement novels sailed under the flag of realism, all invested to some degree in a sentimental or romantic depiction of the ghetto. As one author declared: “Nothing in life is real unless it have the elements of what have been classified as realism and romanticism blended. Life is never so sordid, never so degraded, as to be wholly devoid of romantic beauty.”5 Magazines and newspapers featured sketches of ghetto life peopled by immensely popular ghetto characters such as Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley,” the Irish barkeeper, and Edward Townsend’s “Chimmie Fadden,” the quick-witted street boy. Slumming tours of the ghetto’s theaters, bars, and cafés became an intraurban tourist industry, so that Chuck Connors, “said to be the original Chimmie Fadden,” was able to make “a living by occasionally guiding the curious stranger through Chinatown, going on the stage for short engagements, and organizing Bowery balls.”6 No longer the site of perverse and secret middle-class pleasures (as chronicled, for instance, in George Foster’s New York by Gas-Light, 1850), the slum emerges in these accounts as a public, familiarized, and detoxified pleasure zone. [End Page 494] Nevertheless, much recent work on turn-of-the-century slums and...

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pp. 493-527
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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