- The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies of 1840s New York
The Flash Press is both a testament to and an example of the potential impact and cultural power of authorial and editorial collaboration. Half of the book is composed of a lively series of introductory chapters written by three historians at the top of their game. The other half consists of well-chosen selections from the racy sporting newspapers from New York in the 1840s that give the collection its title. Describing the overlapping careers of the editors and writers of the Flash, the Rake, the Whip, and the Libertine, Gilfoyle, Horowitz, and Cohen argue that the competition, rivalry, and alliances between the papers helped them to find more sophisticated ways to reach their audiences and provide the information for which they became briefly infamous. So too with the collaboration of the editors, who have combined their wide-ranging expertise in order to analyze the significance and historical value of the all-but-forgotten newspapers that together shed light on the dynamic sexual subcultures of antebellum New York.
The flash press, as the editors describe it, is that collection of periodicals that catered to an urban subculture of male heterosociability, reporting on illicit pleasures ranging from gambling to prostitution to theatrical events. The papers were characterized by what the editors call “their razor-sharp wit and style” and included sexually suggestive cartoons and gossip as well as rhetorically inflated invectives against the business practices and morals of the very wealthy and sometimes even the editors of other flash papers (11). If the content of the papers helps to make visible an historically obscured community of urban men who took a renegade pleasure in the various illicit activities available in the city, so too does it make clear the pleasure that the inhabitants of this world took in observing it and fashioning a role for themselves in its unfolding story. The flash press, as the editors remind us, was in part so lively because it was relatively cheap to start a newspaper in the 1840s, but it was also so vibrant because the pleasure of illicit behavior lies in part in describing it, reading about it, and circulating it. [End Page 561]
Gilfoyle, Horowitz, and Cohen have a knack for finding and describing particularly dense nodes of social and sexual circulation, and they have produced a deeply learned and wide-ranging introduction that preserves and celebrates the boisterous, witty, and gregarious material with which they are working. This is no small triumph, considering that the work of an introduction is painstakingly to select, organize, and systematize, and the work of the flash press was to immerse and overwhelm readers with the sheer richness and vitality of the sporting and sexual subcultures of New York. The analytic chapters are particularly useful when they isolate the flash press’s negotiation of political and cultural ambiguities that centered on morality. Thus, “libertine republicanism,” for example, emerges as a position from which to condemn hereditary privilege and extol the values of a democratic circulation that encompassed sexual and social practices alike. That category of personhood gives scholars a genuinely useful way to imagine how antebellum masculinity prospered as a result of political and moral ambiguities that are too often cast as merely notional; here, scholars can glimpse the contradictory practices and material spaces that were produced in and through such ambiguities.
Readers will also appreciate the story of how the editors discovered and assembled the archive of the flash press. That story is not merely about the recovery and subsequent patient (and often adventurous) efforts to piece together the extant run of the newspapers, it is about how scholars think and work together. It is also a very fine example of how methods of historical recovery and analysis are inflected by and challenge the cultural preoccupations of the present and in turn demand that we rethink the ways that...