- The Muckers: A Narrative of the Crapshooters Club by William Osborne Dapping
Youse guys probaly think I dont know nothin' because I dont know how to speak swell English. Well, believe me, I'm no dub; even if I cant sling words. What I aint got in learning I've made up in experience, an' it'll take a good one to goldbrick me. I may look like a kid, but I aint no spring chicken, at that. . . . So long as I can earn me three squares a day, find some place to sleep at night, and get a heap o' fun along with it, I'm satisfied. Independence aint confined to the rich. Look at me. I aint worried about nuttin!(58)
So opens the story of Spike, the young narrator of William Osborne Dapping's The Muckers, a fictionalized account of Dapping's childhood on the streets of New York's Upper East Side neighborhood, Yorkville, in the late nineteenth century. In this statement and throughout the narrative, Spike directly and aggressively challenges the reader's perceived assumptions and prejudices. Through its goal of exposing and explaining the urban poor to [End Page 253] an upper-class audience, Dapping's work invites comparisons to Stephen Crane's Maggie: Girl of the Streets or Jacob Riis's works on the New York slums, but as editor Woody Register emphasizes in his substantial introduction, this account is unique because it is told in the first person by one of the young "muckers" themselves.
This volume, being the first publication of The Muckers more than a century after its composition, encompasses two narratives simultaneously. The first is the fictional narrative of Spike, Dapping's loosely autobiographical alter ego, and the second is Register's account of Dapping and the significance of his work. The text itself came to print somewhat by chance, as Register discovered it in the process of researching the history of the George Junior Republic, a reform school for at-risk boys in Freeville, New York. Syracuse University Press now offers this volume as the first of a series on this school and the lives of its "citizens" after their time there. This publication, which also includes ten photographs of the Republic and Yorkville, will be of interest to literary scholars and historians as a rare account to come directly from the young boys who dominated the street culture of late nineteenth-century urban America. As such, it presents a story that is ultimately ambivalent about the moral imperatives of the reform era.
The absence of sentimentality and break from the moral tendencies of reform literature, as Register argues, was enabled by Dapping's refusal to publish the work under his own name. Although this refusal was also the most likely reason for his failure to find a publisher, it also allows the narrative to end not with Dapping's "up from poverty" narrative that took him to the George Junior Republic, then to Harvard, and later to a successful career in journalism, but with Spike's reassertion of the primacy of his experiences in New York. As Register emphasizes, the narrative depicts Spike and his gang as involved in increasingly cruel schemes involving robbery, physical assault, and destruction of property. Because Dapping does not reveal himself as the author, there is no resolution that puts a decisive end to these activities, and Spike's "Crapshooters" gang never atone for nor repudiate their sins. Rather, their behavior is shown to be a small part of the overall corruption that serves as the backbone of Yorkville society.
Register's introduction concentrates on the Republic as a source for Dapping's views on adolescent development. The school's founder, William George, subscribed to emerging theories of adolescence exemplified by G. Stanley Hall, who proposed a period between childhood and adulthood during which humans naturally gravitate towards "tribal communalism" [End Page 254] (28). Rather than discouraging gang activity, the George Junior Republic promoted the values of...