I spent the past few weeks plowing through a double-feature, prompted initially by the release to DVD of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. About the time that the disc hit shelves a few weeks ago, I found myself, like others, reflecting on the film. In the theater, it was a frustrating viewing experience; it was clear that there was in fact a great film inside the exhibited picture that just didn’t make it to the screen. However, six months later, I found that significant sections and images from the film had stayed with me. My curiosity about Mr. Scorsese’s source material – and the historical veracity of those sources – led me to keep a sharper eye out for New Your history books than usual.
I scored not only the book that inspired the filmmaker, Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, but also a work of recent vintage, the scholarly Five Points by Tyler Anbinder, a professor of history at George Washington University. I had previously read The Murder of Helen Jewett, by Patricia Cline Cohen, a recent work of historical research that looks at a scandalous 1836 murder in New York. As I read both Gangs and Five Points I was driven to consult Jewett more than once, and so I think I should touch on it here.
Mr. Asbury’s book is the most familiar of the three, both from the drumbeat of hype for the film and as a genuine work of literary and historical merit, having drawn favorable commentary since publication in the 1920s. It belongs to a currently undernourished genre that flourished in the era of its’ publication, the anecdotal metropolitan history. Each American urban center seems to have these colorful tomes somewhere in their spittle-and-chewing tobacco stained past, perpetually reminding the city that the towers grew on foundations of hard work, graft, greed, violence and ambition.
Generally these books were written by journalists with strong connections to the rough-and-tumble culture of American cities before World War II, frequently police reporters who saw that elderly survivors of this political battle of the 1880s or that riot of the 1860’s were not long for the world. Mr. Asbury’s book is the current standard bearer. The incredibly entertaining and surreal Bosses of Old Chicago, also published before WWII, and Murray Morgan’s Seattle contribution, Skid Road, published in the sixties, also come to mind. Readers in other areas of the country will doubtless know their local version of these wonderful books.
Asbury’s book largely upheld its’ reputation, and I am sorry to say that Mr. Scorsese’s film suffers a bit in its shadow, for all that it’s a valiant effort to transform the setting and themes of the book. The book covers a considerably larger field and time than the film and where the film rang false the book reverberates with what appears to be truth, sparing nothing in its description of the racial focus of the draft rioters, for example.
However, the joy of Asbury’s book is that it’s essentially a collection of entertaining and colorful anecdotes and character studies, the sort of interesting thing you really expect a police reporter to hear whilst bending elbow in a saloon somewhere near HQ. Stories told in bars contain one kind of truth; but that truth is the truth of tragedy and myth, not that of the historian, and so when I had made the acquaintance of Mr. Asbury’s mooks, goons, and politicos, I felt it meet to drop in on the professor for some clarification and demystification.
Five Points is a history of the neighborhood that is the focal pont of Scorsese’s film, an intersection just around the corner from the remaining Italian restaurants of Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan today. The neighborhood, my high-school pal who now patrols the streets as an officer of the NYPD tells me, is now mostly Chinatown. I found it fascinating to realize that the street I’d walked down with Ken and his then sweetie was one of the primary stages of the stories in both books. The corner I watched an indecisive teenager hesitate on before entering a limo with his posse was the location that a Five Points gang leader had been gunned down one hundred fifty years before.
The book is unusually structured – each chapter opens with a prologue, focused on the life of a specific individual that lived in the milieu covered in the body of the chapter. The device permits the scholar to develop his research and present his conclusions cleanly, pointing to the prologue’s narrative as example and freeing the writer from the responsibility to present a story-arc or narrative in the chapter proper. Despite this structural decision, I did not find the reading dry – the characters that populate the neighborhood through time are too colorful.
Mr. Anbinder rarely expounds upon characters that Mr. Asbury explored or made much of, preferring, rightly, to examine either less apparently colorful and therefore more representative individuals or conversely individuals whose remarkable accomplishments, being not of the criminal variety, were outside the scope of Asbury’s book.
He also takes some joy in researching anecdotes to reveal that the historical outcome of well-known events is quite discrete from what might be expected. In a notable instance, he concludes both that intermarriage and cohabitation between persons of European and non-European ancestry was relatively common, in this instance supporting Mr. Scorsese’s filmic vision of a more-integrated society than might be expected. In another, he shows that of the five-hundred or so Five Pointers who were actually called in the draft that triggered the famous riot a grand total of two actually served, calling into question the commonly understood reasons for the riots.
Ms. Cohen’s book, The Murder of Helen Jewett, was first published in 1998. I believe I read it in early 2001. It’s more like Five Points than Gangs, in that it’s a contemporary book by a professional academic historian, and in that it relies on research and current techniques of history writing to accomplish its’ goals. However, by focusing on the story of two young New Yorkers – the unfortunate Miss Jewett and her killer – she ties her detailed survey of manners and economics, of place and time, to a story that interpenetrates the book as a whole.
It’s unfair to critique Jewett and Five Points as narrative entertainments, as this is not their sole or perhaps primary aim. I very much enjoyed all three books; I still wished a bit more of the garrulous and smoky barroom air had made it into the two historian’s books. I anxiously press these books upon you, fellow admirer of urban histories. I found them endlessly fascinating.