Rome on the Hudson

Skyscraper Museum, New York City
Illustration by Harry M. Pettit from Moses King’s guidebook Views of New York, 1908

Despite the durable tale of liberation from Victorian repression, American history during the early twentieth century was less a linear drive toward emancipation than a recasting of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The two tendencies coexisted, calling each other into being, sometimes within the same cultural figure. Consider the chorus girl, whose vibrant sexuality was constrained by close-order drill; or the militant imperialist, whose lust for vicarious risk was countered by a dream of regimented order.

The interplay between new sources of chaos and new ways to contain it characterized the epoch as a whole. Centrifugal forces arose from exploding markets for labor, goods, and entertainment; from women’s demands for personal autonomy and a larger part in public life; from immigrants of multiple ethnicities crowding into cities and striking workers filling the streets; and from a vague but pervasive fascination with Force (invariably capitalized), which seemed to be quickening pulses as never before. Yet this ferment coexisted with centripetal forces, embodied in new idioms (hygiene, normality, scientific racism, managerial rationality) and new institutions (monopolistic corporations, government bureaucracies)—all of which channeled and contained the energies unleashed by modern urban life.

The apparently hedonistic culture that emerged before World War I was a muddle of flagrant gestures toward personal liberation and subtle new forms of social coercion—the spread of compulsory heterosexuality in the guise of sexual freedom, the standardization of ideals of health and beauty through national advertising, the codification of racial hierarchies in an ideology of empire, and the imposition of higher standards of efficiency in the workplace as well as unprecedented demands for conformity in the public sphere. The loosening of strictures on personal behavior coincided with the creation of new definitions of what was permissible and normal, which advanced under the banners of progress and liberation. Early-twentieth-century American society was on the verge of a reshuffling of values and power relations in which the rich would come out just fine. And New York City was where that new synthesis would be worked out, in all its messy and contradictory details.

Mike Wallace knows this. In fact he knows nearly everything worth knowing about New York during the years leading up to World War I. He knows where the Heinz Company mounted the biggest electric pickle in the world (Madison Square), how Sophie Tucker started out as a “World-Renowned Coon Shouter,” how many pounds a typical longshoreman loaded in an hour (three thousand), and how the City College of New York (CCNY) became “the Jewish University of America,” despite expecting its students to check their religion and their radical politics at the gate.

Wallace packs these and a multitude of other fascinating details into his enormous book, Greater Gotham, which somehow remains astonishingly readable. But he also gets the big…

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