Dispatches | November 15, 2006

A friend asked me about my last blog regarding sex, sensationalism, and brutality in American history and politics.  Where do I get this idea that things don’t really change so much as find new dress?  I would like to answer with something dramatic (revelation in the desert, the airplane crash I survived, etc.), but alas, I have to admit that I’ve primarily gotten it from reading and research.  Over the years TMR has published a number of previously unpublished literary or historical texts, and they’ve all required intense but agreeably limited periods of primary research.  

In a recent blog I spoke of a Twain document that we didn’t publish.  Sometimes I learn as much from those as from the ones that we do publish.  Here’s another one:

I was once digging in the Huntington Research Library in Pasadena for a “history as literature” feature when — helped by Paul Zall, one of the wizards of that library — I tracked down something that looked promising: the diary of George Washington’s personal secretary, written during the first years of the United States after the Revolution, when the government was still residing in New York.  The diary had not yet been published.  The young secretary, Bob Lewis, was Washington’s nephew, which suggested that he was trusted, had good access to the first president, and must have known a great deal about him. 

Reading it, however, I was both disappointed and fascinated.  It seems that when Bob went to his room at night and took out his quill for his private jottings, he wasn’t at all interested in Uncle George or Aunt Martha or any of the irksome little details of the formation of the United States.     

Instead he wrote down almost nothing but brief descriptions of the madams and bathhouses and houses of prostitution he visited.  He was young and fresh out of the Virginia countryside, and his absorption in this world was understandable, but a list of prostitutes does not exactly make for rich reading.  Yet I did find it interesting that for a young man in the city of New York in the l780s, it seemed to be quite normal for his social and sexual life to be confined to this demimonde.  How else could a young man have fun?

Prostitution in fact heated up as America’s Eastern cities burgeoned in size.  A generation after Bob Lewis first came to New York — from about the l830s on, according to historian Timothy Gilfoyle — was an age of widespread toleration of the money-for-sex industries in cities.  This included theaters, where sex was sometimes openly practiced, tenement houses, masked balls (which people attended in various stages of undress), “model shows,” and burlesque.  The number of prostitutes and occasional prostitutes in New York during this period has been estimated at a mind-boggling five to fifteen percent of the female population.  A young female, who made two or three dollars a week in a laboring job, could make ten or more dollars for a single trick.  This was of course also a time when women could not sue in court, execute a will, or vote, and some chose to take control of their lives however they could.  It was the era of a “carnivalized” American culture, when everything went.  Guidebooks to houses of prostitution in the guise of “reform” pamphlets were sold on street corners.  

One of the bromides in political commentary these days is that American life suddenly began to get brutal and dangerous starting with the drugs and the gratuitous violence that began coursing through the nation’s media in the l960s — or pick your decade.  In an attempt to find “causes” so that they can make pronouncements, politicians and pundits display the memory of earthworms.  They know the smell they’re following, but they don’t remember a lot about the smells of the past.  Violence in America, drugs, prostitution, media excess, pornography, and political corruption — none of these things was either invented in the last part of the 20th century or even particularly evident by comparison with our past.  

Speer Morgan