Entertaining if insubstantial look at the goings-on among late–19th-century New York’s upper classes.
Dunlop (Sixty Miles from Contentment, not reviewed) paints an unflattering picture of life among the social elite of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. He draws from a number of contemporary secondary sources (and a smattering of surviving primary ones) and begins by relating tales of the social excesses of the Bradley Martins, a preeminent and trend-setting family of the time. Then he roams through considerations of the bizarrely fashionable clothing styles and artistic tastes of the period, offers a brief discussion of rapidly increasing class tensions, and moves on to an overview of the sexual dysfunctions of both humans and elephants (yes, that’s right) of those days. The spectacularly insensitive behavior of New York’s prominent people (from all eras), of course, will never cease to amaze. But while the eccentricities of Gotham’s 19th-century denizens make for an amusing read, the author relies almost exclusively on contemporary newspaper accounts (from publications that invented the practice of “yellow journalism”). These accounts provide endless anecdotal diversions, but are hardly reliable in their veracity. Dunlop has two simple claims to establish. First, she maintains that there are many historical parallels between the late-19th century and our own day. Fair enough. Second, she believes that the ills of that time were caused by a hurried, overworked, male-dominated, sexist, and racist society unwilling to tolerate social criticism of any kind. As valid as this argument may be, it needs more in the way of evidence than a seemingly never-ending litany of New York Herald snippets and headlines.
An agreeable snapshot of an interesting time and class in New York—but a less-than-satisfying historical critique. (b&w illustrations throughout, not seen)