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New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950 written by William Chapman Sharpe


New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950 written by William Chapman Sharpe


As early as the 1850s, gaslight tempted New Yorkers out into a burgeoning nightlife filled with shopping, dining, and dancing. Electricity later turned the city at night into an even more stunning spectacle of brilliantly lit streets and glittering skyscrapers. The advent of artificial lighting revolutionized the urban night, creating not only new forms of life and leisure, but also new ways of perceiving the nocturnal experience. New York Nocturne is the first book to examine how the art of the gaslit and electrified city evolved, and how representations of nighttime New York expanded the boundaries of modern painting, literature, and photography. Exploring the myriad images of Manhattan after dark, New York Nocturne shows how writers and artists took on the city's nocturnal blaze and transformed the scintillating landscape into an icon of modernity.

The book traces key metaphors of the nighttime city: a seductive Babylon in the mid-1850s, a misty fairyland colonized by an empire of light in the early twentieth century, and a skyscraper-studded land of desire that became a stage for the voyeurism and violence of the 1940s and 1950s. The epilogue suggests how these themes have continued to shape our vision of nighttime New York ever since. Abundantly illustrated, New York Nocturne includes original readings of works by Whitman, Poe, Whistler, Riis, Stieglitz, Abbott, O'Keeffe, Stella, Hopper, Weegee, Ellison, Jacquette, and many others. Collectively, they tell a fascinating story about the relationship between night, art, and modern urban life.


"New York Nocturne is a wonderfully rich plum pudding of a book on the evolution of the modern urban environment and how it has been perceived, especially in New York. Teeming with little-known history and keen critical insight, this study illuminates how artists and writers made imaginative capital of the changing New York nightscape. Their vision helped construct the image of New York as we still see it today: a city that never sleeps, a brilliantly lit stage set that comes alive in dramatic, even thrilling ways after dark."--Morris Dickstein, CUNY Graduate Center

"New York Nocturne is a tour de force of scholarship and an instant classic. I cannot think of another book that so convincingly shows the connections between technological innovation, spatial transformation, and cultural change."--Steven Hoelscher, University of Texas, Austin

"New York Nocturne raises important questions concerning the history of cities, urban modernism and modernity, and the relationship of technology to the urban experience. The breadth is ambitious and the text is studded with lovely analyses of individual works."--Rebecca Zurier, University of Michigan

The Barnes & Noble Review

The blackout of 2003 offered New Yorkers their most recent opportunity to experience something exceedingly rare: the city enveloped in darkness. William Chapman Sharpe begins New York Nocturne at a time when nighttime darkness was the norm and light -- first in the form of gas, then of electricity -- was radically disorienting, eventually transforming patterns of commerce and leisure. In this gorgeous, erudite book, the Barnard College professor examines the myriad ways that writers, painters, and photographers have represented New York nightlife, beginning in the mid-19th century, when works by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe dramatized the moral perils of the artificially lit city. Sharpe's journey takes him to the middle of the 20th century, by which time artists like Edward Hopper and Weegee exploit the nighttime's theatrical, voyeuristic potential. In between he covers James McNeill Whistler, Stephen Crane, John Sloan, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joseph Stella, and many others, with close readings of the literature and black-and-white and color reproductions of the art. Sharpe, whose own affection for the city is charmingly apparent here, insists throughout that artists and writers haven't simply reacted to the changes in urban existence; rather, they have "helped turn the unscouted terrain of the urban night into a legible part of contemporary life." --Barbara Spindel


New York Nocturne
By William Chapman Sharpe Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13324-9

Introduction Now the nights of one period are not the nights of another. Neither are the nights of one city the nights of another. -Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

The Dream Site

In the early 1850s, Henry David Thoreau took a series of long nocturnal strolls in the countryside near Walden, mapping out lectures on night and moonlight. Thoreau had his eyes on the shadowy forest, yet his eagerness to subdue the kingdom of night for poetical purposes echoes the exploitative fervor with which urbanites were beginning to explore the city after dark. "I shall be a benefactor," wrote Thoreau,

if I conquer some realms from the night, if I report to the gazettes anything transpiring about us at that season worthy of their attention,-if I can show men that there is some beauty awake while they are asleep,-if I add to the domains of poetry.

Writing of natural processes that had changed little in thousands of years, Thoreau seems unaware of how desperately outmoded his projected conquest is. He gives no hint that artificial lighting and feverish nighttime activity had already rendered his slumbering landscape an object of nostalgic curiosity for city dwellers. By the mid-nineteenth century, the silvery dreamland that Thoreau wandered while his neighbors slept would have seemed to many New Yorkers as remote as the African interior. And yet, although he was seeking something primeval, Thoreau's desire to "add to the domains of poetry" by aesthetically annexing the land of the night put him in the mainstream of modernity. Like many other writers and artists, capitalists and pioneers, he was participating in one of the epoch's great adventures: the colonizing of the night.

While his timing was perfect, Thoreau was simply in the wrong place. The action was elsewhere, in the great cities. It had been only a few decades since urban life in Europe and the United States had begun to feel the radical alteration caused by the advance of light into hitherto dark hours. But now the race was on to capture broad swaths of nocturnal territory for profit and pleasure. The installation of gaslight in London's West End in 1807 ignited a series of innovations that permanently rearranged the rhythms of everyday life, transforming traditional patterns of industry, commerce, leisure, and consumption. The concept of "nightlife" was born, along with the twenty-four-hour workday. With reliable lighting came safer streets, late shopping, and vastly expanded entertainments. The illumination of the city changed the very way people thought about-and thus lived in-the night. Darkness, so long a barrier to human activity, quickly became a stimulant.

The ability of the city to transcend the rhythms of nature, to banish night so that its own artifice could reign supreme, came to symbolize the essence of progress, the culmination of technical prowess and cultural sophistication. Drawing human moths to its flame, the decked-out city of night ostentatiously burned its candle at both ends. By the twentieth century, a shimmering skyline and a blaze of electricity signified human life at its richest, most promising, and most seductive: "bright lights, big city." The physical paraphernalia of light, from the lamppost to the gasworks or the power plant, became permanent daytime reminders that a visual newfound land was being charted every evening. Artistic renderings played a vital role in this revolution, not merely recording the novel sights of the city after dark, but also educating their audiences in the modes of perception through which this "darkness visible" might be experienced. In ways we are only beginning to appreciate, the impact of gas and electricity reshaped the arts and the psyche, not to mention the experience of urban life. City dwellers realized that a new arena of human interaction had opened up. Its joys and perils needed to be interpreted-morally, aesthetically, and socially. How did the city look to those who ventured forth, the flâneurs prowling the streets in search of inspiration? How were their responses communicated through poems and novels, guidebooks, paintings, prints, and photographs? How did nocturnal imagery evolve as people made efforts to comprehend first the gaslit and then the electric city? And how was the cityscape framed and transfigured, so that it came to seem like a stage set, a fantasyland, or an intimate interior? New York Nocturne explores how writers, painters, and photographers helped turn the unscouted terrain of the urban night into a legible part of contemporary life.

As we read the map of nocturnal modernity made by such figures as Walt Whitman and Ralph Ellison, Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper, Alfred Stieglitz and "Weegee," I want to stress that my emphasis is not so much on social or technological transformation as on how that transformation was registered in literature and the visual arts. The works of innovative image-makers, rather than the experiences of ordinary people, are the focus here. But along the way, I refer to the still-unfolding histories of illumination and nightlife as a means of establishing concretely how technological change altered urban experience, something implicit in my interpretation of art and literature. Thus, New York Nocturne concentrates not on nocturnal urban "reality" as lived by various socioeconomic groups but on how creative individuals have in memorable ways depicted and reinterpreted that ever-evolving reality for themselves and their audiences.

Looking at the visual and verbal ideas that engaged the makers of night imagery, we will often arrive at fresh readings of familiar works, now that they are seen in the context of the nocturnal genre. Some of the images and texts presented here are classics, chosen because they have had a lot of cultural visibility and impact-those by Edgar Allan Poe and Emma Lazarus, Edward Steichen and Berenice Abbott, James McNeill Whistler and Joseph Stella, for instance. But I also use many lesser-known works to gauge the depth of an idea or image, and see if something unexpected will turn up to compel attention. Since showing what's special about nocturnal imagery is at the heart of my endeavor, I try to identify just what working with the night contributed to the art of each figure I analyze-and what each figure contributed to the growing body of nocturnal expression. We will see, to take just a few examples, how representing nocturnal subjects and atmosphere helped Whistler achieve a desired notoriety, lent Steichen an "artistic" aura, enabled Frederic Remington to be recognized as a painter rather than mere illustrator, helped Stella fuse a Futurist style with American themes, burned Weegee's flash photos into public consciousness, and gave poets William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop a human moth-to-electric-flame image of the writer's tormented act of creation.

Since 1812, when the composer John Field first gave the title "nocturne" to a series of quietly expressive piano pieces, the term has been applied to a wide range of imaginative works that, according to their creators, evoke nighttime thoughts and sensations. Because the history of the nocturne zigzags between music, the visual arts, and literature, study of the subject demands an interdisciplinary, multimedia approach. I will admit right here that regrettably, this book does not address the nocturne in either music or film-still unexplored topics that are well worth investigating. And long as it is, this book itself has had to be selective. For reasons of space and personal inclination, I have focused on what might be called "descriptive" nocturnes: works of writers, painters, and photographers that may well have musical or cinematic counterparts, but that give special privilege, verbally and visually, to the look of the city after dark. Although I will be comparing how the city is represented in various texts and images, trying to show what each has contributed to our composite picture of New York, the aim is not to compare the media themselves, or offer theories about their similarities and differences, advantages and constraints. Rather, I will try to show how ideas and approaches may be borrowed, emulated, subverted, or rejected, often quite loosely and by analogy, among people trying to represent in their own way, in their own medium, a shared topic: the city at night. Tracing the imagery through which ideas about the nocturnal scene entered cultural consciousness, this book concentrates mostly on exterior, outdoor views of the city. For centuries people have sought security at night behind their shutters and doors. Their relation to interior space remained largely stable even as improved forms of lighting and heating made indoor life more comfortable. But gaslight's sudden arrival tempted them out of their homes with the promise of wondrous sights. For Americans and Europeans both, emboldened initially by gaslight and then by a succession of new techniques of looking and lighting, the night became an arena for action. Artificial lighting had opened up a new epoch in human endeavor. Scrutiny of the night seemed almost an obligation; like Charles Dickens's vampiric lawyer Mr. Vholes, darkness courted inquiry. Freighted with associations but at first little frequented by the "respectable" classes, tractable in theory but challenging in practice, night assumed the allure and menace of an uncharted continent. It beckoned.

As artistic perception of night and light evolved, nocturnes became an influential force in the development of modern art and literature. Discovering the city, and particularly New York, through the lens of nocturnal experience, image makers found exceptional artistic possibilities that shattered traditional forms and encouraged greater freedom of expression. As they worked, they created a new New York-a vibrant composite image that has developed as the actual city has, an image that to this moment influences how we respond to the physical city before us. Through study of that nocturnal image, we can learn a great deal about how it felt to live in the city in times past, and how the resonances of the words "New York" have multiplied over time.

Why New York? Nowhere else did nocturnal exploration take a more exciting form. Even before the advent of electricity, New Yorkers were announcing that their gaslit whirl rivaled that of London and Paris, as illustrators and journalists, writers and artists cataloged the city's infamies and chronicled its secrets. For New York's self-proclaimed arrival on the world stage around 850 coincided with the dawning recognition that night was a kind of global stage in itself. Inextricably bound up in the rhetoric of exploration, colonization, and discovery, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century encounters with the night were suffused with a sense of adventure. "Daytime" activities-the constant construction and demolition; the influx of immigrants, industries, and capital; the ever-rising skyline-lent New York a protean form that rapidly achieved legendary status. But complementing the transformation of the built environment was another, equally mythic metamorphosis-one that took place nightly as darkness fell, and the workaday world seemed to don garments of fire and diamonds.

Growing furiously, the city emerged from the gaslit era on nearly equal terms with London in size and Paris in ostentation. Then, in the 880s and 890s, New York aggressively assumed a more pronounced "electric" personality, assembling a nocturnal semiotic arsenal that no other city could match. Sustained by the legends that art and commerce were building, the allure of New York as the preeminent city of the night stemmed from a simple fact: no city anywhere had ever been so radiantly and thoroughly lit. Opening its first central power plant in 882, just three years after Thomas Edison successfully demonstrated the incandescent lightbulb, New York electrified more rapidly and completely than any European capital. Streetlights sparkled in processions along the avenues, while brightly lit interiors of apartments and offices became visible to people passing in the streets or on elevated trains. Meanwhile, the proliferation of skyscrapers began to change the topography of the city itself, as their lights broke the ceiling of darkness that in cities had hovered at the five-story level since the Middle Ages. From the 1890s onward, seeing New York created a lust for light that no place else could satisfy. Returning to Ireland in 1964, Brendhan Behan wrote: When I arrived home from Broadway, where my play The Hostage was running, my wife said to me, "Oh isn't it great to be back. How do you feel coming home?" "Listen Beatrice," I said, "It's very dark!" And I think anybody returning home after going to New York will find their native spot pretty dark too.

New York stood out especially in its contrast with the countryside. The illumination of cities outpaced that of less populated areas even more dramatically in the United States than elsewhere, due to the private ownership of lighting companies. Whereas Europeans regarded lighting as a public service to be administered nationally, Americans treated it as a commercial commodity produced by and for the benefit of private enterprise, and lit each locality in direct proportion to the profits it could generate. Poorer and rural areas found themselves simply left in the dark. As the center of American commerce, the most highly visible and valuable piece of real estate in the nation, downtown Manhattan was quickly illuminated to the hilt. Citizens were calling Broadway the "Great White Way" even in the 890s, and it was the intensity of light from advertising that created this impression. The spectacle shone all the more powerfully because it burst out at a time when not even 5 percent of American homes had electricity. It all amounted to a gigantic self-promotion, an urban publicity campaign that rapidly mythologized New York as the modern city, the ultimate city of light. By 1900, three of the most salient features of New York's modernity-its skyscrapers, its brash, self-confident love of newness, and its dollar-driven, accelerated pace of life-coalesced and found their most spectacular form after dark. The boldness of the city's lines, its soaring heights and uninhibited theatricality, marked it as a place apart, operating on a scale that eclipsed its European predecessors. A first step in changing perceptions of the night city came from those who championed the simple romance of elevated trains and watering holes. Realist novelist William Dean Howells and the painters of the Ash Can School tamed the threatening features of nightlife for middle-class audiences, as did O. Henry, whose stories of "Baghdad on the Subway" showed that urban chaos could be repackaged in ingeniously knotted four-page bundles. Between 1900 and 1915, with the spread of lavishly decorated lobster palaces, movie houses, and cabarets, going out at night gradually became the order of the day. By the 1920s New York had a mayor, socialite Jimmy Walker, who claimed it was a sin to go to bed on the same day you got up. The city lights produced a breathtaking skyline that outsparkled the rest of the world with its ambition, promise, and inhuman beauty. Visiting the city in the 1930s, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier remarked that New York at night is "a Milky Way come down to earth."

For over a century now, the sheer spectacle of New York at night has proved irresistible. Painters' images of the city at night have become modernist icons in themselves: the soaring gothic arches of Stella's Brooklyn Bridge (1922) open onto a promised land of light and height; O'Keeffe's Radiator Building, Night, New York (1927) discharges urban energy from its floodlit, flowering top; Charles Demuth's I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928) projects an apocalyptic vision of a fire truck hurtling through the night (color plate 1); and Hopper's Nighthawks (1942) presents a human diorama in a diner, its specimens drenched in the light of loneliness. The astonishing beauty of skyscrapers seen from a distance appears to engage in a nightly duel with the abrasive passion of city streets confronted close-up. (Continues...)

Excerpted from New York Nocturne by William Chapman Sharpe
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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