God in the Street

New York Writing from The Penny Press to Melville

Hans Bergmann
Book Cover

PB: $36.95
EAN: 978-1-56639-358-4
Publication: Nov 95

HC: $91.50
EAN: 978-1-56639-357-7
Publication: Nov 95

272 pages
6 x 9
4 figs., 5 halftones

New York City, as literary subject, sets the stage for this study of urban literature

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).


In the fast changing culture of antebellum New York, writers of every stripe celebrated "the City" as a stage for the daily urban encounter between the familiar and the inexplicable. Probing into these richly varied texts, Hans Bergmann uncovers the innovations in writing that accompanied the new market society— the penny newspapers' grandiose boastings, the poetic catalogues of Walt Whitman, the sentimental realism of charity workers, the sensationalism of slum visitors, and the complex urban encounters of Herman Melville's fiction.

The period in which New York, the city itself, became firmly established as a subject invented a literary form that attempts to capture the variety of the teeming city and the flaneur, the walking observer. But Bergmann does not simply lead a parade of images and themes; he explores the ways in which these observers understood what was happening around them and to them, always attentive to class struggle and race and gender issues.

God in the Street shows how the penny press and Whitman's New York poetry create a new mass culture hero who interprets and dignifies the city's confusions. New York writers, both serious and sensationalist, meditate upon street encounters with tricksters and confidence-men and explore the meanings of encounters. Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrinever" underlines the unrelenting isolation and inability to control the interpreter. Bergmann reinterprets Melville's The Confidence Man as an example of how a complex literary form arises directly from its own historical materials and is itself socially symbolic. Bergmann sees Melville as special because he recognizes his inability to make sense of the surface of chaotic images and encounters. In mid-century New York City, Melville believes God is in the street, unavailable and unrecognizable, rather than omnipresent and guiding.


"This is a fine book—gracefully written, fresh in its approach to antebellum literature, and persuasive in its readings of Melville within a rich sense of history and social context."
Barbara Melosh, George Mason University

"As informative as it is informing, God in the Street draws us into the complexities of the New York encounter in which raw urban life of the 1840s and 1850s and America's growing literary aesthetic interact to form a distinctive genre, the 'New York discourse.' With the erudition and grace of a practiced scholar-critic, Bergmann recovers in rich detail the literary transformations of New York's mean streets into Penny Press sketches, verbal panoramas, cony-catching stunts, flaneuristic 'feuilletons,' guidebooks, poems, and novels; out of which eventually emerge the exuberance and doubt of Whitman and Melville. Full of provocative readings and careful contextualization, this is sure to be a lasting contribution to 19th century American studies."
John Bryant, Hofstra University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: The Man in Cream-Colors
Part I: Panorama
1. The Penny Press: Anecdotes of New York
2. Windows on the World: Guides to New York
3. Walt Whitman: Over the Roofs of the World
Part II: "Dickens' Place"
4. "Hot Corn!": Encounters with Street Children
5. Five Points: Sketches of Hell
Part III: "Do You Not See the Reason for Yourself?"
6. Putnam's and New York Stories
7. Key: "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
Part IV: Awake in Our Sleep?
8. Peter Funk: Tales of Exchange
9. "We Golden Boys, the Moderns": The Confidence Man

About the Author(s)

HANS BERGMANN is Professor of English and cultural studies at George Mason University.