My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
It would seem hard to top Gotham, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s authoritative history of New York from its colonial beginnings until 1898, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and received universally positive reviews, but Wallace, this time writing solo, has done it with volume two, Greater Gotham. Covering the period from 1898 to 1919, this thousand-plus-page tome from Oxford University Press, with copious illustrations, is both magisterial and warmly accessible. Wallace, who has been working on the project since the 1980s and is now seventy-five, has more or less cheerfully accepted the task of spending the rest of his days completing and revising this vast canvas up to the present day. Nothing like this urban record has ever been attempted: earlier one-volume histories of New York are skimpy at best. And what makes Greater Gotham even more remarkable is the way it incorporates unknown individuals as well as public figures into the overall narrative, and embeds these characters in a larger national-international context, capturing them with odd, colorful details that bring the era alive.
Wallace, Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the founder of the Gotham Center for New York City History, is married to the Mexican novelist Carmen Boullosa (to whom Greater Gotham is dedicated) and divides his time between Brooklyn and Mexico City. I have been friendly for many years with Mike and Carmen, both of whom frequently entertain in their home with parties that feature foreign guests and fabulous food. Though I like to think of myself as knowledgeable about New York, I am in awe of Mike’s grasp of the subject. He is truly a walking encyclopedia of New Yorkiana, but is too polite or unpedantic to discourse on the ins and outs of the city unless directly asked. I recently had the opportunity to pose some questions to him about the making of Greater Gotham, and he was gracious enough to give me an intimate look at his toolbox.
Phillip Lopate Gotham spanned several centuries of history, and the new book, Greater Gotham, is almost as long page-wise yet takes us only through twentyone years. Why the slowing down?
Mike Wallace In large part it’s a response to the city’s great leap forward in size and complexity during these two decades. The vast expansion of its boundaries, the reordering of its political economy, the enlargement of its international footprint, the immense influx of ever more variegated migrants and immigrants, and the deepening of its internal divisions together produced a maelstrom of change that demanded description and analysis.
And there’s been a tremendous expansion of scholarship dealing with New York’s history in this period. A flood of books, dissertations, articles, website posts, and blogs have deepened our understanding of the many subjects the volume tracks—banking, architecture, sewer systems, immigration, sexuality, literature, industrialization, infrastructure, popular culture, etc., etc., etc. Staying abreast of developments in all these fields was time consuming (I’m a slow reader) but essential, given my goal of producing a synthesis.
Since the last book there’s also been an unprecedented facilitation of access to what we call in the trade “primary documents.” When Ted Burrows and I worked on Gotham in the ’80s and ’90s, research required trips to a library or an archive. Reading dissertations meant sticking one’s head in a microfilm reader, or buying paper versions (at $35 a pop). Given the vast array of topics, and the need to avoid getting mired in any one of them, we stuck overwhelmingly to secondary sources. But in the zeroes and tens, research became temptingly easy. Literally millions of public domain books were digitized. Dissertations were now a (free) download away. Amazon and Google Books and archive.org and umpteen other sites offered instant access to books old and new. Hundreds of journals and newspapers became keyword searchable. (There was a catch—one needed to be linked to an institution that paid the stiff fees required for accessing JSTOR or the digitized New York Times—but as a CUNY professor I was plugged in.) This changed everything. I used to spend a lot of time in the Allen Room, the New York Public Library’s great gift to authors of a portal to the treasures within. But with most of what I needed having been digitized, I haven’t been there in several years now. Indeed I can work in Mexico City almost as efficiently as in New York.
Slowing down was also a function of zooming in. The narrative of the second volume flies closer to the ground than did the first. My decision to amplify the magnification was influenced by readers’ responses to Gotham. They mostly found its attention to detail appealing. This persuaded me to track macro developments less through scholarly narration and more by telling micro stories about individual New Yorkers who engineered or experienced the big changes. This made the book bigger but hopefully more accessible.
PL Have you begun volume three yet? What period do you anticipate it focusing on?
MW I had originally intended the second volume in the Gotham series to run from 1898 to 1945. I have in fact written hundreds of pages on the city in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. But when it became abundantly clear that such a book, twice the size of this one, would far exceed the capabilities of bindery technology (and reader patience!), those pages were detached from what became Greater Gotham, its bandwidth now narrowed to 1898 to 1919. The severed material will appear, in due time, in the series’ third volume, which tackles the boom-bust-war years of 1920 to 1945.
PL The period under review in Greater Gotham seems to have been one of great expansion and consolidation. Not only were the five boroughs amalgamated into one municipality, but so many of the businesses and institutions in every area of life grew larger through alignments of smaller groups. How do you account for that happening in these particular years?
MW Though the urge to merge swept almost simultaneously through the city’s economic, political, and cultural spheres, I think the principal instigating factor was the great wave of consolidations that between 1898 and 1904 joined hundreds of competing firms into a relative handful of megaand quasi-monopolistic entities like United States Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar company. The bankers and industrialists who presided over this reconstruction of American capitalism—men like Morgan and Rockefeller—had come to believe that free enterprise was a disaster for the country, and for capitalism itself. Cutthroat competition had led to declining profits, which led to wage cuts, unionization, armed suppression, bankruptcy, economic collapse (most recently the terrible and violence-drenched depression of the 1890s), and consequent calls for socialism.
The corporate elite, together with like-minded professional allies, were convinced they were agents of a new and higher form of civilization, one that required rising above the competitive scramble of the marketplace and attaining the lofty altitude from which the future could be actively planned, not passively endured. They believed their consolidation methodology could be applied in a variety of spheres, civic as well as commercial, and they made prodigious efforts to remold their headquarters city in the image of their new enterprises. This same cohort promoted the merger of competing municipalities (chiefly Manhattan and Brooklyn), and consolidation became the beau ideal in commerce, culture, infrastructure, and a host of other sectors.
PL So often the consolidating arrangement was one of public-private partnership. We tend to think of such deals as a new phenomenon, but you seem to be arguing that it is a basic part of New York’s character. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
MW I’m not sure men like Morgan saw their corporate creations as partnerships with the state. That smacked of equality, where they favored private sector supremacy. But since colonial days, the smart money in New York, aware that an unfettered marketplace was bad for business, had accepted the usefulness of some state regulation. Government inspection of grain for export, and certification of its quality, underwrote distant buyers’ confidence. In the early twentieth century real estate capitalists were ferociously opposed to any state-imposed restrictions on the right to use their property however they damn well pleased. But when the propertied class realized competition and overbuilding were endangering rental income, they opted for zoning laws that inhibited such liberties. (It helped that they themselves were major factors in local governance.) Being capitalists, they were pursuing private profit, not the common weal, but many were convinced the greater good would come wagging along behind them. Whether this was true or not would require analysis of particular situations.
PL You give proper attention to the innovations in transportation, the port, the water and sewage systems, and other public works and commercial enterprises, all of which led the city to boast that it had the biggest, the largest, the best whatever. But you are also duly attentive to those who were left behind, or who suffered collateral damage, and you devote considerable attention to progressive activists, socialists, unions, women’s rights groups, all combating social injustice. Regardless of your balanced tone as a historian, the book definitely and unapologetically tilts left. Was this a conscious effort on your part—to bequeath a “usable history” for those engaged in similar struggles now?
MW Yes and no.
Yes, because I think it’s important and perhaps useful for contemporary activists to know they have forebears.
No, as I didn’t make a special effort, spurred by presentist concerns, to tell their story. I paid attention to fighters for social justice because they were there, they were facts on the ground, and it was impossible to tell the city’s story without taking them fully into account. The corporate elite had an enormous impact on shaping the city in the zeroes and tens, but so did housing reformers, settlement workers, anti-imperialists, muckrakers, progressives, Jewish socialists, Italian anarchists, Wobblies, women’s suffragists and suffragettes, feminists, birth controllers, opponents of child labor, proponents of industrial unionism, rent strikers, free speech advocates, pacifists, multiculturalists, radical writers, consumer activists, social insurance proponents who were plugged into the latest European initiatives, Harlem-based opponents of racism, and Greenwich Village–based cultural and sexual radicals.
Their struggles may be heartening and instructive to people (like me) on the left. But their stories must be understood in the context of their own time, which is not ours, and used with caution in current combat.
PL Fair enough. Yet it’s remarkable how many of today’s issues are shown in the book to have their roots in an earlier time, and how many of the same battles are resurfacing in, say, health services, education, crime, the police, the treatment of immigrants. Do you think it’s just because history repeats itself, or were you trying to make the book more relevant to today’s readers by tying past events to the concerns of the current moment?
I don’t think history repeats itself, or that it’s a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared. I think history is more usefully understood as the sum total of actions taken in the past that, all in all, have bequeathed us the matrix of constraints and possibilities within which we must operate. Marx said it best: “Men make history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” If we want a metaphor, I’d opt for considering history as a river— the past flowing powerfully through the present—and that charting those historical currents can enhance our ability to navigate them.
But if “history” doesn’t exist, specific social formations do, and they can and do repeatedly generate certain phenomena. Capitalist societies have, over two centuries, repeatedly collapsed into depressions, with characteristic consequences—unemployment, homelessness—and a familiar set of responses— charitable giving, demands for public works, denial of governmental responsibility. Depression eras (and prosperous times) are remarkably similar.
So are the debates over whether or not certain social goods should be considered a right or a commodity. When health care is placed on the table, as it has been repeatedly, the debates tend to run in wellestablished grooves. When the causes of poverty are debated, the range of responses—it’s their fault, it’s systemic—are all too familiar. Here historians can indeed be useful, by pointing out the repetitions, and thus making it clear that any particular crisis or debate is not only a matter of the moment, but is built into the way our economic and social order operates, and, ultimately, can only be addressed effectively at that level.
PL You seem to have had a lot of fun with certain sections, such as popular culture, corrupt politicians, or the gangs of New York. Were there some chapters that were more entertaining for you to research and write? Conversely, what were the more difficult areas for you to crack open?
MW I had a great time sorting out the early years of the automobile (and last years of the horse), as well as the deagriculturalization of Brooklyn (and the spread of suburban subdivisions). I enjoyed designing the imaginary five-borough tour of manufacturing sites, finally getting a real feel for just how gritty an industrial powerhouse the city was. Perusing the burst of guidebooks and bus tours describing the new Greater New York was a great way to experience what it was like to move through the city by subway, bus, and foot. The recent historical exhumation of the Italian sovversivi was eye-opening, as were Gorky’s and Trotsky’s respective encounters with Gotham. Describing and explaining the arrival of the great dance craze was a hoot, as was getting a handle on cakewalks, ragtime, and the sublime Sophie Tucker.
Describing New York’s growing involvement on the international scene was more difficult. There is a vast literature on the run-up to the First World War, from which I had to extract the particular role Gothamites played in Caribbean incursions, a near war with Mexico, the preparedness movement and its squaring off with peace activists, the spectacularly profitable funding of European armament, the rise of a foreign policy complex, and the various roles New Yorkers (like Thomas W. Lamont, Louis Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walter Lippmann) played at the Paris Peace conference. Getting this story straight required extensive forays into an unfamiliar terrain, and I hope I’ve gotten it reasonably right.
PL The book is really magnificent in its sweep and synthesizing of knowledge. What makes it come alive, again and again, are the surprising side details and (to me) previously unknown, colorful historical figures. How do you go about researching such a mammoth job?
MW Sort of the way in which whales go about looking for lunch: they open their enormous jaws wide, cruise along (or dive down), and zillions of smaller fish whoosh in, ready for ingestion and digestion.
My equivalent is to zoom in on a story and see who turns up. Say I’m looking at the fallout from the Panic of 1907—a financial crash triggered by wild Wall Street speculation—in which the banks were rescued by US Treasury intervention, while the people were left to their fate, a nasty two-year recession with widespread unemployment. There are many studies that recount the outlines of the Panic and its aftermath, which I use to establish an overview. But once the framework is in place, I cruise (dive) in closer, reading more detailed accounts, perhaps memoirs, then finally turn to contemporary newspaper or magazine accounts. Without fail, at this depth the faces of unknown figures swim into view—fighters, victims, individuals who are in some way or other exemplary figures, people whose stories I can use to bring to life the realities that underlay the unemployment statistics or charity reports.
PL What sort of decisions went into structuring the book? Like your divvying up sections into Progressives and Repressives.
MW One great track running through all the Gotham volumes is the alternation of boom and bust, a key characteristic of life in a capitalist city. The first volume was largely organized around this oscillation, with key crashes (1837, 1857, 1873, 1894) punctuating the narrative. The third volume will be similarly organized around this roller coaster economy—producing a triadic division into ’20s boom, ’30s depression, and the ’40s war (which, as so often, brought the depression to an end).
In the second volume, Greater Gotham, my first inclination was to divide the book in the same way: the ten year 1898 to 1907 boom; a 1907 to 1914 recession; and the 1914 to 1918 war that wrote finis to hard times. This tidy schema ran into multiple difficulties, in large part because 1907 to 1914 wasn’t a proper depression but rather a sputtering on-again, off-again affair.
One early sign of trouble was a 1912 congressional investigation of Wall Street. Under my initial schema the Pujo “money trust” hearing was separated, given its date, by many hundreds of pages from the 1907 panic that was its key triggering event. But it made much more sense to deal with them together. The structure was getting in the way. Also, other tracks I was following, such as those dealing with developments in the city’s gender and racial and ethnic orders, also failed to fit into my too-rigid structure. So I scrapped it. I was now free to move the Pujo story all the way back to the Panic story, and indeed this reordering worked much better.
But it raised another problem. The most appropriate conclusion to the Pujo story, and the way it’s conventionally told, is the death and funeral of J. P. Morgan. It was not just that Morgan associates blamed his death on the grilling he’d been given by the Pujo committee. Rather his passing marked the moment when it became generally accepted that the US financial order needed institutional, not personal, oversight—a realization that led directly to the creation of the Federal Reserve. But I couldn’t afford to lay Morgan to rest, as several hundred pages farther on, in a chapter on high culture, I would have had to resurrect him, since he was utterly essential to the story of the two Metropolitans (the opera and museum). So I moved his demise some hundreds of pages farther on, intending to pair his departure with the massive public funeral of Big Tim Sullivan. It seemed an inspired choice, as the respective passings marked major transition points in political and economic affairs. But then I realized that I had parked Big Tim (for good reasons) in a chapter on radicalism (socialists, anarchists, Wobblies), and it simply wouldn’t do to conclude their chapter with the urcapitalist’s last rites. I finally was able to finish him off appropriately, some hundreds more pages down the road. (I won’t reveal here where I buried him, I’ll leave it for readers to discover.)
PL Wasn’t it difficult to manipulate such a large manuscript in that way?
MW It was possible because the book is a modular construction. You can think of it as a giant mosaic, composed of scores of tiles (chapters and their subsections), each carrying a specific piece of the narrative. While these tiles are in fact webbed together by those tracks I mentioned, they are designed to be read independently. That’s why it’s perfectly possible to open the table of contents, pick a topic that sounds interesting, and jump right in.
But they’re not completely autonomous. For instance, each tile is more or less focused on a particular point in time, but taken as a whole, the tiles’ temporal center of gravity moves inexorably from 1898 to 1919. To maintain that sense of forward motion, I decreed a rule. In each tile, all the characters must be people we’ve met already in some previous tile, or are just now being introduced. If there’s no introduction, the reader knows that the person has entered the volume at an earlier point in time. Now imagine the potential havoc that would ensue if, for larger structural reasons, it became necessary to move tile forty-two in front of tile thirty-eight. This could lead either to being introduced to someone we’ve already met, or treating someone as a known character who in fact we haven’t encountered. If I nevertheless pressed ahead with the swap, I’d have to make sure there were no dangling threads, no references to people or events that weren’t already on the boards.
This was laborious, but with computers, not impossible. And early in the writing process—which stretched over many years—it was relatively easy to fix such tile moves, which provided flexibility, allowing alterations in the overall narrative strategy. But as more and more tiles were added, rejiggering their contents to keep the larger flow going became harder and harder. At some point it became prohibitively costly, in time and energy, and the larger structure got locked in.
In the last few years there’s been only one exception. I had a chapter called “Seeing New York,” in which I made an odd but I thought illuminating pairing, putting tour guides (one company was actually called Seeing New York) together with writers and artists who were then also seeing or reseeing the city (think John Sloan, Alfred Stieglitz, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser). At first I thought it worked, and then I decided it didn’t. What to do? In the end I arranged a divorce, breaking the one chapter in two— “Seeing New York” and “Insurgent Art”—and flung the tour guides back hundreds of pages, inserting their chapter as an intermezzo between two distinct parts (another structural level). This was only possible because virtually every individual in it was unique to that chapter, and properly introduced therein.
PL Who are your models among historians? I notice that the prose in Greater Gotham has a jaunty, vernacular, accessible quality: there is little effort to maintain a dignified gravitas such as used to be the norm in history writing.
MW Being a student and assistant of—and later coauthor with—master prose stylist Richard Hofstadter certainly had its impact. I remember his responding to a paper I’d written by saying I was a “lexicographical drunkard.” He prescribed a regimen of teetotalism, using words of only one syllable until I’d mastered the art of conveying meaning with maximum clarity and minimal rhetorical fuss. I’ve certainly aimed for accessibility, but I do think my prose is more conversational than elegant. People who know me say they can hear me in my sentences. I do mull them over in my ear, and my punctuation is often dictated less by grammatical rules than by how I would speak the line. I facilitate frequent reader pauses by deploying many commas; happily my superb copy editor is always prepared to bend the rules to suit the ear.
There’s also an element of whimsy in what I write. While I keep authorial interventions to a minimum, every now and then I slip in an aside, perhaps in a footnote, commenting on someone or something I’ve just quoted, a sort of kibitzing. I’m pleased when readers report that they’ve repeatedly smiled as they plowed through my pages.
PL What effect do you think being married to the wonderful writer Carmen Boullosa has had on your prose style?
MW I’m ashamed to have to admit I’ve only been able to read her in translation (still a minuscule portion of her enormous oeuvre). Many years ago, when she and I ran into Carlos and Silvia Fuentes at an airport, he took me aside and inquired as to my linguistic skills, noting that I was about to marry one of the masters of the Spanish language. I confessed being monolingual and regretted I was too old to learn. He scoffed and said sternly that if I. F. Stone could learn ancient Greek in his seventies, I should be able to tackle Spanish in my sixties. I promised I’d try, and I have, but I’ve failed, partly because Carmen and her friends all pamper me by switching to English when I enter the room.
Even read in English, Carmen’s novels, many of which transpire in other times—that of Moctezuma or Cervantes or Velázquez—are enviable and inspiring. Though each is grounded in prodigious research (including those pesky primary documents), she gets to make things up. And this allows her, like all great novelists, to evoke a bygone era more profoundly than if she was tethered to facticity. Indeed I’d argue that novelists make the best historians because they can grasp the totality of a period. Scholars who study the past often, perforce, study it piecemeal. They develop specialties—military, political, cultural, intellectual— that allow them to dig deeply into their specific terrains. Yet real life isn’t experienced in segments, but all at once. Carmen’s Texas: The Great Theft—based on a true story about a mini-invasion of the United States by Mexicans in 1859—manages to evoke simultaneously the Tex-Mex borderland’s smells and sounds, languages and fashions, economy and polity, geography and customs, and above all the saturated atmosphere of racism (it ends with the lynching of a Mexican).
I’ve tried to come close to achieving such novelistic holism by writing GG as a narrative that weaves together all the component threads usually dealt with by scholars in separate academic studies. I’ve tried to retain a sense of contingency by always staying in the protagonists’ “now.” Another of the rules of my game is that there are no nudges from the author noting that a given action will lead, five or fifty years later, to a well-known result. There’s no future in the book apart from the characters’ own speculations and desires or fears; there’s only the present and the past.
Phillip Lopate has written eighteen books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. His most recent is A Mother’s Tale. He has also written extensively on urbanism. He is a professor at Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program and lives in Brooklyn.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.