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The Lower Depths

May 2024
3min read

Perhaps one of the most valuable extra dividends of history is the dawning knowledge that things are never quite as bad as they seem to be. Perhaps there is a toughness of fiber in people that enables them to stand ever so much more than rational judgment would suggest as the maximum. It may even be that our perennial American optimism is sometimes justified in spite of all logic.

For any examination of the byways of American history is bound to lead one, every so often, to the contemplation of ugly facts which seem to prove that the whole Amercan experiment is in a state of collapse so complete that nothing whatever can be done about it. The infinite promise of this brave new world is forever being belied by contemporary reality. There have been times when any thoughtful observer would be bound to conclude that things have got into a mess that can never be made right.

But the thoughtful observer can be wrong; usually is wrong, as a matter of fact. The imperfections in American society can exact a frightful human cost, on occasion, but we do seem to work our way out of them. It would be interesting to know just how and why we manage to do it.

All of this is brought to mind by a reading of Mr. E. J. Kahn’s new book, The Merry Partners .

Mr. Kahn is not trying to conduct an examination into the seamier side of American history. He is simply out to tell an entertaining story about a song-and-dance pair which came on the American stage in the post-Civil War era, made a sensational success, briefly impressed a set of songs, gags and comedy sequences on the American consciousness, and then faded off into limbo in the normal way, and he tells his story expertly, lightly, with gusto, and very amusingly. Yet his book is a little more than just a gay account of the lives and triumphs of two theatrical stars. It is also an indirect but revealing picture of the society that produced them.

This society, to be blunt about it, was totally deplorable. Ned Harrigan, the more gifted of the pair, came out of the worst section of New York at a time when New York’s worst was about as bad as anything can be. His background was Hell’s Kitchen, Five Points, the Bowery, Mulberry Bend—an area which, in the final third of the Nineteenth Century, offered a ferocious medley of misery, vice, crime and poverty so much more appalling than anything modern America can show that it is almost literally incredible.

Here were whole blocks of tenements so squalid that even a conservative description of them leaves one wondering how any resident managed to stay alive as long as one month. Here were streets where no man who appeared moderately prosperous dared walk even at midday—places where the police themselves would not go, except in threes, with their weapons ready. Here were gangs of an untamed viciousness that make modern gangsters look like Sunday school boys; a web of civic corruption so widespread and all-embracing that it could not conceivably be cleaned up, or even mildly deodorized; a miserable carnival of murder, 109 graft, prostitution, rampant rowdyism and general unadorned nastiness that would seem by any rational standard to have been completely beyond redemption.

The Merry Partners: The Age and Stage of Harrigan and Hart , by E. J. Kahn, Jr. Random House. Illustrated; 315 pp. $4.75.

Mr. Kahn sketches all of this in, not to prove any particular thesis but simply to describe the milieu in which people like Harrigan and Hart lived and made their careers. And the point of all of this—the point that compels one to sit back and wonder where American society gets its fantastic, self-rectifying resilience—is not that a man like Harrigan could come out of such a background and make a decent, useful life for himself, but that the city itself could ever have survived.

For no American in the 1880’s could have surveyed the New York slum section of his day without wondering if he were not seeing the final collapse of the American dream. Any extreme of pessimism he might have reached would have been justified by inescapable facts. He could have told himself—could hardly have kept from telling himself—that American society had gone down a dead-end street from which it could not conceivably extract itself. By any rational standard, he would have been entirely right.

Yet in fact he would have been wrong. Bad as metropolitan life can be today, brutal and crippling as it visibly is, it is almost infinitely better than it was three-quarters of a century ago. There has been an improvement which, even though it leaves ever so much still to be done, is all but immeasurable. And here, it seems to this reviewer, is a whole segment of American history which greatly needs examination. How did our society work itself out of that morass? Why was the hideous threat of our congested cities (for New York did not stand alone, by any means) somehow thwarted? What is there in people that enabled the ones who lived-through that era to survive, and, surviving, to lift themselves and their surroundings by their own bootstraps?

It was done, obviously, at terrific human cost. There are few sadder chapters in American history than the story of the hopeful immigrants who came pouring into New York in those days, to be exploited and ground under and made to accept a dark nightmare in place of the bright American dream that had originally led them to the Atlantic crossing. The amount of plain, everyday misery and heartbreak that was exacted from helpless people is hardly to be thought about dry-eyed.

But things did get better. The dream did not die, although many of the dreamers died disconsolate. Perhaps there is a clue in here somewhere—a clue to some hidden reservoir of strength and faith that we very much need to know about. Perhaps it is time the historians set out to uncover it.

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