Commonplace
-
www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
-

author

Author's Note:
As I hope will become readily apparent, The Hungry Eye is a work of historical fiction. Some of its characters and incidents are pulled from the historical record--most particularly, the dueling "special artists" Peleg Padlin and Little Waddley. Their misadventures while touring New York's netherworld originally appeared in an 1857-58 series of articles in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper written by New York Tribune reporter Mortimer Neal Thompson. That the pseudonymous pictorial reporters stood in for Leslie's staff artists Sol Eytinge Jr. and a very young Thomas Nast should not be of concern to the present-day reader. Moreover, the mystery at the heart of The Hungry Eye, which entangles these and other characters and the constellation of their relationships, is my own invention. Much of what transpires here (and in the ensuing installments, which will appear in Common-place monthly between January and April) is utterly fantastic--and yet it also, I believe, remains true to the history of a specific time and place.

While I originally conceived of The Hungry Eye as a conventional novel (at least in the sense that it would end up as a tactile book printed on paper with a spine available for cracking) the chance to emulate the once ubiquitous format of serialization was hard to pass up. And wedding an older episodic approach to the still inchoate medium of the World Wide Web offered an intriguing narrative challenge. Aside from requiring some reconfiguring of the story's structure to accommodate the start-and-stop pacing of extended and intermittent reading, I've tried to work with the Web to intermingle the visualization of the past--which plays a prominent role in the plot--with the telling of the story. That said, you won't come across any state of the art programming here: what I've tried to do is enhance the reading experience on the Web, not replace it.

All original artwork © 2001 Joshua Brown.

The Hungry Eye, Episode 1
Joshua Brown

Episode 1: Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII

The increase of vice and rowdyism among the youth of our cities is in a great measure to be attributed to the decline of the apprenticeship system. When that system was general, masters had some control over their boys; they were obliged to keep them out of vice as much as possible, and they had personal interests in their conduct . . . [Now the] master does not wish the trouble of providing for all the wants of the boy, and the latter desires independence of control when not actually at work.

--"The Modern Apprenticeship System,"
Fincher's Trades' Review, November 14, 1863

I cannot understand the mystery: but I am always
conscious of myself as two (as my soul and I).

--Walt Whitman

This is hell, this is hell
I am sorry to tell you
It never gets better or worse
But you'll get used to it after a spell
For heaven is hell in reverse

--Elvis Costello


Nondescript

Pity the poor sketch artist who can render one subject with skill but is incapacitated in pursuit of another.

Peleg Padlin was not particularly articulate. You wouldn't go to him for a mellifluously phrased description of an event, personage, or place, let alone a disquisition on the slavery question. He was, after all, a Frank Leslie's Special Artist, not one of the weekly newspaper's wordsmiths. What he failed to enunciate in words he could, with relative ease, miraculously transmogrify into form: when it came to providing context--the corruption in a close Five Points hovel; the crush of horses, omnibuses, and drays on Broadway; the thrash and roil of a sky heavy with rain over the Battery--no one on the staff could hold a candle to him.

Yes, Padlin excelled as a draughtsman. But there was one thing he could neither articulate nor sketch. And, unfortunately, it was a fairly ubiquitous item in the artist's repertoire: faces. Padlin could not capture a face. Understand, Padlin could draw a face; he had no problem handling the basic anatomical structure or constituent features. But, try as he might--and Padlin tried mightily--specific, even vaguely accurate, likenesses utterly evaded his grasp.

Few actually remarked on Padlin's dilemma, though over the course of repeated failures it became general knowledge in the newspaper office. How many times had Padlin's botched efforts been redone by Little Waddley? What was more often the subject of comment was the effect of Padlin's incapacity on his temperament: his was a dark, brooding, irreproachable presence. Among his colleagues were some of a more empathic bent who, upon the summoning of Little Waddley, would have pitied Padlin--if the draughtsman's mortification had not taken such an ominous turn. In the dichotomous parlance of the day, Peleg Padlin's personality decidedly favored shadows over sun, gaslight over daylight. With his mouth clamped tight like the vise in a blacksmith's shop, and with his beaver hat pulled low over his brow to hide the consternation that racked his features, Padlin gained a reputation in the illustrated weekly's office for misanthropy if not downright meanness.

next this issue home

-
-
Copyright © 2002 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved