Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 1 · October 2003
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James W. Cook teaches U.S. history at the University of Michigan. His publications include The Arts of Deception: Playing With Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Mass., 2001) and P.T. Barnum: A Reader on the Early American Culture Industry (forthcoming). Cook’s current project explores the peripatetic careers of William Henry Lane and John Diamond, two of the leading "breakdown" dancers of the 1840s.

 

 

"'And in what walk of life, or dance of life does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!'"

Dancing across the Color Line
James W. Cook

Part I | II | III | IV | V

I.

Few events generated more excitement in antebellum New York City than the arrival of Charles Dickens. In the weeks leading up to his visit, all of the city’s newspapers carried daily stories on the impending ceremonies. "The whole community," one editor punned, "is getting as crazy as the very dickens. The Boz fever now reigns to an incredible extent . . . madness will reign paramount for a week or two at least." The climactic moment came on February 14, 1842, when civic leaders hosted a massive ball in Dickens’s honor at the Park Theater. It was a remarkable affair that included over three thousand guests, officers in dress uniforms, decorations in the style of the Old Curiosity Shop, and tableaux vivant of all the early novels. Dickens, we are told, happily danced a half dozen quadrilles and thanked his hosts for their "affectionate" greeting. But he also expressed a desire to see something more of the city: "I have resolved to take up my staff . . . and for the future, to shake hands with Americans, not at parties but at home."

Much to the chagrin of the Gotham elite, Dickens did not even mention the "Boz Ball" in American Notes, his widely anticipated travelogue from later that fall. Rather, the New York chapter begins with a promenade northward along Broadway, where Dickens notes a number of fine oyster houses and lecture rooms, but no fully satisfying amusements. "How quiet the streets are," he complains: "[A]re there no Punches, Fantoccinis, Dancing-dogs, Jugglers, Conjurers, Orchestrinas, or even Barrel-organs? No, not one. Yes, I remember one. One barrel-organ and a dancing-monkey–sportive by nature, but fast fading into a dull, lumpish Monkey, of the Utilitarian school. Beyond that, nothing lively; no, not so much as a white mouse in a twirling cage." Over the next few paragraphs of American Notes, Dickens becomes increasingly impatient. Finally, he decides to quit Broadway above City Hall, "plunging" himself into an east-side neighborhood known for amusement of another sort–the infamous Five Points.

Five Points
Fig. 1. A contemporary illustration of the Five Points. From D.T. Valentine, Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York for 1855. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Those familiar with Martin Scorsese’s recent film, Gangs of New York, will recognize the Points as one of the poorest neighborhoods in antebellum America. But its reputation as the era’s most notorious "slum" was never simply a function of economics. This status reflected a complex chain of events: the arrival of thousands of Irish immigrants, whose settlement patterns intersected one of the nation’s largest communities of newly emancipated slaves; a wave of anti-abolitionist rioting, which sometimes targeted the neighborhood’s most successful minority businesses; a burgeoning vice trade, which catered to white men of all classes; the complicity of affluent landlords, who discovered that vice pays reliable rents; and the rapid proliferation of "penny" and "flash" papers, which (quite unlike the city’s elite press) treated the cultural spaces of Five Points as newsworthy. Dickens himself helped to launch this last trend during the 1830s, when he featured London’s Seven Dials neighborhood in Sketches by Boz. One suspects, in fact, that he had this sketch squarely in mind as he ventured into what he called the "Seven Dials of America"–escorted, we are told, by "two heads of the police."

The central episode in Dickens’s account of the Points begins with a long "descent" from the street–through darkness, mud, and growing anxiety–when suddenly, he finds himself in a dance cellar known as Almack’s. His description covers three long paragraphs. The most famous passage begins with an audience request:

What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, sir: ‘a regular break-down’ . . . Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshaled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known…. [T]he sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles. Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine. Dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooded legs, two wire legs, two spring legs–all sorts of legs and no legs–what is this to him? And in what walk of life, or dance of life does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!

This passage made quite an impression on contemporary readers. The New York Herald issued four separate attacks on American Notes the week it was published, singling out the "vulgarity" of the Almack’s scene for particular scorn. By contrast, the prominent reformer, Lydia Maria Child, celebrated the scene as a clever tactic to focus bourgeois eyes on dreadful living conditions. Modern scholars have shown a different sort of interest. It is the last sentence–Dickens’s reference to a million counterfeit Jim Crows–that has received the bulk of attention because it marked a new cultural fault line. On the one hand, the phrase pointed to the emerging blackface industry, whose racial caricatures were fast becoming the nation’s most profitable entertainment commodity. On the other, it acknowledged the vitality of an interracial dance culture both distinct from blackface minstrelsy and typically invisible beyond poor neighborhoods like the Five Points.

But what of the hall itself? In the lines leading up to the dance performance, Dickens’s portrait is dominated by socio-economic misery. We glimpse "squalid streets," "wretched beds," "fevered brains," and "heaps of negro women," who force the "rats to move away in search of better lodgings." Once inside Almack’s, however, the mode of description changes abruptly. Dickens notes a welcoming mulatto "landlady" with "sparkling eyes" and a "daintily ornamented" handkerchief. The "landlord," he suggests, was similarly impressive in his "finery," with a "smart blue jacket" and a gleaming gold "watchguard." By the end of the passage, the poverty of the Five Points is a fading memory. With each dazzling spin of the "lively hero," the initial "wretchedness" is supplanted by energy, confidence, even glory.

This rhetorical shift points to perhaps the most important issue in Dickens’s text: the very fact that a prosperous, interracial cultural institution like Almack’s existed in 1842. Yet its presence begs a more basic question. Although Dickens was a relative newcomer to Manhattan, he seems to have had little trouble finding Almack’s. Why, then, have such interracial spaces been so rare in the pages of U.S. history?

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