The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum

Synopsis

In this compelling work, Keith Gandal reveals how the slum in nineteenth-century America, long a topic for sober moral analysis, became in the 1890s an unprecedented source of spectacle, captured in novels, newspapers, documentary accounts, and photographs. Reflecting a change in the middle-class vision of the poor, the slum no longer drew attention simply as a problem of social conditions and vice but emerged as a subject for aesthetic, ethnographic, and psychological description. From this period dates the fascination with the "colorful" alternative customs and ethics of slum residents, and an emphasis on nurturing their self-esteem. Middle-class portrayals of slum life as "strange and dangerous" formed part of a broad turn-of-the-century quest for masculinity, Gandal argues, a response to a sentimental Victorian respectability perceived as stifling. These changes in middle-class styles for representing the urban poor signalled a transformation in middle- class ethics and a reconception of subjectivity. Developing a broad cultural context for the 1890s interest in the poor, Gandal also offers close, groundbreaking analysis of two of the period's crucial texts. Looking at Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890), Gandal documents how Riis's use of ethnographic and psychological details challenged traditional moralist accounts and helped to invent a spectacular style of documentation that still frames our approach as well as our solutions to urban problems. Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) pushed ethnographic and psychological analysis even farther, representing a human interiority centered around self-image as opposed to character and exploring not only different customs but a radically different ethics in New York's Bowery--what we would call today a "culture of poverty." Gandal meanwhile demonstrates how both Riis's innovative "touristic" approach and Crane's "bohemianism" bespeak a romanticization of slum life and an emerging middle-class unease with its own values and virility. With framing discussion that relates slum representations of the 1890s to those of today, and featuring a new account of the Progressive Era response to slum life, The Virtues of the Vicious makes fresh, provocative reading for Americanists and those interested in the 1890s, issues of urban representation and reform, and the history of New York City.