Pursuit of the Dream
NEW YORK CITY, MICROCOSM OF THE NATION, WAS an opulent, rollicking, roistering city at the dawn of the Gilded Age, a town filled to the brim with diamonded men, richly bejeweled women, smooth stock operators, worthy poor, toughs, bums, bawdy houses, faro dens, fortunetellers, a modicum of esthetes and moralists and an over-all reverence for silver and gold. Walt Whitman, visiting the metropolis in the fall of 1870, was given a sense of exaltation by the splendor and the color, the rich shops, the costly buildings, the scarcely ever interrupted roar of the city traffic, the "hurrying, feverish, electric crowds of men. . . ." Then, looking below the surface of all this rush and glitter, he was appalled by the lack of high standards, the flippancy and vulgarity and low cunning that he saw on every hand. 1
New York's sprawling population (the city proper had not quite reached the million mark by 1870, but well-nigh 2,000,000 people drew their sustenance from its factories, wharves, and stores) still swarmed and struggled amid the most violent contrasts of poverty and affluence. The nation's industrial development was beginning to move with rapidity toward the great achievements of the age, and for New York this meant an era of suffering for the sweated poor, but also of booming trade, of dazzling ventures that ranged from railroads to real estate, of operas and symphonies (whether in music or in steel), of flamboyant parties where toasts were drunk in costly vintages, of Saratoga holidays, European jaunts, international marriages, a sybaritic flaunting of incomes, a megalomaniac voracity of desire. It meant that, even before 1870, there was beginning to develop an enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority of the city's inhabitants.
In 1869, the Tribune published in a quadruple-sheet edition the income taxes of thirty-seven columns of New Yorkers. Of these men,