Alice Rutkowski book project in progress

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Alice Rutkowski                                      
book project in progress

    Appropriating Agony: Narrative, Memory, and the 1863 New York City Draft Riots
        In the midst of the Civil War in July of 1863, the U.S. government announced the
institution of a draft for the Union Army for all white men aged 20-35 (black men were
not yet allowed to enlist). To avoid being drafted, a selected man could hire a
substitute or a pay a commutation fee of $300. To the working-class men who were
the target of this policy, these exceptions seemed deeply unfair. There was violence in
a number of Northern cities over this policy, but the worst was in New York City where
at least one hundred and five people died over five days of rioting. The targets of the
mobs were wealthy New Yorkers, draft officials and, perhaps most troublingly, black
New Yorkers, who were violently blamed for the war itself. The riot was only brought to
an end when Federal troops, fresh from the carnage at Gettysburg, took back the city.
        These riots make appearances in the work of canonical and noncanonical
nineteenth-century writers – for example, Herman Melville’s collection of Civil War
poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War includes a poem about the riots and Anna
Dickinson, known better for her role as a stump speaker for the Republican party,
writes What Answer? (1867), a novel in which her protagonists, a interracial married
couple, are murdered by the mob. The riots also play a key role in countless texts of
more dubious provenance and authority: for instance, conspiracy theories circulated
during the war that left residents of New York City deeply anxious about invasion by
rebels (despite the distance of NYC from the front lines); and the sensational bit of
“journalism” that is Herbert Asbury’s classic study of violence in New York City’s slums,
Gangs of New York (1928). The closing scenes of Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New
York (2002), in fact, even represent these riots and imply they played a crucial part in
forging modern New York City.
        What is it about this brief but violent set of events that has lived in collective
memory for so long, the opposite of an untold story, renarrated by writers, artists,
historians and filmmakers? The rioters themselves left no records of their participation
or their motivations, a tantalizing lack which, I want to suggest, has encouraged writers
of all periods to make use of these spectacular events and fill in the blanks with fiction
and conjecture. Historians such as Iver Bernstein and Barnet Schecter have already
sought to craft a definitive narrative of the events of the riots. Appropriating Agony,
by contrast, is indebted to recent critical studies of the Civil War by cultural historians
(for example, Alice Fahs and David Blight) who emphasize the importance of memory in
structuring our understanding of history. I combine the reception scholarship of Stuart
Hall with theories of the relationship of history to literature by writers such as Georg
Lukács and Philip Fisher to analyze the mutable “text” of the riots and its palimpsest of
tellings and retellings through time. Whereas Civil War-era responses to the riots were
generally frantic to locate the source and impetus for the violence outside of New York
and its citizens – instead blaming criminals, communists, Europeans and Confederate
spies – twentieth- and twenty-first-century stories about the riots find them reassuring


about the endurance of American democracy and invigorating in helping to constitute
contemporary urban masculinity.

Book overview by chapter:
1. “Virgins, Viragoes and Separate Spheres.” This chapter examines how the riots
came as a shock to white women reformers (and young women from progressive
families prominent in reform movements), exposing a chasm between one of the
objects of their charity work – poor, working-class Irish immigrants – and the reality of
their interactions with and feelings about the poor. Using Anna Dickinson’s novel What
Answer? (1868), Ellen Leonard’s account of the riots, “Three Days of Terror,” published
in Harper’s and Lucy Gibbons Morse’s personal recollections, this section examines
white women’s anxiety over and eventual reconstitution of white, middle-class
femininity in light of the prominent role of Irish women in perpetrating some of the
worst violence of the riots.
2. “‘Distance Lends Enchantment’: Canonical New Yorkers and Eyewitnessing.” This
section explores both temporal and physical distance from the riots. One of the great
contradictions that exists with regards to accounts of the riots is that some of the
creative responses intended to comment on and shape responses to the violence were
ignored (i.e. Melville’s Civil War poetry) while some of the most private – Walt
Whitman’s letters to his family, George Templeton Strong’s diary – have come to define
what the riots meant to New York and the nation. For example, a recent popular history
of the riots, The Devil’s Own Work (Schecter, 2005) takes its title from a private letter
of Whitman’s, and a successful historical novel, Paradise Alley (Baker, 2002) makes
liberal use of Strong’s diary. 
3. “Rabbledom and Rebeldom.” In 1860, Fire-Eater and Virginia secessionist Edmund
Ruffin published the novel Anticipations of the Future, a speculative work of fiction that
predicts, among other things, both the Civil War and the destruction of New York City
by fire and arson. Taking this text as my point of departure, this chapter suggests the
ways in which New York City was a Southern space – or, at the very least, a treasonous
one –with its myriad economic ties to the South, as a Democratic stronghold and
certainly as containing a public with a voracious appetite for conspiracy theories that
posited New York City as the most important state in the Union.
4. “Truth and Storytelling: the Genre of History.” I begin this chapter by tracing the
history of the histories of the riots: objectivity has been particularly hard to come by in
history writing about these events and narratives that claim to be definitive – both
eyewitness accounts from the 1860s through those by trained historians in the 1960s
tend to reveal more about the authors than about the events they claim to decipher.
The central interest of this section, however, is the use of history in literature, namely
two novels that place the riots at the their center: Dickinson’s What Answer? (1868)
and Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley (2002). Both Dickinson and Baker use popular forms
traditionally disdained by literary critics – one the sentimental reform novel, the other
the contemporary historical novel. But both of these forms are sustained by a specific
relationship of fact to fiction: both “cast the novel as a form of research,” to borrow a
phrase from Philip Fisher. Ultimately, both novels are historical fantasies, myths about

Rutkowski | book abstract                                                            Page 2 

America; Dickinson looks forward, hoping to influence what is to come, while Baker is
looking backward – with some dismay but not a little satisfaction with how far we’ve
5. “Cool Criminality and the Cult of Asbury.” One of the most provocative reasons the
events of July 1863 still have the power to fascinate is the existence of a book written
over half a century after the riots: The Gangs of New York (1928) by journalist Herbert
Asbury. This book leads New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik to rhapsodize about
nineteenth-century New York slums and their inhabitants: “It was a place...that had
supported a life more engagingly violent than the mundanely violent city I had come to
seemed to be able to entertain.” A significant number of male intellectuals and artists –
Gopnik, Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, novelist Kevin Baker and director Martin
Scorsese -- responded passionately to Asbury’s text, even when it was out of print,
creating a kind of cult around the book. In this context I claim that a particular kind of
New York City identity – New Yorker masculinity, in particular, depends on violence
begetting the imagined community.

Rutkowski | book abstract                                                           Page 3 

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