Thursday, September 3, 2015

*Venus in Boston and Other Tales of Nineteenth-Century Life, by George Thompson

University of Massachusetts Press, 2002
391 pp


Now here's a book you probably won't find on your American literature course syllabus, which in my opinion, is just a shame.  Stick with your Melville; I love this stuff. Then again, I love pretty much anything off the beaten path.

This particular edition is actually three books in one volume: Venus in Boston: A Romance of City Life (1849), City Crimes: or Life in New York and Boston (1849) and My Life: or The Adventures of Geo. Thompson, Being the Auto-Biography of an Author, Written by Himself (1854).  As a whole I'd call it a mix of contemporary soft porn and sensation fiction; it also adds several elements of  gothic and of extremely lurid crime writing.  City Crimes, for example, takes its readers into secret tunnels under the streets of New York, into an entire world that is more or less what I think of when I hear the phrase "the bowels of hell."

Author George Thompson (1823-73)  among his other talents, was a writer of explicit  "pamphlet novels;" according to David Reynolds in his Beneath the American Renaissance, he "is reported to have written nearly a hundred novels, which enjoyed a lively sale in their day."  (219)  He also contributed titillating tales to a weekly newspaper of the 1850s called Venus' Miscellany, a page of which can be found here, discovered while looking at a page from the Princeton Library Website.  His books, termed "city mysteries"  were largely directed at the working class, and as Reynolds notes in the introduction to Venus in Boston, Thompson
 "catered to the antebellum public's thirst for sex and violence while exposing hypocrisy and corruption of the part of the nation's ruling class." 
After reading two of them, I'm not surprised that they "enjoyed a lively sale" ... sheesh!

 The first of these, Venus in Boston,  starts out with sweet, beautiful little orphan Fanny Aubrey selling fruit on the streets to support her younger brother and ailing grandfather who makes a small living as a basket maker.  On a slow day, she is found weeping by an older gent who takes pity on her and ultimately becomes acquainted with her family. This is Grimsby, who will also play a huge role in Fanny's life down the road.  On another day, Fanny becomes the object of pity of a young woman, who hands her "a bright gold coin." Sadly for our heroine, on her way home she has an encounter with a group of "apple girls," "usually from ten to fifteen years of age...proverbial for their vicious propensities and dishonesty."  They are also generally "brought up in vice from their infancy."  The worst of these girls is Sow Nance, a fifteen year old who pretends to feel badly for Fanny, and offers to take her to a "nice gentleman" who will buy all of the fruit in her basket.  Luckily, Fanny's virtue remains intact despite the nefarious plans of this "nice gentleman," but she becomes from then on the object of his lust.  But the real story begins after the death of Fanny's grandfather when she is sort of adopted into the family of the young girl who had earlier given her the gold coin.  That's when the reader begins to encounter one of the main themes that run throughout this book and the two others in this edition, as Thompson sets out to reveal what lies beneath the surface of both the ladies and gentlemen in his tales.  As he says in his City Crimes, 
"...we prefer to depict human nature as it is not as it should be..." 
and he has no qualms in getting right to the point.  There are the usual seducers and wolves in rich men's clothing to be found here, but there are also, as Reynolds notes in his introduction, women who are "unapologetic and open in their declarations of sexual desire."  More than once characters appear who are left sexually unsatisfied by their husbands; there are "fallen" women as well as upper-class, gentile women "whose sexual hunger is virtually insatiable." Here, women's sexuality definitely constitutes both power and danger,  but at least Thompson brings it out into the open. Women's sexual desire and their openness about it runs through both novels, but much more so in City Crimes, where Thompson lets his characters run with it. City Crimes, by the way, is the much racier of the two; Thompson really outdoes himself in that one.  

from, in Venus in Boston, by George Thompson
Reynolds points out that in these books are to be found
"a wealth of images of women and female sexuality as well as of a variety of ethnic groups, including African Americans, Jews, and Irish and German immigrants,"
which are most definitely "often sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic," but he cautions not to discount these "city mysteries," which are, as he notes, a "witch's brew of crime, eroticism and social protest."  He offers a number of reasons, of which I'll discuss three. First, in terms of scholarship, they are texts that can be viewed as a "valuable source of popular conceptions of class identity and class relations in this period." Second, many well-known authors (citing Melville, Poe and Hawthorne as just three examples) were "influenced" by this sort of thing, and finally, reading these texts reveals that there's another side to the sexism and racism in these tales -- they often add to an "understanding of social injustice" of the time.

 I do see that here, but at the same time, I can see how these books would be tough to read given modern attitudes, so I'd say give them a try and try to look at them as an example of antebellum literature, given the attitudes of the day. There were so many parts that went so over the top in terms of melodrama that you can't help but laugh or at least do the eyeroll, but I will say that I'm happy to have read it, as a) it seems to be a rather obscure book and b) it's always interesting to know what people were reading at the time.

Tread slowly -- and take into consideration the cultural/historical context of this novel if you pick it up.

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