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In the fast changing culture of antebellum New York, writers of every stripe celebrated the City as a stage for the daily urban encounter between the familiar and the inexplicable. Probing into these richly varied texts, Hans Bergmann uncovers the innovations in writing that accompanied the new market society? the penny newspapers' grandiose boastings, the poetic catalogues of Walt Whitman, the sentimental realism of charity workers, the sensationalism of slum visitors, and the complex urban encounters of Herman Melville's fiction.
The period in which New York, the city itself, became firmly established as a subject invented a literary form that attempts to capture the variety of the teeming city and the flaneur, the walking observer. But Bergmann does not simply lead a parade of images and themes; he explores the ways in which these observers understood what was happening around them and to them, always attentive to class struggle and race and gender issues.
God in the Street shows how the penny press and Whitman's New York poetry create a new mass culture hero who interprets and dignifies the city's confusions. New York writers, both serious and sensationalist, meditate upon street encounters with tricksters and confidence-men and explore the meanings of encounters. Melville's Bartleby, the Scrinever underlines the unrelenting isolation and inability to control the interpreter. Bergmann reinterprets Melville's The Confidence Man as an example of how a complex literary form arises directly from its own historical materials and is itself socially symbolic. Bergmann sees Melville as special because he recognizes his inability to make sense of the surface of chaotic images and encounters. In mid-century New York City, Melville believes God is in the street, unavailable and unrecognizable, rather than omnipresent and guiding.