Then, about seven years ago, I set out to write a book called The Undressing of America that centered largely on the strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, who created the “true story” genre that revolutionized mass publishing in the ’20s. That required me to stretch my knowledge back to the days when he first made his transition from professional wrestler and body builder to publisher, the 1890s. As I worked on that, I came to realize that I also had to understand his great antagonist, the censor Anthony Comstock, which meant I had to become comfortable with the American culture of repression that bloomed in the wake of the Civil War. And then...well, one book led to another, and during the past couple of years, working on Nation of Faith & Flesh, I’ve found myself deeply immersed in the 1820s and ’30s.
It’s been a wonderful journey, and among the most enjoyable aspects of it have been the guides I’ve enlisted. Within the great mountain of material I’ve been reading, a few books have drawn me back again and again, and their authors have shaped my own narrative enormously. If you want to spend some rewarding hours exploring the strange cultural and social landscape of the so-called Jacksonian Era, I’d say you can’t go wrong with these:
City of Eros, by Timothy Gilfoyle, opens a wider lens on the same topic, reconstructing the whole social and cultural context of prostitution in New York through the 19th Century and into the 20th. This is a more classically academic book, moving steadily through its subject matter, full of hard data and charts. But Gilfoyle never loses sight of the human realities and day-to-day choices that supported and characterized the business of sex and made it such a revealing mirror of the “above-ground” elements of American history.
Those three writers, Cohen, Gilfoyle, and Horowitz, also teamed up to edit The Flash Press, an anthology, with great background essays, of art and writing from a genre of newspapers for “sporting men” in the 1840s that stand as a sort of fountainhead of all “men’s magazines” and kicked off a significant component our still-unresolved censorship wars.
The Kingdom of Matthias, Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz. Another murder case, this one from 1834, is the axis for a slim, lean, fast-moving story that nonetheless manages to convey a tremendous amount of information about aspects of religious passion, cultural conflict, and race relations in American history that are rarely discussed. It also has a great cast of characters and a kick-ass final line.
Sean Wilentz, on his own, wrote Chants Democratic, a compendious and revelatory book about American class relations and labor conflicts. It tracks the growth of working men’s political movements in New York City in the first half of the 19th Century, but its focus is always (as it is with all the historical works I like best) on people in action, with all their contradictory messiness, and it treats political theory only in that human context.
Paul E. Johnson (not to be confused with the British Paul Johnson, as in Modern Times) has also written some superb books about the period on his own, my favorite of which has to be A Shopkeeper’s Millennium. There was a day when I never would have believed that a book about Presbyterian revivals in Rochester, New York 185 years ago would mean anything to me, but that just shows how young and foolish I was. It’s got as much about the essence of American cultural history in it as any book I’ve read.
The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, isn’t especially germane to what my book is about, but it taught me a lot about Americans and how we tick just by tracking the development of our modern Christmas, mostly in New York City in the first third of the 1800s. I’ve never read a better exposition of our peculiar ways of using consumerism, holidays, and family sentimentality to shape our culture and our social classes (and usually without even knowing we’re doing it).
In my own book, I’ve made much more use of an earlier book by Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America. It centers on Sylvester Graham, a mostly forgotten but very significant (and wonderfully, bizarrely American) figure from our past, and it does an economical job of pulling together a wide range of individual and social threads: Jacksonian politics, market economics, physiological theory, diet fads, and the great masturbation panic of 1834.
These books are all still in print, and they’re by living authors who probably wouldn’t mind picking up some royalties. Get started on that Christmas list now! (Then read Stephen Nissenbaum on the origin of Christmas lists in the mercantile culture of Boston and New York during the “market revolution” of the 1830s and '40s.)