We are discussing “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr on Big City Book Club today. Earlier, Ginia Bellafante asked the filmmaker Ric Burns, whose epic history “New York: A Documentary Film” features interviews with Mr. Carr, some questions about the book and the New York of its era. Below is his response.
Please join the live discussion with Ginia and Mr. Carr himself.
A regular discussion with Ginia Bellafante.
Thank you so much for including me in this conversation – about New York, about “The Alienist,” and about so many other things. It’s made me think again – as the novel did when I first read it 15 years ago – about history and novel-writing, time and memory, New York then and New York now – and as you suggest, to what extent and in what ratios are lives bound by fate and freedom.
One of the many often noted paradoxes of New York is that it is at once the most historical and the most modern of American places – somehow both the oldest and the newest city in the country, our cutting edge place and the place, as E. B. White once said, that “carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.”
That’s undoubtedly in part because it’s always been the premier place in the country where the American future has been created and re-created – for nearly four centuries now, from the early mid-17th century onward – whether we’re talking about commerce, diversity, capitalism, democracy, urban problems, urban solutions, architecture, infrastructure, transportation, crime, riot, reform, politics, poetry, boom, bust, escape, aspiration, artifice, upward mobility, order, chaos, and transformation.
So much about New York resonates at once forward and backward in time – and that’s of course one of the main things that makes Caleb Carr’s work so captivating: the inter-penetration in it of past, present and future – the yearning in it to reach back in time, ideally to the beginning, to find those moments where the future was being born. As if by returning to the past or recapturing it precisely or well enough we could – what – alter it? understand it? do it over again? preserve it forever? The great poignancy of “The Alienist” is the way it so powerfully epitomizes and recapitulates the poignant fate of the historian, the poet, the grown-up child in all of us – the grown-up child who both can and can’t go home again – who both can and can’t escape from the past he can’t change, get away from, or return to.
And that’s what makes New York – as a real place and as a subject and point of departure for reverie, memory, research and dreams – one of the most potent and heartbreaking and hope-filled places we have. Even if we didn’t grow up here, even if we only come occasionally, even if we never come here at all, we sense in New York a powerful double life filled with chasms of memory and yearning that speak to us all. I think almost all of the specific issues you bring up about the book – issues of childhood and adulthood, of vulnerability and predation, of terror and transformation, of free will and determination – have a foothold in this quality of Caleb’s novel which is also such a pre-eminent quality of New York.
We interviewed Caleb for our series on New York 15 years ago now, two or three years after “The Alienist” first came out. As always, we only used a small portion of Caleb’s striking remarks in the series itself, but I remember our conversation vividly, and especially something he said right at the top. “I think the thing that’s especially haunting about New York,” he said in answer to my first question, “is that it doesn’t destroy its past. Like London and Paris in the same way, it makes a sometimes concerted, sometimes halfhearted effort to keep its past alive. And its past is so old, which again is something you don’t find in other American cities. And because the history of New York is so rife with violence, with corruption, with a lot of scary elements, there is a ghostliness about it. So that all of the underside – along with all of the beauty of the city – never really seems to die and there are ghosts in New York. You can’t walk down any street without being reminded of some either wonderful or terrible thing that occurred probably on the very block that you’re walking on.”
In some uncanny, irreducibly specific way, New York is both a parable and a haunted example of what it means to be alive in time.
There are other special qualities about New York – perhaps especially about Manhattan – that make it catnip for dream and reverie and the imagination – qualities so obvious but counter-intuitive that they don’t get remarked on as much as they might. One is that New York exerts the magic power that everything dense and miniature holds over the imagination, and perhaps especially the imagination of the artist and the child. Big as it is, the city’s vaulting urban form, like some fantastic theatrical design or model or stage set, makes it feel that we can stand back from it, see it all at once, almost hold it in the palm of our hand. Perhaps it’s true that only the dead know Brooklyn, as Thomas Wolfe once said; but that’s Brooklyn. The promise of Manhattan is that we might know it, the way we might know the Emerald City, or the secrets of alchemy, or the view from the top of the Empire State Building on a crystal clear autumn night. There’s a secret in there, but if we say the right words or knock the right way or climb hard and long and high enough, the doors to the tower may open.
And so in “The Alienist,” like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we enter into New York of the 1890s – mysterious, terrifying, but somehow as contained, tightly bounded and intricately constructed as a dream – up towering bridges in mid-construction (they may some day offer a way out); down dark alleyways in the dead of night; along the ramparts of a long-since-demolished reservoir where the New York Public Library now stands; into the bowels of wretched tenements and tormented lives. Which is to say this very real Gilded Age New York – precisely re-imagined, painstakingly researched, with all the smells, fumes, conveyances and horrors intact – brings us back to something primordial about human beings, if not about human society, something still with us. The vulnerability of children. The predatory aspects of human will and instinct. The (forlorn?) hope that reason and kindness and empathy, reaching out in space and back in time, might understand the secrets of the world, save the weak and fallen and abandoned, make broken lives at least partly whole again?
Ever since New York first finished becoming New York – sometime in the decades following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the real launching point and Cape Canaveral of the modern metropolis – it’s been the city that’s reached higher and sunk lower than any other in the country, with no attempt to masquerade or airbrush out its most dazzlingly sunlit or appallingly shadowed scenes. That frankness, often called brashness, has also always been part of what draws people to New York, sometimes to repel them. New York pioneered tall buildings, but it also pioneered tabloid journalism, and the window into everything most frighteningly animalistic about human nature – starting with pioneering newspapers like The Sun and The Herald in Manhattan in the 1830s to pioneering journals like The National Enquirer, started in Manhattan in the 1950s and still published today. Coverage in The Herald of the murder of a prostitute named Helen Jewitt in 1836 – she was found in her room in a brothel on Thomas Street in a burning bed with her head split open by a hatchet – kept New York readers spellbound for months not least because the main (and ultimately acquitted) suspect in the case was a respectable young man named Richard Robinson. Because witnesses for the prosecution were all prostitutes, the judge instructed the jury to disregard their testimony.
The progress that’s been made in New York has come at least in part because we’ve seen – if not exactly without flinching, then at least without completely looking away or making believe it weren’t happening – what human beings can do to each other, routinely. People lynched in the streets. Abandoned to lives of squalor, drug addiction, misery. Forced to be immolated or leap to death from high burning buildings. Life for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of children in New York City in the 19th century was horrific beyond belief: girls and boys abandoned, prostituted, exploited, neglected, abused, unschooled, starved, uncared for. Without question the “nightmare,” as Lloyd deMause said, “from which we’re only now beginning to awake.” Some of the awakening from this nightmare began in the capital of its American occurrence – New York. Thus Charles Loring Brace helped start the Children’s Aid Society in New York City in 1853. In addition to doing what it could to bring aid and comfort, food and shelter, clothes and lettering, to as many “underprivileged” children in the city as it could, the Society also did everything it could to do what at the time seemed best for abandoned children in New York: get them out of New York. It was the beginning of the storied Orphan Train, which over the next 75 years relocated a quarter of a million abandoned orphans from the slums of New York to the Midwest.
Caleb’s novel is set in the 1890s – a twilight moment in the history of New York in so many ways, as the modern demographics of the city assembled itself, as the modern infrastructure went up, as the urban problems multiplied horrifically, and as the Progressive and Reform movements that would seek to address those problems all began to pick up steam. Immigrant millions. Towering bridges and skyscrapers. Rampant capitalism and horrific chasms between rich and poor. Appalling abysses of poverty, suffering and abuse for those least able to fend for themselves. And the beginning of systems of research, documentation, policy formation and political change that would put in place over the next century at least some feasible mechanisms for addressing those problems. The debate about free will and determinism was everywhere in the late 19th and early 20th century: including hybrid understandings, like those that suggested free will wasn’t possible at all, even as a concept, when circumstances over-determined the inevitability of human suffering and misery. Jacob Riis knew this, though there were many things he didn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge, when he wrote that the tenements condemned human beings to death.
Is it inevitable that children experience pain and suffering? Perhaps. Is it pre-determined that so many children have to suffer? Or can human will, individual and collective, freely exert itself and change the odds by changing the circumstances? Caleb set his greatest novel at the most Janus-faced moment in the history of America’s most Janus-faced city – 1890s New York, just before everything changed – at a time when the cup of free will and determinism seemed at once half empty and half full. By returning to that moment in such detail, seeking the roots of who we are and where we’ve been with such forensic and almost obsessive intensity – so novelistically, in short – he may not have answered that question definitely one way or the other. But he has helped make addressing it permanently compelling.