The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

July 17, 2008

This is a scholarly book on a racy topic, and it is a surprise to find the lively, accessible, copiously illustrated narrative of its first part accompanied by more than 40 pages of equally interesting endnotes. It may be read happily by general readers and specialists, and this easy pleasure extends to its other half.

Its two parts comprise four chapters on aspects of the "Flash" press and "Excerpts" arranged by themes, including "Purposes", "Libertinism", "Brothel life" and "Heterosexuality". These large categories have sub-themes, as each excerpt has a short titled introduction: "The Princess Julia's ball" has a contextual note "Prostitutes and high society". These headnotes address the problem of the bittiness of the excerpts and their isolation from the journal issue in which they appeared. Although the rationale behind the order of these topics isn't clear, the short duration of the focus of this study (1841-42) and its specific geographical location (New York) ensure that meaningful variables such as historical chronology or geographical range do not unduly undermine this arbitrary approach.

On the plus side, facets of the contents are exposed, and readers may cherry-pick topics that interest them without losing the benefits of a designed path of cumulative knowledge. Alternatively, a chronological approach of excerpts grouped by titles, from earliest to latest, would enable readers to glean a sense of each journal, and the historical development of the genre, if titles did interact, as the narrative half of the book argues. Its four chapters treat "Beginnings: rivalry and satire", "Sexual politics", "Trials and tribulations" and "Legacies". They are very good, and provide complex accounts of the provenance of this type of journal; the overlapping networks of editors, proprietors and writers; the generic links of the "Flash" titles to those of moral reform, sport and satire; their messy sexual politics, their fight to survive charges of obscenity and libel (from fellow journalists from the Flash press and defenders of morality), the resulting financial instability and bankruptcy and their multiple generic descendants. Details of particular persons, feuds and events richly illustrate aspects of New York life in this early period.

Defined by the authors as "racy" through the association of "flash" with thieves' slang, this segment of the press was known in the 1840s by many other names. The titles - variants of "Flash" and "Whip" as well as The Libertine and The Weekly Rake - support this definition, but without seeing entire issues and articles in context it is difficult to know how dominant these themes were.

Generically, they mostly seem to be saucily illustrated weeklies, ranging from titillating to soft porn, including simple woodcuts, more than 50 of which are reproduced here. Their distribution points (which included hawker-newsboys, saloons, oyster bars, barber shops, steamboats and theatres), sporting connections and maps and accounts of brothels suggest that most were aimed at a bachelor subculture. An exception is the Whip and Satirist, whose detailed woman's fashion column implies that it both sought female readers and employed women writers.

Commentary and excerpts support the authors' contention that the existence of this genre in antebellum New York establishes the city as cultural capital of the republic in low culture as well as high and indicates a dimension of this period and its press neglected in hegemonic accounts of this "Victorian" city. The mode of publication of The Flash Press itself invites comment: an electronic format would have allowed searchable texts and the entire contents of the runs of titles to appear, instead of isolated "excerpts". Despite the limitations of its print format, however, The Flash Press repays reading.

The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

By Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in association with the American Antiquarian Society
University of Chicago Press
288pp
£26.00 and £10.50
ISBN 9780226112336 and 112343
Published June 2008

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