November 6, 2003
Blood, Sweat and Tears of N.Y. Birth
"City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterstam and Early Manhattan," by Beverly Swerling. (Scribner paperback, $15.)
John Irving, whose novels have the rare distinction of being widely praised, read and filmed, has said that he always follows havoc with healing. Spanning the destruction-filled years of 1661 to 1798, Beverly Swerling's sprawling and successful novel about the origins of Manhattan purposely offers her readers no such solace.
Most of the characters heal little and find relief only in death. For example, Solomon DeSilva, a Brazilian Jew and one of the book's half-dozen or so main characters, is castrated by the Huron Indians for gun-running and spends his last few decades in dementia, living above his wife's bedroom, ear often pressed to the floorboards.
In his disorientation, he believes that his son is not his, since he lacks the necessary equipment to sire, though he in fact did impregnate his wife. On a frozen night, wearing only a nightshirt, DeSilva sets fire to his progeny's privateer. As the ship burns, he climbs the mast and is blasted into the Hudson like a cannon ball. Most of the novel's characters meet similar ignoble ends.
"City of Dreams" is replete with bastards (both the biological and ideological sort), a dwarf, Siamese twins, half-breeds, prostitutes (both street doxies and those in the elegant DeSilva bordellos), pirates, philanderers, the beginnings of the wide Broad Way and plenty of fires and plagues -- which means its 600 small-printed pages are quite entertaining.
I expected to learn a lot about the founding of New York in the way Herman Wouk evoked World War II but did not as the novel reminded me more of "Shogun," in its fascinating unveiling of culture and morals.
"City of Dreams" focuses on the growth of medicine and the role of women in a nascent America. The depictions of both are fascinating vehicles with which to dot the broader political landscape.
In an appended reader's guide, Swerling explains that the idea for her novel was born when her literary agent suggested that he'd love to see a novel about the development of New York's Bellevue Hospital. Swerling writes: "It struck me that a history of Bellevue might parallel the history of the city. The two ideas came together, and the book was born."
Most of the characters are surgeons, physicians or apothecaries who practice in the pestilence of the growing city, both on its elite citizens and prostitutes frequently plagued by pregnancy and "the French disease." From the early 17th century, when surgeons were trained simultaneously as barbers, to the novel's close, we see not only the gradual expansion of medical practices but the mores surrouning them.
Women must sneak performing surgeries, because any female caught slicing with a scalpel can be jailed. Upon discovering his daughter's such clandestine work, a surgeon father tells her: "You know I am not old fashioned in such matters. I myself taught you to read. But this ... it isn't natural, Jennett. It's an offense against every type of human decency."
There is no similar prohibition on the female apothecaries of Irish descent, who crush the first American medicines from seaweed in their time-honored traditions. One such Irish Catholic healer interestingly will induce medicinal abortions only in the first nine weeks, "before the thing has become ensouled."
Back to DeSilva. Early on, the homely, wealthy Jew marries the ravishing (of course) Jennett Turner at a justice of the peace before her above-mentioned Protestant father can get wind of and halt it. To make sure her parents cannot snatch her back, DeSilva quickly and with inordinate skill, deflowers her. Learning this, her aghast mother pronounces, "It seems that at least for Hebrews, it's not necessary to wait until dark."
We learn only later that DeSilva's immense skills, both in amassing money and in the bedroom, derive from close attention to his three brothels. Alongside him, America's Protestant forefathers scheme and steal, whore and abuse their slaves. Wall Street served as the home of the biggest official slave market in the north.
Thievery, pettiness and revenge abound, while mercy is a rare commodity. For example, a raven-haired doxie is abruptly rescued from a vicious public whipping arranged by Jennett DeSilva to discourage competition by the streetwalkers.
Jennett has not silenced the lash because of a change of heart. Rather her son, Morgan Turner, just returned from sea, has seen and desires this woman, who is dutifully bathed by the house slaves then deposited in his bed. Afterward, he fails to notice that she was a virgin and ascribes the specks of blood on his breeches to his shoulder wound.
For myself, and I suspect for most people, images of the birth of New York are buying Manhattan from the Indians for a bunch of trinkets and of Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam. This is followed by a jump to an idealized view of the immigrants of the Lower East Side in the late 1800s (most memorably "The Godfather" and "Crossing Delancy") and the Astors on the Upper East Side.
What's groundbreaking and important about "City of Dreams" -- and parallel to Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," set between 1846 and 1863 -- is that it provides a clear look at the origins of Manhattan and thus America, herself. Instead of the sterile myth of the Stuyvesant past, we see tremendous violence, filth and turmoil unimaginable to contemporary Americans.
Often for a variety of reasons we like to sanitize personal, as well as national, history. "City of Dreams" is a valuable reminder that meanness, prejudice and the struggle for power are part of who we are, whether it's Manhattan in the 17th or 21st centuries.