"Clever Title: City Name + Time Frame" = nonfiction delight
July 19, 2010 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I recently read The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York and I realized how much I enjoy a certain subset of historical nonfiction -- basically, narratives set at a particular moment in a specific city as a way of exploring broader social-cultural history.

Others I've enjoyed include A Nervous Splendor (my favorite), The Devil in the White City, Eiffel's Tower, etc. I am about to start reading Sin in the Second City, and have The Ghost Map on my wishlist. Please, Mefites, may I have some more?

I tend to gravitate toward the 1870s to the 1920s (i.e, the emergence of modernity following industrialization), but am certainly open to any time frame. Obviously, I particularly like intersections of science/technology, crime and scandal, popular culture, etc., but am open to broader topics of cultural and social history. I prefer narrative nonfiction over academic studies (unless they are unusually well-written and engaging). Thanks!
posted by scody to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 135 users marked this as a favorite
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is set later than your time period, but otherwise would probably be right up your alley.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:42 PM on July 19, 2010

I love this stuff too.

Larson's Isaac's Storm, about Galveston and hurricanes and the birth of the Weather Service, is completely riveting.

Carr's The Alienist, about NYC in the turn of the century, is also very memorable. It's a novel, but full of non-fiction.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:44 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Barring none, the greatest work I am aware of in this genre is a book I've often invoked (probably ad nauseum) around here: Bernard DeVoto's masterful historical study, The Year Of Decision: 1846. He describes what he's trying to do with this book best on the fourth page:
This book tells the story of some people who went west in 1846. Its purpose is to tell that story in such a way that the reader may realize the far western frontier experience, which is part of our cultural inheritance, as personal experience. But 1846 is chosen rather than other years because 1846 best dramatizes personal experience as national experience. Most of our characters are ordinary people, the unremarkable commoners of the young democracy. Their story, however, is a decisive part of a decisive turn in the history of the United States.
I find this book riveting every time I read it; it deals with just about every aspect of the United States in that single year, 1846, from Thoreau's move to Walden to the Donner Party to our invasion of Mexico to the presidency of Polk to utopianist movements who isolated themselves from society to Mormons and more.
posted by koeselitz at 2:52 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

I suppose you've read Morton's Thunder At Twilight?
This is also a favorite period in history for me and i have enjoyed:
Meet You in Hell about Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick
The Proud Tower my personal favorite, but a bit more on the academic side
The Professor and the Madman and Longitude will stretch the timeframe a bit
Wittgenstein's Poker is very engaging as well
happy reading
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:59 PM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

My wife and I just finished the audio book of Sin in the Second City, which I see you've listed. I like the same types of books you mention here, and I enjoyed Sin in the Second City quite thoroughly. Enjoy!
posted by elder18 at 3:02 PM on July 19, 2010

A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester.
posted by rustcellar at 3:33 PM on July 19, 2010

I remember very much enjoying Simon Garfield's Mauve ("How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World"). It's about the dawning of the age of synthetic dyes, and the implications of all of that. It colors my thinking to this day.
posted by mumkin at 3:35 PM on July 19, 2010

I can't let this thread go by without recommending George Chauncey's Gay New York, which fits right into your period and is just such a fantastic book on so many levels.
posted by nasreddin at 3:38 PM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you expand the time period: Water for Gotham, Island at the Center of the World.

Seconding John Berendt; his City of Falling Angels explores Venice in a similar fashion.
posted by thermogenesis at 4:19 PM on July 19, 2010

Ooo I like these kinds of books as well.

I've just started Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World's Fair on the Brink of War What I've read so far is very gipping.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:27 PM on July 19, 2010

Seconding Carr's the Alienist and its sequel, the Angel of Darkness.

Someone in a recent nonfiction book recs askme mentioned an intriguing-sounding book on the history of Prohibition in NYC which I have been meaning to hunt down for weeks now.
posted by elizardbits at 4:32 PM on July 19, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Well-written story about "Jonathan Whicher, a working-class policeman, fond of roses, who was one of the original eight coppers to join Scotland Yard's Detective Branch in 1842. In 1860, he was asked by local police to investigate the murder of a four-year-old boy, Francis Savile Kent, at Road House, Road, in what was then Wiltshire but is now Somerset." Purportedly, Mr. Whicher was Dickens' reason for describing Scotland Yard's detectives as "models of modernity". I also really liked the first Caleb Carr book.

If you want to go further back, The Burgermeister's Daughter: Scandal in a Sixteenth-Century German Town is less novel-like, but a revelation of the minutia of 16th Century life. The Wife of Martin Guerre, The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron and the Trial of Soren Quist by Janet Lewis are all more novel-like and quite good, well-researched historical fiction based on real cases and steeped in details about what life would have been like.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:57 PM on July 19, 2010

elizardbits - was it Last Call by Daniel Okrent? Thar went on my to-read list recently, not sure where I saw it.

scody, this is outside your preferred time period, but a book that does this well for New Haven is Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, And the Redemption of a Killer
posted by yarrow at 5:07 PM on July 19, 2010

No, but that one looks awesome as well! It was Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City and I am buying it right the fuck now before I forget.
posted by elizardbits at 5:12 PM on July 19, 2010

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel might fit the bill. It's both a fascinating historical read and a touching story of the relationship between a father and his daughter. She does a great job of backgrounding their written correspondence in the historical context. I learned a lot and found it fast-paced.
posted by Pomo at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2010

Slightly academic, and might be hard to find because it is out of print, but Outcast London was fascinating
posted by xetere at 5:24 PM on July 19, 2010

Response by poster: Oh wow, so many great suggestions so far! My wishlist is expanding as we speak (well, as I type).
posted by scody at 6:44 PM on July 19, 2010

I enjoyed The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century. From the review on the Amazon page:
...a thrilling account of a murder case that rocked Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. Roland Molineux, a socially ambitious chemist,was a proud member of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, where he was considered a talented but snooty sportsman, repeatedly instigating spats with the club's athletic director, Harry Cornish. Pursuing women with the same determination he brought to sports, Roland doggedly wooed Blanche Chesebrough, an equally ambitious young woman with operatic aspirations. But when one of Molineux's romantic competitors, Henry Barnet, died, Cornish was poisoned (he survived), and his landlady died, Roland topped the list of suspects.
posted by catlet at 6:46 PM on July 19, 2010

Also, I started 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building at my mom's the other day, but it was too heavy to carry back into the city on the train (ok, I was too lazy) so I haven't yet finished it. BUT I TOTALLY WILL.

Also also, I got the NYC Museum of Complaint collection for my boss last xmas, and everyone in the office is enjoying it immensely.

sorry all my books are about NYC. I am so predictable.
posted by elizardbits at 7:50 PM on July 19, 2010

I love this genre and period, though my reading in it is very centered on New York.

Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe and Hummel, Lawyers to the Gangsters, Cops, Starlets, and Rakes Who Made the Gilded Age by Cait Murphy
- Howe and Hummel were infamous, larger than life criminal lawyers active in the late 19th and very early 20th century. Their clients included a number of infamous and remarkable characters from the time period, which gives the author room to explore the state of the contemporary criminal underworld, the de jure and de facto legal status of abortion, mediumship hoaxes and the Tammany-dominated legal landscape. Murphy's writing is clear and conversational, with occasionally dry asides. If you enjoyed Poisoner's Handbook, you'll probably like this. (The previous work on the subject, Richard Rover's Howe and Hummel is also worth a read, but Murphy's definitive and footnooted text is clearly the superior book.) Murphy's fprior book, Crazy '08 probably fits your criteria as well, though I haven't read it yet.

A Pickpocket's Tale by Timothy Gilfoyle
- George Appo was a half-Chinese petty criminal whose biography took him through a number of disreputable subcultures and penal institutions during the mid-to-late 19th century. Gilfoyle uses Appo's history (drawn from contemporary sources and from an unpublished memoir) to discuss the interaction of of semi-organized crime, law enforcement, and incarceration in a pre-drug prohibition America. Gilfoyle's style is more academic than most of the authors on the list, but still eminently readable. His previous work, City of Eros is based on his dissertation and is about the history of prostitution from collonial times until the early 20th century. It's very interesting, if a little dry, but is more of a straight social history text than it is a slice-of-time narrative of the sort you seem to be looking for

Triangle by David Von Drehle
- A history of the labor conditions leading up to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Like the previous books, it focuses on a group of individual historical figures and deftly uses them as a springboard to discuss the societal conditions that created their historical status.

The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: murder, miscegenation, and other dangerous encounters in turn-of-the-century New York City by Mary Ting Yi Lui
- Uses a particularly infamous murder of a female white missionary in turn of the century New York to discuss the social and symbolic role of Chinatown in turn of the century New York. This one, in particular, is criminally under-read, probably because it was released by an academic publisher. Modern discussions of turn of the century Chinatown often draw too much from sensationalist sources like Herbert "Gangs of New York" Ashbury, so it's nice to see a scholar with a broader grasp of the culture and available sources provide some commentary.

Books that don't quite seem to fit your criteria, but are worth a look include:

Luc Sante's Low Life and Tyler Anbinder's Five Points, both of which are extremely readable general histories of certain classes and neighborhoods in 19th and early 20th century NYC

Mike Gold's Jews Without Money, an autobiography about growing up in hte Lower East Side during the early 20th century, which gives a very strong sense for certain social dymanics and small aspects of day to day life that get lost in more general discussions.

Kathy Peiss' Cheap Amusements: Working Class Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York and Elizabeth Ewen's Immigrant Women in hte Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925, both of which offer a great deal of insight into womens' labor and social spaces in the turn of the century NYC lower classes.
posted by Phlogiston at 8:16 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love this question so much. But, I bet you never thought you'd get an answer involving a horrific race riot in 1921 in Tulsa, OK, eh? Tim Madigan's The Burning is excellent. It's a great (though depressing as shit) narrative of the history leading up to, the days involved, and the times after said race riots. Madigan also does a great job of demonstrating that, while terrible, this was far from an isolated event, not just in the South but also up in Detroit, New York, etc. Well worth your time, even if I'm biased by my Okie roots.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:20 PM on July 19, 2010

Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror In An Age Of Innocence Close to Shore is a bit slow to get going and could have been a much shorter book. There is a fair amount of stage setting, and the first shark attack doesn't occur until about one-third of the way through the narrative. But Capuzzo does much with limited source material and includes lots of interesting asides on everything from the lore of sea monsters to the bathing-suit fashions of the day to nearly everything science knows about great whites, which, it turns out, is surprisingly little.
posted by Brainy at 9:28 PM on July 19, 2010

Murphy's fprior book, Crazy '08 probably fits your criteria as well, though I haven't read it yet.

I have read Crazy '08 and can recommend it without hesitation in terms of what you're looking for. Also of possible interest on a similar subject is Burt Solomon's Where They Ain't. Both books are about the birth of modern baseball from a cultural standpoint and examine how changes in American society influenced changes in how professional baseball was played and run as a business, which then in turn changed how the public came to view the game. Lively writing and both authors manage to really bring the personalities of the various people profiled to life.
posted by KingEdRa at 10:08 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

2nding Brainy on Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore, although I liked it more than the Amazon reviewer he quotes. It's about the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks (the ones that inspired the book and movie Jaws) and is filled with great period detail about the birth of beachgoing on the US east coast, the first swimming fads, police measuring women's bathing suit hems, early ocean science, the sensational press of the day, etc. It's a good quick read.

I didn't find it slow going at all. I still get chills thinking about the scene where an old man on a bridge over a creek miles inland sees the shark swimming - in fresh water - towards a nearby town and tries to warn disbelieving citizens.
posted by mediareport at 5:33 AM on July 20, 2010

Just read a review in Time for The Disappearing Spoon.

It doesn't fit the formula, but it might be up your alley in the name of scientific delight.
posted by jander03 at 9:07 AM on July 20, 2010

James Green's Death in the Haymarket is a bit more academic, but still totally gripping. I read it for a class, and we were all impressed by how subtly it made its argument within a compelling narrative. It's a really smart book, but it felt like candy in a classroom context.
posted by dizziest at 10:10 AM on July 20, 2010

crush-onastick, on your recommendation I am listening to the audiobook of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (the BBC one, narrated by Christian Rhodska), and it's wonderful!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:21 PM on July 22, 2010

Oh, hey. Ed Kohn, the author of Hot Time in the Old Town, was on Fresh Air today.

His description of tenement life reminded me of the recently-published 97 Orchard : an edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement, by Jane Ziegelman. I haven't read it yet—still waiting for my hold to come in—but I think it might fit the bill here, too.
posted by mumkin at 7:42 PM on August 11, 2010

Thunderstruck or anything else by Erik Larson.
posted by jazy11 at 9:48 PM on March 19, 2011

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