I'd heard of Sante over the years, and read some of his pieces in the New York Review of Books. Sante's personality of countercultural iconoclasm and writing diligence as revealed in the interview persuaded me to try the book. I'd also picked up a copy of Sante's latest work, "The Other Paris," at the American Historical Association's meeting in Atlanta last winter.
How Immigrant Groups Shaped New York's 19th Century Origins
"Low Life" examines aspects of New York City life in poor, crowded downtown neighborhoods before the city grew farther north. He looks at entertainment, housing, crime and gambling, politics and other threads in the tapestry of the city's early years, when various immigrant groups swelled the teeming population.
Sante writes dispassionately, with a clear and precise presentation of facts. The names of colorful personalities, businesses, clubs and gangs make for folk poetry. He has the gift of selecting the right details that reveal larger patterns.
Sante says he started out hoping to write novels and seeks a novelistic scope in his nonfiction. To me, he's more of an engaging reporter whose language emerges from a deep well of facts rather than contrived techniques.
Wide-ranging Culture of Crime, Violence
A major theme is how violent and crime-dominated the population was. Criminal elements were much more widespread and pervasive than well-known groups like the Mafia. Many now reputable and low-abiding families had ancestors forced into disreputable enterprises to survive.
The Sante interview appeared alongside an intriguing/amusing portfolio of artifacts from Sante's counterculture days at Columbia University, when he sought a career in film and music. As he says, writing in the last 1960s and 1970s was discounted as an outmoded form of media.
I'm happy he stayed with writing. His work gives a fresh energy to "nonfiction" techniques that had grown stale. I'm looking forward to plunging into "The Other Paris," and reading Sante's collected reviews and essays.
An Apt Pairing With Robert Caro
The interview appears in the same issue as one with Robert Caro, noted biographer of New York City public works titan Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson. (See previous Southern Bookman post on Caro interview.)
While Sante has a more freewheeling personality than Caro, he displays the same scrupulousness of research and commitment to clear, fact-based writing. While not as exhaustively thorough as Caro, Sante belongs in his company as one of our finest historians and writers.