Golden Hill Roundtable: Retracing Mr. Smith’s Steps Through Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

goldenhill“Had a map been drawn . . . of Mr. Smith’s movements through the streets of New-York. . . a tangled hydra indeed would have been revealed,” begins the second chapter of Francis Spufford’s book Golden Hill (53). As my fellow Junto reviewers have discussed, Spufford’s exhilarating read follows Mr. Smith through the escapades and perils of mid-eighteenth-century New York as he attempts to convince those he encounters of his “credit worthiness.” As he meanders through the tangled web of city streets, Smith’s journey from the island’s southern tip to its northern outposts is filled with adventures and twists at every turn. The reader soon learns that many of the men and women he encounters have secrets to hide. There is much to like about Golden Hill. For this urban historian, one of the most enjoyable aspects is the book’s sense of place.

Spufford depicts Manhattan—specifically its winding lanes, its rickety docks, its Dutch- and English-style buildings, and its other landmarks—as every bit the character as Smith and his compatriots. With Smith as our guide, it’s not difficult to imagine what eighteenth-century Manhattan residents would have encountered on their daily walks about town. Spufford sprinkles his text with poetic passages that evoke an eighteenth-century city view, such as:

“[R]ooftops and bell towers greeted him; a jumble, not much elevated, of stepped Dutchwork eaves and ordinary English tile, with greater eminences of churches poking through, steepled and cupola’d, and being a slow-swaying fretwork of masts; the whole prospect washed with, bright with, aglitter with, the water last night’s clouds had shed, and one—two—three. . .—six crumbs of dazzling light hoisted high that might be the weathercocks of the city of New-York, riding golden in the hurrying levels of the sky where blue followed white followed blue” (17).

These descriptive passages depict a port that was every bit as noisy as it was noxious. As our protagonist passes by “the merchants in a hurry and the prentices on errands” where “the business of the port” took place on “streets a-bustle,” he also encounters a plethora of “stinks”—“a little fish, a little excrement”—that give Manhattan its particular odor. The Manhattan that Smith meets in 1746 is both “A Country-Walk [and] a Seaside District”—a place of constant social, economic, and odiferous contradictions (19-21). By calling attention to the ways that Manhattan’s various sights, sounds, and smells present Smith with plenty of conflicting images of business and activity, and of decrepitude and deceit, Spufford situates Smith within the complexities of New York in this particular historical moment.

Our protagonist, to borrow historian David Hancock’s terminology, is a “citizen of the world”—equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic.[1] Smith grapples constantly with how Manhattan is both similar to and entirely unlike what he knew in London. He notices the religious landscape of the town. “For if New York resembled London in the wild variety of churches, chapels, meeting houses, and conventicles it accommodated. . .,” Smith reflects, “it differed too, in that here the sectaries made up the majority, rather than being the animated foam beating at the edges of a great calm boulder of Establishment” (56). In other instances, Smith remarks how New York reminded him of “wholly pastoral” English scenes. Though, these scenes were marred by “the [African] labourers in the far corner of the field lifting potatoes . . . along the rutted track that the Broad Way had become” (98).

As I read, however, I began to wonder whether these descriptive passages and spatial reflections may have been lost on readers who might not have been as familiar with Manhattan’s eighteenth-century urban footprint. For many of us, our associations with New York City as the “concrete jungle” and bustling metropolis of the late nineteenth through twenty-first centuries might be hard to shake as we venture imaginatively back to the pre-Revolutionary era. With this in mind, it was a bit of a disappointment that Spufford did not provide a map with which to guide a reader’s understanding of Smith’s adventures.

For those Junto readers interested in retracing Smith’s steps through Manhattan in the 1740s, I’ve done my best to recreate his route through the town. The following Google Map includes various points of interest from the book, descriptive text, and period images to help situate you in space.

For those of you who are even more tech-savvy with your digital tools, you can download a .KMZ file of this map to view in Google Earth.[2]  If you want to take it a step farther, so to speak, and view these spots in their historical locations, you can also download a geo-rectified version of the Barnard Ratzer’s “Plan of New York in 1776” and upload it to Google Earth.[3]

This book was an incredibly enjoyable read. You’ll no doubt be swept up in Spufford’s ability to transform the mundane details of daily life in eighteenth-century New York into a gorgeous tapestry of language and visuals that have made Manhattan such a source of fascination, secrecy, and discovery for centuries.

____________________________

[1] David Hancock, Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785 (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[2] Click the three vertical dots next to the title, “Golden Hill POIs,” and select “Export to KML/KMZ.”

[3] Click the “Download KML file” link. Unfortunately, Google has done away with its once user-friendly feature that allowed users to upload .KML files directly to mymaps.google.com.

@kathryn_lasdow

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