New York Nocturne: The City after Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950

By W. C. SHARPE

The blackout of 2003 offered New Yorkers their most recent opportunity to experience something exceedingly rare: the city enveloped in darkness. William Chapman Sharpe begins New York Nocturne at a time when nighttime darkness was the norm and light — first in the form of gas, then of electricity — was radically disorienting, eventually transforming patterns of commerce and leisure. In this gorgeous, erudite book, the Barnard College professor examines the myriad ways that writers, painters, and photographers have represented New York nightlife, beginning in the mid-19th century, when works by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe dramatized the moral perils of the artificially lit city. Sharpe’s journey takes him to the middle of the 20th century, by which time artists like Edward Hopper and Weegee exploit the nighttime’s theatrical, voyeuristic potential. In between he covers James McNeill Whistler, Stephen Crane, John Sloan, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella, and many others, with close readings of the literature and black-and-white and color reproductions of the art. Sharpe, whose own affection for the city is charmingly apparent here, insists throughout that artists and writers haven’t simply reacted to the changes in urban existence; rather, they have “helped turn the unscouted terrain of the urban night into a legible part of contemporary life.”