The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

If the health of a democratic society can be gauged, in part, from the robustness of its vices, then 1840s New York was hale indeed. Here, for a brief period, the discerning brothel creep, blackmailer, “libertine republican,” “sporting gent,” dueling enthusiast and aficionado of bare-knuckle boxing was serviced by four different weekly publications. Their editors were dystopian supermen: William Snelling of the Sunday Flash had lived as a young man with the Dakota Indians and lost part of his left hand in a duel; George Washington Dixon of the Polyanthos once performed a 60-hour marathon of pacing, “fortified by only water, raw oysters, and a single glass of wine.” Our contemporary American libido, with its reliance on Internet pornography, would have displeased them: why pursue the “unhallowed passion” of onanism when the “conjunction copulative” is so available? The Flash Press chronicles this small, significant fit in media history: the rise and fall of The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, and The Flash are recorded in prose quite adequate to the raciness of the theme, and then comes the icing on the cake — nearly 100 pages of excerpts. The tone is uniformly triumphant, trickster-ish, superb: one remembers Cyril Connolly’s contention that there are epochs in the development of human consciousness, moods of the mind, during which it is impossible to write badly.