George C. Foster was a reporter for Horace Greeley’s “New York Tribune,” as well as a social commentator and poet. He drew upon his own nightly rambles of New York City to create New York by Gas-Light, meant to be a sensationalized portrait of his city in the contemporary moment. It both offended and attracted large populations of readers in America at the time.

Plot Summary

There is no real plot. Instead, each chapter welcomes the reader into a different section of New York society at night. These include forays into prostitution dens, the theatre, bars, and areas full of theft and murder.

Notes & Quotes

  • In his description of prostitution and the “model artist exhibitions,” Foster reveals the consequences of seduction for the once innocent fallen woman. The model artist exhibitions feature “abandoned women of the lowest grade, who thus managed to earn a bare subsistence, by a new disposition of charms which had ceased to be marketable in another way” (81). This “another way” that Foster alludes to, I think, means “marriage,” which has been written about as a market of sorts (within a reputation economy) in other American seduction narratives. However, Foster doesn’t believe that these women are entirely to blame for their fallen or ruined state, and instead encourages readers to feel pity for them:
  • From seduction they go rapidly through the various stages of depravity, until disease, dissipation and the exaggerated appetites engendered by their new mode of life, conduct them in turn to the brothel, the hospital, the penitentiary, and the grave. Yes- the life of a “model artist” is easily written. After a brief season of hollow pleasure and unnatural excitement, she sinks willingly to the lowest type of human degradation- the prostitute; and the pure and gentle woman, capable of all high and holy duties and affections, as wife and mother- endowed by her Creator with faculties fitting her, if properly directed, for the guardian angel and the consoler of man- goes in utter recklessness of herself and all the wold to add one more to that frightful phalanx of female depravity which is the terror and the curse of an enfeebled and depraved civilization. (83)

    The gay and joyous inmates of this place (a prostitution den), betrayed by the men their young hearts loved, and then abandoned by the world which should have protected them, have made full use of this double lesson, and have fairly convinced themselves that the gratification of the present moment is really and truly the only good of life, and that all the talk about virtue and reputation and crime and punishment, is mere deception. And in fact, why should they not think so? Were they not virtuous, and did not the being to whom they had yielded up the very love and worship of the soul basely betray and abandon them? And then, even worse than that, did not their own sisterhood spit and trample upon them and drive them forth with taunts and reviling, when they so sorely needed kindness and protection? Pooh! Talk not to them of female purity, and human sympathy, and such fine nonsense. They know better! (93)

    For Foster, these women are the results of America’s hypocrisy. Not only were they seduced by libertines and false promises, but these women were also abandoned by the society who should have protected them, including other women whose healing power of sympathy could have prevented their fall to modeling and prostitution. This view of healing sympathy is very prominent in Charlotte Temple. 

  • Foster not only meditates on the consequences of hypocrisy, but also on the practitioners of the malicious sin. These include both men (“worn-out rakes and sensualists, the ambitious young libertines and hypocritical old lechers” (82)) and women (“women whose licentiousness has not yet been discovered and who pass for virtuous and respectable wives, mothers and daughters”(72) and “old hags” who fool innocent and foolish sailors into marriage (143-4)). Combined with his pitiful description of model artists and prostitutes, Foster provides the reader with a gothic and bewildering depiction of urban society. Those who could’ve been innocent are fooled into degraded states, while those who are truly sinful parade around the city in respectable positions. As stated elsewhere in my blog, this is a terrifying prospect for early Americans because it depicts a democratic nation that is failing- how can democracy work when nobody is to be trusted and when there are so many hypocrites eager to degrade the population?
  • Finally, Foster’s text provides the reader with a depiction of New York’s underground economy. Capitalism is at the root of much of the debauchery he describes- partly causing women to go into prostitution and art modeling because they have no other means of providing for themselves, while alcohol and other sensual markets open because there is a demand for them.

New York by Gas-Light (1850) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.