Linton- Life in the Collections
William James Linton aka Abel Reid:
37) Broadway Ballads. Collected for the Centennial Commemoration of the Republic.
n.p. 1876 / 2010
A reprint of the British Library.
This cycle of poems, which escaped even the notice of Linton scholar F.B. Smith, belongs to Linton’s strongest literary moments and shows him from a rare side of social reporting. Broadway Ballads was written on the occasion of the anniversary celebration of American independence and is composed of a series of caustic sketches dealing with the human misery of mass unemployment and the disintegration of solidarity in the plutocratic metropolis of New York: portraits of homeless children, young prostitutes, immigrants driven into suicide, scenes of mass unemployment, and a series of short cuts from the central slum quarter Five Points. Poetic case studies such as Frozen to Death, Jan.10, 1875 about “Two men lying, stiff and stark / Frozen to death in Central Park,” which were related to newspaper announcements and police reports, anticipate the bleakness of a literary realism that started in the nineties with authors such as Stephen Crane and was continued by the investigative journalism of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.
The social realism of the coeval Charles Dickens has to be conceived as a forerunner, especially his American travelogue from 1842. But whereas Dickens’s prose always remained stuck in Victorian sentimentality, entertaining and noncommittal, Linton’s lyrics had an analyzing, often undigestible, but always challenging Brechtian impulse. The idea to create such a hellish vision of urban reality was considerably influenced by the example of James B.V.Thomson, whose bleak poem City of Dreadful Night had caused a literary stir two years before. In 1866 Thomson had published an inspired essay on Blake in the National Reformer, the atheistic organ of his mentor Charles Bradlaugh. The double-page 110 -111 in Broadway Ballads can be considered in a strict sense as a response to the usage of Blake in the context of secularism or, in a wider sense, as a Lamennaisian objection against the threads of a narrowed Utilitarianism. This spread shows a graphic depiction of a Descent into Hell on the left side, which was taken from Blake’s America, and an engraving by Linton with the inscription God is not dead on the right. It is less challenging but rather entertaining to view this pictorial confrontation in the context of Thomson’s hymn to atheism, Address on the Opening of the New Hall of the Leicester Secular Society, that was published anonymously a few years later - illustrated with Linton’s translations of William Blake’s Job, - and to consider all probable and improbable correlations.