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GENRE KRYPTONITE: Turn-of-the-Century NYC Novels

Rachel Manwill

Staff Writer

Rachel Manwill is an editor, writer, and professional nomad. Twice a year, she runs the #24in48 readathon, during which she does almost no reading. She's always looking for an excuse to recommend a book, whether you ask her for one or not. When she's not ranting about comma usage for her day job as a corporate editor, she's usually got an audiobook in her ears and a puppy in her lap. Blog: A Home Between Pages Twitter: @rachelmanwill

GENRE KRYPTONITE is a regular feature about genres we have an inexplicable weak spot for. Check out previous entries here.


I’m not, generally speaking, a fan of historical fiction. I tend to prefer novels set in the modern day or the not-too-distant past. With one very glaring exception.

Novels set in New York City, during the Gilded and Progressive Ages, are absolutely my literary weakness. In case you’re not up on your “ages,” that’s about the time period spanning post-Civil War until pre-Great Depression. Why does that era so fascinate me? Here’s what the city and the country were experiencing in that 70 years:

  • New York City officially became the country’s largest city;
  • The rate of immigration grew dramatically, marked by the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886;
  • Over about 15 years in the early 1900s, the consolidation of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island created what we now consider modern New York;
  • The steamship, the General Slocum, caught fire and sank in the East River, killing over a 1,000 German immigrants in 1904, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 killed 146 garment workers, which led to revolutions in workplace and building safety regulation;
  • The first NYC subway system opened in 1904;
  • Innovations dealing with elevators and steel opened the door to skyscraper construction;
  • The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883;
  • George E. Waring Jr. was appointed Street Commissioner of New York in 1894, and revolutionized sanitation in New York, cutting much of the disease that spread through the tenements of the city.

So yeah, there was a lot happening in NYC around that time, and the innovation of the age lends itself well to novelization. The transformation of a city, the influx of immigrants, the true melting pot nature of NYC. I’ve got a major nerd fetish for American History, and this was such a turning point for the country, and NYC is right at the center of it. And I just can’t get enough!

No one does this time period better than E.L. Doctorow, with his epic novel Ragtime and the lesser known, but equally awesome, The Waterworks. But some other classic examples include Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney, Dreamland by Kevin Baker (the first in his City of Fire trilogy, all of which flirt with this era), and Heyday by Kurt Andersen.

For mystery set in turn-of-the-century New York, I like The Alienist by Caleb Carr as well as the follow-up, The Angel of Darkness.

Some of the best fiction of that era only includes it as part of a larger historical sweep of the city, as in Pete Hamill’s Forever and Edward Rutherford’s New York: The Novel.

The book that got me hooked on the time period is one of the best though: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. If you haven’t read it, you absolutely should.

The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton are both classics that are great looks at the time period.

Triangle by Katharine Weber takes a look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire from the point of view of a survivor, and An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance examines a woman’s fight against her gender and class in the 1880s.

What other Turn-of-the-Century novels tickle your history buff senses?