Poets, Protesters, and Proletarians—Oddballs of the Nineteenth Century

The Stammering Century BY Gilbert Seldes. edited by Greil Marcus. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 452 pages. $18.
Cover of The Stammering Century

American history is the history of fitful enthusiasms. “On canal boats” in the nineteenth century, Gilbert Seldes records mysteriously in the history of American fanaticism that he published in 1928, which has been reissued by NYRB Classics, “bed-linen was promiscuous.” There were fads in fashion: “Men … wore the enormous cravats which had been introduced by George the Third to hide the swelling on his neck.” Fads in food: “Carrots were scarcely used and the tomato was known as the ‘love apple’ and considered poisonous”; and a little later, “[b]roccoli had been introduced and the tomato accepted.” Fads in propriety: “At Long Branch it was correct for two girls to go into the water accompanied by one man.” Even fads in perception: “Broadway, in New York, was considered more attractive by night than by day.” The litany continues: “The beard was an object of mockery.” “The rocking-chair was in.”