LOW LIFE is generously supplemented with black and white photographs showing the brutal conditions of life in Manhattan between 1840 and 1919. In his prose style, the author seems to be striving for the same Matthew Brady-like photographic realism. Sante describes the misery of the times in unflinching detail but avoids rhetoric, letting facts speak for themselves. He states that he was not trying to write a literal history but to create a sort of montage composed of his personal impressions. Sante’s subtitle is somewhat misleading: There is nothing salacious or titillating in the entire book. In fact, it is depressingly somber, like its photographs of men huddled in breadlines and wizened children staring into the camera lens in sullen defiance.
The influx of ignorant immigrants during the period created a situation ripe for exploitation. Politicians exploited it by manipulating voters like sheep, regularly recruiting derelicts as repeat-voters and using goons to harass the opposition. Criminals exploited it by such outrageous activities as shanghaiing men to work aboard outbound ships and kidnapping women to sell into white slavery. Landlords were among the worst exploiters of all, packing impoverished families into windowless, rat-infested basements where disease ran rampant and devastating fires were common occurrences. The police were far more interested in collecting graft than in assisting the people who most desperately needed them. As the...
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