Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Against masquerades at Stanwix Hall

"Sad business, this holding out against having a good time. Life is a pic-nic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool. To come in plain clothes, with a long face, as a wiseacre, only makes one a discomfort to himself, and a blot upon the scene. Like your jug of cold water among the wineflasks, it leaves you unelated among the elated ones. No, no. This austerity won't do." --The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
Right around the time that Herman Melville came back to Albany after a stint as rural schoolmaster, one local newspaper published a diatribe against costume balls or masquerades, specifically masquerades at Stanwix Hall. Melville was about to get himself elected as president of the Philo Logos debate club and would soon secure a room for club business in Stanwix Hall. The editorial blast at masquerades was practically guaranteed to get young Melville's attention by invoking the ghost of his grandfather Peter Gansevoort as a war hero and patriot, "one of the gallant fathers of our ancient city." Not only that, the call to more serious and socially responsible enterprises amid the "fiery ordeal of bankruptcy and distress" had an intensely personal application to the unfortunate Melville family, distressed yet again in April 1837 when Herman's brother Gansevoort filed for bankruptcy.

Formal balls regularly took place at Stanwix Hall, hosted by such reputable organizations as the Odd Fellows, Albany Burgesses Corps, Van Rensselaer Guards, and Albany Republican Artillery. The crusading Albany editor does not go for plays or circuses either, but his particular target seems to be the more exotic, foreign style of "fancy ball." Mr. William Whale operated the Dancing Academy at Stanwix Hall and might have been the unnamed villain who allegedly wanted to import masquerades to Albany. In October 1837 Mr. Whale had represented his European influences as a clear benefit, advertising "every facility through foreign correspondents of obtaining all the new and fashionable dances, music, etc. as introduced in London and Paris" (Albany Evening Journal, October 8, 1837). That same year Mr. Whale's "Fancy Dress and Masquerade Ball" had to be postponed from January to February, "in consequence of the necessary preparations" (Albany Argus, January 31, 1837). The following year Mr. Whale defied his puritanical newspaper critic with the announcement of "his 8th annual GRAND FANCY BALL" taking place at Stanwix Hall on March 28, 1838.

In August 1850 Herman Melville dressed up as a Turk for a costume ball hosted by Sarah Morewood, soon to be his Berkshire neighbor. The "Princess of Pic Nic," Cornelius Mathews called her. "Fairy Belt." Sarah Morewood also hosted outdoor "fancy dress" parties, often linked in Melville criticism with those philosophical remarks on life as "a pic-nic en costume" in The Confidence-Man. Masquerade is the last word and titular theme of Melville's novel. Masks and disguises receive plenty of critical attention, of course, but how about dancing? The Evangelist offers a contemporary view of the masquerade as foreign, degenerate, and threatening. This brand of dance is to be suppressed as morally dangerous public conduct. Considering the case for Melville's shape-shifting confidence man as the Devil variously disguised, it's also suggestive to find the engineer of masquerades exposed in Melville's Albany as Satan, the "Arch Apostate":
"A masquerade is but the apple of Eden in another shape; for the Arch Apostate well knows how to dish up his temptations in all possible shapes, from an apple in the bowers of paradise to a midnight coterie in Stanwix Hall...."
Under the head of "Christian Morals," the editorial against "Masquerades" was reprinted from an unnamed "Albany Paper" in the New York Evangelist on January 20, 1838. The Evangelist is where Melville would receive stinging criticisms for his first book, including the association of Typee with corrupt and corrupting "theatres, opera-dancers, and voluptuous prints" in London.
The New York Evangelist - January 20, 1838
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The New York Evangelist - January 20, 1838
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We believe that every editor of a newspaper, or any other periodical, ought to show himself a watchful guardian of the laws of morality and religion; always, however, with that due deference to the opinions of others, which both modesty and decorum require. Under this impression it grieves us to behold an attempt making to introduce MASQUERADES into this city. These pernicious institutions have been for ages, in Europe, the hot-beds of every species of vice and wickedness. They are peculiarly calculated to give full scope to the most vicious propensities, the vilest corruptions, of our nature. It may be considered by some, perhaps, as a hard sentence; but it is our honest conviction, that masquerades are the direct offspring of that Arch Apostate, who was turned out of heaven for his treason to the Almighty. We believe it to be a moral impossibility for young people to attend these exhibitions steadily and at the same time preserve their virtue; and if they cannot be attended steadily with safety, then the very first step is a dangerous one. They are, like the theatre, among the surest path-ways to ruin, both temporal and eternal, of all who visit them. But one thing is certain, they cannot be supported without the aid of the female sex: and we shall, we trust, most wofully mistake the character of the female population of Albany, if they be found to encourage these devices of the worst enemy of the human race. A masquerade is but the apple of Eden in another shape; for the Arch Apostate well knows how to dish up his temptations in all possible shapes, from an apple in the bowers of paradise to a midnight coterie in Stanwix Hall—a name associated with the heroic achievements of our gallant fathers, and especially with those of one of the gallant fathers of our ancient city. We venture to assert, that could the shade of PETER GANSEVOORT look down upon the noble structure which bears a name so nearly allied to his fame as a patriot, and a virtuous citizen, it would frown indignantly upon every attempt to plant the standard of vice and immorality within those walls consecrated to the memory of his virtues as a citizen, and his valor as a hero of the revolution. Once more, we repeat it, this vile innovation upon our ancient simple manners, and republican and Christian virtues, cannot succeed without female countenance—and where, we ask, is the virtuous mother who will consent, or the virtuous daughter who will ask for consent, to participate in such scenes as masquerades have ever given birth to. We hope, for the honor of the female sex—for the honor of our city—and for the character of our common country, and the stability of its civil and religious institutions, that those who may have projected the foul amusement to which we allude, may pause and reflect upon its evil consequences; in which case, we are satisfied they will give it up as a pernicious design. Is it not, indeed, remarkable, that human beings—rational beings—immortal beings—should delight in frivolous, to say nothing of vicious amusements?

Independent of many other reasons that might be given, the present state of our country is such as to require both serious reflection and serious conduct, on the part of every citizen who feels an interest in her prosperity and happiness. Internally, she is going through a terrible if not a fiery ordeal, of bankruptcy and distress; and externally on one border she is herself engaged in savage warfare; and on another, though beyond her own limits, a dreadful civil war is raging, whose consequences, as they may bear upon her safety, no human being can foresee. With the flames of a national and savage war raging on one side of her and those of a civil war on the other, we repeat it, this is no time for revelry, licentiousness or levity of any kind. If any of our citizens have money to spare, let them look to the thousands of shivering and starving poor, with whom our cities are every where crowded, and will continue to be so through the winter. How many thousands of honest mechanics are now out of employment? And which is the best course for our youth to pursue—to spend their money in such frivolous and vicious pursuits as those of masquerades, theatres and circusses, or bestow it upon the unfortunate? If we blame Nero for fiddling and dancing over the burning ruins of his capital, can we commend those who would now laugh over the calamities which press upon their country, or the other calamities with which she seems to be threatened? We trust that every virtuous and patriotic citizen—and especially every true Republican and Christian—will look seriously to these things, and prevent, if possible, the youth under their care from running into the paths of perdition; and their country from adopting institutions which have grown out of the corruptions of Europe, and the dark designs of her tyrants and oppressors. —Albany Paper.
--New York Evangelist, January 20, 1838
In mid January 1846, Mrs. Edward Satterlee hosted a surpassingly elegant costume ball at Yates Mansion in Albany. Herman Melville's uncle Peter came to that Fancy Ball dressed in the costume of his own father, General Peter Gansevoort:
"Gen. G——t of Albany excited even more than usual attention and respect, by appearing in the uniform of his brave father, the Hero of Fort Stanwix."  --The Fancy Ball

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