Owning the 19th Century

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Feast Day of the Cannibals
by Norman Lock
Bellevue Literary Press. 240 pages, $16.99

 

IN 1882, in Gilded Age New York, Washington Roebling, disabled by caisson disease (“the bends”), supervises construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from a second-story window in Brooklyn. Herman Melville, forgotten by the reading public, works as the chief inspector in the New York Customs House. And Samuel Clemens encourages Ulysses S. Grant, dying of throat cancer, to write his memoirs.

         These historical figures all appear in Norman Lock’s novel, along with his fictional protagonist Shelby Ross, a man with aristocratic manners and a classical education courtesy of the inherited fortune he lost when the Panic of 1873 ruined his business. As the novel opens, Ross has just begun working under Melville in the Customs House for three dollars a day. He visits Roebling, a childhood friend, and tells him the story of his downfall and the drudgery of his present work.

         There are several novels with gay themes about 19th-century American writers. In The Whale, Mark Beauregard imagines a brief love affair between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edmund White, in Hotel De Dream, has Stephen Crane write the novel about the love affair of a banker and a boy prostitute in New York that he abandoned when warned it would end his career. Most notable is The Master, Colm Tóibín’s brilliant recreation of the emotional life of Henry James. In his “American Novels” series, Norman Lock has previously published novels about Dickinson, Thoreau, Poe, Whitman, and Twain. Feast Day of the Cannibals is the first of his novels to explore the lives of 19th-century men who felt a sexual attraction to each other.

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Daniel A. Burr is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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