Low Life Lures and Snares of Old New York

Luc Sante; With a New Afterword by the Author

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

460 Pages



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Now available exclusively from Farrar, Straus & Giroux (the Vintage Books edition is out of print), Luc Sante's Low Life is a portrait of America's greatest city, the riotous and anarchic breeding ground of modernity. This is not the familiar saga of mansions, avenues, and robber barons, but the messy, turbulent story of the city's slums and teeming streets, scenes of innumerable cons and crimes, whose cramped and overcrowded housing is still a prominent feature of the cityscape.

Low Life voyages through Manhattan from four different directions. Part One examines the topography of Manhattan from 1840 to 1919; Part Two explores the era's opportunities for vice and entertainment—theaters and saloons, opium and cocaine dens, gambling and prostitution; Part Three investigates the forces of law and order, which did and didn't work to contain the illegalities; Part Four juxtaposes the city's periods of revolt and idealism against its everyday reality.

Low Life provides an arresting and entertaining view of what New York was really like in its salad days. But it's more than simply a book about New York. It's one of the most provocative books about urban life ever written—an evocation of the mythology of the quintessential modern metropolis that has much to say, not only about New York's past, but also about the present and future of all cities.


Praise for Low Life

"Fascinating . . . We should all be grateful to Luc Sante [for] this entertaining and sobering history of New York's 'dark side' . . . [Low Life] delights the reader with constant felicities . . . Replete not only with wit, but with feeling."—Jim Holt, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Sante has dug up an astonishing amount of material and his sympathy for the people [this book] describes is genuine . . . Instructive and lively . . . Informative and amusing."—The Washington Post Book World

"A cacophonous poem of democracy and greed, like the streets of New York themselves . . . [Offers both] praise for a lost New York and an essential mine of information . . . It ferrets out some of the city's darker secrets, ones that our 19th-century ancestors often found unmentionable."—John Vernon, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Low Life captures the rollicking atmosphere of city life . . . Sante reclaims an essential piece of the city's past."—Hanna Rubin, The New York Times Book Review

"An enthusiastic chronicle of the years between 1840 and 1919 . . . This is a boisterous, unglamorous period largely lost to collective memory, and Sante takes much pleasure in identifying its remains. History in his subject is obvious, as is the thoroughness of his research. Sante [is] a bookworm and an outsider, and proud of it."—Sally S. Eckhoff, The Village Voice Literary Supplement

"Wonderful . . . [An] unusual, nostalgia-free inquiry into those who started at the bottom and stayed there."—Joe Queenan, The Wall Street Journal

"A systematic, well-researched historical account of drinking, drugging, whoring, murder, corruption, vice and miscellaneous mayhem in late-19th- and early-20th-century New York City . . . Well-crafted and rightly written."—Michael Winerip, The Boston Globe

"A tour-de-force . . . [Sante] has a novelist's eye for detail and an aesthete's taste for anecdote . s20. . Low Life is unquestionably a book that can be read for instruction about New York as well as for pleasure."—David Rieff, The Times Literary Supplement

"This highly original work reads like the reminiscence of a raconteur who knew every one, was there in the midst of it all himself and, even when telling stories of the deadliest dives on the Bowery, makes you wish you had been there too."—Michelle E. Hammer, Newsday

"Makes the stories of Edgar Allan Poe seem less the products of dark imaginings than efficient reportage . . . [Sante] strews his pages with fabulous bits of offbeat erudition. Colorful, elegant, and witty . . . [,] Low Life, with its perfectly chosen anecdotes and austere, epigrammatic prose, is a superb work of social history. It deserves something stronger than conventional praise and a longer life than any of its protagonists enjoyed."—Patricia Storace, Condé Nast Traveler

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium, and now lives in New York City. He is the author of Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Walker Evans, and his work has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and Harper's, among other publications. He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.
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  • Luc Sante; With a New Afterword by the Author

  • Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium. He is also the author of Evidence and The Factory of Facts and co-editor, with Melissa Holbrook Pierson, of O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Grammy for album notes, and in 2001 was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has written for many magazines; has been the film critic for Interview, the book critic for New York, and the photography critic for The New Republic; and served as historical consultant for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. He is Visiting Professor of Writing and the History of Photography at Bard College and lives with his wife and son in Ulster County, New York.