To mark this week’s 150th anniversary of New York City’s deadly Civil War draft riots, author Kevin Baker discusses his acclaimed 2002 novel Paradise Alley—and makes a compelling case for modern-day conscription.
Zola: Do you think we’ll ever see another draft? Several countries, including Israel and Mexico, have mandatory military service—why not the U.S.?
Kevin Baker: Good question. I think something truly catastrophic, something it is difficult to foresee, would be the only way that we could have a draft again in the U.S. And I think that’s too bad. I know, easy for me to say now: demographically, I happened to be part of that very limited group of men since World War II who didn’t even have to register for a potential draft, and now I’m well past draft age. I was certainly opposed to a draft back when I might have been eligible.
But I’ve come to believe it’s a good thing. We probably don’t need that many active soldiers anymore, but I think we should have a system where everyone does some sort of national service, in exchange for expanded benefits—say a free university education and lifelong health care. It would be a way of sealing the social covenant.
It would also be a way, as many people have pointed out, of ensuring that we don’t rush into another war. As it is, far too much of a burden is foisted on our all-volunteer armed services, which have now had to deal with the longest wars in our history… and at the same time seen constant attempts to cut their benefits and hospital facilities, and efforts by banks to foreclose on their homes while they’re away. It’s disgusting—and it would not happen if the whole country had to face these outrages.
Finally, I think that sooner or later an all-volunteer army become separated from the people they’re supposed to serve. They start to think of themselves as a separate and distinct entity. And that bodes no well for any of us.
Why have we retreated from the draft? I think the reasons are both our legacy of extreme individualism in this country, and the general suspicion of government that settled in after Vietnam and Watergate, and that has now hardened into permanent distrust. And that’s a pity.
Zola: In your Acknowledgments, you provide an extensive list of the sources from which you drew in describing the Irish potato famine, the riots, the Civil War, etc. Yet your novel focuses as much on these public, well-documented events as on the private lives of several individual characters: Ruth and Billy, Deirdre and Tom, Maddy and Robinson. How did you go about writing them? Did you rely heavily on research as well, or did you let your imagination run more freely?
KB: Most of the characters are composites, but they were very much inspired by real individuals. During the draft riots, there really was an Irish-born prostitute named Mary Burke whom the mob came for because she entertained black men. She did fire a pistol at them and curse them. Herbert Willis Robinson is very much a combination of several of the truly prodigious hack writers of the 19th century.
Dangerous Johnny Dolan’s most notorious crime in Paradise Alley was based closely on one actually perpetrated by a real-life, antebellum gangster in New York, one “Dandy Johnny” Dolan, and on reports of one of the most crazed rioters—although I’ve filled in everything else. Deirdre Dolan and Tom O’Kane are composites of typical Irish immigrants of the time whom, yes, I researched very closely.
Ruth and Billy are another story. Billy’s name, “Billy Dove”, was derived from one of the first escaped slaves in New York City, a man who fled to the area of what is now Central Park after his “master” died during a visit to the city from South Carolina. He later became a (paid) servant to Boss Tweed. Billy Dove’s occupation as a master craftsman in Charleston, in the novel, is typical of how many African Americans were employed at that time—while still remaining slaves.
But the story of Ruth and Billy, and their son, was inspired by a very real incident at the height of the riots. A mob did indeed come to attack this mixed race family where they were living, at an address that’s given variously as 11 Worth Street and 11 York Street, in lower Manhattan. The real name of the couple was William and Ann Derickson, and their teenaged son was named Alfred. The mob really did come for them, William really was away at the time, and Ann really did go out in the street to fight the mob for the life of their son, in a scene that played out very much as it does in Paradise Alley. (In a strange little coincidence, Ann would die on my birthday.)
I would not have dared to make such a story up. But when I happened upon it, I felt I had to use it. This, to me, is one of the main benefits of research. You find so many things you weren’t looking for in the first place.
Zola: There are as many epic battle or riot scenes in the novel as there are intimate love and sex scenes. Which were more challenging and/or enjoyable to write, and why?
KB: Oh, my goodness, is there anything harder to write than a sex scene? I think all writers dread them—there’s no easier way to make a fool of yourself! I’m thinking of starting a movement to bring Victorian reticence back to literature.
Seriously, sex scenes are hard to write because sex is so intimate, and so individual. And at the same time, there are so few new ways to describe it! Give me a good, bloody cavalry charge any day.
Zola: You’ve written nonfiction on the immigrant experience in America and served as the chief historical researcher on Sir Harold Evans’ illustrated history of the United States, The American Century. Yet you’ve stated that “fictitious works are often able to get closer to the truth of the immigrant experience than some of the more plodding, academic nonfiction on the subject.” Why do you think that is?
KB: That was badly expressed. Certainly, plenty of terrific nonfiction has been written about the immigrant experience, and I don’t think that historical fiction ever gets closer to the truth than well-written history.
What I think fiction does enable one to do—whether it’s in a historical context or not—is to speculate, to hone experience, to take a subjective viewpoint and bring out all that is most human. That’s one reason why I write it.
Zola: You’ve also said you’ve “slighted writing about most of the newest immigrants, which means mostly Asian and Hispanic Americans” because “these stories are so new that it is not yet possible to get any real historical perspective on them.” How much longer do you think it’ll take to gain this perspective, and would you be interested in writing about it?
KB: Let me clarify first off that I meant those Asian and Hispanic Americans who happened to be immigrating in recent years. Certainly, other Asian immigrants have been coming to America for over 150 years now, and of course Hispanic immigrants were in this country before any other European people.
Obviously, though, it’s easier to get a historical perspective on people after the space of a century or two, or at least a few decades. I would be hard-pressed to put a date on it. I do think there are plenty of stories to be told about these newer immigrants, though, from the moment they set foot in this country, and there are plenty of writers both inside and outside their communities who are telling them. Me, I tend to lag a little behind the times.
Zola: There is a particularly vivid moment in Paradise Alley, as Robinson describes New York’s literary scene in the mid-19th century: “People reading, everywhere—poring over books in social libraries, and reading rooms, and on the streets […] Printers and their presses on every other block. Turning out mountains of paper and words; of books and newspapers.” New York has always been considered the nation’s literary hub, but publishing trends have been shifting drastically in the past few years. As a writer and New York resident of the early 21st century, how would you describe the city’s literary scene today?
KB: That’s an interesting question. One thing I would say is that the literary scene in New York is probably more disparate, more fragmented than it has been during most times in the past. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in part, it’s a function of how many different voices can now make themselves heard—the voices of women, the voices of people of color, of those new immigrants.
I know a great many writers, and we socialize a good deal, but it’s not like there’s some particular school or style that we’re all either championing or rebelling against. We tend to very much tend our own little plots. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do wish that, collectively, we were trying to define our era a little more, and shape the public debate.
I find some long-term trends a little worrisome. I would hate to see publishers continue to decline or go out of business. There would be such a terrible loss of institutional knowledge, and people who really love books there. I hate to see bookstores going down—though maybe the demise of some chains will give independents the chance they need to come back.
I’m very leery about how, as in all things, the electronic revolution in publishing seems oriented mostly around destroying the livelihood of all those people who actually produce literature—writers, editors, publishing people—in favor of those who control a system of delivery. This strikes me as a continuing threat in capitalism, and a real challenge.
Beyond that, while I’m glad to see that many people are still reading, and reading a great deal, I’m bothered by the solipsism of the new media. I’m amazed that people can actually walk around all day, heads down describing everything they’re doing or thinking to their friends. Don’t they ever get bored with themselves? Aren’t they interested in the amazing city all around them? Why pay these rents if you’re not even going to look around? I’m hoping this is a growing pain of the electronic age.
Zola: Paradise Alley is the second title in your New York, City of Fire trilogy, and you have a new historical novel, The Big Crowd, coming out in September. Do you plan to make it part of a thematic series as well, or have you envisioned it is a stand-alone book? In either case, are you already working on what’s next?
KB: The Big Crowd is part of a thematic series, as well as a stand-alone book… and this time I actually thought of doing the series before writing the first book.
Paradise Alley was the second book I wrote in what I call my “City of Fire” trilogy—but the first book chronologically. It’s about the Irish immigrant experience, and the Civil War draft riots in New York City. The first one I wrote was Dreamland, which mostly concerned the Jewish immigrants experience at the turn into the 20th century, and was centered around Coney Island’s golden age and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The third one was Strivers Row, which was about the black migrant experience to New York, and concerned a riot in Harlem in 1943 in the midst of the Second World War.
They covered three turbulent, critical moments in the history of New York City and America; three times when groups who were not much wanted in this country save in the most silent and subservient positions, stepped forward to carve a way for themselves. The characters are connected, but more tangentially than would have been the case had I thought of this as a trilogy from the beginning. It’s more the biography of a city.
The Big Crowd concerns political corruption and one of the great, unsolved mob crimes in American history. It’s about the fight for the New York waterfront, and who was going to run the city. I consider it part of what I see as a “City of Gold” trilogy, primarily about those 20 years or so in New York right after World War II, when the city was in many ways at its zenith. It’s the world capital of pretty much everything, it’s rich, it’s brimming with culture and talent, and it’s in many ways a great middle-class city.
But the ongoing political corruption—and the political resistance to welcoming and aiding the latest groups of immigrants, and understanding that the city is really going to be run by the people now—are already starting to crack this gilded façade. This sort of venality and ignorance is going to lead to the city’s decline in the years to come.
I see the next book in the series as centered around the college basketball scandals in the city, and then a third one that takes place during the game-show scandals. But really, they’re all about who is going to run the place.
I have not started the next book yet. I’m just finishing up an “as-told-to” memoir with Reggie Jackson about his first couple years in New York, then I have to finish a history of New York City baseball that’s been taking me years, and that my publisher has been very patient about. And then I have a contract to do a history of the United States between the world wars. So it’s mostly nonfiction for a little while to come, though I may try to squeeze in a novel or two in my spare time!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.