5.0 out of 5 stars When New York was really wicked
"Gangs of New York" is an energetic and entertaining history book, detailing a time in American history that most people, myself included, are largely ignorant of. It tells the tale of the creating and the taming of one of the US's great cities, once a den of crime and vice unimaginable in today's society. Murderers for hire, unbelievable multi-storied...
Published on July 1 2004 by Zack Davisson
3.0 out of 5 stars History as dime novel
Herbert Asbury's "Gangs of New York" was an expose first published in 1927. Its style shows its age: reading this book is like listening to an old 1920's newspaper reporter from the far end of the bar after he's had too many drinks: lots of exotic tall tales of life in the gritty city; countless names and places rise and disappear never to be heard again. The...
Published on Dec 18 2002 by bensmomma
Most Helpful First | Newest First
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book For The Interested!,
4.0 out of 5 stars Full of Surprises...,
Having LOVED the recent movie by Martin Scorcese... I thought this book would unfold as a historical drama/love story surrounded by all of those strange but endearing underworld characters.
As I read on, I found many of the same characters, but they were now in an entirely different story. This book is nothing like the movie... although, honestly, I was not disappointed in it at all.
I enjoy reading about historical events that are not really taught in school. The detailed descriptions of the draft riots were interesting and horrifying at the same time. With half a dozen 'negros' being lynched every day for a week... (and many people think that racism only existed in the south during the Civil War) How many people know that Union forces fired Artillery into crowds. Artillery. Cannons... Lincoln is a popular president today, but can you imagine Bill Clinton authorizing the US Army to fire a howitzer into the crowd during the LA riots...?
Anyway, I liked this book very much and I would recommend it to anyone who reads and enjoys American history. New York is an old city with many stories... this is one of them.
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating anecdotal history (NOT movie novelization),
Even so, no matter what anyone (including yours truly) says...and awful lot of people of all ages READ this book -- and love it. I was recently on a flight and sat next to a guy in his early 20s who sat there fascinated, reading it during the entire 3 hour flight.
Gangs of New York is NOT your typical book on which a movie is based. If it's bought by someone who loves the film somebody is going to be in for a monster surprise (or disappointment). Don't expect a plot, don't expect compelling writing, don't expect a large section on which the book is based and to easily find those sections. But do expect to be fascinated.
WHAT THIS IS: This is a book about: early brutal gang warfare, during a time in the 19th century where gangs literally swarmed all over New York City; blow-by-blow bloody battles and legendary gang fighters in a city virtually in the grip of gangs -- leading to the creation of the NY City Police department; and the politically dominating Tammany Hall machine's birth and growth in the 19th and 20th centuries, set within the context of a politically corrupt, violence-prone city.
Most interestingly, it's about a time in NYC's history that you seldom see portrayed in films or in books. I found the accounts of the 1863 Civil War draft riots absolutely gripping. But mostly it's about the gangs with names such as Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies etc (the film used these names too). Many illustrations are old-style drawings rather than photos.
WHAT IT DOES: Gangs of New York gives you a good history seemingly based on interviews and mountains of old newspaper clippings, most of it in anecdotal versus dry statistical form.
WHAT IT IS NOT: It is not a book written in a modern prose style, but it isn't boring. It doesn't have a "plot" with a beginning, middle and end. No, it doesn't have a hero, or anyone resembling Leonardo, a love subplot, etc.
But if you're interested in the acclaimed movie's source material and learning about a fascinating and often forgotten period in NY City's municipal history you'll love it. Even though it was out of print for many years The Gangs of New York has been a legend itself for many years -- and it easy to see why.
2.0 out of 5 stars Blurred and unorganized,
The best parts are the minute descriptions of the Police and the Draft riots, and I found the beginning quite gripping, but the book soon lacks its initial zeal and focus, and the biographical descriptions did not live up to their subjects. There is a surprising lack of enthusiasm on Asbury's part. You don't have to love your subject - you may even hate it -, but your interest should, to a degree, affect the reader.
2.0 out of 5 stars Vintage folklore,
Whether Asbury meant to mix fact and legend so fluently is unspecified. Still, even a figurative reading of the book seems a bit to colloquial. For a tale of "blood and gore" it was unexpectedly boring, owing to the sometimes overdetailed accounts of gang-related occurrences. This is one work for which I can say the movie is far more entertaining- though, of course, the movie mixes and matches aspects of the book at will, making it a sort of second derivative attempt.
Read Asbury's book as a sort of escapist crime drama, not as a serious historical work chronicling what was happening on the streets of New York.
4.0 out of 5 stars Pulp fiction as History,
2.0 out of 5 stars It's all about the movie,
5.0 out of 5 stars Maybe Not High Scholarship, But Very Entertaining,
Sure, some of it was tall tales, but they were written as such, and a reader would have to be an idiot to think the author was writing these to be believed as pure fact.
This may not be a college press sociological publlication with a bibliography longer than the actual text of the book itself, but when it was written, in the late 20's, that's not what a reader would have expected from a writer like Asbury. The book sets out to entertain, and I think it succeeds in this.
I found this in an used book store about 10 years ago, read it and it became an immediate favorite. I remember thinking at the time "somebody should make a movie of this", and now someone has done it. It's a good introduction to the basic events it describes. If one becomes more interested in these events, then one could delve into more scholarly tomes on the events. The past few years has seen a number of such tomes come out on these subjects, and I bet most of the authors were introduced to the study by Asbury's book.
I can understand that to some who don't live or work in New York, the place and street and neighborhood names might mean nothing, but if one is REALLY interested, one could get a street map of the city, or a travel guide from a public library to use as reference while reading the book. I happen to be from New York and work every day in the very area in which much of the action in this book takes place: Baxter and Mercer and Greene and Wooster Streets, etc., so the book may mean more to me than to a reader in, say, Dallas. But if you say "I ain't going thru all that trouble to get reference just to read this book", then you're not really that interested in the book. When I read about the Kennedy assassination, f'rinstance, and it describes areas and streets and neighborhoods in a city I am unfamiliar with (Dallas) I get a map. It makes the reading more interesting and gives the reader a better idea of what's going on.
By the way, if one is interested in further reading on this subject, I can recommend two further books. Both are old and out-of-print for years, but well worth finding. One is actually a novel, "An Original Belle" , written in 1885 by a now forgotten novelist, EP Roe. It is set in New York City during the Civil War, and gives one of the longest and best description of the draft riots I've read. Though this IS a novel, you can see that the author,who lived through the events and wrote this just a little over 20 years after the occurences, did deep research on the subject and wrote that section of the book as factual, detailed history. It serves as the dramatic climax of the novel, and because of that is kind of unique.
The second book is "Tammany Hall" by M. R. Werner, a magazine writer of the time (published in 1932). Less of a tall tale teller than Asbury, this book sticks to facts and the facts are eye-opening to say the least. The book is journalistic in style, but also VERY detailed. It is essential reading, and ties up very well the connection between street gangs, volunteer fire companies, political clubs, the NYC police, and the institution of Tammany Hall, from the lowly ward heeler all the way to the governor's mansion in Albany. It's hard to find, but worth the effort.
3.0 out of 5 stars History as dime novel,
One illustration will suffice: the early gangster "Mighty Mose" is describe as 'at least 8 feet tall' wearing boots studded with inch-long spikes.On one occasion Asbury has Mose pulling an oak tree out of the ground by its roots to 'smite' some of a rival gang, the Dead Rabbits. On another the author claims Mose swam underwater from Manhattan to Staten Island without coming up for air. It comes off as the kind of book a boy would have hidden in a corncrib to read when it was first published in 1927: lowlife fun, but if you're looking for the real history, you will be disappointed.
You will be even FURTHER disappointed if you expect the book to resemble the new Scorcese movie in any manner. Although Scorcese borrows the names of characters from the book - Bill the Butcher, Jack Scirocco, Vallon, Everdeane - and sets the movie around the time of the 1863 Draft Riots, which really occured - in the book these characters are sometimes separated by 50 years and 100 pages. The character played by Leonardo diCaprio, Amsterdam Vallon, does not appear at all in the book.
I first read the book before the movie was filmed, because of my interest in New York history. It's entertaining although the writing style is pretty archaic. But if you came to this page looking for the 'true story' behind the movie, you won't find it here.
3.0 out of 5 stars Gets old pretty fast.,
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury (Paperback - July 1 2008)
CDN$ 19.95 CDN$ 14.40