Author Interview: Woody Register and “The Muckers”

muckers photo

SU Press: Tell us briefly about The Muckers. What are you most excited about for readers?

WR: First of all, I should explain what a “mucker” was. “Mucker” was 1890s street slang for the boys who ran the streets of New York City’s immigrant neighborhoods. The newspapers and magazines of the time had colorful, Dickensian names for them like gamins, guttersnipes, ragamuffins, street urchins or Arabs, but the boys themselves called each other “muckers,” and probably for a reason. The word had, to say the least, unsavory associations. It referred quite explicitly to “muck” — that is, the filth that horses left in abundance in the city’s streets. By embracing the description for themselves, the boys adopted a term that disgusted refined people and also asserted a kind of underclass pride and defiance. Though young and often small in stature, muckers were seriously tough characters and not to be messed with unless you wanted to suffer their ingenious wrath. Until the age of sixteen William Dapping was a mucker who pulled such pranks in Yorkville, an Upper East Side tenement neighborhood of German, Irish, and Jewish immigrants in late-nineteenth-century New York City. This book, until now unpublished and lost in the archives, is his account of his adolescent years when he ran with a gang of feisty and mischievous “muckers” whom he calls the Crapshooters Club.

What is most exciting is discovering the boys’ world of New York City in the 1890s through an unpublished manuscript that is written by someone from that world. Publishers shunned The Muckers largely because its portrayal of the immigrant poor and especially their male children was too unconventional for its time. But what they found objectionable gives us a fresh and often surprising view of that world, its attractive and ugly sides, through the detailed and frequently humorous stories Dapping tells about the boys’ fun- and mischief-loving life in what he terms “the so-called slums.” Best of all, Dapping’s “insider” account tells us something that other writers in his day were unable to convey with such richness: how muckers viewed the world they lived in and especially the well-meaning adults who sought to uplift them.

SU Press: What are some of the ways Dapping’s manuscript differs from other, more typical social reform texts focused on this period?

WR: In American cities at the time, authorities on the social problems of urban poverty and crime produced a vast literature about the menace of urban street gangs and what must be done about them. Immigrant neighborhoods all had such gangs. So we already know a lot about how middle- and upper-class Americans viewed trouble-making boys like Dapping. But we do not know how boys like Dapping understood themselves and the world in which they lived. The poor, especially poor children, left scant records or written reflections about their lives. This is the unusual value of Dapping’s book, the first version of which he wrote in the summer of 1899, when he was nineteen and just three years out of the “so-called slums.” In telling his and their story from his point of view, it goes a long way in filling that gap in the record. As a result, we get a picture different from the more conventional portraits of slum children. Dapping’s Crapshooters defy that condescension, express contempt for those who pity or loathe them, and demand not only respect but also their share of the fun and pleasure that city life afforded. They are shrewd, resourceful, tough, in need of no one’s help, and fully able to survive in a dark, violent world that seeks to cheat, exploit, and control them. No adult is a match for their ingenuity. The picture ends up being more complicated than the usual options of “poor child” or “depraved guttersnipe.”

SU Press: How can this book help readers better understand poverty in the late nineteenth century?

WR: This book does not put a pretty face on poverty, especially of immigrants, in the rapidly industrializing and urbanizing United States in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dapping knew poverty firsthand. His family had to scramble for money to buy food and pay rent, and periodically they faced destitution because his father could not keep a job or unforeseen sickness or death struck the family.

Then as now, people generally thought of the poor as falling into two categories: those who deserved compassion and help because they were the victims of circumstances beyond their control (like children), and those undeserving of it because their laziness and immorality caused their condition. Critics of social welfare can read in The Muckers evidence that the poor were out to game the charity system to avoid work or, in the parlance of the time, to get “something for nothing.” But the stronger message here is that charity and assistance were part of an array of options that poor people, including their sons, exploited not just to survive but also to find pleasure in a world of chronically insecure employment, very low wages, and the ever-present threat of disabling sickness and injury.

The Muckers gives a fuller and less judgmental picture of the urban social landscape. The Crapshooters are neither pitiable victims nor despicable criminals. They are hustlers in a struggle for survival in a hostile world. Dapping portrays the stratagems they devise to get the most out of the world around them with the least amount of effort necessary, not as a moral failing, but as the ethic suited to their environment. They filch or steal what they can, deceive and hoodwink the unwitting, but they also see everyone else, whether benevolent do-gooders or the hated cop on the beat, doing the same thing. The rule is swindle, or be swindled, take or be taken. Dapping does not apologize for the boys’ behavior. If anything, he insinuates that there was a kind of justice in the Crapshooters’ designs to snatch what they could from a world in which everyone was on the make.

SU Press: Do you have an idea of why Dapping chose to write The Muckers and attempted to add his voice to the literature surrounding late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social reform?

WR: The most obvious reason is that his patron, Osborne, encouraged him to write his stories. Osborne believed they contributed valuable understanding of the “problem of the slums,” but he also wanted to hold up Dapping as a shining example demonstrating that the Republic program actually reformed boys who were destined to be criminals. Dapping himself wanted to be an author and to write his way out of the slums and into the respectable classes. In a sense, he achieved this goal, not as an author of books, but as a journalist in Auburn who was widely respected in the profession. Beyond these considerations, though, Dapping’s stories changed over time and with editing became sharper in their social commentary, perhaps reflecting his own growing disillusionment with the good intentions of the better class of people. He began them when he was nineteen and revised them over the next eight or so years. His last draft, The Muckers, it seems, manifests his own encounters with the better class of people, whose paternalistic good intentions toward boys like him often went hand in hand with their underlying contempt for the “products of the slums.”

SU Press: In what ways does The Muckers reflect theories of criminality in his day?

WR: The book conveys Dapping’s firm belief in rehabilitation and that juvenile criminals (or adult, for that matter) are not innately bad but largely the products of their bad environments. Change the environment – for instance, by taking them out of the slum and incorporating them into the Junior Republic – and you will change both their behavior and their character and then restore them to their communities. You will make manly men of them, or, in the case of girls, virtuous women. Dapping’s views corresponded to those of George and Osborne and challenged the dominant belief and practice of the time, which was that criminals should be punished and locked away from society.

SU Press: Your introduction spends some time revealing Dapping’s childhood and his meeting William R. George and Thomas Mott Osborne. What do you think this knowledge of Dapping’s life adds to a reading of The Muckers?

WR: The most important reason for giving Dapping’s biography the attention I do is to restore his history to the record. That said, the fact is that Dapping would not have had a story to tell – and certainly would not have had the opportunity to tell it himself – were it not for these men. They brought him into the Republic and chose him to enjoy and represent all that the program promised to do for boys like him. The book itself has to be understood within the context of Dapping’s indebtedness to George and Osborne, his regard for them as surrogate fathers, and his increasing determination to gain control of his life and his life story despite the web of dependencies in which his indebtedness placed him. When I tell people that Dapping insisted on using a pseudonym for his authorship of the book, they are surprised. In fact, Osborne put enormous pressure on him to identify himself. But Dapping did not want his mucker past to be known; he knew his past would hold him down, as he put it. His refusal reflected his confusion about how to understand and tell his history while also creating for himself a new and respectable identity.

SU Press: In your introduction, you describe some sociological reasons as to why Dapping might have had trouble finding a publisher. Can you elaborate on a couple possibilities?

WR: Dapping had every connection a writer could want with the publishing world, but still could not get the manuscript in print. I already have touched on some of the reasons why, but I should mention three of the most important ones here. For one, the manuscript is laced with profanity, all of it issuing from the mouths of children. Publishers found such language unacceptable. For another, Dapping does not punish the boys for any of their crimes; they get away with virtually everything they do. That, too, was unacceptable because literature was supposed to demonstrate the triumph of the moral order. Finally, there was the matter of authorship. Dapping’s greatest story asset was his rise from the slums to the eminence of Osborne’s patronage and later Harvard, but he refused to put his name and that part of his story on the document. His resistance to Osborne’s insistence that he reveal his identity was a personal victory for him, but it is likely that anonymity greatly diminished his chances for publication.

SU Press: How did you get involved with this project? What aspects interested you the most?

WR: Like all scholars who have taken an interest in the Junior Republic,I started out interested in one of the men in charge of the institution: Thomas Osborne. He deserves the attention he has received, but in my initial forays into his papers in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse I found myself drawn less to him and what he wrote than to the many hundreds of letters that Republic boys wrote to him. It is rare to find the written voice of children in any form, but especially that of poor children. In addition, the letters themselves were laden with emotion, revealing the thoughts, struggles, and feelings of these boys as they encountered the Republic’s unique incarceration and environment of reform. I wanted to know more about the boys, which is why my larger research project focuses on five of the Republic boys – Dapping among them – and their relationships with George and Osborne.

I began my research three years ago and early on I learned from the correspondence between Dapping and Osborne that he had written the manuscript, but I had no idea if I would ever find it. Dapping’s papers at Syracuse are unprocessed in archival boxes, which means that the contents have not been listed or catalogued. You can imagine my excitement when the third or fourth box I opened disclosed The Muckers, typed on cheap paper, now brittle and brown from age. It did not take long to see that this manuscript was a lost treasure. You can imagine, too, how grateful I am for the support of the staff of Special Collections and Syracuse University Press for bringing The Muckers to light and making Dapping, at last, the published author of his life.

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