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 This book, until now unpublished and lost in the archives, is his account of his adolescent years when he ran with a gang of feisty and mischievous “muckers” whom he calls the Crapshooters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What is most exciting is discovering the boys’ world of New York City in the 1890s through an unpublished manuscript that is written by someone from that world.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.


A Taste of Upstate New York

On Friday and Saturday, June 3 and 4, Taste of Syracuse will take place in and around Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse, NY. This year’s 20th anniversary celebration includes $1 samples from some great restaurants in Syracuse as well as music and entertainment. With a tagline like “Eat your heart out!” and the buzz surrounding the event so far, it’s clear that people are excited about all the food Syracuse has to offer. But what about the rest of Upstate New York?

If you’re a local, you probably know the salt potato got its start in Syracuse, but did you know the chicken wing was born in Buffalo? Or that the potato chip originated in the kitchen of a glitzy Saratoga Springs hotel? Upstate New York is actually the birthplace of many of America’s favorite foods. In his recent book A Taste of Upstate New York, Chuck D’Imperio travels across the region to discover the stories and people behind 40 iconic foods of Upstate New York.

View included photographs, a map, and create your own cultural and historic food tour by purchasing a copy here.

a taste of upstate cover.

Democracy Day and a Newly Released SU Press Book

Last Sunday, May 29, was Democracy Day in Nigeria. Democracy Day commemorates the restoration of democracy in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which took place in May of 1999 when a newly elected President of Nigeria took office, ending multiple decades of military rule.

To celebrate Democracy Day and to remind us that democracy is a work in progress we present one of SU Press’s latest releases: Civil Society, Conflict Resolution, and Democracy in Nigeria. In it, author Darren Kew offers a deeply comprehensive account of Nigerian civil society groups in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Kew blends democratic theory with conflict resolution methodologies to argue that the manner in which groups—and states—manage internal conflicts provides an important gauge as to how democratic their political cultures are.

A short excerpt from the book is below:

“The dramatic wave of democratic revolutions that swept the globe in the late 1980s and early 1990s lionized the reputations of the civil society groups that helped to lead them, and thereafter inspired movements worldwide in the new millennium. Stunning images of trade unionists, human rights activists, student leaders, community associations, and other civil society organizations facing down communist dictatorships in Europe, military juntas in Africa, and authoritarian governments elsewhere raised expectations among many democracy advocates regarding the roles these groups could play. Western donors channeled increasing funds for civil society groups in authoritarian or transitional countries in the hope that they too could rise like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel to lead their nations down the democratic path.

But what exactly is the contribution that civil society groups make to democratic development? Robert Putnam’s pathbreaking 1993 book, Making Democracy Work, caught the prevailing Western donor perspective and framed the academic debate on civil society’s contribution when he reached a straightforward and appealing conclusion: More is better. Putnam argued that, regardless of the make, type, or orientation of a nation’s civil society associations, the denser the number of these groups, the deeper and more effective a country’s democracy will be.

Nearly thirty years since the revolutions of 1989, however, scholars and activists alike have grown less enamored of the contribution of civil society. Western policymakers have become particularly impatient with African civil society partners, who appear to have had little success at breaking the neopatrimonial lock on politics that predatory elites retain in many countries on the continent, Nigeria most of all. A growing body of evidence and scholarly analysis has led to increasing skepticism with unqualified portrayals of the democratic contribution of civil society groups. They point to the need for more nuanced approaches to civil society both as an analytical concept and as an object of democracy-promotion policies.

This book seeks to contribute to the search for a more precise understanding of the contribution of civil society to the democratization process. Do some civil society groups promote democratic political development more effectively than others, and if so, which ones and why? I provide extensive evidence from Nigeria that the answer to this question is indeed yes, and that the civil society groups who are themselves more democratic are more effective democracy-promoting organizations. Consequently, donor agencies seeking to promote democratic development through civil society groups are advised first to encourage these groups to “practice what they preach” by democratizing themselves.” (xi – xii)

To read more, consider purchasing a copy here.

civil society cover

In Honor of Black History Month


The Syracuse University Press would like to recommend the following book

The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life  being published this spring.

Rev. Loguen was popularly known as the “Underground Railroad King” in Syracuse, where he helped over 1,500 fugitives escape from slavery. With a charismatic and often controversial style, Loguen lectured alongside Frederick Douglass and worked closely with well-known abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, William Wells Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison, among others.

Originally published in 1859, The Rev. J. W. Loguen chronicles the remarkable life of a tireless young man and a passionate activist.


CSPAN To Feature SUP Author

Author Marsha Weissman will be featured in C-SPAN’s “Cities Tour” this weekend. Dr. Weissman was interviewed about her book, “Prelude to Prison: Student Perspectives on School Suspension” as part of C-SPAN Cities Tour looking at issues affecting the Central New York community.

“Prelude to Prison” explores the link between school suspension and incarceration in the United States through the voices of young people. Syracuse, New York was the venue for this study. The segment will air on Saturday, November 21, 2015 at 8 p.m. EST on C-SPAN2’s Book TV.

The segment will be available indefinitely on the C-SPAN Video Library site at C-SPAN.PRELUDE TO PRISON COVER

Tel Aviv Broadcast on Bridging the Divide


On Wednesday morning TLV1, a radio station in Tel Aviv featured the SUP book Bridging the Divide: The Selected Poems of Hava Pinhas-Cohen edited and translated from the Hebrew by Sharon Hart-Green.

Pinhas- Cohen’s poems portray everyday life in modern Israel through a sacred yet personal language. Awarded the coveted Prime Minister’s Prize for her poetry, Pinhas-Cohen is a poet whose verse in English translation is long overdue. Sharon Hart-Green has worked closely with the poet herself on these translations, several of which have appeared in journals such as the Jewish Quarterly and the Toronto Journal of Jewish Thought. Her lively translations display the dazzling breadth and depth of Pinhas-Cohen’s oeuvre, making Bridging the Divide not only the first but the definitive English-language edition of this vital Hebrew poet’s work.

TLV1 is an English-language radio station broadcasting from Tel Aviv. Each month, listeners from over 210 countries and territories, residing in more than 10,500 cities around the world, log on and tune in.

Hava Pinhas-Cohen is an Israeli writer and poet. She is the editor of Dimui, a journal of literature, criticism, and Jewish culture, and the author of several poetry collections. Pinhas- Cohen was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize (1996), the ACUM Prize (1998), the Kugel Prize (2000), the Alterman Prize (2002), and the Rishon LeZion Prize for Creativity in Hebrew Language (2015). Sharon Hart-Green has a PhD in modern Hebrew literature from Brandeis University and has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Not a Simple Story: Love and Politics in a Modern Hebrew Novel.

Covered Bridges of New York State


On Sunday November 15th, The Post Standard ran a wonderful article on covered bridges in upstate New York. For readers who would like to learn more about these beautiful and historical structures, the Syracuse University Press suggests the book Covered Bridges of New York State, a stunning and comprehensive guide to the design, evolution, and romance of historic covered bridges extant in New York State. Learn more about them by purchasing a copy.

A Guide by Rick L. Berfield and photographs by Richard R. Wilson.