The Newsboy’s Lodging House
This novel fictionalizes what might have happened during philosopher William James’s “missing months.” In his early thirties, suicidal, overwhelmed by the problem of evil, James suffers a nervous breakdown. Taking refuge in a book about a newsboy’s ascent from rags to riches, written by that champion of positive thinking, Horatio Alger, James decides to investigate the real thing. This son of Boston Brahmins arrives, almost penniless, in the slums of New York. He makes his way to the newsboys’ lodging house, where his adventures—and a confrontation with the brutality and evil thriving in the city—begins. The narration, alternating between James and an orphaned newsboy he hopes to rescue, is wonderfully period- and class- correct. The hypocrisy of the rich, police and judicial corruption, and the struggle of the masses, packed into cholera and rat ridden neighborhoods, is powerfully evoked. Other historical figures, such as Anthony Comstock, Horatio Alger, and the Vanderbilts, assist the plot. The philosopher, retreating to leisure and privilege, has regained his sanity, but—at least in this novel—emerges as a less admirable character than his charity cases.