The Rise of Neighborhood Noir

Garbage Wagon – Loaded and Empty, January 26, 1938, Wenzel J. Hess (PhillyHistory.org)

The “Philadelphia Gothic” genre enjoyed a major breakthrough in the 1840s thanks to riots, crippling poverty, racial and religious discrimination and the lurid literature of George Lippard and Edgar Allan Poe. But the genre’s debut goes back to the 1790s, when Charles Brockden Brown mongered his brand of Philly-based fear.

As we said in a recent post: Philly Noir has always been with us. So what other literary stopping points are there along that gritty, smoke-veiled alley?

Enter John T. McIntyre, the Northern Liberties native who left school at eleven and graduated “into the streets.” For a time, McIntyre hauled “buckets of cow’s blood from an abattoir across a lot to a tannery” and did “pretty much nothing” until the age of twenty in 1891 when he began a balky writing career for newspapers and theater. His first stab at fiction, The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life & Politics, appeared in 1902 and begins:

Weary horses dragged ponderous trucks homeward, the drivers drooped upon their high seats and thought of cans of beer; a red sun threw shafts of light along the cross-town streets and between the rows of black warehouses. (3)

“McIntyre’s analytic eye examines the neighborhood drama to its minutest detail,” writes Ron Ebest, “the campaign, the clubs, the bars, the weddings, the wakes—complete with keening mourners—the schools, the churches, the houses and streets down to their dustiest brick.”

They turned into a quiet street leading toward the river. A cellar door opened, and a broad barb of light shot across the sidewalk; from the midst of this rose a pallid, spectral form, and stood looking calmly into the night. But it was only a baker, clad in his spotless working dress, popping out of his overheated basement for a breath of air. A great stack, towering skyward, and vomiting a blazing shower of sparks into the night, showed that they were nearing the mill. The huge, low, shed-like buildings lifted their corrugated walls, like the beginnings of greater structures; a knot of men were gathered about the wide doorway; they had limp, damp towels twisted about their necks and all smoked short pipes. Rows of puddlers, naked to the waist, their bodies glistening with perspiration, stood before the furnaces “balling” the molten metal; from time to time one would drench himself with water, and once more face the Cyclopean eye glaring so angrily upon him. (219-220)

900 North Front Street, October 20, 1915. Alonzo D. Biggard, photographer (PhillyHistory.org)

Beyond rich descriptions of the city, Ebest praises McIntyre’s “uncanny ability to replicate speech. So skillfully does he render Irish dialect, Irish-American pidgin, urban slang, and Yiddish-inflected English that complex conversations between multiple speakers can be read and followed without such guidelines as ‘he said’ or ‘she said;’ McIntyre’s people are recognizable by the sound of their voices.”

A red-faced, bare-armed woman opened a door in Murphy’s court and threw a pan of garbage into the gutter. Her next door neighbour was walking up and down the narrow strip of sidewalk, hushing the cry of a weazened baby.

“Is Jamsie not well, Mrs. Burns? “inquired the red-faced woman.

“Sorry the bit, Mrs. Nolan; he’s as cross as two sticks. It’s walk up an’ down the floor wid him I’ve been doin’ all the God’s blessed night. Scure till the wink av slape I’ve had since I opened me two eyes at half after foive yisterday mornin’.”

“Poor sowl ! Yez shud git him a rubber ring till cut his teeth on; it’s an illigant t’ing for childer’, I’m towld. (32)

“I am an incurable Philadelphian,” McIntyre liked to say. “I know it. I know the people. I’ve lived with them and they are part of me.”

“Mr. McIntyre’s people are the teamsters, the saloonkeepers, the corner grocer, the secondhand dealer, the undertaker, the sewer builders, the contractors and their gangs, and the families of all these people,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune. “The book is written in the language of the tenement house district and the conversation…abounds in the racy and picturesque vernacular of the race-track, the saloon, and the political club.”

The saloon was the only all-night establishment in the neighbourhood. It glittered with clusters of electric lamps and broad, gilt-framed mirrors; a marble- topped bar backed by pyramids of glasses and bottles stood upon one side.

They talked in a desultory way for some time, consuming much beer and many plates of sandwiches. Dawn stretched a grey hand through the window and dimmed the clusters of lights; and when they ranged along the bar for the last drink, the streets were filling with people hurrying toward their work.  (224)

Southwest Corner – 15th and Carpenter Streets, February 15, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

But Ragged didn’t make waves in literary circles. It would be another thirty-four years before McIntyre received major recognition, this time for Steps Going Down, his Depression-fueled novel also embedded in Philadelphia.

“It is the world of the rooming houses that exist handy to the burlesque theatres,” wrote Robert Van Gelder in The New York Times, “a world removed from the established order and largely inhabited by persons who at some time in their lives have developed the habit of trying to live by their wits, but have imperfectly mastered the procedure. The houses are drearily furnished, poorly lighted, damp and cold in Winter, hot and noisy in Summer; the rooms are painted in dirty, sickish green; the air heavy with the odors of slatternly living. … The men play pool, drink beer, find cocaine handy if they can get it and brood a great deal over lost opportunities.”

And the talk, “the sharp-edged talk of the wise guys” according to Van Gelder, is “here more artfully caught than in any book I have ever read…”

Percy Hutchinson, also in The New York Times, applauded McIntyre’s ear for American dialogue. His characters “do not speak so much as volley forth words and phrases as a machine gun spits bullets. A foreigner knowing this book could be excused for concluding that American speech is a continuum of explosive sentences, and conversation a marathon contest in repartee.”

A novel ripe for Hollywood?

According to one of McIntyre’s obituaries in 1951, Hollywood lacked “the nerve to turn a John McIntyre book into celluloid. They were ‘too true to life.’”

[Sources include: John T. McIntyre The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life & Politics (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902); “Good First Novel,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 4, 1902; “John T. McIntyre,” Book News: A Monthly Survey of General Literature, November 1902, Vol. 21 No, 243 (John Wanamaker: Philadelphia, New York, Paris); Robert Van Gelder, Books of the Times, The New York Times, September 3, 1936; Percy Hutchinson, “Mr. McIntyre’s Story of the American Underworld: Steps Going Down by John T. McIntyre,” The New York Times, September 6, 1936; “John T. M’Intyre, Novelist, 79, Dies,” The New York Times, May 22, 1951; Ron Ebest, “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down (1936),New Hibernia Review, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2004) pp. 86-99; Kevin Plunkett,Noir Town; The hard life of John McIntyre, the legendary Philly novelist nobody’s heard of,” by Kevin Plunkett. Philadelphia City Paper, March 16-22, 2006]

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 17, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    excellent write up here on McIntyre, thanks for taking a look at his works..MEKM

  2. Jude Francis
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Thom Nickels writes about McIntyre in his book, Literary Philadelphia: A History of Prose & Poetry in the City of Brotherly Love. Surprise this book was not used as a reference.

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