Saturday, 6 August 2011

P. G. Wodehouse and Psmith in New York

We generally associate P. G. Wodehouse with the farcical adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, so it comes as a surprise to find that one of his early novels, "Psmith, Journalist" gives a fairly realistic picture of crime and social problems in New York before the first World War.

Psmith, a monocled Etonian, features in several early Wodehouse stories, but in contrast to Bertie Wooster, he is by no means an upper-class twit. He is highly intelligent, full of ingenious stratagems, never once loses his supercilious calm even in the direst of emergencies, and appears entirely unencumbered by any moral codes. Furthermore, he describes himself as a socialist, and displays his democratic credentials by addressing everyone impartially as "comrade". In this particular novel, published in 1915, Psmith is visiting New York, where he finds himself running a peculiarly dreary magazine called "Cosy Moments", alongside Billy Windsor, a young journalist from the Midwest. They decide to launch a campaign exposing the appalling conditions in the New York slums, in consequence of which the leading slum landlord, a man by the name of Waring, decides that they must br forcibly silenced.

Quite by chance, Psmith and Billy win the friendship of a certain Bat Jarvis, the leading gangster in the city, who seems to have been closely modelled on Monk Eastman, a real-life mobster of the period. When hired thugs corner our heroes in a tenement building, Bat Jarvis's men come to their rescue, and Jarvis himself drives out more thugs who have come to the editorial office to beat them up. The New York police prove hopelessly corrupt: gunmen who attack Psmith and Billy are arrested, and immediately afterwards released without charge. Then Psmith and Billy are themselves arrested on blatantly trumped-up charges: Psmith manages to talk his way out, but Billy, lacking Psmith's savoir-faire, is sent to prison. Finally Psmith is "taken for ride" in what was shortly to become the classic mobster style; driven out into the countryside to be shot; and is saved only by a lucky coincidence. After this episode, the slum landlord gives up, a truce is arranged, and Psmith returns to England.

P. G. Wodehouse lived for many years in New York and loved it, but was clearly not blind to the city's seamier side. I have outlined the plot of this novel in detail because it comes as a surprise to discover that Wodehouse was able to tackle such matters as poverty, official corruption and criminal violence, and it makes us wonder what he might have achieved had he not later decided to write just farces.

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