Sante, Luc 1954-
Sante, Luc 1954-
Name is pronounced "luke sahnt"; born May 25, 1954, in Verviers, Belgium; immigrated to the United States, 1959; son of Lucien (a factory worker) and Denise (a secretary and homemaker) Sante; married Melissa Holbrook Pierson, September 19, 1992; children: Raphael. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: Attended Columbia University, 1972-76. Politics: "Crypto-anarchist." Religion: "Freethinker."
Home and office—283 Lapla Rd., Kingston, NY 12401. Agent—Joy Harris Literary Agency, 156 5th Ave., New York, NY 10010.
Freelance journalist and critic. Strand Book Store, New York, NY, clerk, 1976-79; New York Review of Books, New York, NY, mail clerk and editorial assistant, 1980-84; Sports Illustrated, New York, NY, proofreader, 1987-90; Columbia University, New York, NY, adjunct assistant professor of writing, 1994-97; New School for Social Research (now New School), New York, NY, adjunct professor of writing, 1999; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, visiting professor of writing and the history of photography, 1999—.
PEN, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow).
Whiting Writer's Award, Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, 1989, for literary and film criticism and nonfiction; Guggenheim fellowship, 1992-93; literature award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997; Grammy Award, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1998, for album notes; American Scholar Award for literary criticism, 2004.
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1991.
Evidence (crime scene photographs with commentary), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1992.
The Factory of Facts (autobiography), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with wife Melissa Holbrook Pierson) O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Walker Evans, Phaidon (London, England), 2001.
(With Rosetta Brooks and Jeff Rian) Richard Prince, Phaidon (London, England), 2003.
Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces, 1990-2005, Yeti Books (Portland, OR), 2007.
(Translator and editor) Félix Fénélon, Novels in Three Lines, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2007.
Author of introductions for numerous works by other authors, including How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, Penguin Classics, 1997; New York Noir, edited by Bill Hannigan, Rizzoli, 1999; The Big Con, edited by David Maurer, Doubleday, 1999; Inferno, edited by Vance Nachtwey, Phaidon, 2000; and Classic Crime, edited by William Roughead, New York Review Books, 2000. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Review of Books and New York Times Magazine.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York and Evidence, both histories of New York City. Describing his research methods as unscientific, Sante approaches his subject matter by looking for the neglected, unusual aspects of times past. "I'm fascinated by the notion of lost history," he related to Karen Schoemer in the New York Times. "What is history, anyway? History is what happened to big, powerful people, and I'm really interested in what happened to obscure people about whom nothing is known. The more obscure and buried it is, the more it fascinates me." Sante brings to light many forgotten turn-of-the-twentieth-century personalities in Low Life, a volume that focuses on the low-rent districts of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century New York City. In Evidence, he presents a collection of photographs and brief stories about New Yorkers who died, often mysteriously, around the time of World War I.
Born to a middle-class Belgian family, Sante moved back and forth between Belgium and the United States four times before his family settled in New York City. Because of the economic disparity between the two countries, Sante realized that his family, though comparatively well off by Belgian standards, did not have some of the things Americans took for granted, such as a refrigerator, central heating, a television, or a record player. "For me, going back and forth between Belgium and the United States when I was a kid, I had the feeling not only of traveling in space but also of traveling in time," he explained to Schoemer.
Sante commented that his work in the paperback department of a New York City book store enabled him to cultivate a penchant for obscure history. Part of his job involved sorting through boxes of dusty materials whenever the store would purchase a library. "It became almost an obsession with me," Sante told Schoemer in the New York Times. "It was a great thing to sort through this documentation and try to imagine what the lives behind all this junk had been. I'd find myself feeling rather intimate toward people I had never met and whom I could only speculate on, based on these assorted impedimenta and artifacts." Sante brought this love for obscure historical detail to his books on New York City.
In Low Life, Sante depicts the underside of New York from around 1840 to 1919, suggesting that any yearning for a return to a golden era is misguided. The social problems of present-day New York are not any worse than the problems of old New York, the author claims; this opinion is reinforced by Hanna Rubin in the New York Times Book Review, who stated that "Sante reclaims an essential piece of the city's past, one that should reassure contemporary New Yorkers. This is far from the worst of times." Basing his research on old newspapers, out-of-print books, and various other sources, Sante provides a detailed account of the prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers, tramps, thugs, corrupt police officers, and others who populated New York City, particularly the Lower East Side, where Sante lived for fourteen years after college.
The "saloon culture" of old New York is recounted in Low Life, including the various techniques used by gangs—often in league with tavern proprietors—of knocking out and robbing patrons. The drug chloral hydrate, mixed into a customer's beer, became a popular tool for thieves. As Sante notes in Low Life: "The taste was detectable by anyone of sound mind and body, so the victim needed to be thoroughly drunk before he could be thus clobbered. Then he would be robbed, perhaps stripped as well, and dumped in an obscure alley. Some dives maintained an arrangement with the police whereby knocked-out customers would be brought to a convenient location so that the cops could remove their lifeless bodies to the precinct house, where they would eventually be charged with public intoxication." Sante also describes the lives of the city's many anonymous "child gangsters": "There were boys' saloons, with three-cent whiskeys and little girls in the back rooms, and there were children's gambling houses, in which tots could bilk other tots at the usual menu of games." Most of these boys died at a premature age, according to Sante. "The whole adult order of high and low sensations had to be experienced in fifteen or twenty years at best before they succumbed to disease, malnutrition, exposure, stab wounds, or gunfire."
Low Life is divided into four parts, describing the poor sections of town, the rise of crime after the Civil War, the attempts—legal and otherwise—to control such vice, and the various characters and groups from New York's "low" culture. In one passage, the author reveals how the real New York comes alive after dark: "The night is the corridor of history, not the history of famous people or great events but that of the marginal, the ignored, the suppressed, the unacknowledged; the history of vice, of error, of confusion, of fear, of want; the history of intoxication, of vainglory, of delusion, of dissipation, of delirium. It strips off the city's veneer of progress and modernity and civilization and reveals the wilderness."
Low Life received both favorable and mixed reviews, with critics responding differently to Sante's detailed writing style. Sally S. Eckhoff pointed out in the Village Voice that "Sante's joy in his subject is obvious, as is the thoroughness of his research." A Washington Post Book World reviewer, however, reported that the author's "accumulation of trivial facts is more numbing than enlightening, and his attempts to find larger meaning in this raw material are only intermittently successful." Times Literary Supplement contributor David Rieff took a different view: "One may quarrel with the implicit argument of Low Life, about what both New York and low life represent, but as literature it is a tour-de-force. In fashioning it, Sante has developed a particular, lacquered Elizabeth Hardwick-like prose style, that serves his purposes magnificently." John Vernon, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, also found merit in the book, calling it "both an exuberant poem of praise for lost New York and an essential mine of information for anyone interested in New York's past."
In the course of researching Low Life, Sante came across an archive of 1,400 police photographs from 1914 to 1918 depicting people who had met with untimely deaths. Although he used some of these pictures for Low Life, he selected fifty-five of the most haunting images for his 1992 book, Evidence. The photographs in Evidence are accompanied by written accounts of the people pictured, whose deaths from gunshot wounds, stabbings, or other means—two fell down elevator shafts—were variously attributed to murder, suicide, or unknown reasons. Thomas Boyle noted in the New York Times Book Review that some may find the photographs too gruesome or object to the "hit-and-miss non-method of [the book's] editorial apparatus." Still, Boyle felt Sante's sparse writing does not indicate "any weakness but rather a shrewd strategy on the author's part. Mr. Sante has decided to rely on his strong suits: a talent for the striking, impressionistic insight and the ability to write transcendental prose."
Sante once told CA: "I don't call myself a historian, but everything I do represents some kind of historical investigation. I'm fascinated by memory and forgetting, by records and what is not recorded in them, and by trajectories of lives, even those of the lives of objects. The older I get, the more I am drawn to archives, flea markets, and junkyards, the true memorials of whatever it is we call civilization."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Sante, Luc, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1991.
Sante, Luc, The Factory of Facts, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Library Journal, June 1, 1991, Howard E. Miller, review of Low Life, p. 163; November 1, 1992, Howard E. Miller, review of Evidence, p. 104.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 29, 1991, John Vernon, review of Low Life, p. 4.
New Republic, March 2, 1992, Christine Sansell, review of Low Life, pp. 41-42.
New York, August 12, 1991, review of Low Life, pp. 26-36; September 14, 1992, review of Evidence, p. 112.
New York Times, February 21, 1993, interview of the author by Karen Schoemer.
New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1991, review of Low Life, p. 26; September 29, 1991, Hanna Rubin, review of Low Life, p. 14; January 10, 1993, Thomas Boyle, review of Evidence, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1991, review of Low Life, p. 59; October 19, 1992, review of Evidence, p. 71.
Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1992, David Rieff, review of Low Life, p. 8.
Village Voice, October 15, 1991, Sally S. Eckhoff, review of Low Life, p. 79.
Voice Literary Supplement, December 1991, review of Low Life, p. 16.
Washington Post Book World, September 1, 1991, review of Low Life, p. 3; November 22, 1992, review of Evidence, p. 13.