American Mysterymania

Tall Tale: The Mysteries of Ideology in Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale

Table des matières


According to Fredric Jameson, if realism is to be defined by the narrative impulse towards a “scenic present”, it only becomes so by “a ceaseless muffled battle against the structure of melodrama by which it is ceaselessly menaced1”. The “Urban Mysteries” seems to be a case in point. They certainly illustrate Jameson’s dialectical opposition, showing it at its most spectacular. On one hand, they explicitly deal with the contemporary social realities of modern urban life and never cease claiming that their representations have documentary value, based as they are on observation and inquiry. Buntline’s subtitle for Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1847–49) is, insistently, a “story of the real life”, written in the “ink of truth” belonging more to “history” than “romance”, as he points out tirelessly in his introduction2.  

Of course, so many novels have played this trick before that we cannot help hearing this kind of affirmation as, precisely, an invitation to fiction. And indeed, the Mysteries’ gritty take on reality is famously balanced by very little regard for verisimilitude: the Urban Mysteries genre unfurls its topical figures, and by-numbers twists, in a fashion that is more reminiscent of “Romance” and “Melodrama” – these very impulses that Realism had to fight to exist in its own right.  

It could even be argued that it is precisely these melodramatic elements that came to define the Urban Mysteries genre, more than any down-to-earth engagement with realism, and somehow gave it a bad name, barring its entrance into the Literary Hall of Fame. The genre is dismissed to the margins of popular literature for its allegedly naive narrative impulses, while detective novels took all the credits for seriousness, coherence, and “fair play” in their dealings with reality. Still, in spite of these somewhat kitschy traits, authors still insist, now and then, about reanimating the genre, or hybridizing it with new concerns. Such is the case, among others, of Mark Helprin’s tiffany theodicy, Winter’s Tale (1983) and, partly, of Thomas Pynchon’s steampunk encyclopedia, Against the Day (2006).

One of the hallmarks of these late takes on the Mysteries genre is that they are spectacularly founded on fantasy rather than on the realistic drive, as if it were precisely this fantastic naivety that was of particular significance to our authors. This drive towards fiction goes to the point where it is less Melodrama here that can be used as template than genres such as fairy tales or science-fiction, which notably and explicitly depart from the realistic impulse of the Mysteries.

In his book on Paris, La Capitale des signes [The Capital of Signs], Karlheinz Stierle addresses this escapism and stresses that very fact:

From the Mysteries of Paris to Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, there is a new form of sublimation of the oppressive proximity of the city towards the fabulous horizon of a world where everything falls into place, where every coincidence had its deep meaning, and where Good and Evil fight each other through deep-etched characters with remarkably determined personalities. While, thanks to the narration, the real world flies away into fantasy, the reader sees himself freed from his own experiences and anxieties, which the characters now materialize3.

To put it bluntly, in Urban Mysteries, reality and fable are the two sides of the same coin. Reality is structured as a fable, and this fable is always the same, since Sue’s Mysteries of Paris’ weird plans for social reform: it is, in our works, the fable of utopian justice, inherited from fairy tales and various religious traditions. In Urban Mysteries, the description of the city as symbol of world gone sour or wrong would make no sense if this world could not be put right, by human or divine retribution. City Mysteries are often about hope – personal and collective – and salvation, both physical and spiritual. The narrative impulse is in this case a moral one that no amount of realism, or reality for that matter, could ever discourage.

This use of fantasy allows our authors, notably Helprin, to express themselves through allegories, which in turn, point towards the moral and spiritual core of the genre, thus adding another, more spiritual, layer to the meaning of the term “Mysteries”. For these allegorical novels among other things, are explicit initiations, not only to the hidden aspects of social life, but to some sort of transcendent revelation and a promise of individual and collective happiness.

Here, I will mainly focus on Winter’s Tale, as it is much more steeped in the Urban Mysteries, but I will use Pynchon’s novel – which sits at the other end of the ideological spectrum – as an occasional counterpoint to show that similar processes are at stake, no matter the ideology. Not to say that ideology doesn’t make any difference.

Reanimating the Past to Reanimate the Future

There is of course a major difference between City Mysteries of the past and their contemporary counterparts. While Mysteries writers of the nineteenth century were preoccupied, as modernity demanded, by a representation of their own present, Helprin and Pynchon, by adopting the genre do not adapt it to their own timeline, but turn the Mysteries into historical novels instead, balanced by forays into science-fiction. Helprin describes an apocalyptic turn of the twenty-first century, Pynchon takes up old science fiction tropes, such as the time-machine, to look for interstitial spaces or times where his ideal community could hope to thrive. This certainly puts the question of utopian justice in perspective, by historicizing it and implicitly questioning its relevance to the contemporary context4.  

Yet, it is precisely because we feel we are living in a world where utopias are not of the essence anymore, that the very notion needs to be reasserted, or brought back to a time where it had, actually, a future. The historical novel blends with dime novel and science-fiction material, simply because these genres have taken “the vocation of giving us alternate versions of a world that has elsewhere seemed to resist even imagined change”, as Jameson noted a long time ago5.  

This reanimation of the utopian impulse, if only between the pages of a novel, needs in turn a reanimation of a past fuller of potentialities than our current era. Helprin underlines this reanimation quite literally by letting the ghosts of his characters from nineteenth-century New York come back to life at the end of the twentieth century, giving them eighty-five years later another chance to complete the redemptive task that they were assigned.   

As for Pynchon, this reanimation of the past is consciously regarded as artificial, especially when Urban Mysteries are concerned. When the character Dally Rideout arrives in New York, she works as an actress in Chinatown, where her role is to pretend that she is abducted and enslaved by fake Chinese gangsters, for the benefit of slumming tourists: “the white slave simulation industry6”. It can be read as a way to underline Urban Mysteries’ artificiality – so that their reanimation necessarily goes through conscious replay.

On a still more reflective note, in Winter’s Tale, a gigantic canvas of  New York comes alive in the eyes of beholder, resurrecting the Brownian movement of the city and already offering a towering point of view that simulates God’s : “This city enabled anyone who looked at it from afar to soar above it, to rise effortlessly, to know that despite its labyrinthine division it was an appeal to heaven simpler in the end than the blink of an eye […] Anything within it was beautiful in spite of itself, and would come to light surprisingly, apart from all expectations7.”

Pynchon’s way to reanimate the past is rather similar, and consists of another visual device, meant to animate photographies: “We just dial the year, date and time we’re interested in, it all speeds up, runs thorough the time between the picture was taken and now in a matter of seconds” (Pynchon, p. 1048). Among the uses of this device is the unveiling of the “Long-standing mysteries of the past”, but also, in the true utopian fashion of alternative history, the idea that this reanimated past could be somehow different from our own ill-fated course: “there’s always a little chance than those little folks in the picture will choose different paths than the original” (p. 1048).

If we interpret these objects as reflective devices, signaling our authors’ own concern with a convincing reanimation of a past we can understand why the flights of fancy are not opposed to painstaking documentary work, but are, on the contrary, founded on them. Pynchon’s amount of research is staggering as usual, while Helprin himself confessed his obsessive dedication to get New York right:

I was living in Manhattan (where I was born), in the middle of years of work on Winter’s Tale, a book which is, if anything, an ode to the city of New York. My meager resources ( which involves living on turkey anus –not bad if it’s well cooked…) were devoted disproportionately toward buying books about New York, and day after day, obsessively, in the library of the New York Historical Society, I worked to fathom the city—in a labor, actually, of love8.

Allegorical Transfigurations

Yet, these love letters to bygone eras do not mean that historical facts are treated literally: they are more like starting points for a transfiguration of the urban experience. If Helprin’s hero, Peter Lake, owes his name to a real historical figure, Grand Central Pete, “the most dangerous bunko man in America” who was arrested in 18929, it is to take this name towards another dimension altogether. Winter’s Tale’s Peter Lake lives under the starry roof of Grand Central Station instead of simply “visiting it often”, as his real-life model did. Nor, I suppose, was the original Peter Lake found Moses-like as baby, on a miniature ship called City of Justice, or raised by a community straight out of a lost race novel, the “Bayonne Bay Marshmen”. And the real-life con man might have escaped his arrest if he had had, like his fictional namesake, a supernatural white horse called Athansor.

Likewise, Jackson Mead, the Faustian engineer who wants to build bridges everywhere until Earth is bridged with Heaven, can be linked with Golden Gate Bridge builder, Joseph Strauss, as the novel itself makes clear. But perhaps it is here the poet and maker of “eternal rainbows” who interested Helprin more than the historical figure. For Mead’s discourse and ideals echo with Strauss’s Poem:

High overhead its lights shall gleam,
Far, far below life's restless stream,
Unceasingly shall flow;
For this was spun its lithe fine form,
To fear not war, nor time, nor storm,
For Fate had meant it so10.

But then, it is the whole historical environment that goes through the same poetic and mythical transfiguration. New York, for all its wealth of historical details, is a rather different city, surrounded by a cloud wall with mysterious temporal effects (like its ability to swallow Peter Lake and spit him back one century or so later). It is perhaps possible to interpret this as a classic utopian move of insulation, or in Jameson’s terms, of “world-reduction”, so that built-worlds and utopias do not have to face the complexities of a global economy (in Helprin’s case, this is meant to erase them). Likewise real places or institutions blend with their own transfigured version–such as the exaggeratingly gigantic underground Oyster saloon, which constitutes a symbolical link with the mythical Marshmen’s oyster culture, or the newspaper The Sun – referencing the old New York Sun – but here opposed, in a Manichean fashion, to a rival newspaper – the “Ghost”, which is derided for its hollow sensationalism and inane chronicles.

This transfiguration can also be explained by the fact that the historical New York is already read though the part-historical, part-fictional accounts of the Urban Mysteries. The perpetual snow of Helprin’s New York recalls the wintry setting of Buntline’s Mysteries and Miseries of New York, and the novel opens with a fire near Battery Park, rather similar to the one which opens George Foster’s Celio, or New York, Above-ground and Under-ground.

But beyond such details, it is rhetorically that Helprin seems closer to the true spirit – if not the ideology – of Foster’s Celio, which insists on this utopian dimension of the genre, drawing on scientific metaphors of magnetism, electricity, and crystallography.

Of how much happiness is mankind capable- and how insignificant the portion that he [sic] actually enjoys. DO we not see that there is radically disorder somewhere? the elements are all here, and in their proper proportions for God himself distributed them ; but they are in an amorphous condition. SOCIETY IS NOT YET CRYSTALLIZED11.

It is precisely such crystallization that constitutes Winter’s Tale’s recurring allegorical concern with order and meaning. In spite of “the wonderful anarchy” that is the city, “Nothing is random […]” – Helprin tells us: “the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gest up, the position of the electron…” (p. 401). It is striking to observe in this description how human interests (the distribution of fortune, the chaotic political acts) are naturalized and harnessed to physical laws (crystalline structure, movements of electron) as if they were equally out of the hands of human agency.

A Hard-Boiled Theodicy

In order to stage this false dialectics of order and chaos (false because chaos is simply regarded as order misunderstood), Helprin uses crime, not as something that must be simply overcome, as in other Urban Mysteries, but as a part of that seemingly chaotic order. If his villains spring directly from the rather unreliable pages of Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, they also undergo an allegorical transfiguration12. In a way that is typical of his rewriting of source material, Helprin, besides using Asbury as a name for one of his characters (Asbury Gunswillow) amuses himself with blending real historical gang names (“Dead Rabbits”, “Plug Uglies”) with what I see, perhaps wrongly, as fancier propositions (the “Corlear Hook Rats”, the “Alonzo Truffos”, the “Dogs Harps”, or the “Snake Hoops”…) (Helprin, p. 209).

Peter Lake’s main nemesis is the gang that he has betrayed to save the Bayonne Bay marshmen from their attack. Inspired by the “Shirt Tails” gang – historically mere a lobbying club of tailors – they become in Helprin’s novel, the “Short Tails”, a name which perhaps points to the physical degeneracy à la Lombroso that Helprin notes about them towards the end of the first part, when they fight Peter Lake: “In their decline, the gangs had become repository for strange criminals. Most of the two thousands soldiers busily assembling were under five feet tall.” (p. 209)

This is not to say that the short tails are just the butt of Helprin’s joke. They play, quite on the contrary, a very important role – a role that has struck some critics and bloggers as being little different than a eulogy of crime and a glamorization of criminals13. This is not entirely without reason, if we are to judge by the following excerpt:

Of course, it’s bad to be a criminal. Everyone knows that, and can swear that it's true. Criminals mess up the world. But they are, as well, retainers of fluidity. In fact, one might make the case that New York would not have shone without its legions of contrary devils polishing the lights of goodness with their inexplicable opposition and resistance. It might even be said that criminals are a necessary component of the balanced equation which steadily and beautifully eats up all the time that is thrown upon its steely back. They are the sugar and alcohol of a city, a red flash in the mosaic, lightning on a hot night. (p. 20)

The transfiguration of historical or intertextual facts that we have looked at so far points here towards its real intentions, connecting with Helprin’s larger utopian scheme. The starting point is nothing new – it is the idea, evolved from Augustine, that without evil, we could not know what is good. Furthermore, it is also following the argument of Leibnizian theodicy according to which evil, as we see it, is a part of God’s plan for the best of possible worlds. That God’s will is secretly at work behind criminals is stated quite clearly and the goodness of the divine plan will appear clearly at the end of time, as this sentence schows : “When the dross of time had lifted, the pickpockets, confidence men, and thieves sometimes turned out to be the possessors of the gifted and magical faces that painters of the Renaissance used in portraying saints and angels.” (Helprin, p. 588)

Pearly Soames, the psychopathic gang leader of the Short Tails, is named to allude to the “Pearly Gates” of Heaven. Moreover his will to power and desire for wealth is reconstructed as an almost poetical condition, magically changing ferocious primitive accumulation into an aesthetic trait, and a longing for color and beauty as harbingers of paradise: “Pearly Soames wanted gold and not, in the way of common thieves, for wealth, he wanted them because they shone and were pure” (p. 22).

Let’s note here than in Pynchon’s Against The Day, the criminal Blinky Morgan, also suffers from a condition of the eyes, whose different colors allows him to perceive different wavelengths of reality, including these interstitial spaces that constitute Pynchon’s immanentist conceptions of utopia: different ideologies, and yet similar tricks…

Burning Bridges: Visionary Capitalism

But this process of turning New York into a New Jerusalem, complete with its four gates, takes more than a few decadent, hysterical cutpurses, and furthermore, it is not to be waited for indefinitely. On the contrary, the Helprin utopia takes entrepreneurship and engineering. It is where Jackson Mead – the bridge builder – intervenes, conceiving bridges as allegories of the union of mankind with itself and with God. Reverend Mootfowl, Mead’s ghost assistant, and former priest explains this earlier in the book:

When a catenary of steel a mile long is hung in the clear over a river, believe me, God knows. Being a churchman, I would go as far as say that the catenary, this marvelous graceful thing, this joy of physics, this perfect balance between rebellion and obediance, is God’s own signature. I think it pleases him to see them raised. (p. 73)

It is not the place to discuss the strange theology where the bigger you are, the greater will be God’s attention and its narcissistic pleasure. In any case, Mead’s last project is supposed to provoke the millennium and God’s last judgement, like a tower of Babel, but a God-pleasing one. It is made of a bridge of light whose beams will reach up to Heaven:

My purpose is to tag this world with wider and wider rainbows, until the last is so perfect and eternal that it will catch the eye of the One who has abandoned us, and bring Him to right all the broken symmetries and make life once again a still and timeless dream. My purpose, Mr. Marratta, is to stop time, to bring back the dead. My purpose, in one word, justice. (p. 498)

By this Meade does not understand the social justice of equal redistribution, which another character regards as “a theology of a very low order” (p. 609) without really explaining why. He rather implies simply the advent of God, where suffering and wrong will eventually make sense.

It is very striking that, just as Pearly Soames steals for his sense of beauty, at no point the money needed to build such a miracle is mentioned, as if Capitalism here was reduced to a simple engineering project, and as if its aim was simply to restore the Golden Age for everyone and not only for some. It is not to deny, as Walter Benjamin has shown, that an utopian trace survives in all industrial productions and technologies: but here, the Golden Age argument seems to be taken at face value and quite literally.

For if Helprin insists that “None of (his) characters was ever drawn to fit ideological specifications14”, it would be naive to think that nothing ideological is born from these “rhetorical experiments”, as Moretti writes about Faust15. Indeed there is still a comparison to be drawn between Meade and the Faust of the Second Faust, and especially with the line of inquiry pursued by Georg Lukács, Marshall Berman, or Franco Moretti. To put it in a nutshell, they see Faust as the model of a “visionary capitalist”, whose dreamlike visions of a bright future are an excuse to hide the Mephistophelian means of domination under a grand design for mankind at large. It is “a rhetoric of innocence16”, which covers “a visionary, intensive and systematic organization of labor17”. And just Like Philemon and Baucis’s house has to be destroyed by Mephistopheles to please Faust’s plan of utopian colonization, large parts of New York burn during the construction of Mead’s bridge. Here capitalist change, and the destructions it entails, are reconstructed as a mystical effort to reconcile mankind with itself – just as if God’s justice was akin to some Invisible Hand of the Market, putting everything back into balance.  

Even the final failure, which causes no less than the destruction of the city, does not exactly work as an afterthought: on the contrary, the epilogue insists on this, the process is by nature endless: “Jackson Mead was convinced, as always, that the next time, a new means at his disposal would allow him to return to the high place from which he had been cast.” (Helprin, p. 747) Here the metaphor allows us to read Meade less as a Faustian than as a Luciferian, or Mephistophelian figure. But it’s just Faust’s trick revisited: Mephistopheles’s work for the greater good in spite of himself, since his destructions are an integral part of God’s plan.

What I have tried to show here, is how, while seemingly eschewing ideology, Helprin is actually giving it a metaphysical value, turning the Urban Mysteries genre into a liberal theodicy.  Pynchon’s case, with an altogether different ideology, offers a similar dilemma: the utopia is to be found in every nook and cranny, symbolical or real, that Capitalism has not entirely conquered – but the solutions it offers are equally imaginary, or compensatory.

We are here reminded of Adorno and Benjamin’s epistolary quarrel about the status of the Golden Age in the Arcades project: where Benjamin understands the Golden Age as the archaic hopeful drive behind the frustrated desire for a just, classless society, Adorno dismisses the archaic myth as another “infernal fantasmagory18”. Does it mean that a utopian dream of justice is necessarily the kitsch dream of false consciousness and that it has no place outside works of art ? Perhaps, as Helprin’s Winter’s Tale’s last word has it: “that is a question that you must answer within your heart.” (Helprin, p. 748).

(University Paul Valéry- RIRRA 21)

Works Cited

Primary Sources

BUNTLINE, Ned, The Mysteries and Miseries of New-York, a Story of Real Life, 5 vols, New York, Edward Z.C. Judson, 1847–48.

FOSTER, George, Celio or New-York, Above-ground and Under-ground, 1850, New York, Dewitt and Davenport, 1856.

HELPRIN, Mark, Winter’s Tale, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

PYNCHON, Thomas, Against the Day, London, Penguin Books, 2006.

Secondary Sources

ADORNO, T. W., Sur Walter Benjamin, éd. Rolf Tiedemann, traduit de l’allemand par Christophe David, Paris, Allia, 1999.

BERMAN, Marshall, All that is Solid melts into Air, The Experience of Modernity, New York, Penguin, 1982.

JAMESON, Fredric, The Antinomies of Realism, New York/London, Verso, 2013.

---, “World Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative”, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 2, no 3, November 1975, p. 221–30.

KALIFA, Dominique, “The Informal History of Herbert Asbury’s Underworld”, Medias 19 [en ligne], Catherine Nesci et Devin Fromm (dir.), Mystères de Paris et Mystères urbains américains. Du récit des bas-fonds au film noir et au « Steampunk » (1840-2015), Publications,

LINVILLE, James, “Mark Helprin, The Art of Fiction No. 132”, Paris Review, n° 126, Spring 1993,

MATHERNE, Bobby, A Readers’s Journal, 2003,

MORETTI, Franco, Modern Epic, The World-System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez, London, Verso, 1996.

PIKE, David L, “Cadres urbains. Les mystères américains, du film noir au steampunk/ City Settings: American Urban Mysteries from Film Noir to Steampunk”, Medias 19 [en ligne], Catherine Nesci et Devin Fromm (dir.), Mystères de Paris et Mystères urbains américains. Du récit des bas-fonds au film noir et au « Steampunk » (1840-2015), Publications,

STIERLE, Karlheinz, La Capitale des signes, Paris et son discours, Paris, Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2002.


1  Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, New York/London, Verso, 2013, p. 11.

2  Ned Buntline, The Mysteries and Miseries of New-York, a Story of Real Life, introduction, vol. 1, N.Y, Edward Z.C. Judson, 1847-48.

3  Karlheinz Stierle, La Capitale des signes, Paris et son discours, Paris, Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2002, p. 117.

4  See, for example, the passage in Against the Day, where Yashmeen Halfcourt muses that: “This is our own age of exploration…into that unmapped country waiting beyond the frontiers and seas of Time. We make our journeys out there in the low light of the future, and return to the bourgeois day and its mass delusion of safety, to report on what we’ve seen. What are these ‘utopian dreams’ of ours but defective forms of time travel” (942).

5  Fredric Jameson, “World Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative”, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 2, no 3, November 1975, p. 223. Also see the discussion by David L. Pike in this volume : “Cadres urbains. Les mystères américains, du film noir au steampunk/ City Settings: American Urban Mysteries from Film Noir to Steampunk”, Medias 19 [en ligne], Catherine Nesci et Devin Fromm (dir.), Mystères de Paris et Mystères urbains américains. Du récit des bas-fonds au film noir et au « Steampunk » (1840-2015), Publications,

6  Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, London, Penguin Books, 2006, p. 339. Further references to the novel will be indicated in the body of the text, following the quotations.

7  Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, p. 178. Further references to the novel will be indicated in the body of the text, following the quotations.

8  Mark Helprin, interview by James Linville, The Paris Review, no 132, Spring 1993, online, accessed 5 June 2016,

9  See The New York Times, 26 (19), 24 February 1892, p. 5.

10  Joseph P. Strauss, “The Mighty Task is Done,” Strauss Poems, online, ConstructionStraussPoem.php. Accessed, 5/16/16.

11  George Foster, Celio or New York, Above-ground and Under-ground, 1850, N.Y, Dewitt and Davenport, 1856, p. 69.

12  On journalist and sensationalist mystery writer Herbert Asbury, see the essay by Dominique Kalifa in this volume, “The Informal History of Herbert Asbury’s Underworld.”

13  See Bobby Matherne, “A Reader’s Journal,” review of A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin,, 2003, posted on Accessed, 5/16/16.

14  See Helprin’s interview in James Linville, “Mark Helprin, The Art of Fiction No. 132”, Paris Review, n° 126, Spring 1993,

15  Franco Moretti, Modern Epic, The World-System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez, London, Verso, 1996, p. 55.

16  Moretti, op. cit., p. 22.

17  Marshall Berman, All that is Solid melts into Air, The Experience of Modernity, New York, Penguin, 1982, p. 64.

18  T. W. Adorno, Sur Walter Benjamin, éd. Rolf Tiedemann, traduit de l’allemand par Christophe David, Paris, Allia, 1999, p. 116.

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