If this account is true, it is most enormously wonderful.
-Chapter 11, The Sun and the Moon
In 1835, nine out of ten New Yorkers believed in the existence of lunar life that included unicorns, beavers who walked on their hind legs, and four-foot-tall flying man bats. This was because of a series of widely read and circulated stories published by fledgling newspaper The Sun.
In his narrative history book The Sun and The Moon, writer Matthew Goodman chronicles the “Moon Hoax” of 1835. He tells the story of the larger than life cast of characters and cultural mores of the 1830s, all to the backdrop of a rapidly developing New York City.
Matthew Goodman is a Bay Ridge resident, and met with us to discuss The Sun and the Moon as well as his more recent projects.
There are some very narrative aspects to the Sun and the Moon, for example your descriptions of Five Points and Richard Adam’s Locke’s voyage across the Atlantic. How did you conduct research for those parts?
Narrative history allowed me to combine my interest in fiction writing with my long-time interest in politics and history. The novel that I’m working on is increasingly narrative.
My favorite comments are when people say “I feel like I was living in New York in 1835”. I spent basically two years living at the New York Historical Society just trying to immerse myself as much as I possibly could in the world of New York at that time. I was trying to understand why they would have believed that this [hoax] was true. The only way to understand this bizarre thing is to understand what that historical context was.
I discovered that this was the moment when New York became kind of a touristic city, and guide books were very popular. Guide books are the most helpful resource for the narrative historian because a historian is really a tourist, but not of a place, of a time. A guide book allows you to understand the sights of a city—the restaurants, the hotels. The guide books of 1835 are basically walking tours which say “walk two blocks to Broadway, make a left.” Read them, and you’re in that world.
What do you think about all of the fake news that’s going around today, and how does it compare to the hoaxes you described in your book?
When I was writing that book, we were kind of pre-internet. When the book came out in 2008, people would say “how gullible were New Yorkers in 1835 that they could believe a thing like this?” But on the day of the 2008 election, one third of the republican voters in Texas believed that Barack Obama was Muslim. I was shocked that that could happen—that was fake news, that was a hoax. Today, it seems minor compared to what you see out there.
The hoax that was in the Sun and the Moon could not happen today because John Herschel was in South Africa and you couldn’t reach him to confirm whether he had discovered life on the moon. It would take months for news of his discoveries to come back. Today, technology has allowed for other types of hoaxes. Especially because we are all in our own silos from where we get news. What hoaxes do is confirm for people what they want to believe anyway.
There is a backdrop of racial tensions in the Sun and the Moon, how do you think it compares to today?
New York was a very large part in slavery and the cotton trade, it was probably the most pro-southern northern city I would say.
New York is the history of a succession of racial battles. Right now in Bay Ridge, we have half of the community as immigrants, newer immigrants from placed like Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Yet, half of our community voted for Justin Brannan, so it’s ideologically split right down the middle. After Trump got elected, Justin created this poster that said “Bay Ridge [hearts] all”. I was part of this group called Bay Ridge for Social Justice, and the informal motto of our group was “protecting half of our community from the other half of our community”. It sort of sums up the history of New York—the ongoing history of ethnic strife. Yet, when you take the subway, everyone’s just jammed up against one another.
What are you working on now?
After my first book, I knew I wanted to write a book about women. Penguin Random House picked up my book called Eighty Days. It’s about Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland who compete against one another to race around the world in less than eighty days.
My current book is a story about the City College Basketball scandal of 1950-51, which is an amazing story and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is at the center of it, as a matter of fact. What happened was that City College was this very elite school that you had to pass tests to get into and only the top students could go there, but it was free. Poor kids who were very smart could go there, and especially Jewish kids, because they weren’t allowed into the Ivy League. They happened to have a very good basketball team, and in 1950 they accomplished something that had never been done before. The team was entirely minority, eight jewish players and four black players, in a time when the NBA had no black players. They won the NCAA and the NIT in the same year, and beat a number of segregated schools. They became these great heroes because they had accomplished this, and they represented everything that was good in New York.
A year later they were arrested in Penn Station after a game for conspiring to shave points in games with gamblers. They were found guilty and thrown out of college and banned from basketball forever. Overnight they went from heroes to villains.
It turns out that they were part of a much larger system of corruption, a lot of which was discovered by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.