Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson


Last year, the new show that quickly became my favorite was HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”. The hour long show explored the personalities of those living in Atlantic City in the 1920’s. The characters, even the women, were strongly drawn and the dynamics of the interactions were riveting. The clothing, atmosphere and slang were distinct and vivid. I loved visiting that time period each week and looked forward to the 2nd season which began last night(Sunday).
So I was pleased to find the tie-in book, expecting to find something like “the further adventures of Nucky Thompson”. Alas, the book covers the entire history of Atlantic City, not just the most colorful era featured in the TV program. However, that made it no less interesting.
There really was a Commodore and a Nucky running the city, though the latter’s surname was Johnson instead (the same as the author’s, though he never says whether he’s related). Nucky’s brother was the sheriff but was named Alf and the Commodore, too had another last name.
Atlantic City began as Absecon Island, a place for fishing and farming off the shores of New Jersey, until a Dr. Pitney wanted to make it into a spa resort to compete with the more prestigious and southerly Cape May. After opening in 1854, the island remained quite untamed until mogul Samuel Richards invested in buildings and rail roads to make it accessible to working class families from nearby cities, such as Philadelphia. Theatrical shows often had trial runs in AC before opening on Broadway. Entertainers such as W.C. Fields, Tommy Dorsey and Ed Sullivan got their start in AC. Illegal gambling, booze and prostitution thrived over decades until an FBI investigation broke the power structure in the 1940’s.
It became a training center for the Army in WW2 and slowly deteriorated over the years until it was nearly a ghost town in the 1970’s. “Within sight of the famed Boardwalk, there were entire city blocks that had been leveled with no signs of rebuilding, acres and acres of trash and rubble. There were hundreds of burned out buildings and scores of rundown boarding houses, occupied by poor, frightened old people.” The legal casinos that opened in the late 70’s rejuvenated the town, but by the late 1980’s oversaturation and a slow national economy made these a burden, rather than a benefit. Redevelopment has been piecemeal, some areas haven’t changed much despite the casinos’ influence. Atlantic City has never regained the glamour of its golden age, the one portrayed on HBO.
I must give the author great credit for not just telling us about the wealthy and powerful, but also the lower class. In a superb chapter entitled “Plantation By the Sea”, he reported that the majority of hotel and resort workers were black, yet they were forbidden to go on the Boardwalk and beaches. There was one segregated beach that blacks could use, but only at night. He also described the overcrowded housing and the rates of tuberculosis that were 4 times higher than white residents.
The book did a good job of charting the history of a city without being tedious. Though the origin and intent of Atlantic City was different than most, it has been buffeted by the economic shifts that has affected many other towns in the eastern U.S. Surely there’s a way to make place viable again? It would make an interesting case study for an economist or business student. Perhaps it’s time for Atlantic City to reinvent itself again?

Medford Press 2002(HBO tie-in edition 2010) 284 pp. ISBN 978-0-9666748-6-6

8 comments on “Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

  1. Lisa
    September 26, 2011

    I watched a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire and was really impressed by the storytelling and the scale of the production. It just looked stunning on screen. And as you say, there were some terrific female character roles. Oh and that hospital for premature babies on the boardwalk – with the windows so you could come and gawp at the spectacle of their tiny wee bodies – was a bit disturbing, but did seem to sum up the vibe of the place! Everything is entertainment and all that. Anyway, ramble ramble, I enjoyed this piece and had no idea that there were tie-in books to accompany the Boardwalk Empire series, so will definitely seek them out.

  2. Jackie
    September 26, 2011

    It’s just the 1 book & it’s a non-fiction history of Atlantic City. While Nucky’s reign & the 1920’s covers a couple chapters, it’s still remarkable how the producers & writers for the series got so much out of the book to make such a richly done series.

  3. Lisa
    September 27, 2011

    Sorry, Jackie, I definitely didn’t mean to suggest this book was fiction. The fact that it’s non-fiction makes it more appealing to me, as I don’t really enjoy novelisations of TV shows (with the notable exception of Red Dwarf). Atlantic City has such a fascinating history that I’d love to learn more. I meant to say in my previous comment that I was surprised when you mentioned a real life Nucky, even if the surname was different. I really do need to get back into this series. It was great.

  4. Shelley
    September 27, 2011

    As a writer, I must encourage you not to be modest: congratulations on your being chosen for the Wikio Top Literary Blogs list!

  5. Hilary
    September 28, 2011

    Thanks for the kind words, Shelley! We’re not quite sure what we’ve done to deserve it, but we won’t tell them that ……

  6. Nikki
    October 7, 2011

    This review makes me sad that I never got to catch Boardwalk Empire on TV. Maybe I’ll read this instead…

  7. Jackie
    October 9, 2011

    Season 1 of the the TV series just came out on DVD over here, so watch for it there & maybe you can rent it or find it at the library. It’s definitely worthwhile!

  8. Pingback: HBO’s Boardwalk Empire | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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