Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 1999
Richard Lehan The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 307 pp. Paper $45.00 (0520212568)

Over the course of the modern era, literary representations of the city stretch far beyond the physical and social fabric of cities. Poetry and prose build on the architectural and commerical contours of urbanity, at times outfitting streets in tuxedos, at other times paring them into rotten furrows. Take the case of London, the city in the world possessed of perhaps the most extensive literary representations. William Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot both wrote powerful and disturbing descriptions that reconfigure the vast changes taking place in London during its long engagement with modernity and the Industrial Revolution. In Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805), London is:

The endless stream of men, and moving things, From hour to hour the illimitable walk Still among streets with clouds and sky above, The wealth, the bustle and the eagerness, The glittering Chariots with their pamper’d Steeds, . . . the string of dazzling Wares, Shop after shop . . .

The romantic poet’s city is a “monstrous anthill on the plain,” a busy world of spectacle and deafening din, a city that is at times a child-like fantasy and at other times a frightening stream of motion and particulars.

Eliot’s London, after more than a century of cramped growth and change, after literary protagonists like Charles Dickens’s Inspector Bucket and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, is beyond wonder and ant-like determination, and absent a secure place in nature or history. In The Waste Land (1922), Eliot writes of London fallen into a heap of broken images and other withered stumps of time:

Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many, Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

London, depicted in literature, rises and falls according to a writer’s assessment of the soundness of the city’s new world of bourgeois individualism and commerce. Wordsworth held an abiding belief that the individual will could harmonize with the natural world, although when he came to London that belief was challenged. Eliot, whose Neo-Platonic religious convictions predisposed him against the worldly city, saw London in far bleaker terms—individuals as the walking dead in a nightmare of commerce.

Such descriptions speak volumes about the power of literature to condition our images of the urban world around us and are the subject of Richard Lehan’s The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History. In encyclopedic fashion, this new book encompasses the transition from the nascent industrial city of the late eighteenth century to the late industrial city of the twentieth century, from the Age of Enlightenment to modernism and the cusp of postmodernism. In so doing, it follows the tracks of books like: Blanche Gelfant’s The American City Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954); Burton Pike’s The Image of the City in Modern Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Literature and the Urban Experience, eds. Michael Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981); John H. Johnston’s The Poet and the City (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984); and Dana Brand’s The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Like them, Lehan discusses a great many novels and poems and supports his literary arguments with extended commentaries from philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

The City in Literature is divided between European and American sections, and, while foreign language authors (and their cities) are frequently discussed, the focus is on the Anglo-American response to the city. The first half concentrates on the rise of the English (and Continental) industrial city alongside the development of literary modernism. The second half chronicles the American engagement with shaping a new urban civilization out of the wilderness.

In each part, Lehan is understandably preoccupied with the markedly diverse responses to the rise of the industrial city and its new secular/commercial society. As he tells us: “Dickens, Balzac, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky had all created versions of this new city—had shown the influx of young men and women from the provinces in search of a heightened essential self, as well as the breakdown of the family as the hero went his lonely way in search of success in a new moneyed, commercial world.” Given this dynamic, the central questions of the book become: How is the new individual energy pouring into the city going to be transformed? Will it be for the benefit of humankind or not? Will it conform to historical and natural paradigms or result in specters of artifice and wickedness?

Over time the Enlightenment’s mixed reaction to the city soured into modernism’s indictments against vulgar fashion and greedy buying. As Lehan observes, much of this fall into despair results directly from the increasing inability of individuals to understand and control the new commercial city. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), a single individual turns a wilderness into an agrarian realm and then a commercial order. Later, Inspector Bucket in Dicken’s Bleak House (1853) is still capable of connecting the disappearing world of the landed estate to that of the emerging commercial city. By the time of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1943), however, the center of gravity no longer lies in individuals like Ulrich, but, rather, in the uncontrollable circumstances around them. In Eugene Zamyatin’s We (1924), a portrait of a supervised city surrounded by a glass wall, we have the essential formula for future depictions of dystopia, a totalitarian place made perfect by bureaucratic technology yet inhospitable to individual freedom.

From the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, each brick and each person and each enterprise added to the urban edifice seems to darken and stiffen literary representations of the city. By the middle of the twentieth century, for most writers, the Enlightenment quest to create a secular, commercial world built on law and individual initiative has been lost. Even in North America, where Lehan tells us urbanism was defined more against a wild frontier than a feudal medieval past, the forces of urbanism lead to images of emptiness or destruction. The Great Gatsby (1925) of F. Scott Fitzgerald presents us with a New York of dynamic surfaces hollow at its core. The tinsel and glamor of Hollywood burns at the end of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust (1939). Hart Crane’s attempt in The Bridge (1930) to redeem Walt Whitman’s promising vision of America for the twentieth century cannot contain all the performances and assortments of New York: “Here at the waters’ edge the hands drop memory; Shadowless in that abyss they unaccounting lie.” When money regulates the heartbeat of the city, the arteries may lead to a valley of ashes.

Toward the end of his book, Lehan brings up readings of the city that transcend such modernist dichotomies between Eden and Hell, moral purpose and crippling commerce, and seek to describe the city on its own exhausting terms. Most important of these is William Carlos William’s great leap into things, his epic poem Paterson (1959). Hoping to build an image of the concrete and prosaic city out of poetry, Williams reconciles the constant metamorphoses of the city with those of the imagination, preserving both urban energy and individual freedom. Yet, in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), individual consciousness along with the city is decentered. As the city has done for almost two centuries, the novel now, too, thwarts our understanding, going in and out of focus.

Oftentimes, Lehan is too focussed, working the city from its brain but not its heart, belly, or groins. The City in Literature is filled to the brim with extended and informative literary ideas and abstractions. A great deal of background is provided on authors and their nonurban writings as well as the trajectory of literary form from romanticism to realism to fantasy to modernism. But, almost no attention is given to the architectural, technological, and urban planning background that is necessary to an understanding of the physical creation of cities during this period. In fact, occasionally the focus of the book shifts so completely to internal questions on literary theory that the fact that this is a book about the city almost gets lost in the process.

Moreover, Lehan downplays the poetic and psychological side of the literature it covers. The book is startlingly short on commentary regarding how writers use words and tropes and emotions to convey impressions of the city’s physical fabric. Yet, the writers discussed offer us some of the most remarkable descriptions of the physical and sensual qualities of cities that we possess and that are important because they are metaphorical, hyperbolic, and subjective. As Lehan at one moment paraphrases Arthur Conan Doyle on the basic way of seeing a city: “We see a mind recording its impressions of the city with fog, muddy streets reflected in muddy clouds, the pale and yellow light from shop windows, the sad and glad faces of the crowd absorbed by surrounding gloom.”

It might have benefited Lehan’s book to omit some of the sociological commentary on the city—abundant elsewhere—in order to delve more deeply into the intersections among sensation, word, thought, and built matter that go to the heart of writing about cities. Lehan’s stress on abstract literary ideas, while informative and useful, paradoxically, fails to grasp the concrete richness of urban experience in the same way that a purely demographic study sacrifices cultural meaning for statistical accuracy. In order to better grasp the bodily nature of the city, we need to look beyond its objective or abstract reality and into how writers use words as the spliced extremities of the city’s physical fabric and their own.

For when writers venture into the city, they also move far into their own minds and bodies, creating thresholds between its experience and their own lives. Such thresholds are in the foreground of Rabbit Run (1960) by John Updike, an excellent writer on the urban/suburban scene not mentioned by Lehan. From the start, as Harry Angstrom walks the streets of his suburban town the arc of his basketball-trained eyes confronts and absorbs the new physical culture of postwar suburbia: “The Norway maples exhale the smell of their sticky new buds and the broad living-room windows along Wilbur Street show beyond the silver patch of a television set the warm bulbs burning in the kitchens, like fires at the back of caves.” Evoked in this short passage are a set of connections between nature and human artifice as well as the present and past of Rabbit’s own life, between the blossoming of trees and that of subdivisions, and between technological light of modernity and the fires that burned in the oldest of human habitations. Updike, while making profound sociological commentary, does so through sensual observations that radiate the dark canals of memory and desire in his protagonist and in ourselves. Ignoring the visceral image at the cost of the sociological idea would cheat this passage (or the literature of the city for that matter) of its full dimensions. The city written is the mind and senses and body stretched into and over objects and events, a movement of words fingering through the soft streets.

Mitchell Schwarzer
Associate Professor of Architectural History and Theory, California College of Arts and Crafts