Commentary Magazine

The City in Literature

Simplicity, at least in literature, is a complex idea. Pastoral poetry, which has been written for more than two thousand years and may therefore be supposed to have some permanent appeal, takes as its aim to make simplicity complex. With this aim goes a convention: universal truths can be uttered by plebeian figures located in a stylized countryside often suggestive of the Golden Age. In traditional or sophisticated pastoral these plebeian figures are shepherds. In naive pastoral they can be dropouts huddling in a commune. Traditional pastoral is composed by self-conscious artists in a high culture, and its premise, as also its charm, lies in the very “artificiality” untrained readers dislike, forgetting or not knowing that in literature the natural is a category of artifice. As urban men who can no more retreat to the country than could shepherds read the poems celebrating their virtues, we are invited by pastoral to a game of the imagination in which every move is serious.

With time there occurs a development or decline from sophisticated to romantic pastoral, in which the conventions of the genre are begun to be taken literally, and then to naive pastoral, in which they are taken literally. Yet in all these versions of pastoral there resides some structure of feeling that seems to satisfy deep psychic needs. Through its artifice of convention, the pastoral toys with yet speaks to a nagging doubt concerning the artifice called society. It asks a question men need not hurry to answer: Could we not have knowledge without expulsion, civilization without conditions?

Now, between such questions and pastoral as a genre, there is often a considerable distance. We can have the genre without the questions, the questions without the genre. We can also assume that pastoral at its best represents a special, indeed a highly sophisticated version of a tradition of feeling in Western society that goes very far back and very deep down. The suspicion of artifice and cultivation, the belief in the superior moral and therapeutic uses of the “natural,” the fear that corruption must follow upon a high civilization—such motifs appear to be strongly ingrained in Western Christianity and the civilization carrying it. There are Sodom and Gomorrah. There is the whore of Babylon. There is the story of Joseph and his brothers, charmingly anticipating a central motif within modern fiction: Joseph, who must leave the pastoral setting of his family because he is too smart to spend his life with sheep, prepares for a series of tests, ventures into the court of Egypt, and then, beyond temptation, returns to his fathers. And there is the story of Jesus, shepherd of his flock.

Western culture bears, then, a deeply-grounded tradition that sees the city as a place both inimical and threatening. It bears, also, another tradition, both linked and opposed, sacred and secular: we need only remember St. Augustine’s City of God or Aristotle’s view that “Men come together in the city in order to live, they remain there in order to live the good life.” For my present purpose, however, the stress must fall on the tradition, all but coextensive with culture itself, which looks upon the city as inherently suspect.

It is a way of looking at the city for which, God and men surely know, there is plenty of warrant. No one can fail to be haunted by terrible stories about the collapse of ancient cities; no one does not at some point recognize the strength of refreshment to be gained from rural life; no one can look at our civilization without at moments wishing it could be wiped out with the sweep of a phrase.




Our modern disgust with the city is foreshadowed in the 18th-century novelists. Smollett, connoisseur of sewage, has his Matthew Bramble cry out upon the suppurations of Bath—“Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odors, arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulencies, rank arm-pits, sweating feet, running sores.” In London Bramble feels himself lost in “an immense wilderness . . . the grand source of luxury and corruption.” Foreshadowing the late Dickens, Smollett is also a literary grand-uncle of Louis Ferdinand Céline, impresario of Parisian pissoirs and New York subway toilets.

Smollett helps create the tradition of disgust, but Fielding, a greater writer, helps set in motion the dominant literary pattern of discovery and withdrawal in regard to the city. It is the pattern of Tom Jones and later, in more complicated ways, of those 19th-century novels recording the travels of the Young Man from the Provinces: the youth leaving the wholesomeness of the country and then, on the road and in the city, experiencing pleasures, adventures, and lessons to last a lifetime. Fielding has little interest in blunt oppositions between mountain air and pestilent streets such as Smollett indulges. Smollett’s city is more vivid than Fielding’s, but Smollett rarely moves from obsessed image to controlled idea: the city, for him, is an item in that accumulation of annoyance which is about as close as he comes to a vision of evil. And thereby, oddly, Smollett is closer to many 20th-century writers than is Fielding. A man of coherence, Fielding knows that the city cannot be merely excoriated, it must be imaginatively transformed. Just as Tom Jones’s journey is a shaping into circular or spiral pattern of the picaro’s linear journey, so the city of the picaresque novel—that setting of prat-falls, horrors, and what the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene had called “pleasant tales of foist”—becomes in Fielding an emblem of moral vision. The picaro learns the rules of the city, Fielding’s hero the rules of civilized existence. In Fielding the city is a necessary stopping-point for the education of the emotions, to be encountered, overcome, and left behind.

It is customary to say that the third foreshadower of the 18th century, Daniel Defoe, was a writer sharing the later, 19th-century vision of the city, but only in limited ways is this true. For Defoe’s London is bodiless and featureless. Populated with usable foils, it provides less the substance than the schema of a city; finally, it is a place where you can safely get lost. The rationality of calculation Max Weber assigns to capitalism becomes in Moll Flanders an expert acquaintance with geographic maze. Moll acts out her escapade in a city functional and abstract, mapped out for venture and escape—somewhat like a ballet where scenery has been replaced by chalk-marks of choreography. Defoe anticipates the design of the city, insofar as it is cause and token of his heroine’s spiritual destitution, just as Kafka will later dismiss from his fiction all but the design of the city—an equivalent to his dismissal of character psychology in behalf of the design of metaphysical estrangement.




The modern city first appears full-face—as physical concreteness, emblem of excitement, social specter, and locus of myth—in Dickens and Gogol. Nostalgic archaism clashes with the shock of urban horror, and from this clash follows the myth of the modern city. Contributing to, though not quite the main component of this myth, is the distaste of Romanticism for the machine, the calculation, the city.

“The images of the Just City,” writes W. H. Auden in his brilliant study of Romantic iconography, “which look at us from so many Italian paintings . . . are lacking in Romantic literature because the Romantic writers no longer believe in their existence. What exists is the Trivial Unhappy Unjust City, the desert of the average from which the only escape is to the wild, lonely, but still vital sea.”

Not all Romantics go to sea, almost all bemoan the desert. Wordsworth complains about London in The Prelude:

The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
Living amid the same perpetual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end

This Romantic assault upon the city continues far into our century. Melville’s Pierre says, “Never yet have I entered the city by night, but, somehow, it made me feel both bitter and sad.” “I always feel doomed when the train is running into London,” adds Rupert Birkin in Women in Love. Such sentences recur endlessly in modern writing, after a time becoming its very stock in trade. And the assault they direct against the modern city consists of more than sentimentalism, or archaism, or Gemeinschaft-nostalgia. The Romantic attack upon the city derives from a fear that the very growth of civilization must lead to a violation of traditional balances between man and his cosmos, a Faustian presumption by a sorcerer who has forgotten that on all but his own scales he remains an apprentice. Nothing that has happened during this past century allows us easily to dismiss this indictment.

Darkened and fragmented, it is an indictment that comes to the fore in Dickens’s later novels. In the earlier ones there is still a marvelous responsiveness to the youthfulness of the world, an eager pleasure in the discoveries of streets. Almost every idea about the city tempts us to forget what the young Dickens never forgot: the city is a place of virtuosity, where men can perform with freedom and abandonment. And it is Dickens’s greatness, even in those of his books which are anything but great, that he displays London as theater, circus, vaudeville: the glass enlarging upon Micawber, Sarry Gamp, Sam Weller. If the city is indeed pesthole and madhouse, it is also the greatest show on earth, continuous performances and endlessly changing cast. George Gissing notes that Dickens seemed “to make more allusions throughout his work to the Arabian Nights than to any other book,” a “circumstance illustrative of that habit of mind which led him to discover infinite romance in the obscurer life of London.” Continues Gissing “London as a place of squalid mystery and terror, of the grimly grotesque, of labyrinthine obscurity and lurid fascination, is Dickens’s own; he taught people a certain way of regarding the huge city.”

In Dickens’s early novels there are already ominous chords and frightening overtones. The London of Oliver Twist is a place of terror from which its young hero must be rescued through a country convalescence, and the London of The Old Curiosity Shop, as Donald Fanger1 remarks, “impels its victims . . . to flee to the quasi-divine purity of the country . . . repeatedly identified with the remote springs of childhood, innocence and peace.” Yet throughout Dickens’s novels London remains a place of fascination: he is simply too great a writer to allow theory to block perception.

In his earlier novels sentimental pastoral jostles simple pleasure in color and sound; and the pattern toward and away from the city, as classically set forth by Fielding, is used in a somewhat casual way until it receives a definitive rendering in Great Expectations. But it is in his three great novels —Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, with their commanding images of fog, prison, dust-heap—that Dickens works out that vision of our existence which has so brilliantly and oppressively influenced later writing. Here the by-now worn notions of our culture—alienation, depersonalization, forlornness—are dramatized with an innocence of genius. That in cities men become functions of their function; go crazy with the dullness of their work; transform eccentricities into psychic paralysis; soon come to look as if they themselves were bureaucracies; and die without a ripple of sound—all this Dickens represents with a zest he had not yet learned to regard as ill-becoming. He enlarges his earlier comic gifts into the ferocious splendor of the Smallweeds, the Guppys, the Snagsbys, so that even as the city remains a theater, the play is now of a hardening into death.

Not only, as Edmund Wilson remarks, does Dickens develop the novel of the social group; he becomes the first to write the novel of the city as some enormous, spreading creature that has gotten out of control, an Other apart from the men living within it. We have learned to speak lightly of “society” as something pressing and enclosing us, but imagine the terror men must have felt upon first encountering this sensation! Reading these late novels of Dickens we seem to be watching a process like that of the earth being buried beneath layers of ice: a process we now can name as the triumph of the Collective. And to this process Dickens’s most intimate response is a bewilderment he projects onto an alienated space, in that multiplying chaos where Mr. Krook, double of the Lord High Chancellor, reigns and the dust-heap becomes a symbol of the derangements of exchange value. The indeterminacy of urban life, for Dostoevsky a frightening idea, is for Dickens a frightening experience.



As if in echo, one of Gogol’s clerks cries out, “There is no place for me.” Not in Petersburg there isn’t nor in the grotesque emblem of Petersburg Gogol created. Meek spiritual cripples, his clerks lure us for a moment into sympathy with the smallness of their desires. But perhaps out of that awe at the endlessness of suffering which leads Faulkner and Leskov into harshness, Gogol treats pathos not as pathetic but as the material for comedies of irreducible disorder. The grander the city, the more wormlike its ceatures. Socially fixed, the clerks are personally erased. Reduced to clerkness, one of them takes home documents to copy for pleasure—this zero reveling in his zero-ness recalls another zero, Peretz’s Bontche Shveig, who when asked in heaven to name his ultimate desire, requests a hot roll with butter each morning.

How can one bear such a world, this Gogol-city of innumerable petty humiliations? By a gesture signifying the retribution of arbitrariness. In “The Overcoat” Akaky Akakievich (in Russian a name with cloacal associations) affirms himself only after death, when Petersburg is haunted by an Akakyish specter: an excremental cloud hanging over this excremental city. In “The Nose” a character finds that his nose has simply quit his face, with a sauciness he would not himself dare. But how can a nose quit a face? (As like ask Kafka how a man can turn into a cockroach.) When the weight of the determined becomes intolerable, an arbitrary gesture that changes nothing yet says everything may come to seem a token of freedom. The nose leaves the face because Gogol tells it to.

The figures and atmospheres of Dickens and Gogol are appropriated by Dostoevsky, but in his novels men appear as fully conscious beings, their alienated grotesqueness elevated to psychological plenitude. The life of man in the city becomes a metaphysical question, so that in those airless boarding houses into which Dostoevsky crams his characters there is enacted the fate of civilization. Raskolnikov’s ordeal relates to Petersburg and Christianity: Can man live in this world, is there a reason why he should? Crime and Punishment offers a wide repertoire of city sensations, not as a catalogue of display but as a vibrant correlative to Raskolnikov’s spiritual dilemmas. God and the Devil still live in this city, the former as idiot or buffoon, the latter as sleazy good-natured petit-bourgeois. That is why in Dostoevsky the city of filth retains a potential for becoming a city of purity. The city brings out Raskolnikov’s delutions: it is the locale of the modern fever for mounting sensations, for the modern enchantment with the sordid as a back-alley to beatitude. The city is also the emblem of Raskolnikov’s possible redemption: it is the locale of men who share a community of suffering and may yet gain the ear of Christ. Never does Dostoevsky allow the attractions of nihilism to deprive him of the vision of transcendence. In “Notes from Underground” the city bears a similar relation, what might be called a dialectical intimacy, with the narrator: each of his intellectual disasters is publicly reenacted as a burlesque in the streets. More than social microcosm or animated backdrop, the city provides Dostoevsky with the contours and substance of his metaphysical theme.




Let us abruptly turn from what literature may tell about the city to what the city does in and to literature.

• The city as presence brings major changes in narrative patterns. Abandoning the inclusive tourism of the picaresque, the 19th-century novel often employs a spiral-like pattern; first a pull toward the city, then a disheartened retreat to some point of origin (the blacksmith shop in Great Expectations, the chestnut tree in The Charterhouse of Parma) . Elements of pastoral seem still attached to this narrative configuration, for one of its tacit ends is to retain in the novel clusters of feeling that flourished best in earlier genres. Lionel Trilling describes this kind of narrative:

. . . equipped with poverty, pride and intelligence, the Young Man from the Provinces stands outside life and seeks to enter. . . . It is his fate to move from an obscure position into one of considerable eminence in Paris or London or St. Petersburg, to touch the life of the rulers of the earth. He understands everything to be “a test.”

And then? Always the same denouement: the Young Man’s defeat or disillusion, and his retreat to the countryside where he can bind his wounds, cauterize his pride, struggle for moral renewal. Even more striking than its presence in novels as explicitly hostile to the city as Great Expectations and Sentimental Education is the way this pattern dominates novels in which the author seems consciously to intend a celebration of the city. For Balzac Paris is a place of “gold and pleasure,” and the central portion of Lost Illusions evokes a stormy metropolis of excitement and sheer animatedness. Yet even this most cosmopolitan of novels follows the pattern of attraction and withdrawal, bringing its hero Lucien back to the countryside in bewilderment and thereby offering a distant nod to pastoral. At the end, to be sure, Balzac’s cynicism triumphs (one almost adds, thank God) and Lucien is seen in the tow of the devil, who will take him to the city where life, naturally, is more interesting: the city, as Balzac said, that “is corrupt because it is eminently civilized.”

If the pattern of 19th-century fiction forms a spiral to and away from the city, it is in the sharpest contrast to later novels in which the city becomes a maze beyond escape. In Ulysses and The Trial the traditional journeys of the hero are replaced by a compulsive backtracking: there is no place else to go, and the protagonist’s motions within the city stand for his need, also through backtracking, to find a center within self.

• The city allows for a more complex system of social relationships than any other locale. Sociologists keep repeating that the city impels men into relationships lacking in warmth, often purely functional and abstract; and from this once-revolutionary perception they slide into nostalgia for an “organic community” located at notoriously imprecise points in the past. For the novelist, however, the city’s proliferation of casual and secondary relationships offers new possibilities: the drama of the group and the comedy of the impersonal. The experiences of Ulysses for which Homer had to arrange complicated journeys, Joyce can pack into a day’s wandering through a single city. There follows the possibility of fictions constructed along the lines that the Soviet critic M. M. Bakhtin calls a “polyphonic” structure, in which social loss may yield literary advance. Dostoevsky’s novels, writes Bakhtin, “caught intact a variety of social worlds and groups which had not [yet] . . . begun to lose their distinctive apartness” and thereby “The objective preconditions were created for the essential multilevel and multivoice structure of the polyphonic novel.”

To which I would add two observations: 1) The rise of the city is a blessing for minor characters who might otherwise never see the light of day; and 2) The inclination of some novelists to employ a multiplicity of narrative points of view has much to do with the rise of the city.

• As the city becomes a major locale in literature, there occur major changes in regard to permissible subjects, settings, and characters. The idea of literary decorum is radically transformed, perhaps destroyed. Literature gains a new freedom; everything, which may be too much, is now possible. Out of the dogmas of anti-convention, new conventions arise. The city enables the birth of new genres: who could imagine surrealism without Paris?

In the novel of the city, a visit to a slum can serve as a shorthand equivalent to a descent into hell, as in Bleak House or Redburn. An address, a neighborhood, an accent—these identify the condition of a man, or the nature of an act, quite as much as social rank or notations of manners once did. So powerful, at first liberating and then constricting, do these new conventions become that in The Waste Land their rapid evocation permits a summary vision of an entire culture. The typist’s life as a familiar barrenness, the dialogue in the bar as a characteristic plebeian mindlessness, the conversation between upper-class husband and wife as a recognizable sterility—these serve as the terms of an overarching spiritual assessment.

As the city breaks down traditional rankings, there emerges the plebeian writer or the writer of fallen circumstances. The city erases family boundaries, in one direction toward those rootless wanderers of the streets first imagined by Edgar Allen Poe, and in the other direction toward the extended families pictured by Dostoevsky. The city yields stunning and rapid juxtapositions: “In Paris,” gloats Balzac, “vice is perpetually joining the rich man to the poor, and the great to the humble.”

The city thereby offers endless possibilities of symbolic extension. In Gissing’s New Grub Street it becomes a place of paralyzing fatigue, a grayness of spirit that finds its extension in the grayness of a London winter. To Flaubert in Sentimental Education, as if to anticipate Max Weber’s fear that we are entering “a long polar night of icy darkness and hardness,” Paris comes to represent a collective yielding to acedia and nihilism, so that as we read we have the sensation of watching men turn slowly into stone, a whole civilization in process of quiet petrifaction.



The city affects literature in still another way: it provides a new range of vocabularies, from the street argot of a Céline to the ironic urbanities of the early Auden, from the coarse eloquence of Balzac’s Parisians to the mixture of racy street-Jewishness and intellectual extravaganza of Bellow. The city also encourages that flavorless language, the language of sawdust, we associate with naturalism, as if the denial of will must be reflected in the death of words; yet the city also yields writers like Dickens and Gogol new resources for grotesquerie and mockery. Language can be reduced to bureaucratic posture, as in Guppy’s proposal to Esther Summerson in Bleak House, employing the terms of a brief for a small-claims court. Or it can be used by Gogol in a style the Russians call skaz, described by Yevgeny Zamyatin as “The free, spontaneous language of speech, digressions . . . coinages of the street variety, which cannot be found in any dictionary . . . [and in which] the author’s comments are given in a language close to that of the milieu depicted.”

• One of the great temptations for the writer dealing with city life is to think of it as a “creature” or “being” independent from and looming over the people who live in it. Apostrophes to London and Paris are frequent in Dickens and Balzac, but these are only feeble rhetorical intimations of what they are struggling to apprehend. The sense that somehow a city has “a life of its own” is so common, it must have some basis in reality; but precisely what we mean by such statements is very hard to say. For Dickens and Gogol, as for Melville, such metaphors become ways of expressing the feeling of littleness of people forming the anonymous masses. For other writers, such as Zola and more recently Dos Passos, these metaphors prepare the way for an effort to embody the life of the group in its own right, to see the collective as an autonomous and imperious organization. Except, however, when the sense of the “thereness” of the city is realized through its impact on individual characters, this effort is usually bound to fail. For even as it begins with a search for extreme objectivity, it ends with a surrender to extreme subjectivity. Since the novelist must keep his attention on the group or institution, neither of which has individuality of consciousness or will, he finds himself forced to speak in his own voice. His wish to create a plot of collective behavior leads him to a style of extreme subjectivity meant to “impersonate” the city. At worst, this kind of writing seems willed, an effort to do for the action through rhetoric what filmmakers try to do for their stories through music; at best, the writing takes on a coarse strength, the poetry of naturalism.

• The city as presence in modern literature gives rise to a whole series of new character types, and these come to be formidable conventions in subsequent writing. A few of them:

The clerk, soon taken to represent the passivity, smallness, and pathos of life in the city: Gogol, Melville, Dickens, and Kafka.

The Jew, bearer of the sour fruits of self-definition: Joyce, Proust, Mann.

The cultivated woman, one of the triumphs of modern writing, inconceivable anywhere but in the city, a woman of femininity and intelligence, seductiveness and awareness, traditional refinement and modern possibilities: Tolstoy’s Anna, James’s Madame Vionnet, Colette’s Julie.

The underground man, a creature of the city, without fixed rank or place, burrowing beneath the visible structure of society, hater of all that flourishes aboveground, meek and arrogant, buried in a chaos of subterranean passions yet gratified by the stigmata of his plight: Dostoevsky and Céline.

•“The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individual,” writes Georg Simmel in his essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. . . . Lasting impressions . . . use up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single phrase, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.” Dostoevsky and Joyce best capture this experience in the novel, Baudelaire and perhaps Hart Crane in verse.

In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov is assaulted by repeated impressions during his dazed wanderings through Petersburg. He walks along the street and sees a coachman beating his horse with gratuitous brutality. He watches a street entertainer grinding out a tune on a barrel organ, tries to strike up a nervous conversation with a stranger and frightens the man away. Another man approaches him and without warning mutters, “You are a murderer.” At still another moment he notices a woman in front of him, “at first reluctantly and, as it were, with annoyance, and then more and more intently”; he supposes her a victim of a seduction; the terribleness of the city seems flaringly vivid to him. Each of these apparently stray incidents becomes a tonal equivalent to Raskolnikov’s condition, and the seemingly chaotic business of the city is transformed into a map of the protagonist’s turmoil.




Together with what I have called the myth of the modern city—enemy of man: pesthole, madhouse, prison—there appear in modern literature at least two other significant visions of urban life. The first is benign, fairly frequent among American writers who have grown up in a culture devoted to the virtues of the countryside. For Henry James the city serves as a token of the possibilities for a high civilization. The Paris of The Ambassadors is a mixture of Balzac’s Paris (without Balzac’s greasepaint, vulgarity, and financial delirium) and an American dream of a European City of Beauty. Paris becomes the shining gloss of man’s history, the greatness of the past realized in monuments and manners. Paris stands for the Jamesian vision of a culture far gone in sophistication yet strangely pure, as if no dollar were exchanged there or loyalty betrayed. James was not a naif, he knew he was summoning a city of his desire; and in an earlier novel, The American, he had shown himself capable of presenting a Paris sinister and shabby. But now Paris has become the home of civilization, with the splendor of its history yielding the materials for his myth of idealization.

Quite as benign is Whitman’s vision of New York. His poems do not capture the terrible newness of the industrial city, for that he does not really know. Whitman’s city flourishes in harmony with surrounding forests and green; it figures modestly in the drama of democracy; there is still psychic and social roominess, so that this bohemian singing of the masses can easily knock about in the streets, a New World flâneur, without feeling crowded or oppressed. Between the noisy groping city and Whitman’s persona as the Fraternal Stranger there are still large spaces, and this very spaciousness allows him to celebrate the good nature and easy style of his “camerados” in New York. Not many 19th-century writers can share that comfort.

The second and by far more influential vision of the city proceeds in a cultural line from Baudelaire through Eliot and then through Eliot’s many followers. In the smudge of our time, this vision of the city has come to seem indistinguishable from the one I have attributed to the 19th-century masters; but it is distinguishable. There is in Baudelaire little of that recoil from the city about which 1 have spoken and little, if any, pastoral indulgence. He accepts the city as the proper stage for his being; he apprehends, better than anyone, the nervous currents that make cosmopolitan life exciting and destructive; he writes in the Tableaux Parisiens not only of ugliness and debauchery but also, in Proust’s words, of “suffering, death, and humble fraternity.” A famous passage celebrates the public concerts, “rich in brass,” that “pour some heroism into the hearts of town dwellers.”

Walter Benjamin notes that “Baudelaire placed the shock experience at the very center of his artistic work,” and he remarks also on the relation between that “shock experience” and Baudelaire’s “contact with the metropolitan masses . . . the amorphous crowd of passers-by” with whom he “becomes an accomplice even as he dissociates himself from them.” In Baudelaire’s poems shock serves more than a social end; it has to do with his struggle for a scheme of moral order, a struggle conducted, in extremis, through images of disorder. Baudelaire’s fear is not, as others had already said before him, that the city is hell: his fear is that it is not hell, not even hell. His strategy of shock comes to seem a modernist terror-raid in behalf of classical resolution—not always so, of course, since poets can become secret sharers of the devils they grapple with. It hardly matters whether Baudelaire is seen as a figure of urban satanism or inverted Christianity; he moves in the orbits of both, emanating, in Mallarmé’s wonderful line, “a protective poison that we must go on breathing even if we die of it.” For Baudelaire, Paris embodies the fear of a life reduced from evil to the merely sordid, a life sinking into the triviality of nihilism.

This is the side of Baudelaire that Eliot appropriates in The Waste Land: “Unreal City . . . I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot lacks Baudelaire’s capacity for surrendering himself to the quotidian pleasures of a great city, but he narrows the Baudelairean vision into something of enormous power, perhaps the single most powerful idea of our culture. Eliot’s idea of the city has become assimilated to that of the great 19th-century writers, though it is imperative to insist on the difference between madhouse and wasteland, even prison and wasteland. Eliot’s vision is then taken up, more and more slackly, by the writers of the last half-century, charting, mourning, and then—it is unavoidable—delectating in the wasteland. Life in the city is shackled to images of sickness and sterility, with a repugnance authentic or adorned; and what seems finally at the base of this tradition is a world-view we might designate as remorse over civilization. “When one has a sense of guilt after having committed a misdeed,” says Freud gloomily, “the feeling should . . . be called remorse.” Our guilt, almost casual in its collective sedimentation, proceeds from the feeling that the whole work of civilization—and where is that to be found but in cities?—is a gigantic mistake. This remorse appears first as a powerful release of sensibility, in imaginative works of supreme value, and then as the clichés of kitsch, Madison Avenue modernism. The strength of the masters remains overwhelming, from Baudelaire to Eliot to Auden, as they fill their poems with forebodings of the collapse of cities, the crumbling of all man’s works. Auden writes in “The Fall of Rome”:

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend

* *

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
I do not like my work
On a pink official form.

And the Greek poet Cavafy writes about a city waiting, with impatient weariness, for the barbarians to take over:

What does this sudden uneasiness mean,
And this confusion?
(How grave the faces have
Why are the streets and squares rapidly
and why is everyone going back
home lost in thought?

Because it is night and the barbarians have
    not come,
and some men have arrived from the frontiers
and they say there are no barbarians any more
and now, what will become of us without
These people were a kind of solution.




The suspicion of the city and all it represents seems to run so deeply in our culture that it would be impossible to eradicate it, even if anyone were naive enough to wish to. In its sophisticated variants it is a suspicion necessary for sanity, if only because modern civilization cannot yield very much to its demands. And perhaps, for all we know, it is a suspicion emblematic of some ineradicable tragedy in the human condition: the knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable.

In traditional pastoral, suspicion of the city is frequently contained through a discipline of irony, an irony proceeding through a sequence something like this: game of the shepherds, seriousness of the game, recognition of how limited are the uses of that seriousness. In modern literature, which can have but little interest in shepherds, there is a violence of response to the city which breaks past the discipline of irony—our experience demands that. But then, just as traditional pastoral suffers the corruptions of literalism, so must the modernist assault upon the city. How, we ask ourselves, can we bring together, in some complex balance of attitude, our commitment to the imaginative truth in what the modern writers show us about the city and our awareness that it may no longer be quite sufficient for us?

We are the children, or step-children, of modernism. We learned our abc‘s lisping “alienation, bourgeoisie, catastrophe.” As against those who brushed aside the 20th century, we were right in believing our age to be especially terrible, especially cursed, on the rim of apocalypse. But today loyalty to the tradition of modernism may require a rejection of its academic and marketplace heirs, and far more important, a questioning of its premises and values.

To deride the epigones of modernism who have reduced it from a vision to a fashion, is no great intellectual risk. We should go farther and ask whether the masters must, in some sense, be held responsible for their corrupted followers, if only insofar as the corruption may point back to some little-noticed or half-hidden flaw in the world-view of the masters. Our problem then becomes to ask whether the vision of the great modernist writers can retain for us the moral urgency and emotional command they so powerfully exerted only a few decades ago.

Clearly this is not a question to be answered in a few paragraphs, though I have tried on an earlier occasion to indicate some opinions.2 What matters, in behalf of a serious confrontation with our dominant literary heritage, is to move past (which is not to say abandon) both the authentic pieties we retain from an earlier moment and the false ones that have followed them.

I propose a hypothesis: We have reached the point in our cultural history where it seems both possible and useful to remove ourselves from the partisanship that cultural modernism evoked throughout the past century. Modernism is no longer threatened, nor in question. Its achievements are solid and lasting, its influence incalculable. It is beginning to take a place in the development of Western culture somewhat like that which Romanticism can be said to have taken by, let us suppose, the last two or three decades of the 19th century. Modernism is beginning to become part of history, and thereby, for those of us responsive to history, a complex of styles and values we can accept through the mediation of its classical works. Modernism can now enter our moral experience complicated by that awareness of historical distance which is a mark of a cultivated sensibility, and thereby it remains a crucial part of our experience, as Romanticism does too. But if we ask ourselves questions as to the truth of the vision of a Lawrence or an Eliot or a Yeats—and I have some awareness of how tricky such questions can be—then we are no longer likely, and younger people are certainly no longer likely, to answer them with an unbroken passion, that total assent or denial elicited by a cultural movement both contemporary and embattled.

If we lose much by no longer seeing modernism as a contemporary cultural presence, we may gain something too. We may gain a certain detached perspective upon its nature and its achievements, as in recent decades, through discovery, polemic, and reassessment, we have been gaining such a perspective upon the nature and achievements of Romanticism. And if we do approach modernism in this way—as a major component of our culture which the motions of history are transporting into that segment of our experience we call the past—then we may discover that a good many of our earlier enthusiasms will have to be qualified. Not repudiated; qualified. The famous “revolutionary” aspect of modernism may come to have for us an ambiguous value: in part an authentic response to the terribleness of the age and in part a nostalgia for a historically unlocatable and morally dubious “organic past”; in part a profound engagement with the inner nerves of city life and in part a snobbism of the fastidious embraced by those who look down upon the commonplace desires of commonplace mankind; in part an assault upon the calculation that lies at the heart of the bourgeois ethic and in part a cruel dismissal of those fragmented solutions and moderate comforts which it has become easy to dismiss as bourgeois. And we may then have to conclude that the now established hostility to the idea of the city, which is one portion of the modernist legacy, will no longer serve as well as in the past. The vision of the city we inherit from Eliot and Baudelaire, Celine and Brecht—with its ready nausea, packaged revulsion, fixed estrangement—will have to be modulated and itself seen as a historical datum. If we ask ourselves whether we accept the ideas of Shelley or the vision of Blake, their very distance allows us to answer with a sense of ironic qualification that would be difficult to summon for an embattled contemporary. Something of the sort should soon be true in regard to the great figures of modernism.

To remain faithful to its tradition means to call it sharply into question. Can we not, for example, say, yes, the city remains the pesthole and madhouse, the prison and setting of spiritual void that you have shown it to be, nevertheless we can no longer be satisfied with this perception and this perception alone.

Nor is it as if we lack an inspiring model from within literary modernism itself. No writer has portrayed the city with such severity as James Joyce. Every assault that the modernist literary tradition can make upon the city appears in Ulysses, magnified in scope and feverish with intensity. Yet that assault is also, in Ulysses, transcended through a skeptical humaneness, a tolerance beyond tolerance, a recognition that man was not put: on this earth to scratch his eyes out. Of all the writers who render the modern city, it is Joyce who engages in the most profound struggle with nihilism, for he sees it everywhere. in the newspaper office and the church, on the street and in the bed, through the exalted and the routine. Joyce, says Richard Ellmann, shows that “the world of cigars is devoid of heroism only to those who don’t understand that Ulysses’ spear was merely a sharpened stick . . . and that Bloom can demonstrate the qualities of man by word of mouth as effectively as Ulysses by thrust of spear.” The theme of Ulysses, says Ellman, is simply that “casual kindness overcomes unconscionable power.” Does it? In reality? In Joyce’s book? I hardly know but cherish Ellmann’s sentence, as I believe Joyce would have too.



We may destroy our civilization, but we cannot escape it. We may savor a soured remorse at the growth of civilization, but that will yield us no large or lasting reward. There is no turning back: our only way is a radical struggle for the City of the Just.

The City of the Just . . . the phrase rings a little hollow right now, so far do we seem to be from it. Still, we shall create genuine cities, which means vital civilizations, or we shall perish. We shall create a high culture, serious and gay, or we shall sink into a rocklike, mainline stupor. Assault upon the city is now to be valued only when understood as the complex play of men who live in cities and would live nowhere else. It is too late for tents and sheep and lutes, or whatever surrogates we may invent, “Perhaps the best definition of the city in its higher aspects,” says Lewis Mumford, “is that it is a place designed to offer the widest facilities for significant conversation.”

So we must turn again, to build the Just City where men can be decent and humane and at ease, that ease Wallace Stevens speaks of:

One’s grand flights, one’s Sunday baths,
One’s tootings at the wedding of the soul
Occur as they occur . .

And what will we do in the city? Take our Sunday baths, toot at “the wedding of the soul,” read Colette, marvel at Balanchine, and with proper modulations of irony, realize the claims of pastoral, that indestructible artifice of the urban imagination. More than 100 years ago Barnaby Googe understood it all: “God sends me Vittayles for my nede, and I synge Care awaye.”




1 Let me here record my debt to the brilliant writings on the theme of the city and literature by Donald Fanger and John Raleigh.

2 In my essay, “The Culture of Modernism,” COMMENTARY, November 1967.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.