1New York has always been more than a geographical place, more than a big city of socioeconomic relevance. Especially since the mid-nineteenth century, it has engaged the literary and artistic imagination to an extraordinary degree. The one cannot be separated from the other—not only because a substantial part of the history of American literature and art has been inscribed into New York’s (especially Manhattan’s) geography, but also because New York, as imagined and represented in texts and images, has continuously entered the experience of place and been present in it as myth and remembered history.
- 1 See Mario Maffi’s loving and informative history of his own geographic and imaginary exploration o (...)
- 2 Lewis Hine’s photographic portraits of immigrant workers tried to establish their dignified self-a (...)
- 3 Abraham Cahan, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917); A (...)
- 4 “The Bowery and Thereabouts”, The American Scene, 194-208. The exotic strangeness of these quarter (...)
2One may walk through the streets and districts of Manhattan as if through the chapters of a cultural history—as Mario Maffi once did in his study of Ethnic New York1. And if one does, the city—which has only recently begun to remind its visitors of the riches of its cultural past by commemorative plaques—turns into an open book, transforms real into imagined and imaginary space in which experienced present and narrated or imaged past merge: its history revealed not in chronological sequence but in spatial synchronicity. The old immigrant sections with their densely settled tenement houses west of the Bowery might form the first chapter of such a book: their abject poverty Stephen Crane had dramatized in Maggie and his “Bowery Tales” and Jacob Riis documented in his photographic report on How the Other Half Lives (as had Lewis Hine, a few years later, in his portraits of workers and immigrants)2. A second chapter would focus on the Lower East Side, the Jewish ghetto a bit further east around Hester and Delancy Street which, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, found voice—its English voice3—in the narratives of Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska. It was here that Henry James had tried to decipher the signs of a, for him, almost unimaginable future in his skeptical and yet fascinated reading of Jewish immigrant life in The American Scene4. North of Houston Street, in the lower streets of the East Village and between Avenues A, B and C, Henry Roth located the immigrant section of his Call It Sleep in which David Schearl, the child protagonist of his novel, loses his way in a labyrinth of streets and languages. (Today it is part of the Puerto Rican Lower East Side, the Loisaida. There, on East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, is still the Nuerican Café, a literary center of Puerto Rican New York especially during the 1980s and 1990s).
- 5 I am obviously thinking of James’s Washington Square and the mid-town mansions of Edith Wharton’s (...)
- 6 See Bradbury 186-189 and 252-255.
3Northwest of Houston, along Fifth Avenue between Washington Square and Central Park, extends the area of “old” New York with its expensive mansions and fashionable hotels in whose salons Henry James and Edith Wharton5 enacted the complex game of manners in their staging of New York’s “good society”. (East of Fifth Avenue, on 25th Street, Herman Melville had spent the last thirty years of his life as customs inspector—by then quite forgotten by his contemporaries). To the West, North and South of Washington Square, for a long time, beat the “heart” of Manhattan: Greenwich Village, where literary associations become even denser and the tracks of two avant-gardes (those of the 1920s and the 1950s and 60s) meet and overlap6. Here, on the corner of Washington Square West and South, was the home of the Provincetown Players and, above Washington Square on Fifth Avenue, Mabel Dodge’s salon where New York’s radical chic met, the progressive literary and political bohemia around The Masses. In the same area lived Eugene O’Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Man Ray, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore and E.E. Cummings; as did, some thirty years later, Frank O’Hara, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Famous little magazines—like The Little Review, Broom and The Dial in the 1920s and Evergreen Review and Village Voice in the 1950s – had their offices here.
- 7 Stieglitz subsequently moved further uptown and to the East Side: his “Intimate Gallery” was locat (...)
- 8 See Naumann.
- 9 The city gradually extended its boundaries northward along Broadway—a movement that accelerated du (...)
4Further east, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th streets was the 69th Regiment Armory where the great Armory Show of 1913 was held (which introduced the U.S. to modern painting and where especially Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” created a scandal). A little further north and west, on Fifth Avenue between 30th and 31st Street, Alfred Stieglitz had his gallery “291” in the late 1910s and early 1920s7—a meeting place for poets and painters like William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Jean Toomer, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler. Much further north and west, on Broadway and 67th Street had been the salon of Walter and Louise Arensberg where the Dadaist wing of New York’s avant-garde met in the early 1920s—among them Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, Edgar Varèse, Albert Gleizes, Morton Schamberg, Joseph Stella and Mina Loy8. And again further up Broadway in the direction of Columbia University between Broadway, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive is the “Upper West Side” where—on what is now W. 84th Street but was then farmland far away from the city—Edgar Allan Poe supposedly wrote his “Raven”. In the 1950s and after (when the city had long since expanded north)9, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, E.L. Doctorow, Harold Brodkey and Paul Auster lived in The Upper West Side for a while and made it a locus in their fictions (Bellow in Seize the Day, 1956, Auster in City of Glass, 1985, and Moon Palace, 1989, and Doctorow in City of God, 2000).
- 10 See North. In his essay on “The Image of Harlem in Black Literature”, James L. de Jongh makes a re (...)
- 11 Samuel R. Delany, Atlantis—Three Tales, Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1995. “Atlantis: Model 1924” is the (...)
5A last chapter would be dedicated to Harlem, that “race capital of the world” (as Alain Locke called it in the mid-1920s). Extending roughly north from Columbia University to the Harlem River and east, beyond Spanish Harlem, to the East River, it can be seen as the black equivalent of the Jewish Lower East Side but also, since it was the locus of the Harlem Renaissance, as a counterpart to Greenwich Village and thus as the black site of American modernism. In the stories of Rudolph Fisher, in the novels of Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, 1928), Nella Larsen (Passing, 1929), and also—or even more so—in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926), Harlem is represented as a quasi-mythological place of unleashed libido—a “dreamscape” where white money and white fantasies of “primitive” blackness, on the one hand, and the creative vitality of black people, on the other, seemed to open, if only for a brief moment, the possibility of social interaction across racial barriers10. Decades later, after the race riots of 1935 and 1943 and after years of economic depression, Harlem, in Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1954), or LeRoi Jones’ The System of Dante’sHell (1965), had become more than anything else a black ghetto: a place of confining poverty, repression and of painful self-assertion against odds. Until, again several decades later, in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992), and Samuel Delany’s novella “Atlantis: Model 1924” (1995)11, the Harlem Renaissance was re-evoked and re-membered as cultural tradition—as the, by then, mythic image of a new and still emergent African American urban culture.
- 12 On the literature of the urban sublime, see Den Tandt and Graham Clark, “The City as Ideal Text”, (...)
- 13 “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making it a constant flicker upon th (...)
- 14 See Carr 199.
6One might thus conceive of the literary history of New York as a history of urban regionalisms, as an ensemble of predominantly realistic narratives about ethnically or class-specifically defined districts or neighborhoods that provide the social and geographic context for innumerable tales of initiation or searches for identity from Abraham Cahan and Henry Roth to Saul Bellow and James Baldwin. Yet this would only be half the story. For next to these ethnic or regional narratives (and, at several points of New York’s literary history, dominating them) is the literature and art of an “urban sublime”12 that reaches beyond neighborhood to grasp New York as a whole, the city’s essence: its energy and latent spiritual form. I connect it with a totalizing view from above and outside, with Nick Carraway’s view from Queensborough Bridge that, for him, meant seeing the city as if for the first time “in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty of the world”13; or with Hart Crane’s and John Dos Passos’ view from Brooklyn Heights across the East River and Brooklyn Bridge to the Manhattan skyline. (According to one source, they lived in the same house when Crane wrote The Bridge and Dos Passos Manhattan Transfer14.)
7In “Here is New York” (1949), his famous homage to the city (“this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death”), E.B. White distinguishes three New Yorks:
- 15 White 25-26. In the blurb of the essay’s re-edition in 1999 we learn that “The New York Times has (...)
There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements15.
8This third city of the newcomers and questers, of those fleeing the economic constrictions of the country or of the European continent, drunk with a sense of possibility and future, is the mythic city seen “for the first time”, a construct of stone, steel, glass as much as of dream, vision and hope. It is New York as the very image of the modern, visibly represented in Brooklyn Bridge and the new Manhattan skyline: the skyscrapers of the Woolworth, the Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings.
- 16 It was erected next to the site where the Brooklyn Ferry, which Whitman had used and celebrated in (...)
9When Brooklyn Bridge was inaugurated in 1883, it was celebrated as one of the great architectural wonders of the world16. It was then also the highest building in New York from which one could look down on the low rising, pre-modern city while crossing the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The Skyline—as we know it from many photographs of the period and still recognize it despite its many transformations—was constructed during the first three decades of the twentieth century. It made Brooklyn Bridge part of a metropolitan and specifically modernist iconography—of skyscrapers, building cranes, steam hammers and hurrying human masses—in which New York seemed to stage itself as a city always in the making, always in a process of construction, as a field of visible and invisible energies created by capital and industry. The sight of the new bridges and high rises, that had destroyed what in his eyes was the more modest nineteenth-century city he had known from his youth, fascinated Henry James, yet made him also shiver with aversion. In a memorable passage of The American Scene, he was one of the first to describe the modern metropolis, this “unmannered young giant”, as a monstrous machine, a giant loom:
This appearance of the bold lacing-together, across the waters, of the scattered members of the monstrous organism—lacing as by the ceaseless play of an enormous system of steam-shuttles or electric bobbins […] commensurate in form with their infinite work—does perhaps more than anything else to give the pitch of the vision of energy. One has the sense that the monster grows and grows, flinging abroad its loose limbs even as some unmannered young giant at his “larks”, and that the binding stitches must for ever fly further and faster and draw harder; the future complexity of the web, all under the sky and over the sea, becoming thus that of some colossal set of clockworks, some steel-souled machine-room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws. The immeasurable bridges are but as the horizontal sheaths of pistons working at high pressure, day and night, and subject, one apprehends with perhaps inconsistent gloom, to certain, to fantastic, to merciless multiplication. (James 75)
- 17 Charles Sheeler was a painter and photographer and became famous in the 1930s especially with his (...)
10This elaborate image of the city and its bridges as an uncanny expression of gigantic industrial energies would later enter the rhetoric of the “urban sublime”, yet as ecstatic affirmation of what Whitman had called the “spirit of the modern”. The rhetoric is present, for instance, in John Marin’s paintings of Lower Manhattan: in “Brooklyn Bridge” (1910), the ecstasy of walking over the bridge—which Hart Crane would record a decade later in letters and in poems—is projected onto the bridge itself exuberantly dancing in a burst of urban energy. The same rhetoric enters a short experimental film made, in 1920, by the painter Charles Sheeler and the photographer Paul Strand17. “Mannahatta” invokes Whitman not only in its title. It is a filmic celebration of a city constantly “under steam” and incessantly in motion whose unceasing energies are embedded in nature and its cycles. In the same year, the Italian Futurist Joseph Stella (who had come to New York seven years earlier at the time of the Armory Show) began painting the five sections of his “The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted” which combines futurism’s fascination with the power of machines with Whitman’s vision of America. It was most of all Brooklyn Bridge and the view it opened through its network of cables on the skyline of Manhattan that made him feel “as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new DIVINITY”. In a dithyrambic autobiographical statement, published in 1929, he rendered in words what he had, less than ten years earlier, expressed in a series of ecstatic images (especially in the last one, dedicated to Brooklyn Bridge):
- 18 Joseph Stella, “Brooklyn Bridge: A Page of My Life”, Transition 16-17, June 1929, 86-89; also Jaff (...)
Seen for the first time as a weird metallic Apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of Worlds, supported by the massive dark towers dominating the surrounding tumult of the surging skyscrapers with their gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches, the cables, like divine messages from above, transmitted to the vibrating coils, cutting and dividing into innumerable musical spaces the nude immensity of the sky, it impressed me as a shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of AMERICA… the eloquent meeting point of all the forces arising in a superb assertion of powers, in Apotheosis18.
11Practically at the same time—in 1923/24—Hart Crane began with the first drafts of “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” and “Atlantis”, the prayer-like opening poem and the ecstatic finale of his cycle The Bridge (1930) which, in the unifying symbol of Brooklyn Bridge, propagated continuity between technology and art, between America’s metropolitan present and the mythological heritage of its past.
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day.
And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee! …
(“Proem”, stanzas 1, 2, and 4)
Forever Deity’s glittering Pledge, O Thou
Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns
To wrapt inception and beatitude,—
Always through blinding cables, to our joy,
Of thy white seizure springs the prophecy:
Always through spiring cordage, pyramids
Of silver sequel, Deity’s young name
Kinetic of white choiring wings… Ascends.
(“Atlantis”, stanza 10)19
- 20 He painted it twice: the first time in 1918-19, and then again in 1920-22, as the last and culmina (...)
- 21 Letters, 261.
12The curve of the seagull’s rising movement suggests liberation from its chilled confinement in “chained bay waters”. It is echoed in the dynamic curve of the Bridge and thus in a movement that is resting in itself, its freedom staying (and sustaining the movement), whereas the seagull’s revelation of liberty is only a fleeting vision to the observing eye. The final poem renders this movement as an ecstatic-mystical experience of “being carried forward and upward” that Stella had also tried to convey in his paintings of Brooklyn Bridge20. In a letter to Stella, Crane wrote several years later: “It is a remarkable coincidence that I should, years later, have discovered that another person, by whom I mean you, should have had the same sentiments regarding Brooklyn Bridge which inspired the main theme and pattern of my poem” (Weber 334). It was the recognition of such brotherhood of spirit (confirmed in his friendship with Alfred Stieglitz, Waldo Frank and Jean Toomer) that made Crane believe in a latent spiritual order of modern America (“an America still in the making”, as Stieglitz called it). It gave Brooklyn Bridge relevance beyond being merely “an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches…”21. But when the completed cycle finally appeared in 1930, Crane had already lost faith in the very myth his poem propagated.
- 22 Hugh Ferriss, master of “the vertical sublime”, was an architect by professional training and work (...)
13Around the timeManhattan Transfer and The Great Gatsby were published and Hart Crane was still working on the first versions of The Bridge, the architectural designer Hugh Ferriss, a visionary of the city of the future22, made a charcoal drawing suggestively titled The Lure of the City. In the foreground, dark and sharply outlined against the radiant towers of the city, we can barely recognize the contours of a farm and the rolling hills of rural America. In the background yet central, we see the high rising metropolis, no doubt a vision of New York, transfigured, almost made transparent, by a corona of light originating from a source to the right of the picture where all shapes and outlines are dissolved in brightness. Facing that source of light and evidently blinded by it, is the figure of a man, bent forward and backward, rigid with wonder.
14Ferriss combines Stella’s exalted vision of the city with elements of American social history. The strong line that separates the dark land from the shining city seems to mark a division in time, separating an agrarian past from an urban future; the human figure, standing at that line —face forward—held at a historic moment of transition. However, an alternative reading seems also possible: although Ferriss’ utopian commitment to metropolis cannot be doubted, the Dreiserian title of this particular work establishes an almost moralist perspective; the city, in its geometric beauty and seductive power, suspended in light, is mere dream and chimera, at once transcendent and illusory, a splendid surface without substance.
15Ferriss’ drawing is emblematic of the ambivalence surrounding “the city as ideal text” since its promise of fulfillment eventually proved deceptive and spiritually empty. This dark side of the urban sublime Stieglitz, Stella and Crane had interpreted as the painful precondition of their vision (“only in darkness is thy shadow clear”, Crane had written in his “Proem”). For them, the ideal was still latent: the artist had to bring it out from within or behind the shallow surface of the real. But in many representations of New York in the mid-twenties and after the discordant elements of the urban sublime could not be symbolically reconciled in that fashion. In his collection of New York stories, The Color of a Great City (1912), Theodore Dreiser—who, in Sister Carrie, had mythologized metropolis as a new urban “West”—now sees its original promise betrayed, the city’s openness turned into a closed system, marked by the rules and rigid social structures of corporate capitalism. In Manhattan Transfer, surely the most brilliant American city novel, Dos Passos represents the city as an artificial world, as a closed and mechanized environment, as a giant machine processing its daily influx of human raw material into a standardized product. To live in Manhattan meant either to submit to the economic, social and sensuous pressures of the city or to be discarded as part of its daily garbage. Dos Passos’ protagonists only have the choice of either to leave it or be crushed by it.
16And yet, even if Dos Passos thoroughly destroys the promise of the first glance (the splendor of the city as seen from above or afar), he nevertheless invests his own creative energy in the artificial city of his text: in his own city of words which he puts together from the growing arsenal of urban signs: advertisements, headlines, popular songs—“a city of scrambled alphabets”. While Jimmy Herf eventually leaves New York without apparent destination, his creator achieves control over the overwhelming presence of metropolis via formal abstraction: through strategies of collage and montage, through his “symphonic design” which allows him to represent the big city as a fragmented multiverse of images, sounds, and voices—yet also as a totality in all its fragmentation. He is thus able to transform its destructive energies into the liberating energies of his aesthetic construct. Dos Passos’ book thrives on the dynamics and the technological wonders of urban civilization without granting it the utopian potential that Crane or Stella had bestowed on it.
- 23 Born in Egypt, Louis Guglielmi came to the U.S. in 1914. During the 1930s he developed what was th (...)
17Together with Stella’s “The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted” and Hart Crane’s The Bridge (as well as the New York photographs of Alfred Stieglitz), Manhattan Transfer is a center piece in an American modernist vision of the “urban sublime” at the same time that it anticipates its eventual collapse—a collapse that Fitzgerald in “My Lost City” (1932) and, six years later, the surrealist painter O. Louis Guglielmi23 in his “Mental Landscape” (1938) would express in related and yet very different ways. Unlike Fitzgerald’s romantic elegy, Guglielmi’s painting is a radical debunking of Stella’s vision: the cables of Brooklyn Bridge which Stella as well as Crane had stylized into strings of a giant harp are torn; the figures in this surreal landscape of catastrophe and desolation are mechanical puppets whose mechanism, like the bridge itself, has been broken. What is left of Brooklyn Bridge opens towards an empty background from which the city’s skyline has been eliminated. On the ruins of the Bridge we see someone playing a harp—perhaps a deranged poet still caught in a mad celebration of the mythic Bridge (and City) that once was.
18“Mental Landscape” marks the end of the literary and artistic representation of the “city seen for the first time”—i.e. the vision of those who had approached the city’s wonderland from the countryside or from abroad. The protagonists of subsequent city novels are children of metropolis, marked by it, formed by it. They belong to that first New York according to E.B. White, that of the native born who take the city for granted. During the 1950s and after, the mythological city of the 1920s is thus again replaced by realist (or neo-realist) versions of New York as a realm of everyday experience—by modes of “regional” narration that had either preceded or accompanied the art of the urban sublime as a persistent counterpoint (displaced but never completely repressed by it).
- 24 “If the controlling metaphor for the description and artistic representation of the city in modern (...)
- 25 See Conrad, especially Chapter 15: “An Aleatory Island”. Although the waste that Rauschenberg and (...)
19Yet the rhetoric of the urban sublime does not altogether disappear: it is further abstracted, or ironically belittled, or transformed into different modes of sublimity. In painting, this can perhaps first be perceived in the pictures of Abstract Expressionism and of Pop Art where modernist abstractions of the dynamically sublime have become the play material for abstractions of a different kind24. Take, for instance, Franz Kline’s “Third Avenue” (1954)—a geometric design of rectangular lines done in black and white and in broad brush strokes—where, in contrast to Stella’s ecstatic paintings, abstraction has lost all visionary significance. Central alone is the formal abstraction of the design—which makes the title of the painting almost irrelevant. (Although we could, if we strained ourselves, still recognize certain representational elements.) In the case of Claes Oldenburg’s “Upside Down City” (1962), the appeal to the viewer is essentially a playful one: evidently Oldenburg’s collage parodically evokes the hallowed New York skyline (upside down) at the same time that it foregrounds its material – textile waste (painted stockings filled with paper) that Oldenburg possibly collected in the street or took from his own throwaways. This combination of playful abstraction with the materiality of the discarded, together with the arbitrary collage of randomly collected waste material, is characteristic of Pop Art in general. (According to Peter Conrad, Robert Rauschenberg collected the material for his collages within strictly defined, yet always changing areas of the city25.) We find literary equivalents of this in Donald Barthelme’s abstractly playful narratives of New York—in Snow White, and especially in the stories of City Life where the high-rising glass building that the unnamed hero of “Glass Mountain” is to climb in order to redeem his princess is located precisely at the corner of 13th Street and 8th Avenue. Or we may think of Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985) and its mysterious design of labyrinthine mise-en-abîmes and textual interlockings in which protagonist and reader become trapped. Thus Stillman’s seemingly aimless wandering through the Upper West Side reveal, as Quinn believes, a pattern that he reads as “Tower of Babel”. Stillman’s excursions are in turn duplicated by Quinn and lead him in an even wider loop from the Upper West Side down Broadway to the World Trade Center, from there east to the Lower East Side and back up to where he started. While Stillman arbitrarily collects city waste, Quinn collects images of human waste—waste he himself turns into before finally and mysteriously disappearing from the novel completely.
- 26 See Certeau.
- 27 Berressem, 110-111. His quote from de Certeau’s essay is translated from a German version of de Ce (...)
20Auster’s book is reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s earlier essay “Walking in the City” which begins with a panoramic, yet abstractly-elevated view of the city from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center and subsequently sets this totalizing perspective from above against the narrower, yet sensuously concrete view gained when walking horizontally through the labyrinth of the city, the horizontal perspective filling empty and abstract spaces with names, memories and stories: “Stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris”26. “As this elevated position provides the illusion of ‘mak[ing] the complexity of the city readable and chang[ing] its opaque mobility into a clear text,’ it can still evoke a transcendental subject. One can in fact read the subject’s gradual descent into the city as a symbol or allegory of its growing textualization”, Hanjo Berressem writes in a comment on de Certeau’s essay. “The result is a ‘subject of the city’ […] caught in a discursive labyrinth which it produces, but which it cannot decipher…”27. In Auster’s novel the ordering view from above is absent. Yet the consciousness of a lost or absent order – of a language that would again tie the word to its lost referent—is inscribed in the protagonist’s (and his many doubles’) aimless search for names and stories.
- 28 See Hassan.
- 29 See Ickstadt, “Trash and Collage: The City in Post-Modern American Fiction”, and my forthcoming “R (...)
- 30 On Auster and postmodern city representations in literature and the arts, also see Berressem and C (...)
21In other words, the transcendent dynamic city of the modernists, although ideologically deconstructed, experienced several metamorphoses in the post-modern period. This was Ihab Hassan’s argument at the beginning of the eighties when he wrote of the “dematerialization of the city in contemporary fiction”28. It was not only that the representation of the city had become increasingly abstract (by emphasizing its textual status or by staging itself explicitly as textual construction, e.g. in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities)—but that the non-fictional city itself had now become recognizably part of a metropolitan sign system that once contained and transcended it29. Both these developments had announced themselves already in Dos Passos’ representation of New York. In novels like John McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge (1974) and Paul Auster’s City of Glass or Moon Palace (1989)30, and especially in several novels by Don DeLillo, New York, although concretely present as geographic space and sensuous experience, is also abstracted as the visible sign of invisible forces that shape it and encompass it.
22In DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), the protagonist’s city memories are childhood memories of ethnic neighbourhood in the 1950s: of street gangs and their various rites of initiations. When Underworld, in its last chapter, moves back into the 1990s, it also makes clear what has replaced the city: systems of urban and trans-urban signs, networks of communication, electronic circuits with their massive flow of information—for all of these the city has become mere metaphor. For the protagonist of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), the “arrowed towers” of an older urban iconography have lost all relevance since they have long been replaced by the awesome fluidity of a digital world. The actual collapse of the highest of these towers on September 11, 2001 confirmed, on the one hand, their symbolic obsolescence. On the other, it catastrophically and traumatically realized the city’s latent fears that E.B. White had expressed, in uncanny anticipation, as early as 1949:
The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. (54)
- 31 See Lenz, Ulfers and Dallmann, eds. “Introduction”, 11; Lenz, Löbbermann and Magister, eds.; and L (...)
- 32 Lenz, “Literary Transfigurations of Intercultural Translations: New EthniCities and Migratory Topo (...)
- 33 One could perhaps argue that the shift from immigrant to migrant, from the locally rooted to the t (...)
23Critics of contemporary urban fiction maintain that the literary and artistic representations of New York (or the city in general) have changed during the last two decades of the century together with the function of the city itself. Drawing on new sociological and anthropological studies of metropolitan culture, Guenter Lenz has recently argued that “[g]lobalization has transformed a number of urban centers throughout the world into so-called ‘global cities’”. Some of these “have assumed such world-wide importance that they no longer are of the nation state they are located in”31. In doing so he introduces a postcolonial and transnational perspective into a discussion of urban literature that had previously been focused on nation and/or place: “in the metropolitan or global cities of today we do not have one unified culture nor simply a diversity of separate subcultures, but a force-field of cultural flows (Ulf Hannerz), of the (re-)production of meanings and social practices, of a plurality of cultures that have their dynamics in their ‘fluidity, [their] fusion, [their] negotiation’”32. Whether this new element has changed New York fiction once and for all remains to be seen, but it has certainly extended its range, added a new dimension to it. Next to variations of the urban sublime and the regionally or ethnically rooted model of New York writing there is the new fictional space of a metropolitan in-between: of the migratory and transitional that is experienced locally as well as globally33.
24One of Lenz’s examples is Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992)—a family history spanning the experience of three generations and weaving its narrative between the experienced and the dreamed (or imagined) “real”, between two languages (Spanish and English), between the different perspectives of several family members as well as between Havana and New York. Central is the perspective of Celia del Pino, the grandmother, rooted in Cuba and eventually dying there, whose story opens and closes the novel. Of her three children, the oldest, Lourdes, emigrates with her husband and her two-year old daughter Pilar to Brooklyn where she opens a bakery in a neighborhood whose ethnic composure is in a constant process of change (from Jewish to Black to Latino). Neither Lourdes nor Pilar can rest in their newly acquired “American” identity. Although, unlike her mother, Lourdes has become vehemently anti-Castro and patriotically American, she still dreams of Cuba; while Pilar—who, like her mother before her, turns against her mother—has left Brooklyn to study art at Barnard and lives on the Upper West Side. Feeling deeply connected with her grandmother, she finally persuades Lourdes to visit Celia and her/their Cuban “home”. “Dreaming in Cuban”, Lenz writes, “enacts a clash of languages, politics, cultural traditions, religions, spiritualities. It again and again asks the questions, What is ‘home’? What is cultural ‘identity’? What does ‘community’ mean?” (418). Obviously, the answer to these questions can neither be ‘here’ nor ‘there’: Although, as in many Hispano-American narratives, the grandmother (“abuela”) is the source and carrier of cultural tradition, and reconnecting with her, therefore, part of a ritualistic re-establishment of psychic balance, Pilar is finally certain where to go: “I’m afraid to lose all this, to lose Abuela Celia again. But sooner or later I’d have to return to New York. I know now it’s where I belong—not instead of here but more than here” (236).
- 34 Mukherjee was born and educated in Calcutta, then studied in the U.S. before she settled first in (...)
- 35 The phrase is taken from Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, 140.
- 36 In Mukherjee’s Jasmine and Desirable Daughters, it is in Jackson Heights (in Queens) where an Indi (...)
25Similar patterns of cultural in-betweenness dominate the narratives of other (im)migrant writers such as Bharati Mukherjee or Kiran Desai34. Desai’s first novel, The Inheritance of Loss (2006)—a title that would also fit García’s book—is centered in India but also tells the story of Biju whom his father sends to America to make his fortune and who ends up in New York, that “archipelago of ghettos seething with aliens”35. Living in some abject place in Harlem, he finds temporal work in dirty and rat-infested Indian restaurants between downtown and uptown Manhattan, between the financial district, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights36. As one of thousands of migrants—employed and exploited because of their illegal status—he desperately hopes to acquire an ever elusive green card. When these hopes come to nothing, he begins dreaming of India until he finally returns home where he is robbed by a band of local insurgents and loses the little money he had managed to save during three long years of work in America. At the end, he meets his father again who has himself suffered from one of India’s violent regional conflicts—both empty-handed and now free of illusions but also with nowhere else to go.
26Biju, who thought himself to be “the luckiest boy in the whole wide world” when he received a visa to the U.S., fails in the cultural in-between which García’s Pilar seems to be able to master: humiliated by the arrogant indifference of his American clientele as well as by his Indian employers’ exploiting him in the name of the American Dream, he yearns for a cultural purity – the purity of “home”, the clarity of one culture—that “America” cannot provide. He refuses the virtuoso role-play of his flexible African friend Sayeed as well as the cultural confusion of his beef-eating Indian employers and their socially ambitious and fast adjusting families. Betrayed by a dream of America as much as by a dream of India, he suffers a double inheritance of loss.
- 37 It is tempting to label this division according to either ethnicity or gender since the authors of (...)
- 38 On the paranoid structures and strategies of contemporary city fiction, see Dallmann 2009 as well (...)
- 39 Ellis describes, in horrifying close-up and slow motion, the impact of several terrorist explosion (...)
27Although it would be foolish to deny the “migratory topographies” that Lenz has discovered in contemporary New York fictions, it would be equally foolish to ignore the continuing bifurcation in New York writing which I have associated earlier with the regional or realistic, on the one hand, and with the abstract geographies of postmodern versions of the urban sublime, on the other37. From Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge (1974) on, the latter tradition has connected the increasing semiotization of metropolitan life—the emptying out of the ‘real’ into the filmed and televised—with conspirational games and terrorist plots38. In Players (1977) and later in Mao II (1991), Don DeLillo created urban landscapes of empty surface—the reign of the Image, the “narcissistic heart of the West” (DeLillo) that makes terrorism thrive—on a local as well as on a global scale (New York, London, Beirut). Perhaps the most brilliant, if also the most irritating, version of such neo-realist surface writing, Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama (1998), moves, along the flight lines of a transatlantic metropolitan/cosmopolitan triangle, between the fashionable districts of Manhattan (Greenwich Village, Soho, Tribeca), London (Notting Hill) and Paris. In its inextricable blending of reality and film, of “real” and imag(in)ed experience, it mixes the two-dimensional spectacle-world of fame and fashion, the glitter and glamour of its life-style, its excessively transgressive (and yet exceedingly casual) games of drugs and sex with a gruesomely detailed pornography of terrorist destruction39.
- 40 The heroine Lila Mae Watson seems in fact modeled on Pynchon’s heroine in The Crying of Lot 49, Oe (...)
- 41 Several precise locations are given such as the Intuitionist House, 117 Second Avenue, on the Lowe (...)
28However, I prefer to conclude this essay with the discussion of an author who straddles the dividing line of the two modes of twentieth-century New York writing whose development I have tried to sketch. The Intuitionist (1999), the first novel of the African American writer Colson Whitehead, seems to combine a tradition of neighborhood-rooted ethnic writing with a return to the rhetoric of the modernist urban sublime—except that it ironically subverts the utopian vision of “unlimited verticality” by connecting it with an as yet unfulfilled promise of social “elevation”. Whitehead’s novel has little in common with the family- and community-embedded narratives of ethnic writers like García. Rather it is an interesting mix not only of historical and utopian narrative conventions but also, like Auster’s or Pynchon’s city novels, of motives and patterns of detective fiction40. Although we may safely assume that “the most famous city in the world” in which the plot of the novel unfolds is in fact New York41, it remains the unnamed urban center of a collective modernizing effort where complex race relations have to be read and unraveled by the black heroine, Lila Mae Watson, one of several “detective-philosophers of Vertical Transport”. She is not only the first black female inspector of the city’s elevator system but also set on discovering the mysterious “black box” (the blueprint for the perfect elevator of the future). In addition, Lila Mae—the token black woman on the rise—may be caught in a conspiracy whose target is the city’s system of social elevation: a new and sophisticated elevator that she had last inspected has crashed in an impossible freefall from one of the top floors of the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. (Its name—that of a famous slave who taught herself to write —is another token gesture of the city’s administration toward an “increasingly vocal colored population”.) The time-frame of the novel is as unspecific as its local reference: the only historical date mentioned is that of Elisha Otis’ presentation of the first elevator at New York’s Crystal Palace exhibition in 1853. It is the foundational event of the city’s “vertical revolution” without which the skyscraper and thus New York’s skyline—that centerpiece of modern metropolitan iconography—would not have been possible. The network of mystery and intrigue that Lila Mae is trying to disentangle evidently concerns the future: the possibility of a “second elevation”, of higher and more perfect cities.
29Central is the struggle between the Empiricists and the Intuitionists, which is a conflict of philosophies (since they imply fundamentally different attitudes toward elevation and elevator inspection), but also of politics since both have their institutional underpinnings and a claim to power. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist trying to stay aloof from a political game that serves essentially white interests and in which both sides attempt to use blacks for their own purpose. It is a game that has background players who use the struggles between Empiricists and Intuitionists only as a front: the competing elevator industries “Arbo” and “United” aiming to gain control over the future by finding the mysterious black box whose blueprint is supposed to be among the papers James Fulton left after his death. Fulton is the Guru of the Intuitionists and his Theoretical Elevators, Volumes I and II, their Holy Bible—even though the first volume with its “arcane investigations of the mechanism” of elevation and its rhetoric of modernizing verticality also appeals to the party of Empiricists. As Lila Mae gradually finds out, Fulton was a “black” man passing for white who wrote his books as a “joke” on the white establishment that, believing him white, took it for truth. “White people’s reality is built on what things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism” (239). Therefore, in declaring that “there is a world behind the world we see”, he not only proclaimed an ideological principle of Intuitionism but also established, implicitly, a black perspective. “There was no way”, Lila Mae ruminates, that “he believed in transcendence. His race kept him earthbound, like the stranded citizens before Otis invented his safety elevator” (240).
- 42 “What her discipline and Empiricism have in common: they cannot account for the catastrophic accid (...)
30Finding her way through plots and conspiracies, she discovers neighborhoods without elevators, the places that “verticality indicts, the passed-over flatlands” (185). She also comes to question her own plot-bound imagination when she understands that the impossible freefall crash of Elevator Eleven was not part of a conspiracy against her but truly, and against all odds, an accident she had been unable to anticipate42. Extricating herself “from their order of things”, she yet continues to believe in Fulton’s mysticism of elevation as proclaimed in Vol. II of his theory where he sees elevators not as mechanized objects but as sentient subjects, as the Other of communication. For him elevation has become communication, “Intuitionism is communication. That simple. Communication with what is not-you” (241). Fulton thus remains the prophet of an order still to come—of an elevation that was neither “relentlessly vertical” nor a false promise of social rise (that motor of Lila Mae’s earlier ambition to excel) but vaguely spiritual, horizontally inclusive of Otherness:
Sometimes in her room she thinks about the accident and its message. Much of what happened would have happened anyway, but it warms her to know that the perfect elevator reached out to her and told her she was of its world. That she was a citizen of the city to come and that the frail devices she had devoted her life to were weak and would all fall one day like Number Eleven. […] She returns to the work. She will make the necessary adjustments. It will come. She is never wrong. It’s her intuition. (255)
- 43 It also contains a history of techniques as well as theories and mythologies of elevation and elev (...)
- 44 In an essay on the redevelopment of Brooklyn, Whitehead writes in a similar vein: “What do I know (...)
31The novel is a racial and political allegory43—a funny but also a bitingly satiric questioning of the rhetoric of modern verticality (of its gains and losses) that yet maintains some faith in “elevation”. This becomes even more evident in Whitehead’s homage to his native city, The Colossus of New York (2003), a book that seems to reassert E.B. White’s eulogy of more than fifty years earlier. If White ends his homage to New York with a somber warning of its potential destructibility, Whitehead inversely reconfirms the city’s vital presence after such a traumatic experience has indeed occurred—except that the event is never mentioned, only implied in the sensuous and elegiac evocation of a city that in its constant and painful changes44 always stays, colossally, the same:
Our old buildings still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time. They are part of the city we carry around. It is hard to imagine that something will take their place, but at this very moment the people with the right credentials are considering how to fill the craters. The cement trucks will roll up and spin their bellies, the jackhammers will rattle, and after a while the postcards of the new skyline will be available for purchase. (10)
- 45 When the well-known metropolitan wonders are acknowledged, it is done from the knowledge of their (...)
32Like White’s Here Is New York, Whitehead’s book is not fiction. But it is not a series of essays either; rather a collage of vignettes, prose poems, or Dos Passos-like “camera eyes” in thirteen sections (each narrated from a point of view marked by a different pronoun)—sections that wind their way through and around the city: below ground, above ground, on walks through different neighborhoods, up Broadway, through Central Park, or across Brooklyn Bridge. In its multifaceted yet all-embracing gesture, Whitehead’s Colossus seems to go back —consolingly and reassuringly—to a lost tradition of city confidence. But it quotes the language of the urban sublime that is part of its title only with ironic distance45. If it is concerned with sublimity at all, it is that of the urban Everyday—that commonness of sight and habit experienced collectively by a multitude of people who yet create New York individually in their consciousness.