- Historic Sites
Fear Of The City 1783 To 1983
The city has been a lure for millions, but most of the great American minds have been appalled by its excesses. Here an eminent observer, who knows firsthand the city’s threat, surveys the subject.
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
A few years later Emerson had a more complicated view of his society. The Sage of Concord was no farmer (Thoreau was his handyman) and did riot particularly think the farmers in his neighborhood were the seat of all virtue. They were just of the earth, earthy. But believing in nothing so much as solitude, his right to solitude, his freedom only when alone to commune with Nature and his own soul (“Alone is wisdom. Alone is happiness.”), Emerson found the slightest group to be an obstruction to the perfect life.
There is an unintentionally funny account in Emerson’s journal for 1840 of just how irritating he found his fellow idealists. There was a gathering in some hotel—presumably in Boston, but one Emerson likened to New York’s Astor House—to discuss the “new Social Plans” for the Brook Farm commune: “And not once could I be inflamed, but sat aloof and thoughtless; my voice faltered and fell. It was not the cave of persecution which is the palace of spiritual power, but only a room in the Astor House hired for the Transcendentalists.… To join this body would be to traverse all my long trumpeted theory, and the instinct which spoke from it, that one man is a counterpoise to a city—that a man is stronger than a city, that his solitude is more prevalent and beneficent than the concert of crowds.”
Emerson finally agreed to help found Brook Farm but he could not have lived there. Hawthorne tried it for a while and turned his experiences into the wry novel The Blithedale Romance . Hawthorne was another Yankee grumpily insisting on his right to be alone but he did not take himself so seriously; he was a novelist and fascinated by the human comedy. A twentieth-century admirer of Emerson, John Jay Chapman, admitted that you can learn more from an Italian opera than from all the works of Emerson; in Italian opera there are always two sexes.
But Emerson is certainly impressive, bringing us back to the now forgotten meaning of “self-reliance” when he trumpets that “one man is a counterpoise to a city—that a man is stronger than a city.…” This was primary to many Americans in the nineteenth century and helped produce those great testaments to the individual spirit still found on the walls of American schoolrooms and libraries. Power is in the individual, not in numbers; in “soul,” not in matter or material conglomeration. And “soul” is found not in organized religion, which is an obedience to the past, but in the self-sufficient individual whose “reliance” is on his inborn connection, through Nature, with any God it pleases him to find in himself.
Jefferson knew what the city mob had done to break down ancient Rome as well as feudal France. America was a fresh start, “the world’s best hope,” and must therefore start without great cities.
On Election Day in Baltimore, Poe was found in a delirious condition. He seems to have been captured by a political gang that voted him around the town, after which he collapsed and died.
To which Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston and fated to die in Baltimore, could have replied that Thoreau had nothing to look at but his reflection in Waiden Pond. Poe would have agreed with his European disciple Baudelaire on the cultural sacredness of great cities. He would have enjoyed Karl Marx’s contempt for “rural idiocy.” Poe was a great imagination and our greatest critic; as an inventor of the detective story and a storyteller, he was as dependent on the violence and scandal of New York in the 1840s as a police reporter. “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” based on the actual murder of a New York shop assistant named Mary Rogers who was found dead in the Hudson after what is now believed to have been a botched abortion, was the first detective story in which an attempt was made to solve a real crime. Even the more than usual drunkenness that led to his death in Baltimore on Election Day of 1849 was typical of his connection with “low” urban life. He was found in a delirious condition near a saloon that had been used for a voting place. He seems to have been captured by a political gang that voted him around the town, after which he collapsed and died.