- 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
Yet just as Abraham Lincoln was proud of having a slow, careful countryman’s mind, so Poe would have denied that his extraordinary mind owed anything to the cities in which he found his material. In the same spirit, John Adams from once rural Quincy, his gifted son John Quincy, and his even more gifted great-grandson Henry, all hated Boston and thought of the financial district on State Street as their antithesis. Herman Melville, born in New York, and forced to spend the last twenty-five years of his life as a customs inspector on the docks, hated New York as a symbol of his merchant father’s bankruptcy and of his own worldly failure as an author. In a poem about the Civil War, when the worst insurrection in American history broke out in New York as a protest against the Draft Act, Melville imagined himself standing on the rooftop of his house on East Twenty-sixth Street listening to the roar of the mob and despising it:
Whitman found himself by finding the city to be the great human stage. Unlike earlier and later antagonists of the city, who feared the masses, Whitman saw them as a boundless human fellowship, a wonderful spectacle, the great school of ambition. The masses, already visible in New York’s population of over a million, were the prime evidence Whitman needed to ground his gospel of American democracy as “comradeship.” Formerly a schoolteacher, printer, carpenter, a failure at many occupations who was born into a family of failures and psychic cripples, Whitman felt that the big anonymous city crowd had made it possible for him to rise out of it.
Whitman found the model and form of Leaves of Grass , the one book he wrote all his life, in the flux and mass of the city—he even compared his book to a city. He never reached his countrymen during his lifetime, and the Gilded Age took the foam off his enthusiasm for democracy, but in decline he could still write, “I can hardly tell why, but feel very positively that if anything can justify my revolutionary attempts & utterances, it is such ensemble —like a great city to modern civilization & a whole combined clustering paradoxical unity, a man, a woman.”
Whitman was that “paradoxical unity, a man, a woman.” His powerful and many-sided sexuality gave him friends that only a great city can provide; his constant expectation of love from some stranger in the street, on the ferryboat, even his future reader—“I stop somewhere waiting for you”—made stray intimacies in the city as sweet to him as they were repellent to most Americans.