Fear Of The City 1783 To 1983


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:

… Balefully glares red Arson—there—and there. The Town is taken by its rats—ship-rats And rats of the wharves. All ami charms And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe— Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve, And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.

BEFORE THE Civil War there was just one exception among the great American writers to the general fear and resentment of the city. Whitman was to be prophetic of the importance of New York as a capital of many races and peoples and of the city as a prime subject in modern American writing. Whitman found himself as man and poet by identifying with New York. None of the gifted writers born and bred in New York—not Melville or Henry James or Edith Wharton—was to make of the city such an expression of personal liberation, such a glowing and extended fable of the possibilities released by democracy. “Old New York,” as Edith Wharton called it (a patriciate that Melville could have belonged to among the Rhinelanders and Schuylers if his father had not failed in business), still speaks in Melville’s rage against the largely Irish mob burning and looting in 1863. But Whitman, his exact contemporary, did not despair of the city’s often lawless democracy when he helped put the first edition of Leaves of Grass into type in a shop off Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.

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.

One’s self I sing, a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

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.