views updated


Perhaps no society in the history of the world has ever urbanized as rapidly as the United States did in the nineteenth century. In 1820 New York was a small port city on the margins of European culture. Although it was America's largest city, it had a population of only 123,706 in the U.S. census taken in that year. London, by contrast, had 1.38 million inhabitants in the 1821 census. By 1870 New York and Brooklyn combined had a population of nearly 1.4 million. Within the living memory of many of its residents, the city had increased in size tenfold. The impact of urbanization in America was not confined to New York. Although New York was the only American city with more than 100,000 inhabitants in the 1820 census, the 1870 census listed fourteen American cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Between 1820 and 1870, the proportion of the American population living in areas designated as "urban" by the U.S. Census Bureau grew from 7.2 percent to 25.7 percent.

Rapid and extensive urbanization was often referred to as the most characteristic feature of the nineteenth century. In all of the countries of the industrializing West, urbanization had a significant impact on literature and culture, as is evident in the urban styles and subjects of the novels of Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac, the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, and the art of the impressionists. While American urbanization and its cultural responses need to be understood within this international context, several factors made the impact of urbanization in America unique. The sheer extent of American urbanization was especially dramatic because of the scale of immigration to America and the dynamism of the American economy. The social and cultural impact of urbanization was magnified in America by the fact that until the middle of the nineteenth century, there had simply not been any large American cities. London and Paris also grew by a considerable amount in the nineteenth century, but they had been large cities for centuries and they had well-established cultures for representing and interpreting urban life. In America the experience of great crowds and of massive, diverse, and dynamic urban environments was a novelty and it was a novelty that called into question some of the most common assumptions about the identity of the United States.


From the Age of Exploration onward the continents of America were often represented as offering Europeans a chance to make a fresh start in a new, green world: to establish a new Eden, or a version of the pastoral ideal of Arcadia. In the early history of the United States this ideal was influential in the form it had been given by writers such as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and Hector St. John de Crèvecouer (1735–1813), who believed that the United States had a mission to demonstrate to the world that it was possible to build a great civilization without large cities. Jefferson had written that honest and democratic government could only thrive in a nation of small towns and independent farmers. Democratic government, he believed, would be corrupted by the development of large cities like those he had seen in Europe. Such ideas remained influential in the United States long after it was obvious that the new nation could not and would not thrive without populous centers of industry and commerce. The influence of Jeffersonian antiurbanism is clearly evident in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and the other transcendentalists, who were also influenced by the antiurban ideas of European Romanticism, which stressed the importance of living as closely as possible to the influences of nature. In such works as Thoreau's Walden (1854) and the essays of Emerson, the urbanization of America was represented as an established fact that needed to be resisted by consciousness and culture.

For the transcendentalists the powerful standardizing effects of urban life and institutions threatened the independence and individualism that should ideally be characteristic of American life. The artificiality of urban environments and mores and the division of labor characteristic of urbanized societies threatened the personal authenticity and connection with the natural world that were also understood as essential American ideals. Following upon similar assertions by European Romantics including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Emerson, Thoreau, and like-minded intellectuals represented urban life as a danger to the health and independence of the imagination. Overvaluing the sensational, rooted in abstractions, and divorced from nature, urban culture, in their view, would only produce diseased and corrupted works of literature and art.

In addition to the intellectual antiurban tradition, a popular moralistic antiurban tradition took root in

Population in select U.S. cities, 1820–1870
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census.
New Orleans27,17646,082102,193116,375168,675191,418
New York123,706202,589312,710515,547813,669942,292
Washington, D.C.12,24718,82623,36440,00161,122109,199
Total U.S. population9,638,45312,866,02017,069,45323,191,87631,443,32139,818,449

early-nineteenth-century America. Temperance novels, crime narratives, sensationalist broadsheets, and "city-mysteries" novels like George Lippard's Quaker City (1844–1845), Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854), and Edward Zane Carroll Judson's The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1849) represented New York and Philadelphia as contemporary versions of Babylon or Sodom. Influenced by popular European works like Eugène Sue's The Mysteries of Paris (1842–1843) and G. M. W. Reynolds's The Mysteries of London (1844–1856), American authors understood that the appalling conditions of the urban poor and the dangerous yet fascinating labyrinth in which they lived offered a perfect backdrop for gothic and sentimental narratives. Although these urban gothic works often presented themselves as efforts to improve public health and morals, and although some were undoubtedly sincere in this intention, they did not fail to provide audiences with an entertaining atmosphere of fear and shock. Their considerable popularity suggests that their appeal may have had less to do with their moral content than with the prurient fascination American audiences had with urban squalor and the possibilities of losing or violating female chastity. Although the popular tradition of urban moralism or sensationalism produced little of lasting literary value, it was instrumental in strengthening the widespread American idea that the new and rapidly growing American cities were confusing and threatening environments, violations of the ideal purity of the American landscape and personality.


While many Americans were hostile to urbanization, others were fascinated by what they saw of the growth of the American cities and by what they read of London and Paris. A tradition of American urbanism began to develop in the 1820s as the number of American magazines grew as rapidly as the populations of American cities. Travelers' accounts of the great cities of Europe were an important staple of these magazines and in the best of these, by such authors as Washington Irving (1783–1859) and Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867), Americans began to develop a tradition of representing cities favorably. The urbane appreciations of London and Paris written by Irving and Willis were modeled on a kind of writing that was familiar to Americans from the popular essays of Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and other writers in the London periodical press, which was widely read in America. By the 1830s Willis and other New York writers, many of them associated with the most influential American magazine of its time, the Knickerbocker, would claim that New York had begun to rival London and Paris as a cosmopolitan center.

Writing in the popular English and French magazine tradition of the flaneur (or man-about-town), Irving, Willis, and the rest of the "Knickerbocker" authors offered sketches of New York from the perspective of a strolling or panoramic spectator who demonstrated the pleasures of random encounters and who offered the reassuring fantasy that the urban crowd consisted of amusing types who could be read in a single glance. The culture of the flaneur reached its peak in New York between 1835 and 1850 when it engaged the talents of many journalists, including Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) and the young Walt Whitman (1819–1892) of the New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In the 1840s and 1850s the urban spectatorial tradition produced a considerable number of highly popular panorama books, which represented cities in a style that owed a great deal not only to the magazine traditions but also to the popularity, at this time, of panoramas and dioramas of cities. In the best of these works, such as E. Porter Belden's New York: Past, Present, and Future (1849), George G. Foster's New York by Gas-light (1850), and Cornelius Mathews's A Pen and Ink Panorama of New York (1853), American authors followed the lead of European panoramists by offering vistas and slices of life in cities, with typologies of crowds and glimpses of what might be going on under the roofs of the metropolis. The encyclopedic ambitions of the panorama books allowed them to use a particularly broad array of tones and effects, offering readers a mixture of the amusing city of the flaneur and the sordid spectacle of the city-mysteries.


Whether positive, negative, or ambivalent, most American writing about cities in the middle of the nineteenth century was highly derivative of European models. Most of it was predictable and uncomplicated as well, as authors in the marketplace represented cities according to well-established conventions and archetypes. There were, however, a few striking and important examples of originality and complexity in this period. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman attempted in their writings to find a complex way of representing the ambivalent fascination they and other Americans had with the new reality of large cities.

Poe's most significant contribution to the literature of urbanization was his development of the urban detective story. In three stories written in the early 1840s, "The Man of the Crowd" (1840), "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), Poe offered vivid images of the mysterious and illegible metropolis readers would have known from journalistic sketches and from crime and mystery narratives. Poe's most original contribution was to develop, out of the conventional image of the flaneur, a new detached observer of urban life who was able to see what no others could see, read what no others could read, and solve what no others could solve. Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, had the implausible interpretive powers of the flaneur, but he read, not the amusingly benign city of the flaneur, but the terrifying city of the sensationalist mysteries and crime narratives. Inventing the detective, Poe offered an archetypal urban consciousness who was to have an enormous significance in the future as an urban literary type, largely because of the immense popularity of Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Poe's imitator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The detective was a brilliant invention because he made possible an exciting exposure to the terrors of the urban abyss while providing a reassuring mechanism for reducing it to legibility.

Although Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) is not traditionally thought of as a writer concerned with urbanization, he offered compelling images of the opacity of urban life in several sketches and stories, the most important of which was "Wakefield" (1835). In The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne offered something more than this: a quintessentially American analysis of the impact of urban culture. In his study of the failure of a group of urbanites to establish a successful New Eden/Arcadia outside Boston Hawthorne tried to identify what it was about urban forms of consciousness, exemplified by the book's narrator, Miles Coverdale, and the main characters, that made it impossible for them to realize the Jeffersonian and Romantic ideals to which American antiurbanist intellectuals remained attached. Hawthorne offers an analysis of the way in which urban culture, with its spec-tatorial obsessions, theatricality, and narcissistic fads (such as mesmerism and utopianism), make it impossible for individuals to form the kinds of bonds and attachments that are necessary in a successful community.

Herman Melville (1819–1891) considered the impact of urbanization at several points in his work. His two most famous passages about the psychological dynamics of urban life are the opening chapter of Moby-Dick (1851), in which Melville creates a context for his epic by invoking the image of the sea-gazing inhabitants of Manhattan, dreaming of freedom from the constrictions of office-bound and apartment-bound urban life, and the long story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853). Melville's representation, in "Bartleby," of the passive revolt of a Wall Street office clerk against the expectations of his employer has become one of the paradigmatic images of the impact of urban society on the effort to maintain a coherent and independent self. In its portrayal of the employer/narrator's moral confusion, "Bartleby" also raises the question of how it is possible to determine moral imperatives and responsibilities in a complex urban world. In several other novels, notably White-Jacket (1850), Redburn (1849), and Pierre (1852), Melville also engaged with urbanization. Adopting the premises and techniques of popular literature that represented the modern city as a labyrinth, Melville uses the city in these works as a metaphor for the impenetrable complexity of social and psychological experience. Although Melville never attempted to develop a consistent view or analysis of urban life, he was inventive and original in the way in which he uses the imagery of city life for purposes that vary from novel to novel or story to story.

The most significant, unique, and original American literary effort to respond to urbanization in the period from 1820 to 1870 is to be found in the poetry of Walt Whitman. In many of Whitman's poems, most notably sections of "Song of Myself " (1855), "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856), "Mannahatta" (1860), "A Broadway Pageant" (1860), and several poems in the Calamus series (1860), Whitman tried to develop a new kind of poetry, a poetry that was specifically and quintessentially urban, that would with its epic catalogs and moments of panoramic ecstasy be particularly suited to the representation of the urban crowd and the immensity and diversity of urban objects. In the best of his urban poems, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman expanded the spectatorial consciousness with which he was familiar from journalistic models, and by adding a fuller emotional and philosophical dimension, as well as an awareness of human life in the context of time, he explored the way in which the urban crowd and urban objects could become as important to an urban poet as natural objects had been to Wordsworth and the Romantics. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and other urban poems Whitman offered fascinating suggestions about the possibility of a specifically urban form of spirituality and a specifically urban form of "adhesive" love that could be the emotional foundation of a democratic society. Whitman's celebration of the city is inseparable from his celebration of democracy. Writing against the Jeffersonian and Romantic traditions of antiurbanism, Whitman suggested that the true destiny of America was not to develop a civilization without cities. America, in his view, should fulfill its historical destiny by developing a culture that could celebrate the spirit of the masses and welcome the dynamism of urban modernity.

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick opens with a powerful image of the constraints of urban life.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, edited by Harrison Hayford, Herschel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988), p. 3.

Although America did not produce significant contributions to the developing traditions of urban realism and naturalism until later in the century, Rebecca Harding Davis's novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861) deserves mention as an anticipation of this important future tradition in American literature. Influenced by recent European novels, like Dickens's Hard Times (1854), that had begun to treat the industrial city as a literary subject, Life in the Iron Mills deals with the aspirations and artistic expression of a millworker imprisoned for theft. It goes beyond the conventions of urban exposé moralism to try to represent the impact that the social conditions of nineteenth-century American industrialization might have had upon the consciousness and the imagination of the urban working class. Set in a Virginia mill town, Life in the Iron Mills does not address urbanization itself, but it is an early and significant treatment of the impact of the industrialization that is central to the general issue of the urbanization of nineteenth-century America.


Rapid and extensive urbanization was one of the most significant features of life in mid-nineteenth-century America. American writers produced a diversity of responses to urbanization as they assimilated European influences and attempted to represent their own understanding of the cultural and psychological impact of cities on American life. Although city life would not become one of the most prominent themes in American literature until after 1870, the representation of urban life in American literature before 1870 illustrates the complexities and difficulties involved in reconciling the new American experience of urban life with the widespread belief that such a life was antithetical to American ideals of social existence. By the middle of the nineteenth century it had become clear that the Jeffersonian dream of America as a civilization without cities was no longer plausible. The rich and distinctive tradition of American writing about city life had been launched. At the same time, American traditions of antipathy toward urban life were still entrenched. The ambivalence toward the city that one finds in the literature of the mid-nineteenth century may still be found in American culture and the products of the earliest encounter of American writers with the city are still of considerable historical interest. The best of this work, notably the stories and novels of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville and the poetry of Whitman, is an important part of the ongoing international discussion of the effect of urbanization upon the imagination.

Most poetry in the nineteenth century represented the city as a place that threatened the creative imagination. In poems such as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Walt Whitman tried to invent a poetry that could celebrate and draw inspiration from cities.

Numberless crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies;

Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,

The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas,

The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model'd;

The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business—the houses of business of the ship-merchants, and money-brokers—the river-streets;

Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week; . . .

The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form'd, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes;

Trottoirs throng'd—vehicles—Broadway—the women—the shops and shows, The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating;

A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men;

The free city! No slaves! No owners of slaves!

The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!

The city nested in bays! my city! . . ."

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Philadelphia: David McKay, c. 1900).

See alsoAgrarianism; "Bartleby, the Scrivener"; The Blithedale Romance;Individualism and Community; Knickerbocker Writers; Leaves of Grass;Life in the Iron Mills;Sensational Fiction; Transcendentalism


Secondary Works

Bender, Thomas. Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas andInstitutions in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Brand, Dana. The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Kelley, Wyn. Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form inNineteenth-Century New York. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Machor, James L. Pastoral Cities: Urban Ideals and theSymbolic Landscape of America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and thePastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1956.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: TheSubversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

White, Morton, and Lucia White. The Intellectual versus theCity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Dana Brand