(return to New York essays)

Introduction: Rationalization and Excess

`New York, New York' designates the city of New York in the state of New York but has other meanings for those interested in the city as text. `New York, New York' suggests the repetitiveness of New York, its doubleness and its excessive, hyperbolic character. It is such an extraordinary city – from the top of the World Trade Center Michel de Certeau called it `the most immoderate of human texts' (1) – that saying its name just once, simply would not do. `New York' is almost the only proper adjective for New York. In similar vein E.L. Doctorow has the New York narrator of his 1994 novel, The Waterworks, remark: `We practiced excess. Excess in everything – pleasure, gaudy display, endless toil, and death. [...] A conspicuously self-satisfied class of new wealth and weak intellect was all aglitter in a setting of mass misery.' (2) Doctorow's novel is set in New York of the 1870s and the last part of the nineteenth century was when the repetitiveness, doublenesss and excessiveness became fully visible in New York and when writers and artists became caught up in these novel aspects of modernity. A few more introductory images and comments are in order, however, before returning to that end-of-century city, the forerunner of the more famous twentieth-century city of desire which Rem Koolhaas has so expertly deciphered in Delirious New York (1994). `The Metropolis', he concludes, `strives to reach a mythical point where the world is completely fabricated by man, so that it absolutely coincides with his desires.' (3)

The repetition `New York, New York' conveys the doubleness of New York, its pairing of visual contrasts. The most excessive skyscrapers in the world first appeared in New York: most brilliantly, the Chrysler Building of 1930, which was rendered even more extraordinary when New York architects dressed up as their own buildings and performed The Skyline of New York at a ball in 1931. William Van Alen, the architect of the Chrysler Building, took centre-stage. But excessive skyscrapers compete with the most minimal, notably the Seagram Building of 1958 which is just as remarkable in its way as the Chrysler and more revealing of the New York grid which so interested Mondrian – but in its vertical dimension. Which is why a combination of one of Mondrian's modernistic abstractions and the exuberance of a popular song makes for an appropriate motif for this essay: perhaps one could imagine Mondrian's New York City I (1941-42), accompanied by these lines:

New York,New York
It's a wonderful town.
The Bronx is up
And the Battery down.

Such a combination is particularly apt because even this doubling can be given a twist: New York provoked Mondrian to go on to embellish his subsequent grids, such as Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), with yellow New York taxi-cabs, while the lively lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's song from On the Town (1949) make reference to the severe geographical logic of New York. Those lyrics are also relevant to one of the themes I shall be developing: that the grid plan produces indeterminacy, so much so that even songs are needed to stop one getting lost.

The competition between and within skyscrapers takes place in a real grid: the Manhattan street grid. Yet it is, in part, because of its stark uniformity that the street grid has become the site of the most extravagant acts. Currently the renowned roller-blader of Fifth Avenue consistently beats the traffic to Central Park South and turns the intersections on the way into arenas for extravagant pirouettes. Yet the street grid, dating officially from 1811, is itself a curious combination of the most minimal, uniform, and repetitive form of urban layout and the most excessive. Like the two basic aspects of the aesthetic grid in Mondrian, the grid in its centripetal mode is a conceptual totality, while the grid in its centrifugal mode can be indefinitely repeated beyond the frame of the painting (4). It is possible, therefore, to argue that New York exemplifies a paradox which Max Weber described but never fully articulated (so gloomily did he view the end point of rationalization which the grid symbolizes), namely that the process of transparent rationalization which informs New York and American life from the 1870s onwards is a factor in producing its obverse, however we describe that quality: excess, multiplicity, extravagance, unpredictability, indeterminacy, the uncanny, or the opaque (5).

In the greatest theorists of modernity – Weber, but also Darwin, Marx, and Freud – there is an acute awareness of this doubleness. While post-modern theorists, for their part, have coined a phrase which suggests an intriguing combination of temporality and spatiality: that is to say, repetition but with a difference. Thus, a great many New York stories, from Herman Melville's `Bartleby: A Story of Wall Street' (1853) and William Dean Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) through to the present and Paul Auster's City of Glass (1985) and Doctorow's The Waterworks, exemplify this paradox in telling of characters who trace and re-trace their own steps or the steps of others but produce something quite different in the process. When, to take just one example, Auster's detective is employed on `a glorified tail job' and follows Peter Stillman he finds that he has traced out the giant words `THE TOWER OF BABEL' in the New York grid (6). Hyperbole, which is perhaps the New York trope, is first and foremost a figure of repetition but with a difference. Moreover, it is apparent that literary representations are inextricable from material changes such as the building up and organization of the city on its grid plan (Auster and Doctorow), the conduits, pumping stations and holding reservoir of the mid-century city (Doctorow), the coming of the elevated railroad (Howells), and the press of streets and buildings around the early financial centre of Wall Street (Melville). But, equally, New York cannot be separated from representations of New York in novels, paintings, plans, films and – very obviously – in architecture. It is one of those cities which we have already seen before we get to see it in actuality; in which the Empire State Building seems to have been built so that King Kong can climb up it and be shot off it.

Old New York and New New York: Two Concepts of Urban Space

In moving, now, from introductory images to a more sustained speculation on the expression `New York, New York', we need to drop back to the period from the 1870s to the 1910s (for most of which New York was synonymous with Manhattan). It was in the less familiar end-of-century period that the city was transformed from a poor copy of Victorian London at the tip of Manhattan and from a poor copy of Parisian modernity around Union and Madison Squares into the modernist city of the twentieth century. In that earlier period, we can see the ways in which one aspect of New York – `Old New York', as the novelist, Edith Wharton frequently described it – functions as a `vanishing mediator' (7) to ease and disguise the transition to another aspect of the city: `New New York', as the city was regularly referred to by boosters and politicians at the turn of the century. My particular interest is in asking in what kind of art and literature do we find new ways of seeing in New York. And, sometimes, it is better to answer such a question by looking at works which do not quite make it to Koolhaas' `delirious' modern but whose shortcomings are either instructive or turn out to be just as interesting as the fully achieved image (whether it is a Mondrian or an Andy Warhol grid or whatever).

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, published in 1920 but dealing with the 1870s, helps to put us quickly in the historical picture. Early in the novel Newland Archer, in leaving the opera at the Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street for a ball on Fifth Avenue hosted by the Beauforts, a nouveau-riche family, substitutes one relentlessly interior scene for another. The world of Old New York in Wharton's novel is one which furnishes itself against the outside world: literally, through the preponderance of drapes, paintings, mirrors, and objects, and metaphorically through its tribal rituals. Moreover, the outside world is recreated inside: there are `vistas' in the Beaufort house, and a subsequent scene is set in the conservatory, full of tree-sized plants. The paintings on the walls are a mixture of society scenes, painted in the then popular pre-Impressionist style (which mirror the scenes at the Beaufort ball) and carefully selected images of American history, some painted in the style of the mid-century Hudson River School, which allow nature to be incorporated into this interior world. In Wharton's house in Lenox, Massachusetts, and in The Decoration of Houses (1897), space is constantly elaborated upon through the use of paintings and furnishings. Wharton's how-to manual for the rising bourgeoisie conveys her theory that an elite would inevitably have responsibility for transmitting aesthetic principles to the rest of society.

A later episode in The Age of Innocence tells of a visit to another house (Mrs Manson Mingott's house) to discuss Newland's forthcoming marriage to May Welland. More importantly, though, this is a house to the north of the Beauforts' and the opera, though Mrs Mingott's house is equally over-full. The American novel of manners, just like its English counterpart from Jane Austen onwards, seems to be as much about objects as people. The insulating and recreating process is continued in this house, so much so that the house is self-contained on the ground floor. Again, there are interior vistas. And paintings, but also French fiction, serve to bring an outside inside. Wharton, like James, who coined the phrase `the house of fiction', specialized in domestic fiction. Both of their houses of fiction were organic and intricately balanced and as such are the antithesis of the grid. Indeed, what perturbed Henry James was how difficult the city of New York made it to write his kind of novel. That is why his greatest writing about New York is in his travel book The American Scene of 1907. However, James did at least see the possibilities for others and wrote to Wharton exhorting her to `DO NEW YORK!' (8) And, up to a point, the geography of the city did interest her because she could not but be a part of the historical shift from an interior concept of space, which held sway until roughly the end of the nineteenth century, to the kind of view of Manhattan which the skyscraper provided from the 1890s onwards, and from which Mondrian and Mies extracted the quintessential modern structural representations.

However, as the novel moves us northward to Mrs Mingott's house in `an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park', the outside cannot be entirely excluded: `[Mrs Mingott] was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-storey saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advances of residences as stately as her own.' (9) The full impact of this tension between the spatial dispensations of the two New Yorks is only made explicit in a startling shot in Martin Scorcese's 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. The geographical location of the Mingott house and then the arrival of the Countess Olenska and Julius Beaufort after their risqué walk from Madison Square up Fifth Avenue, prepare for what is almost a still of the `large house of pale cream-coloured stone' (10) located within the grid-plan, which it sought to deny. Labourers (or the unemployed - it is not clear which) inhabit the empty lots while the city stretches northward, with outcrops of building in an urban Monument Valley.

The 1870s to the First World War was the Age of Elegance in New York. At the top end of the social scale were the great families and their conspicuous consumption of leisure as well as commodities. New York City was very much the place to display wealth and seek to mould the city to one's image. Morgan, Vanderbilt, Astor, Carnegie, Pulitzer and other leading families influenced the shape and look of New York in this period by building or buying up whole blocks during the phenomenal economic expansion after the Civil War. Houses such as those described by Edith Wharton stood out against the naked commercial impetus of the grid and the labour needed to fill it. Analogously, the public manifestations of Old New York, such as the Academy of Music and the Astor Place Opera House, were often situated on the few New York squares to have deflected the grid, as though guarding the interior sphere of Old New York. The Astor Place Riots of 1849 marked a temporary failure to patrol the spatial borders, while the Academy succumbed to a different threat, becoming first a vaudeville theatre and then a cinema.

For a theoretical explanation of how the grid and the house, rationalization and excess, transparency and opacity, one New York and another, are related rather than separated, we can turn to Wharton's contemporary, the maverick social theorist, Thorstein Veblen and his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen recognized that it was precisely the kind of house which Wharton described as resisting the crass utilitarianism of New York – and not the commercial, functional architecture pioneered in Chicago in the 1880s – which bore the most intriguing relationship to capitalism. For instance, in 1902, just off Wall Street, `a Beaux-Arts extravaganza' (11) was designed for the Chamber of Commerce to celebrate New York's emergence as an imperial trading city. No steel girders but a structure of marble blocks, with portraits of the Astor dynasty recreating a self-contained version of New York's mercantile history on its walls. At the grand opening, Sir Albert Rollit, chairman of London's Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the fact that the Chamber would have a Beaux-Arts home and had not moved to the top of the Flatiron skyscraper, completed the same year:

You have no iron flat or flatiron, but you have a beautiful building which recalls a startling change to my mind since I was last in New York 32 years ago. Then I had to go to the top of Trinity Church to see the tops of other buildings, and now I have to go on other buildings to see the top of Trinity (12).

Edith Wharton was aware of this geography of style, remarking that `every Wall Street term had its equivalent in the language of Fifth Avenue' (13) but Veblen offered the then startling explanation that capitalist rationality had an in-built logic of social excess. Esteem, he controversially argued, derived not from exercise of the work ethic and from delayed gratification in the expectation of eventual profit - as Max Weber was to argue with American culture in mind - but from waste, extravagance, spectacle, and the most visible forms of display.

Writing of the time when New York was pushing north towards Central Park, E. L. Doctorow remarks that `Nowhere else in the world was there such an acceleration of energies. A mansion would appear in a field. The next day it stood on a city street with horse and carriage riding by' (14). The inscriptions on the landscape – the text – of New York were of rivets and string, marking out the streets and empty lots. And this is where we can benefit from Martin Scorcese's making explicit or literally visible Edith Wharton's reluctant recognition of the grid and initiate an argument that the much-maligned New York gridiron had some interesting, rather than dire, aesthetic effects well before Mondrian saw its potential.

Modernism and the New York Grid

Gertrude Stein once enigmatically announced that the United States was the oldest country in the world because it had been in the twentieth century the longest. If she is right, then we might date New York's modernity to 1811 and the New York Grid Plan. New York was not seeking to revive its political ambitions to be the nation's capital and its Plan is very different from Washington's. The Plan forwarded New York's commercial aims by laying out a rational city north of 14th Street and the twisted maze of streets downtown. The 1811 Plan projected the grid north to 155th Street and the village of Harlem at a time when none of the Commissioners had much of an inkling of the logic of urban development. The map itself was eight feet long and it is hardly a surprise that the metaphors of frontier expansion and taming of the wilderness were transferred from continental expansion to New York's northward expansion. One apartment block (the one later to be notoriously picked out from the grid when John Lennon was shot there) was called the Dakota apartments because to New York socialites in 1884 it was so far north on 72nd Street that it seemed as far away as Dakota.

The gridiron was made up of twelve numbered avenues, each one-hundred feet wide. The characteristic rectangular blocks were produced by the one-hundred-and-fifty-five cross streets, most sixty feet wide. Only the diagonals of Broadway and the Bowery interrupted this intense geometry, leaving a number of eccentric triangles in its wake. But, mostly, during the rest of the century, the rectangular Cartesian geometry marched north irrespective of terrain and by 1874 and the period covered in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, the Plan had reached 94th Street. This is why visitors can follow New York's different histories by walking north on smart Fifth Avenue or on the struggling parts of Eighth Avenue, and can get a cross-section of that history by walking from the East River to the Hudson River on, say, Forty-second Street.

By 1911, the gridiron had been criticized so often that the centennial was not celebrated. The Plan was thought to be boring and had put off the well-to-do classes, including Wharton's family which moved a few blocks up-town to Gramercy Park and the kind of exclusive residential area which resisted the grid. Attempts to create public, monumental space largely failed. The Commissioners of the Plan put aside the embellishment of what they called `circles, ovals and stars', and did so on real-estate grounds (15). Suggestions that the long New York block be divided by Parisian arcades got nowhere. Neither did hopes that intersections be utilized for new vistas, ornamental architecture and promenading, as in Jane Austen's city of Bath, or flânerie, as in nineteenth-century Paris. What ought to have been New York's meeting places and places of display were not squares (whether laid out as `circles, ovals or stars'). Rather, they were, and are, mostly intersections, and remain so even when they are grandly designated The Crossroads of the World. And at those intersections which are complicated by the diagonal trajectory of Broadway, expectations fostered by European cities are still likely to be dashed. As most guidebooks will relate, at Madison Square Park, which marks the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Twenty-third Street and Broadway, the wind whistles round the prow of the Flatiron and – in the late nineteenth century – raised women's skirts above their ankles. A man standing there would have been interpreted as hanging around with intent rather than promenading, and the NYPD would have moved him on with the embarrassing shout `23rd skiddoo!'

In spite of the Cartesian rationality of its street-plan and the rationalizing ethos which fuelled the commercial growth, New York provoked a mixed response from the architect and planner who ought to have been most enamoured with it. When Le Corbusier visited New York in 1935, he objected to the contradiction of grid-like logic and the contentless-ness of a market-driven urban development. New York had no one like himself or Baron Haussmann to sort it out. In a concept city of pure form, such as Le Corbusier imagined, the exterior form of the city would correspond absolutely with its meaning. But New York was different. It had a gridplan which resembled a modernist concept city but which had come into operation for purely commercial reasons. The form of the grid was there before most of New York, so it both controlled what was to come and provoked wild speculation about the blank spaces on the map. Conversely, when the blanks were filled in the sheer difficulty in seeing the grid as a whole also provoked speculation of an aesthetic as well as an economic kind. The grid – in its peculiarly intense New York manifestation – influenced a mode of seeing, an urban imagination which eventually rivalled that which we associate with Paris, `capital of the nineteenth century', as Walter Benjamin called it (16). Late nineteenth-century New York was modernism before modernism, the place in time where a dialogue between the visibility and invisibility of modernism would be played out.

At a personal level, too, the street grid generates its obverse. It is supposed to help people to find their way around but, frequently, one does not end up hopelessly lost, as in certain European cities, but rationally lost: that is, five blocks east or west of where one wanted to be. An excess of rationalism turns into rational excess. The Soviet avant-garde film director, Sergei Eisenstein, must have felt something similar on his visit to New York in 1930. He found numbered streets confusing or else he could not remember addresses full of numbers. And so he attached images to the streets and street corners. He then found that, armed with his images, the rectangular, numerical experience of walking New York, and the shocks and collisions of its intersections, confirmed and refined his theory of cinematic montage (17). As an avant-garde modernist, Eisenstein seemed to be asking the question `What forms of visualization are produced by a modern world?' And interior concepts of space (even when adapted to exteriors) were on the point of becoming inadequate for the representation of modernity as it was spatially emerging in New York. European modernist modes of representation sometimes failed to adapt to the peculiarly intense materiality of New York.

FIGURE 1: Childe Hassam, Tanagra: The Builders, New York (1918)
Permission to reproduce granted by the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; gift of John Gellantly (1929.6.63).

From the 1880s through to the 1910s the gentler modernism of Impressionism had a vogue in the United States with Childe Hassam the most important of the American Impressionists. Trained in Paris, he found the vistas of his home-town of Boston, with its re-planned South End and Back Bay areas full of Haussmann-like thoroughfares, conducive to the Impressionist's art. But when he moved to New York in 1889 and sought (in Henry James's words) to `DO NEW YORK' in over seventy works, he came up against a different kind of city. Whereas Hassam's Impressionist-type rapid brushstrokes, interest in the casual and ephemeral, and theories of light and open space, succeeded in capturing Paris and Boston, the same techniques missed the intensity of New York. In particular, the New York Windows series, which he concluded in 1921, shows that Hassam never quite came to artistic terms with the city. In an intriguing painting from 1918 entitled Tanagra: The Builders, New York (see figure 1) we can see the vertical grid of a steel-frame skyscraper through the window, with another tall building behind. However, the city is kept at a distance by Hassam's concentration upon interior elaboration: the woman's dress, the curtains, the expanse of canvas devoted to the screen and its intricate pattern, and rival verticals: the woman, the figurine and the tall plant. In other paintings in the Windows series the city can only be seen in blurred outline through net curtains. Hassam seems, then, to be intent upon reducing, screening out, mythologizing, even naturalizing, the city, and such artistic choices are revealing of the relationship between visuality, historical change and (in his Windows paintings) gender as well.

Unlike Eisenstein, who grappled with the characteristic rectangles of New York, the American Impressionists looked to European models of walking the city and, in particular, to the flâneur, the hero of modern urban life, first for Baudelaire and Henry James, and later for Benjamin in his Arcades Project. However, the flâneur seemed out of place in a city growing so rapidly and re-constructing itself every ten years, as buildings within the grid were pulled down and replaced. In The American Scene, Henry James grumbled that `a high, square, impersonal structure' had interposed itself in Washington Square and `amputated' 'half [his] history' (18). By the time New York had both density and newness (the qualities revelled in by the flâneur), the machine age was upon it and flânerie was even more inappropriate. And continues to be. In the guidebook which I use the visitor to New York is given advice on how not to look like an out-of-towner. And wandering slowly around with no obvious purpose, standing on street corners gazing in a detached manner at skyscrapers or at commodity fetishism in action (or at the crazies), breaks rules 1, 2, 5 and 8 on how to avoid getting mugged.

The city's first high-rise period began with the Washington Building in 1884. But even when the Impressionists followed their French mentors and went up high, as Hassam did for Union Square in Spring of 1896, they made certain artistic choices which eclipsed the grid. Here, Hassam reinstates the `circles' and `ovals', at least, which the 1811 Commissioners refused to countenance. His point of view cuts out Fourteenth Street beneath him so that the park and its green expanses seem to be extricated from the grid of surrounding, contesting streets. Artistically set free, Union Square becomes a space in which sweeping and swirling brushtrokes can take over, keeping the viewer involved in an energetic painted surface while distanced from social and economic forces and from identification. People, and their differences, are blurred into a unity. In Winter in Union Square (1894), it is snow which helps Hassam maintain an idealizing distance. Also, the truant diagonal of Broadway is given prominence, rather than the grid.

Off Union Square was the Academy of Music, where Wharton's Age of Innocence opens, and, earlier, I mentioned that the Academy functioned rather as the drapes in the fashionable houses functioned (and as Impressionist `blur' also functions) to insulate society from economy. But, as the researches of Barbara Weinberg and the co-curators of American Impressionism and Realism have shown, by Hassam's time Union Square and its surrounding streets and avenues were no longer the preserve of the fashionable classes. Their residences had moved northward to upper Fifth Avenue, escaping the invasion of commerce. The domed building in Hassam's Winter in Union Square is not a church but the Domestic Sewing Machine Company Building on Broadway and Fourteenth Street. It had opened in 1873 and signalled the end of Union Square's pretensions. Politics, too, made this a less than desirable place to live than it appears in Hassam's carefully presented view. Union Square gained the reputation as a place of class politics after the Depression of 1873. The establishment of Labor Day in 1887 added to its political credentials; as did the struggle for women's suffrage (19). In the American Impressionist view, though, there is little of the dissonance and confrontation which New York materially embodied.

What, then, might constitute New York ways of seeing in the years before modernist abstraction, ways of seeing the emerging modern text that was New York? Not, clearly, a 1911 painting of Central Park by Willard Metcalf in which the city is barely visible. Here, it is nature which functions as a `vanishing mediator', easing the transition from the foreground to the background and the urban future suggested by the misty outlines of tall buildings. But perhaps in another Central Park painting by Maurice Prendergast we are made aware of a different way of seeing the emerging (and determining) text.

FIGURE 2: Maurice Prendergast, Central Park (c. 1908-10)
Permission to reproduce granted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art; George A. Hearn Fund, 1950 (50.25)

In Central Park (c. 1908-10) (see figure 2) Prendergast's so-called `divisionist' style produces almost a grid in the park, if the trees and the marked flatness of the painting are also taken into account. The marked horizontal/vertical pattern, aided by the thick paint, brings the painting to the surface, as it were. At which point, we cannot but notice a mistake: the representation of a partially completed figure on a bench competing with what ought to be the continuing but invisible lines of the three wooden backrests. Prendergast even compounds this revealing carelessness by adding a couple of downward parallels, as though the impetus towards the grid has all but supplanted the representation of the person. When we think of Central Park, we usually think of the curvy, natural quality which Frederick Law Olmsted set against the grid. But, as Weinberg et al tell us, when Olmsted designed Central Park he also laid out corridors to separate different forms of traffic and with provision for crosstown traffic roads. At the time Prendergast painted this work, between eight and ten thousand horses a day were ridden or pulled carriages in Central Park in Spring and Autumn (20).

FIGURE 3: George Bellows, A Morning Snow: Hudson River (1910).
Permission to reproduce granted by The Brooklyn Museum; gift of Mrs Daniel Catlin (51.96)

The hesitant, mediated appearance of the grid in apparently representational art serves many different purposes. In Prendergast's painting the incipient grid is part of his celebration of the ordered pageantry of Central Park. In A Morning Snow: Hudson River (1910) (see figure 3) by George Bellows there is a conflict of claims on the space depicted. In art-historical terms it is a fairly unremarkable painting: somewhere between Impressionism and the realism of the Ash Can School. What is interesting, though, is the grid-like infrastructure of vertical trees and horizontal bands: the path in Riverside Park with a man and boy walking and an old man clearing the snow; the waterfront place of work; the iced-over Hudson River and free-flowing river; and the far shore of factories and then residences (all of which are compositional enlargements of the park benches and metal and wooden fences). This grid gives the city-text a certain legibility and can be interpreted as a critique of a city divided along class lines which are demarcated spatially. The grid in this painting by Bellows is accentuated by the striations and ridges of paint applied with palette knife so that the hidden city of class and work (increasingly, if paradoxically, hidden by the grid-plan in identifiable and therefore avoidable districts) is infrastructurally there and there at the surface as well. It is both general and particular, map and scene (the mapping of larger structural patterns from within the specific scene), whereas some of Bellows' paintings of more obvious scenes of deprivation or the Impressionists' over-views fall into one category or the other; much as modern life was being similarly sifted, sorted and categorized. The grid – I would suggest – becomes a valuable way of thinking about totality, even as it was a material means by which the city could be divided up, and even as it became – in the modernist concept-city – a totalizing vision.

Turning, for a last example of the insistence and persistence of the grid, to American literature, we find the novelist William Dean Howells making the same journey made by the painter Childe Hassam; that is, from the genteel privacy of Boston to the future that was New York. Howells had failed to cope with New York in his articles for the Nation in the 1860s and it is as though he has to trace and re-trace the city through his characters in his 1890 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes before he can come to terms with it, before he can cognitively map it, see what is invisibly there. And so Howells has his middle-class Bostonian couple, the Marches, go apartment-hunting. Howells – rather like Ash Can artists such as George Bellows – is sometimes seen as a rather dull, earnest realist whose descriptions can read like mere local colour. However, something else is going on in his New York novels which cannot be explained according to the literary concern with character, plot and setting as mere background. As Mr and Mrs March travel from the security of their downtown hotel through Washington Square and Greenwich Village to Third Avenue, before ending up in the Lower East Side, they are frightened at first; then appalled, as many visitors to New York continue to be. But eventually Howells' characters are excited by New York and – though neither they nor Howells, himself, would put it this way – come up with a new model of reading the city which carries through to twentieth-century American literature.

In the apartment-hunting of Mr and Mrs March, Howells is exploring historically specific urban ways of seeing. There are some descriptions – which do little to forward the plot – of travelling on the elevated railroad which ran along the avenues, duplicating those streets and triumphing over them. Howells refers to an `L-bestridden avenue' (21) and to the cross-town tracks which complete the grid at first floor level. On the El, Howells' characters have a different point of view of the city and find that the grid, far from producing sameness, multiplies differences in what Eisenstein would call a montage of `attractions' (22).

[Mr March] was interested in the insolence with which the railway had drawn its erasing line across the Corinthian front of an old theatre, almost grazing its fluted pillars, and flouting its dishonored pediment. The colossal effigies of the fat women and the tuft-headed Circassian girls of cheap museums; the vistas of shabby cross streets; the survival of an old hip-roofed house here and there at their angles; the Swiss chalet; histrionic decorativeness of the stations in prospect or retrospect; the vagaries of the lines that narrowed together or stretched apart according to the width of the avenue [...] the frantic panorama [...] . Accident and exigency seemed the forces at work to this extraordinary effect (23).

This is an unusual stretch of writing in Howells's work, in terms of its almost modernist insights into visuality and spatiality, and in nineteenth-century American literature, in terms of its radical turning away from themes and visions of nature or agrarian ways of seeing the city. And the passage also demonstrates a turning away from the unifying central point of view of the Romantic poet – Emerson, in particular. The sights from the El and the experience of viewing movement while on the move do, indeed, bring out in Howells a modernist perception which would have impressed Eisenstein, himself impressed by New York. These perceptions have not been generated by interiority or an aesthetic theory of modernism (Howells was a determined realist). Rather, this is a vision stimulated by New York. Out of a nineteenth-century, grid-like, calculating mentality – almost a street-directory or telephone-book mentality – and in the works of a perhaps routine novelist, has come wonder, eccentricity, and a particular mixture of a disturbing and a fantastic visual excess which is New York's alone.

But there is still more to say about Howells and New York. Here is another account of the Marches travelling the El and encountering a grid-at-first-floor level:

At the Forty-second Street station they stopped a minute on the bridge that crosses the track to the branch road for the Central Depot, and looked up and down the long stretch of the Elevated to north and south. The track that found and lost itself a thousand times in the flare and tremor of the innumerable lights; the moony sheen of the electrics mixing with the reddish points and blots of gas far and near; the architectural shapes of houses and churches and towers [...] and the coming and going of the trains formed an incomparable perspective.

The passage ends like this:

[Mr and Mrs March] [...] paused in the gallery that leads from the Elevated station to the waiting-rooms in the Central Depot and looked down upon the great night trains lying on the tracks dim under the rain of gas-lights[...] . What forces, what fates, slept in these bulks which would soon be hurling themselves north and south and west through the night! (24)

In this description of Mr and Mrs March leaving the elevated railroad to enter the Central Depot for the big trains, William Dean Howells surpasses himself, in spite of the nineteenth-century rhetorical flourishes. He is not drawn to the conspicuous decor of the Central Depot - as an `indoors' novelist might have been when recoiling from New York. Instead, under the influence of New York, he achieves an almost avant-gardist recognition that one transportation and signifying system is intersecting with another. So that the grid of New York City becomes the frightening but exhilarating north-south and east-west grid that is the United States.


  1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1988), p. 92.
  2. E.L. Doctorow, The Waterworks (London, 1995), p. 10.
  3. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York, 1994), p. 293.
  4. Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), pp. 18-22.
  5. Douglas Tallack, Twentieth-Century America: The Intellectual and Cultural Context (London, 1991), pp. 10-17.
  6. Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (Lodon and Boston, 1987), pp. 29 and 70.
  7. Fredric Jameson, `The Vanishing Mediator; or Max Weber as Storyteller,’ in his The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Vol. 2: The Syntax of History (Minneapolis, 1988), pp. 3-34.
  8. Henry James, Letter to Edith Wharton, 17th August, 1902, in Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters 1900-1915, ed., Lyall H. Powers (London, 1990), p. 34.
  9. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (Harmondsworth, 1974), pp. 15 and 26.
  10. Wharton, The Age of Innocence, p. 14.
  11. John Tauranac, Elegant New York: The Builders and the Buildings, 1885-1915 (New York, 1985), p. 11.
  12. Quoted in Tauranac, Elegant New York, p. 12.
  13. Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (London, 1965), p. 365.
  14. Doctorow, The Waterworks, p. 11.
  15. Gouvernour Morris et al, `Remarks of the Commission for Laying Out Streets and Roads in the City of New York, Under the Act of April 3, 1807’ in Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1866, comp. D.T. Valentine (New York, 1866), p. 756.
  16. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. H. Zohn (London, 1973), p. 155.
  17. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, trans. Jay Leyda (London, 1986), p. 22.
  18. Henry James, The American Scene (Bloomington, 1968), p. 91.
  19. Barbara H. Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 (New York, 1944), pp. 184-86.
  20. Weinberg, American Impressionism and Realism, p. 161.
  21. William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (New York, 1960), p. 55.
  22. Eisenstein, Film Sense, pp. 182-83.
  23. Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes, p. 155.
  24. Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes, p. 61.

(top of page)


Last updated 16th November 2000