Robert park wrote in the 1920’s:
the city and the urban environment represent man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more to his heart’s desire. But if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. The City as Social Laboratory.
Cities force humanity into conversation with one another. Forced conversation. Unintentional conversation. Rubbing elbows on the subway conversation, brushing shoulders walking down the stairway conversation. Which is why cities define humanity’s greatest attempt to remake itself as a non-intentional social creature.
It seems that early twentieth century authors understood this. Paul West, writing a short pamphlet on Robert Penn Warren noted that Warren’s “overview is of the incalculable, unpredictable repercussions our least endeavors provoke. Identity, in particular, is not a fixity, but a studiously maintained transaction with other people. The means of self-establishment is also the prime agency of confusion, especially for those who want perfection and utter consistency.” Pamphlet printed by University of Minnesota Press.
Its the story of Jay Gatz and Tom Buchanan and George Wilson. Thrusted unintentionally, almost haplessly into a narrative of ambition, jealousy and manipulation. Fitzgerald ends his great work on Jay Gatsby (or Gatz if you prefer his true identity) with these words: “[Gatsby] has come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning….”
Perhaps man’s city is doomed by the lack of intentioned interaction, a collection of vacant defunct houses, like the prostitute in Whitman’s The City Dead-House.
By the city dead-house by the gate,
As idly sauntering wending my way from the clangor,
I curious pause, for lo, an outcast form, a poor dead prostitute brought,
Her corpse they deposit unclaim’d, it lies on the damp brick pavement,
The divine woman, her body, I see the body, I look on it alone,
That house once full of passion and beauty, all else I notice not,
Nor stillness so cold, nor running water from faucet, nor odors morbific impress me,
But the house alone – that wondrous house – that delicate fair house – that ruin!
That immortal house more than all the rows of dwellings ever built!
Or white-domed capital with majestic figure surmounted or all the old high-spired cathedrals,
That little house alone more than them all – poor, desperate house!
Fair, fearful wreck – tenement of a soul – itself a soul,
Unclaim’d, avoided house – take one breath from my tremulous lips,
Take one tear dropt aside as I go for thought of you,
Dead house of love — house of madness and sin, crumbled and crush’d,
House of life, erewhile talking and laughing – but ah, poor house, dead even then,
Months, years, an echoing, garnish’d house – but dead,dead, dead.
Perhaps. But perhaps, the city is just the place where man exemplifies his greatest humanity. Where mankind constantly remakes himself in the image of god — intentionally caring for the poor, intentionally nursing the sick, and intentionally fighting for the oppressed.
The City Dead-house, published in Leaves of Grass (the Death Bed Edition).