By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, eds. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981, and reprinted in The Profane Art: Essays & Reviews.
If the City is a text, how shall we read it?
The manifold evidence of our American literature of the twentieth century suggests that the City, an archetype of the human imagination that may well have existed for thousands of years, in various manifestations (as the Heavenly City, the Kingdom of the Dead, the City of God, the City of Man, the Cities of the Plains, etc.), has absorbed into itself presumably opposed images of the "sacred" and the "secular." The City of God and the City of Man have conjoined out of psychological necessity in an era of diminished communal religion. A result of this fusion of polar symbols is that the contemporary City, as an expression of human ingenuity and, indeed, a material expression of civilization itself, must always be read as if it were Utopian (that is, "sacred")—and consequently a tragic disappointment, a species of hell. A number of our writers have spoken out boldly about the psychological kinship between the individual and the City, interpreting the fate of one in terms of the influence of the other, which is almost always malefic. Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine says, in his meditation upon the miserable life and premature death of the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher (whom we may equate fairly precisely with Delmore Schwartz): "Chicago with its gigantesque outer life contained the whole problem of poetry and the inner life in America." 1
The more autonomous an archetype in the Unconscious, the greater its numinosity in what we might call, echoing Jung, the collective or mass imagination; the more contradictions it displays in consciousness, the greater the range of emotions it arouses. Like Nature (by which I mean, of course, the idea of Nature, in itself an invention of civilization—Nature as the timeless though hardly exact counterpart of the City), this image functions almost exclusively as a symbol: it is the dramatic background against which fictional persons enact their representative struggles with those values the City embodies, which are frequently internalized. In America, emphasis has generally been upon the City as an expression of the marketplace struggle that will yield—should yield, this being the New World—individual success in financial and social terms: Utopia may not really exist, but the Utopian dream of salvation is still potent. At one extreme, as depicted in the fiction of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers (among them Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Anzia Yezierska), the struggle is graphic and literal: the City is a place in which human beings die as a consequence of the unspeakable conditions of slum life and actual mistreatment by employers or by one another. "The things which could not kill you," Anzia Yezierska says in the story "My Last Hollywood Script" (1950), "were the making of you,"2 but very few people were "made" by the exhausting struggle of daily slum life, of which Yezierska writes so powerfully.
At another extreme, in the fiction of the past several decades, and perhaps most eloquently in that of Saul Bellow, the struggle has become internalized, a ceaseless philosophical inquiry. Bellow's masterful novels all address themselves to "the lessons and theories of power" in a great American city. Bellow is obsessed with the riddle of what it means to be an urban man in a secular, mass-market culture that appears to be vertiginously extroverted, without a coherent sense of history or tradition—in which, in fact, "all the ages of history" can be experienced as simultaneous.3 The industrial landscapes of Detroit evoked in Philip Levine's poetry—notably in They Feed They Lion and 1933 (1974)—are glimpsed in fragments but coalesce, in the reader's imagination, to a hellish city, a city "pouring fire." And the citizens of Donald Barthelme's City Life suspect (probably with justification) that they are suffering brain damage as a result of their polluted environment: "... we are locked in the most exquisite mysterious muck. This muck heaves and palpitates. It is multidirectional and has a mayor. To describe it takes many hundreds of thousands of words. Our muck is only a part of a much greater muck—the nation-state—which is itself the creation of that muck of mucks, human consciousness."4
WOMEN IN CITIES
"No move in this world without money ..."
Students of American literature are all familiar with the hellish City of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, powerfully presented by writers like Upton Sinclair (whose equation of Chicago with the "jungle" is still, perhaps, a viable image) and Stephen Crane (whose Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is set on the Bowery—in Crane's words "the only interesting place in New York). In reexamining Maggie (1896), one is struck by the reiteration of images and scenes of subhuman violence, and by the young novelist's sardonic, objective tone. The City is a "dark region" of "gruesome doorways" that surrender babies to the street and the gutter. Disheveled women gossip with one another in the street or scream "in frantic quarrels." There are aged withered persons, and ragged children, and derelicts, and pugnacious young men who imagine the world "composed, for the most part, of despicable creatures who were all trying to take advantage" of them. The novel's opening scene depicts a merciless fight between two groups of slum children (Rum Alley versus Devil's Row) while adults look on indifferently or with mild curiosity. Maggie's brother Jimmie is savagely stoned by children with "small convulsed faces" and the grins of "true assassins." There is a brilliant three-page tour de force describing Jimmie's experience, years later, as a truck driver in the city, unfortunately too long to quote in its entirety:
He invaded the turmoil and tumble of the downtown streets, and learned to breathe maledictory defiance at the police, who occasionally used to climb up, drag him from his perch, and punch him. In the lower part of the city he daily involved himself in hideous tangles.... He fell into the habit, when starting on a long journey, of fixing his eye on a high and distant object, commanding his hones to start, and then going into a trance of oblivion. Multitudes of drivers might howl in his rear, and passengers might load him with opprobrium, but he would not awaken until some blue policeman ... began to seize bridles and beat the soft noses of the responsible horses.
... Foot passengers were mere pestering flies with an insane disregard for their legs and his convenience. He could not comprehend their desire to cross the streets. Their madness smote him with eternal amazement.
... Yet he achieved a respect for a fire-engine. As one charged toward his truck, he would drive fearfully upon a sidewalk, threatening untold people with annihilation .... A firetruck was enshrined in his heart as an appalling thing that he loved with a distant, dog-like devotion. It had been known to overthrow a street-car .... The clang of the gong pierced his breast like the noise of remembered war.5
The tone is set, in such garish, outsized images, for the destruction of the innocent "girl of the streets" by less physical but equally malicious social forces. Maggie is "ruined," she has "gone to the devil"—and finally commits suicide by throwing herself in the rivet.
Theodore Dreiser is a far more meticulous observer of city life than Stephen Crane (who was only twenty-one when he wrote Maggie), but in Sister Carrie (1900) he could not speak more didactically or explicitly:
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances [Chicago, 1889] there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eve. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms .... Unrecognized for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions. 6
But Carrie is far more resourceful, and more intelligent, than her creator seems to think; despite the leaden moralizing of his prose he allows his heroine to survive the "ruin" of her innocence, unlike Crane's Maggie. She is even fortunate enough to leave somber Chicago for the far more seductive city of New York where, along Broadway, she observes the "sprinkling of goodness and the heavy percentage of vice" parading in the latest, most costly fashions—and is quite dazzled by this "indescribable atmosphere" which has the power to make her forget the old Carrie, her past, and her obligations. (Sister Carrie is, it must be said, not really a naturalistic work at all, despite the fact that it deals with ostensibly naturalistic themes. On the contrary, it is a sort of fairy tale—in relation to which Crane's far cruder Maggie is the dark and far more convincing cautionary fable.)
Dreiser's pessimism is strongly and provocatively qualified by what might be called his visionary belief that the City, however immediately corrupting, is nevertheless a symbol of the issuant progress of our species. Beyond the individual Carrie and what she presumably represents, Dreiser sees evidence of growth and evolution, even in a determined cosmos: "Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast ... ; scarcely human .... We have the consolation of knowing [however] that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail ..." 7 —a sentiment that seems but slenderly connected to Carrie's story.
Though nearly unknown at the present time, the novelist and short-story writer Anna Yezierska (1885-1970) is probably a more realistic portrayer of certain aspects of city life in the early years of the twentieth century than her famous male contemporaries. Her writing is autobiographical and emotional. The City of her fiction—New York's Lower East Side, a Jewish ghetto—is complex and ambiguous, by no means simply a marketplace or jungle in which the individual is suffocated.
Between 1920 and 1932 Yezierska published six books, among them her best-known novel, Bread Givers. In fast-moving and relatively unsophisticated prose Yezierska dramatizes the struggle of a strong-willed young woman to free herself of both the immigrant slums of the New World and the religiously enjoined subservience and chatteldom of the Old World. Along with her mother and her sisters she is tyrannized by her father, a completely self-absorbed Talmudic scholar who believes that his family exists only to support him. Bread Givers evokes an almost Dickensian sense of oppression and injustice: it is shamelessly melodramatic, and yet thoroughly convincing as a document of Yezierska's own emotional experience as the daughter of an extremely religious man. Its picture of the dailyness of life on the Lower East Side, its presentation of the community of Jewish immigrants, has an authenticity lacking in the fiction of most naturalistic writers because it is imagined, as theirs is not, from the inside. Slum life is "real life" to Yezierska, however difficult; in escaping from it one risks losing the connection with life altogether.
Anzia Yezierska was born in a shtetl in Russian Poland and emigrated with her family in the 1890s to the New World to the crowded Lower East Side of Manhattan. In this "new" world Jewish immigrants tried with varying degrees of success and failure to reconstruct the "old" world, and the harrowing conflict between Yezierska's heroines and their conservatively pious fathers must stand as a paradigm of this larger cultural conflict. The Old World makes its claim in this typical outburst of the father in Bread Givers: "... My books, my holy books always were, and always will be, the light of the world. You'll see yet how all America will come to my feet to learn"8 Yezierska observes: "The prayers of his daughters didn't count because God didn't listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into heaven because they were wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God's Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah ... " Her heroine Sara breaks with her family at the age of seventeen—an extraordinarily courageous act, considering her circumstances, and the fact that she has nowhere to live. Her father is outraged and curses her, but she replies: "My will is as strong as yours. I'm going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I'm American!" 9
Sara is bold and impetuous and, in her desperation, exactly right: if she is to save herself from suffocating in her ghetto-bound family she must become American. She understands as a very young child that there is "no move in this world without money" and her reasoning leads her to the conclusion that by studying English in night school she will have the means of freeing herself from poverty. And more: "Only to make myself somebody great—and have them [her family] come begging favors at my feet" 10 If the romantically American rags-to-riches plot seems excessive to contemporary readers, one should be reminded that Anzia Yezierska underwent approximately the same experience—her writing is autobiographical in outline if not always in detail.
Where Crane, Dreiser, Henry James, and, indeed, most serious writers of the epoch severely criticized the very basis of "Americanization" in these terms, Anzia Yezierska takes everything on faith, knowing only that the future—"America"—is infinitely preferable to the past. She is characterized as a pioneer; her heroine Sara exclaims, as a college girl, "Why is it that when a nobody wants to get to be somebody she's got to make herself terribly hard ... ?"11 No one has written with more tenderness and authority of the almost physical yearning for knowledge a certain kind of young person possesses. (Is this young person inevitably the child of very poor parents? Or is the struggle for education and self realization simply more vividly italicized in a context of poverty?) Sara wants to raise herself; she wants power, she wants—everything. "Like a starved thing in the dark" she reaches out blindly, sometimes confusing her longing with a longing for men, and bringing about humiliation. But in the end she does triumph, like Yezierska, though she realizes that the shadow of the past, her religious heritage and her elderly father's expectations, still exert their pull. "It wasn't just my father," Sara thinks at the novel's conclusion, "but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me."
The City is, ironically, a kind of hell—yet the only possible place for the liberation of a certain kind of independent and courageous woman. The relatively egalitarian nature of the bitter struggle for money allows girls like Yezierska's heroines to break away from the world of their fathers, and if their goals, their triumphs—acquiring a teaching certificate, for instance—seem to us modest enough, we must remember out of what stifling poverty, beneath what appalling low ceilings, they were dreamt. To become a schoolteacher and to return to one's old neighborhood!—in triumph and yet in a kind of servitude—this is Sara Smolinsky's achievement. Yezierska herself sold a book of short stories, Hungry Hearts, to Sam Goldwyn for $10,000, in 1920, and went to work in Hollywood for a while at a salary of $200 a week; there were sensational "rags-to-riches" stories about her in the Sunday papers; her dreams of greatness were almost alarmingly fulfilled. Interestingly enough, however, she found herself cut off from the source of both her fictional material and her energy—she felt "without a country, without a people." The congestion and poverty of the Lower East Side, the work she had done in sweatshops and laundries, perhaps even the bitter struggle with her family itself were so deeply imprinted in this remarkable woman that, once free of them, she yearned for them again, recognizing in herself (as Saul Bellow's far more articulate Augie March recognizes in himself) the need to be opposed, to be in opposition, to suffer privation, to struggle. The City for all its horrors is the very fountain of emotion: where else can one experience so much, such a cacophonous variety of sensation? And if one has acquired the City's language—in this case, "American" English—surely this language has not the power of moving one's soul as Yiddish does? (Yezierska's prose style reads as if it were translated from Yiddish—hardly as if it were self-consciously written at all. Her voice fairly springs out at you from the page.) At the peak of her success Yezierska found herself unable to write because, in her words, she had gone "too far away from life" and did not know how to return. One of her heroines exclaims: "I don't believe that I shall ever write again unless I can get back to the real life I once lived when I worked in the factory."
Yezierska writes without irony, however; she is never critical of the lure of "Americanization" itself. And unlike fellow contemporaries—Henry Roth, for instance, whose Call It Sleep is of course a work of far greater psychological subtlety than Yezierska's—she did not appear to take an interest in the craft of fiction itself; and one must read her with expectations appropriate to her intention. The autobiographical energies of a first-person narration (a "confession," a "history," a "defense" of one's present self) need not invariably bring with them a slackening of control, as Bellow's masterpiece The Adventures of Augie March makes clear, but Yezierska is so close to her material and to her woman protagonists that the ambiguities that disturb and enrich "serious" fiction are largely missing. Yet Yezierska is rarely sentimental about the past, and she certainly does not look back over her shoulder at Europe—the heroine of "The Miracle," an early story, wants only to escape her Polish village and come to live in America; the heroine of "America and I," exploited by a well-to-do Jewish family for whom she works, goes to work in a sweatshop and reads American history in order to dedicate herself to the mission of building "a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself."
The City's gift of anonymity, the promise of wages for work—wages agreed upon in advance—make the individual possible for the first time in history: the individual woman, one might say.
MR. BELLOW'S CITY, AND OTHERS
"In the end you can't save your soul and lift by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world."
—EINHORN TO AUGIE
The Adventures of Augie March
Yet the City does retain its aura of the sacred: it sometimes seems a place of godliness, if no longer a City of God. How else to account for the fascination of the literary mind with the City as a phenomenon—an outrage, a spectacle, an emblem of human ingenuity that seems frankly suprahuman? Quite apart from the somewhat mechanical fatalism of Stephan Crane, and the platitudinous pessimism of Dreiser; apart from the deeply moving novels of "social realism" of Anzia Yezierska and her contemporaries, and a more recent woman novelist of comparable power, Harriette Arnow, 12 one encounters a celebration of the City as an end in itself—an archetype of amoral dynamism that awakens no emotion more violently than that of simple awe.
William James's extravagant remarks on New York City are as valid for 1983 as for 1907:
The first impression of New York ... is one of repulsion at the clangor, disorder, and permanent earthquake conditions. But this time, installed ... in the center of the cyclone, I caught the pulse of the machine, took up the rhythm, and vibrated with, and found it simply magnificent .... The courage, the heaven scaling audacity of it all, and the lightness withal, as if there was nothing that was not easy, and the great pulses and bounds of progress, so many in directions all simultaneous that the coordination is indefinitely future, give a kind of drumming background of life that I have never felt before. I'm sure that once in that movement, and at home, all other places would seem insipid .... 13
One of the most remarkable achievements of James Joyce's Ulysses—more remarkable by far than the dazzling harlequinade
of its styles and Homeric structure—is the rendering, in the most supple, sensuous, and precise language possible, of the city of Dublin: that city where "everyone knows everyone else." Joyce's great subject is less his people, memorable as they are, than his setting; that Dublin that is solely and specifically that Dublin, on June 16, 1904, with its dissonant harmony of Irish voices. Joyce's mystical nature would have it that God (even the hangman god) is "doubtless all in all in all of us," and that every life, in Stephen Dedalus's words, is "many days, day after day," but the glory of his novel is the city of Dublin itself. Joyce's boldly new art renders the city but refuses to present it: we experience Dublin in snatches and fragments, catching only glimpses of it, carried along by the momentum of Leopold's or Stephen's subjectivity: we know the city from the inside, though in a sense we "know" it hardly at all. The Dublin of Ulysses is subliminally granted. "Everything speaks in its own way," Bloom quietly observes. The City speaks through everyone and everything, in a multitude of voices.
"Moses Herzog" and "Charlie Citrine" are Joycean names, if not precisely Joycean people, but we should suspect in any case that Saul Bellow has learned from Joyce (as he has "learned" from any number of writers), for who among twentieth-century American novelists has evoked the City with more passion and more resonance than Bellow? With very little interest in formal experimentation, and no interest at all in following the wild, hilarious Dadaism of certain sections of Ulysses ("Nighttown" most famously), Bellow has nevertheless perfected a wonderfully supple and expressive style, a voice uniquely his own; one believes in Bellow immediately, no matter how fanciful the utterances of certain of his male characters. And they speak not simply for themselves but for their epochs, their cities. As the creator of superbly modulated prose and as the observer of character and cityscape Bellow is Joyce's equal. He has written no novel to rival Ulysses—who has?—but the complex riches of his numerous books attest to an imagination as deeply bound up with his subject as Joyce was with his; and if he is less ambitiously experimental than Joyce it should be noted that he is less self-indulgent as well. Augie March might be speaking for his creator in these arresting opening words of The Adventures of Augie March:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
Augie March's Chicago—that of the slums and near-slums, of the 1920s and 30s—like Anzia Yezierska's Lower East Side, is a place of congestion and drama. European immigrants, blacks, even Mexicans, Jews, and Catholics, the Chicago of welfare clinics and ward politics—local millionaries—"bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fist coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not-eating, and hopes of tremendous millions" 14 —all are eagerly observed by young Augie March, the near orphan, the innocent who is also a thief, yet still innocent; the boy who senses himself "adoptable" by surrogate parents, yet battens on opposition. Augie is idealistic but he learns quickly the lessons of the City; to plot, to calculate, to negotiate, to press forward, never to allow himself to be manipulated, never to allow others to define his limits. As a young boy he is taught by his "Grandma" Lausch how to lie convincingly to administrators of a public health clinic; as a teenager he is initiated by his eccentric millionaire employer William Einhorn into the pleasure—the paid-for pleasure—of a downtown brothel. Given Augie's frequent romanticism we are surprised that his first sexual experience should pass by him so quickly, and that in summary ("when the thrill went off, like lightning smashed and dispersed into the ground, I knew it was basically only a transaction") but Augie's judgment is authoritative; he knows, being a city boy, that one must pay for everything; and that it doesn't matter. "Not using what other people used. That's what city life is." 15
Augie's comic-epic adventures, and his occasional adventures into the near-tragic, school him shrewdly in the strategies of city life. He is acquainted with people who read in German and French, are familiar with Nietzsche and Spengler; in another direction he is acquainted with criminals. "I touched all sides," Augie says, "and nobody knew where I belonged. I had no good idea about that myself." He is there to learn the "lessons and theories of power" in the great city of Chicago, confident (and with justification, as Bellow's career indicates) that these lessons and theories will be generally applicable. For every Augie March in the near-slums of Chicago there are hundreds of Studs Lonigans, but Augie—of course!—is the survivor, the prince, just as Bellow's unique synthesis of the humanistic and the tragic, his apparently effortless synthesis of the "classic" and the defiantly modern, greatly outdistances the time- and place-locked "naturalism" of James T. Farrell. Like his creator, Augie refuses to be "determined" beforehand. He defines himself; he declares himself a "Columbus of those near-at-hand," a defiantly laughing creature, uncorrupted even by his own diminution of faith. The "universal eligibility to be noble" informs most of his acts, and those of his ambitious brother Simon, no matter how frequently these acts cast the brothers down, and mock Grandma Lausch's inflated hopes for them. Chicago is America writ large, and the American legend is wonderfully seductive: why should one not succeed in becoming an American? "What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon," Augie asked passionately, "if it wasn't to make a nobility of us all?"
Darkened by a few degrees, Augie's adventures might well be tragic; his ebullience might swerve into mania, or angry despair. (In his youthful idealism he calls to mind the brilliant but doomed Von Humboldt Fleisher of Humboldt's Gift—and it is curious that Augie never declares himself a writer.) After all, Augie's mother is slow-witted, and she has been abandoned by her husband; one of Augie's brothers is an idiot who must be institutionalized; the March family is always on the brink of actual poverty. Yet Augie's freewheeling gregariousness manages to absorb (thanks to the elasticity of Bellow's prose) a number of troublesome things—the anti-Semitism of neighborhood Polish Catholics, the disappointments of numerous petty jobs and various sorties into amateur crime, and the gradual disintegration of the March family. For though Augie is very much a loner, Augie March is the most generously populated of novels. Chicago emerges as a city of giants who reveal themselves in their speech (eloquent, eccentric, lyric as any in Ulysses) and in their possessions (which, like Joyce, Bellow loves to catalog at length). They are reckless, tender, cunning, naive, duplicitous, and loyal by turns. They may be, like the "great" Einhorn, assessed in classical terms, as Augie spiritedly aligns himself with the chroniclers of the great epics of the past: "I have the right," he says, "to praise Einhorn and not care about smiles of derogation from those who think the race no longer has in any important degree the traits we honor in [antiquity]." Or they may be, like Einhorn's son Dingbat, as gigantic in another direction, and as tenderly observed:
Without being a hoodlum himself [Dingbat] was taken up with gang events and crime, a kind of amateur of the lore and done up in the gangster taste so that you might take him for somebody tied in with the dangerous Druccis or Big Hayes Hubacek: sharp financial hat, body-clasping suit, the shirt Andalusian style buttoned up to the collar and worn without a necktie, trick shoes, pointed and pimpy, polished like a tango dancer's; he clomped hard on the leather heels. Dingbat's hair was violent, brilliant, black, treated, ripple-marked. Bantam, thin-muscled, swift, almost frail, he had an absolutely unreasonable face. To be distinguished from brutal—it wasn't that, there was a kind of sentiment in it. But wild, down-twisting, squint-eved, unchangeable firm and wrong in thoughts, with the prickles coming black through his unmethodical after shave talcum: the puss of an executioner's subject .... 16
Augie understands himself "forced early into deep city aims" in a crowded environment that can, at any moment, turn against him.
"You do all you can to humanize and familiarize the world," Augie observes, when his fortune declines, "and suddenly it becomes more strange than ever." At the city college he attends for a while he finds himself one of hundreds, or thousands, of the children of immigrants from every part of Chicago, aspiring to be, "the idea was," American. Which means to acquire power, by way of wealth, by way of the manipulation of others. Augie resists this Americanization, but he remains a child of Chicago, rather like the playwright Charlie Citrine who cannot—for all his cosmopolitan fame—free himself of the nostalgia for Chicago that is also a perverse fascination with and celebration of mortality—death. Whether Bellow composed Augie March for the sake of the many ideas it offers, or whether the ideas are mere excuses for his masterful evocations of Chicago, the reader is likely to be most struck by the young author's zestful attention to the details of time and place. Who else would take time to celebrate the "greatness of place" of Gary, Indiana; though Augie is temporarily wretched he notes:
Docks and dumps of sulphur and coal, and flames seen by their heat, not light, in the space of noon air among the black, huge Pasiphaë cows and other columnar animals, headless, rolling a rust of smoke and connected in an enormous statuary of hearths and mills—here and there an old boiler or a hill of cinders in the bulrush spawning-holes of frogs .... Thirty crowded miles on oil-spotted road, where the furnace, gas, and machine volcanoes cooked the Empedocles fundamentals into pig iron, girders, and rails .... 17
"If I mentioned a Chicago junkyard as well as Charlemagne's estate," says Augie defensively," I had my reasons. For should I look into any air, I could recall the bees and gnats of dust in the heavily divided heat of a Street of El pillars—such as Lake Street, where the junk and old bottle-yards are—like a terribly conceived church of madmen .... And sometimes misery came over me to feel that I myself was the creation of such places." 18
In the long story "Looking for Mr. Green" in the volume Mosby's Memoirs (1951) the native-born Chicagoan George Grebe is employed by the Welfare Department to deliver cheeks in the Negro district—but he cannot find the crippled black man Green, no matter how courageously or how desperately he tries. The black slums of Chicago will not yield their secrets to him; he cannot find the possibly mythical Green. But in his search he learns of a world, and of people, that he had not previously encountered. (He is a university graduate, with a degree in Classics worthless in the Depression years; his father was a butler in the home of a Lake Shore millionaire.) On the walls of tenement buildings he reads enigmatic scrawls as if they contained a message for him; "So the sealed rooms of pyramids were decorated, and the eaves of human dawn." Grebe is one of Bellow's characteristic heroes—ingenuous, eager to be instructed, eager to be of aid. He does not resent his supervisor's amused remarks on the ironies of "superior" education in this "fallen world of appearances"; "I'll tell you, as a man of culture," Raynor says pompously, "that though nothing looks to be real, and everything stands for something else, and that thing for a still further thing—there ain't any comparison between $25 and $37 a week, regardless of the last reality." Nor did the Greeks, for all their thoughtfulness, care to part with their slaves.
Herzog is a richly textured and extremely intense novel about an urban man, Moses Herzog, who shuttles back and forth between Chicago and New York, negotiating the terms of a most unpleasant divorce as he comes closer and closer to a breakdown. Perhaps he is already out of his mind—which is all right with him. At the novel's end, after some feverish activity, Herzog retreats to his mortgaged country home in Ludeyville, Massachusetts, with "no messages for anyone."
Like Augie Match, Herzog consciously resists the temptation to be heroic—to be involved in a dramatic (and consequently artificial) sequence of acts. The novel's theme is central to Bellow's mature work, and is stated quite explicitly midway in the narrative: "The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment you never dread death, you cultivate it .... " 19 In the foreground, however, Herzog is near-constant motion. Herzog is always going up or down subway steps, hailing taxis, flying in airplanes, driving (with unfortunate consequences) the Chicago freeway. A highly articulate intellectual—a historian—Herzog manages to get himself arrested by the Chicago police for possession of an old revolver; he is very badly treated by his former wife Madeleine and her somewhat comic lover; but he retreats finally to the fairly plausible "idyllic" setting of Ludeyville and—so it would seem—saves himself from collapse.
Herzog is an unusually self-absorbed novel, far more of an extended monologue than Bellow's other works, and one catches hardly more than glimpses of Herzog's Chicago, though he admits to being deeply involved with it. His Chicago, as he says sentimentally, is the Woodlawn Avenue section of Hyde Park:
Massive, clumsy, amorphous, smelling of mud and decay, dog cards; sooty facades, slabs of structural nothing, senselessly ornamented triple porches with huge cement urns for flowers that contained only rotting cigarette butts and other stained filth; sun parlors under tiled gables, rank areaways, gray backstairs, seamed and ruptured concrete from which sprang grass; ponderous four-by-four fences that sheltered growing weeds. [Here] Herzog did feel at home. He was perhaps as midwestern and unfocused as these same streets. (Not so much determinism, he thought, as lack of determining elements—the absence of a formative power.) 20
Driving to his elderly stepmother's home he broods over "clumsy, stinking, tender Chicago," and notes a species of flower he imagines to be peculiar to Chicago: "crude, waxy things like red and purple crayon bits, in a special class of false-looking natural objects." These foolish plants touch Herzog because they are so "graceless, so corny." By contrast, there is nothing tender, nothing remotely redemptive, about the City of Mr. Sammler's Planet—which is to say, New York City. As one of the "great" cities of the civilized world it is sharply disappointing: its hold on civilization is extremely tenuous. Not only does society appear to be sinking into madness, but there is, as well, the excuse of madness. Sammler passes judgment on a "whole nation, all of civilized society ... seeking the blameless state of madness. The privileged, almost aristocratic state of madness." 21 As if to mock Bellow's high intentions, an opportunistic young man tells Sammler: "You should denounce New York City. You should speak like a prophet, like from another world."
Mr. Sammler's Planet shares with Humboldt's Gift, and parts of Herzog, a curious and sometimes uneasy wedding of high, grave, and indeed "prophetic" musings and a plot that is frequently farcical, populated by comic characters. Elderly, half blind, a distinguished historian and journalist, Artur Sammler looks back upon his friendship with another prophet, H. G. Wells, and his acquaintance with Bloomsbury; he looks back, with distinctly less pleasure, on the madness of Nazism, the concentration camps, and a death ditch in Poland in which he almost died. He is a seer, a voice: he exists primarily in his judgments, which are quite savage. Perhaps it is a consequence of his age, as well as the high degree of reflective intelligence he represents, that he is an observer throughout the novel—a protagonist whose passivity and ironic cast of mind alienate him from the City, and forbid him much sympathy with it. The self-absorbed energies of the great city have lost their power to fascinate in the 1960s: too much is happening, very little is comprehended or absorbed, there is a "sexual madness" in the air, and in Sammler's words, "You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly." Like anyone who has seen the world collapse once, Sammler entertains the possibility that it might collapse twice.
Though Sammler's reading consists solely of Meister Eckhardt and the Bible (anticipating, perhaps, Charlie Citrine's "mystical" learnings) he is very much aware of the chaos around him, and is in fact caught up with it, in the sometimes strained plot Bellow has devised to illuminate one facet of the decade's absurdity. Sammler feels like the time-traveler in Wells's fantasy The Time Machine, and though the curve of the novel brings him to a thematic (and heavily rhetorical) affirmation of this life, this earth—in short, this planet—the novel's vitality springs from his general repulsion. This is the symbolic City in which a rat can be mistaken for a dachshund, and sexual experimentation of various kinds is taken up on principle. Simply living in New York makes Sammler think compulsively of Sodom and Gomorrah—a general doom "desired by people who have botched everything." Can the individual transcend this social malaise? Is there a margin of human accountability, quite apart from the lawlessness of civilization's "leaders"? But how, bewitched by the frenzy of the age, is one to "meet the terms of his contract"?
Perhaps because it was written during a particularly tumultuous decade, in which the fairly conservative Saul Bellow was frequently attacked for his political beliefs, Mr. Sammler's Planet is the harshest of his novels. It is filled with brooding upon evil and the fascination of evil; the author makes no attempt to link his protagonist with the City, except as an accidental witness; we have come a great distance from the exuberance of young Augie March. Even Sammler's musings upon slum life (as seen from his nephew Elya's Rolls-Royce) are oddly devoid of a sense of human kinship with the "underprivileged":
Downtown on Broadway ... Tenements, the Puerto Rican squalor. Then the University, squalid in a different way. Except on special occasions ... Sammler never came this way any more. Walking for exercise, he didn't venture this far uptown. And now ... he inspected the subculture of the underprivileged (terminology recently acquired in the New York Times), its Caribbean fruits, its plucked naked chickens with loose necks and eyelids blue, the wavering flames of Diesel and hot lard. Then Ninety-sixth Street, tilted at all four writers, the kiosks and movie houses, the ramparts wire-fastened newspaper bundles, and the colors of panic waving. Broadway ... always challenged Sammler. He was never up to it. And why should there be any contest? But there was, every time. For something was stated here. By a convergence of all minds and all movements the conviction transmitted by this crowd seemed to be that reality was a terrible thing, and that the final truth about mankind is overwhelming and crushing. This vulgar, cowardly conclusion, rejected by Sammler with all his heart, was the implicit local orthodoxy, the populace itself being metaphysical and living out this interpretation of reality and this view of truth .... Broadway at Ninety-sixth Street gave him such a sense of things. Life, when it was like this, all question-and-answer from the top of intellect to the very bottom, was really a state of singular dirty misery .... This poverty of soul, its abstract state, you could see in the faces on the street. And he too had a touch of the same disease .... 22
A Schopenhauerian vision. But even here, in this frenzied running-down corner of civilization, one can, by the very act of thinking, detach oneself from the fury of the world's blind Will; by way of the Idea which is not overpowered by maya in any of its forms. The irony of Sammler's (and Bellow's) position, freely acknowledged in the looser, wilder Humboldt's Gift, is that the novel's energies depend entirely upon the repulsiveness of what is being denounced. Nor is the "fallen" world dramatized; it is only denounced.
Humboldt's Gift, which was published in 1975 and brought Bellow, after a distinguished career, both the long-withheld Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize, resolves in comedy of a frequently outsized, loony nature many of the tragic paradoxes of Sammler's world. In Humboldt's Gift, discursive and moralizing passages seem, at times, set down almost at random in the text, and the novel's protagonist—Charlie Citrine, a "famous" and commercially successful playwright—often earns the impatience his ex-wives and other critics ("Reality Instructors") feel for him. Yet beneath the carnival-like plot there is the constant brooding upon death—mortality and love and fame and death in America—that Bellow has elsewhere explored; as Augie said long ago, "There is a darkness. It is for everyone."
Humboldt is, of course, Von Humboldt Fleisher, the beautiful, brilliant boy-genius of a poet who becomes—all too quickly, and too plausibly—a disheveled ruin of an alcoholic whose fate is a lonely death in a hotel off Times Square. Charlie Citrine, his old friend, is obsessed with Humboldt, not simply because he feels that, in complex ways, both he and Humboldt betrayed each other (and loved each other, like brothers), but because Humboldt's fate is illustrative of the fate of the poet in America at the present time:
The country is proud of its dead poets [Citrine thinks]. It rakes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these matters .... Poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make at here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either ...." So this ... is how successful bitter hard-faced and cannibalistic people exult. 23
And Citrine is convinced that Chicago with its "gigantesque outer life" contains the problem of poetry and the inner life in America. For if power, fame, and money—but particularly power—are all that matter, how is the poet to compete as a man among men? (For Bellow's point has very much to do with competition.) Where once the poet was considered to have divine powers, now his relative impotence is shown for what it is: "Having no machines, no transforming knowledge comparable to the knowledge of Boeing or Sperry Rand or IBM or RCA .... For could a poem pick you up in Chicago and land you in New York two hours later? Or could it compute a space shot? It had no such powers. And interest was where power was .... It was not Humboldt, it was the USA that was making its point: 'Fellow Americans, listen. If you abandon materialism and the normal pursuits of life you wind up at Bellevue like this poor kook.' " 24
Beneath Citrine's comic despair is the heart cry of Bellow himself, who has written elsewhere, frankly and thoughtfully, of the failure of the nation's "leaders" to pay the most minimal attention to novelists and humanists like himself. One hardly wants the State to show an interest in literature like that of Stalin's, yet the situation is rather discouraging for a writer of Bellow's stature. In a self-interview published in 1975, shortly after the appearance of Humboldt's Gift, Bellow attacks the "formulae, the jargon, the exciting fictions, the heightened and dramatized shadow events" selected by the media and accepted by the public and "believed by almost everyone to be real." Is the reading of serious literature at all possible for such people? In the universities, where one might expect something very different, "the teaching of literature has been a disaster." Interpretation—critical methodology—"learned" analyses—are substituted for the actual experience of the work of art itself. And the cultural intelligentsia (professors, commentators, editors) have become politicized and analytical in temper, and hostile to literature: the members of this elite, Bellow says, had literature in their student days and are now well beyond it.25
The City of Humboldt's Gift is background primarily, experienced in snatched moments, though greatly bound up with Citrine's meditation upon death. (Indeed, Humboldt's Gift is a novel whose very spirit feeds upon a sustained communion with the dead.) Citrine is not so obsessed with his guilt over Humboldt and his love for Renata, however, that he fails to pause for characteristically Bellovian moments of sharply observed commentary: New York City, for instance, seen from a high window of the Plaza Hotel, reveals itself in its myriad dazzling lights as similar to "cells in a capillary observed through a microscope, elastically changing shape, bumping and pulsatory"; and, in one of the book's strongest passages, Citrine broods:
On hot nights Chicagoans feel the city body and soul. The stockyards are gone, Chicago is no longer slaughter city, but the old smells revive us the night heat. Miles of railroad siding along the streets once were filled with red cattle cars, the animals waiting to cover the yards lowing and reeking. The old stink still haunts the place. It returns at times, suspiring from the vacated soil, to remind us all that Chicago had once led the world in butcher technology and that billions of animals had died here. And that night the windows were open wide and the familiar depressing multilayered stink of meat, tallow, blood-meal, pulverized bones, hides, soap, smoked slabs, and burnt hair came back. Old Chicago breathed again .... I heard fire trucks and ... ambulances, bowel-deep and hysterical. In the surrounding black slums incendiarism shoots up in summer ... Chicago, this night, was panting, the big urban engines going, tenements blazing in Oakwood with great shawls of flame, the sirens weirdly yelping, the fire engines, ambulances, and police cars—mad-dog, gashing knife weather, a rape and murder night. Bands of kids prowled with hand guns and knives .... 26
Have we come full circle, to the demonic subhuman City of Stephen Crane's Maggie?
Yet Citrine, and presumably Bellow, would leave us with the conviction that the individual is, indeed, capable of transcending the physical limits set for him by the City. Citrine appears convinced—as a consequence of his reading in the mystic Rudolf Steiner, and his involvement with people out of his and Humboldt's shared past—that one's existence is "merely the present existence, one in a series," and that there is more to any experience, connection, or relationship than ordinary consciousness, the daily life of the ego, can grasp. "The soul belongs," Citrine says, "to a greater, an all-embracing life outside ...."
The City has so fascinated contemporary writers of prose and poetry alike that no single essay can do justice to the variety of "images" that has been explored. Some are deservedly famous, like Bellow's, and that of Ralph Ellison (whose Invisible Man of 1952 is still very much a contemporary work); others, for instance Anne Tyler's Baltimore, deserve closer attention. Philip Levine has written less of Detroit than of lives passed in the haze of Detroit's industrial slums and near-slums; his most powerful poems fairly pulse with the beat of that infinitely sprawling city, and take their life from a perverse nostalgia which is all the more disturbing for its authenticity:
Coming Home, Detroit, 1968
A winter Tuesday, the city pouring fire,
Ford Rouge sulfurs the sun, Cadillac, Lincoln,
Chevy gray. The fat stacks
of breweries hold their tongues. Rags,
papers, hands, the stems of birches
dirtied with words.
Near the freeway
you stop and wonder what came off,
recall the snowstorm where you lost it all,
the wolverine, the northern bear, the wolf
caught out, ice and steel raining
from the foundries in a shower
of human breath. On sleds in the false sun
the new material rests. One brown child
stares and stares into your frozen eyes
until the lights change and you go
forward to work. The charred faces, the eyes
boarded up, the rubble of innards, the cry
of wet smoke hanging in your throat,
the twisted river stopped at the color of iron.
We burn this city every day. 27
New York City—that most mythical of cities—tends to emerge in recent literature as hellish, or at any rate murderous; yet its presence is the occasion for some of the most subtle and intelligently graceful prose of our time. Consider Hortense Calisher's classic "The Scream on 57th Street" in which a lonely woman hears, or believes she hears, a scream of terror five flights below her bedroom window: Some of us, Mrs. Hazlitt thinks with desperate pride, are still responsible. 28 Consider the New York observed in Renata Adler's novel of anecdote and collage, Speedboat (in which an unsolved murder is noted—but is not dwelt upon); and the New York of Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights (in which another murder—among numerous disturbing events—is noted in passing). The city cannot be comprehended but the vertiginous nature of its threat can be translated into language—a language necessarily oblique, circumspect, even coy. In Donald Barthelme's prose poems the City is reimagined from every possible angle: its suprahuman dynamism is a given, like the Milky Way, like the passage of time. A typically anonymous Barthelme hero sets out upon a "legendary" quest one day, hoping to climb the glass mountain (which might be confused with a high-rise office building) on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue. At the base of the mountain are the corpses of innumerable knights who have died attempting this climb, but the hero perseveres, and at the top—after ninety-odd numbered sentences—he encounters the 'beautiful enchanted symbol" in its golden castle. He approaches the symbol with its "layers of meaning" but, unfortunately, when he touches it "it changed into only a beautiful princess" whom he then throws headfirst down the mountain and into the street. 29
In another Barthelme fantasy, "The Balloon," a gigantic balloon appears in Manhattan, covering forty-five blocks north-south and an irregular area east-west, about six crosstown blocks on either side of Fifth Avenue. The Balloon is an anticity, an artifice of the imagination, hence disturbingly controversial. Everyone contemplates it; everyone has a theory. But it is reasonable to assume that the balloon's fascination lies partly in the fact that it is not limited or defined. It changes constantly. "The ability of the balloon to shift its shape, to change, was very pleasing, especially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned, persons to whom change, although desired, was not available. The balloon, for the twenty-two days of its existence, offered the possibility, in its randomness, of mislocation of the self, in contradistinction to the grid of precise, rectangular pathways under our feet." 30
In "City Life" the anonymous narrator expresses a view of the City not dissimilar to Arthur Sammler's: it is muck, but a multidirectional muck with its own mayor. It is a creation of the muckish nation-state, in itself the creation of that muck of mucks, human consciousness. And in one of Barthelme's most elaborately pessimistic stories, "Brain Damage," a finale of despair takes on the rhythms of a litany: "There's brain damage on the horizon, a great big blubbery cloud of it coming this way—This is the country of brain damage ... these are the rivers of brain damage where the damaged pilots land the big, damaged ships .... Skiing along on the soft surface of brain damage, never to sink, because we don't understand the danger—" 31
In one of the penultimate stories of the elegiac Too Far to Go, John Updike positions his soon-to-be-divorced protagonist Richard Maple in a Boston apartment with a view of a locally famous skyscraper. This skyscraper is a beautiful disaster, never completed, and Richard, in his solitude, finds much to contemplate in it. The skyscraper is disastrous—glass keeps falling from it—precisely because it is beautiful. "The architect had had a vision. He had dreamed of an invisible building, though immense; the glass was meant to reflect the sky and the old low brick skyline of Boston, and to melt into the city. Instead, the windows of mirroring glass kept falling to the street, and were replaced by ugly opacities of black plywood." Richard comes to equate the skyscraper with his own soul; even unseen, it is always present.
One day, however, Richard takes a walk, and finds himself at the base of the skyscraper. A mistake: the skyscraper close up is hideous.
Heavily planked and chicken-wired tunnels, guarded by barking policemen, protected pedestrians from falling glass .... Trestles and trucks jammed the cacophonous area. The lower floors were solid plywood, of a Stygian black; the building, so lovely in air, had tangled mucky roots. 32
The building, so lovely in air, had tangled murky roots.
- Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p. 9.
- Anzia Yezierska, "My Last Hollywood Script," in The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection (New York: Persea Books, 1979), p. 187.
- Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler's Planet (New York: Viking Press, 1969), p. 26. Bellow's Sammler broods: "The many impressions and experiences of life seemed nol longer to occur each in its own proper space, in sequence, each with its recognizable religiouos or aesthetic importance, but human beings suffered the humiliations of inconsequence, of confused styles, of a long life containing several separate lives. In fact the whole experience of mankind was now covering each separate life in its flood.... Compelling the frail person to receive, to register, depriving him because of volume, of mass, of the power to impart design."
- Donald Barthelme, "City Life," in City Life (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. 166.
- Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (New York: Fawcett, 1978), pp. 26-28.
- Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (New York: Modern Library, 1925), p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 83.
- Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, 1979), p. 9.
- Ibid., p. 138.
- Ibid., p. 155.
- Ibid., p. 231.
- Harriette Arnow is the author of a number of novels, but her masterpiece is The Dollmaker, first published in 1954 and reprinted by Avon Books in 1972. Since I wrote the Afterword for this edition I hesitate to repeat myself, except to emphasize the fact that The Dollmaker, set in Kentucky and Detroit during the closing months of World War II, is as significant a work as any by John Steinbeck and may bear comparison, in some respects at least, with the novels of William Faulkner.
- William James, letter to Henry James, 1907; in F. O. Matthiessen, The James Family (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 313.
- Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (New York: Modern Library, 1965), p. 39. Originally published in 1953.
- Ibid., p. 124.
- Ibid., p. 62.
- Ibid., p. 90.
- Ibid., p. 330
- Saul Bellow, Herzog (New York: Viking Press, 1961), p. 333.
- Ibid., p. 317.
- Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet (New York: Viking Press, 1970), p. 89.
- Ibid., pp. 279-280.
- Humboldt's Gift, p. 118.
- Ibid., p. 155.
- "Self-Interview" by Saul Bellow in The Ontario Review, Fall-Winter 1975-76, pp. 51-60.
- Humboldt's Gift, p. 115.
- From They Feed They Lion (New York: Antheneum, 1972).
- The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (New York: Arbor House, 1975), p. 502.
- Donald Barthelme, "The Glass Mountain," in City Life, pp. 64-65.
- Barthelme, "The Balloon," in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968), p. 21.
- Barthelme, "Brain Damage," in City Life, p. 146.
- John Updike, "Gesturing," in Too Far to Go (New York: Fawcett, 1979), pp. 222-223.