The City: Modern Poetics and Metropolitan Life

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Culminating a trend almost as old as the nation itself, the 1910s mark the moment at which more Americans began to live in cities (as the national census defined them) than in rural areas (US Census). In a society as devoted to ideologies of individual liberty and self-reliance as the United States, this shift, however inexorable it might have seemed, had always been a source of substantial cultural anxiety. Expressing, exploring, and displacing the anxieties over America’s ongoing urbanization was arguably the central project of nineteenth-century American writing in both literary and popular realms. As the century wore on, a generic divide regarding the fact of the city emerged: in the simplest terms, prose writers engaged the city while poets tried to refuse it altogether. Even those authors of literary fiction more typically associated with nonurban settings could write about the city with striking power and insight: Melville in “Bartleby,” Poe in “The Man of the Crowd” and the Dupin stories, Crane in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Chopin in “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” And many of those who eschewed urban settings at a literal level, such as Twain and Hawthorne, explored urban versus rural anxieties in metaphoric forms that spoke meaningfully to those evergrowing numbers of Americans experiencing them every day of their lives. Despite the vaunted status of “lighting out for the territories” within the national consciousness, as early as 1850 “the city novel” had become “the most popular fictional genre, far outstripping even the frontier novel of westward expansion and exploration,” as Christopher Beach notes (123). In other words, the quintessential urchin-protagonist of American fiction during the second half of the nineteenth century was not Huck Finn so much as Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. Meanwhile, American poetry during the same years was dominated by the six long-lived men known as the New England Poets and the Schoolroom Poets but most evocatively as the Fireside Poets. Their work was characterized by defensive condemnations of the urban scene and nostalgic celebrations of rural folkways and values that were ostensibly vanishing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAmerican Literature in Transition, 1910-1920
EditorsMark W Van Wienen
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781316534397
ISBN (Print)9781107143302
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Publication series

NameAmerican Literature in Transition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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