Spring 2004

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Willa Cather's Quarrel With Urbanism

by Matthias Schubnell, University of the Incarnate Word

Willa Cather is closely associated with landscapes in her writings, among them the prairie of the Great Divide in Nebraska in many of her short stories and early novels, O Pioneers! and My Antonia; the deserts and canyons of the American Southwest in The Song of the Lark, The Professors House and Death Comes For the Archbishop, and the forest wilderness engulfing Quebec in Shadows on the Rock. However, Cather's work also contains numerous portraits of cities, among them Chicago, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, London and New York. After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Cather spent most of her life in cities to build a professional career, first in Pittsburgh and later in New York. While choosing a cosmopolitan life with all its cultural amenities and professional opportunities, she expresses in many of her works her objections to the negative effects of urban living. The rise of the metropolis and the automobile ushered in the Machine Age, and Cather was profoundly disturbed by its implications for people and culture.

A look at her 1912 short story "Behind the Singer Tower" and her 1928 story Neighbour Rosicky" in the context of the contemporary debate about urbanism reveals that Cather, far from seeking a new aesthetic for the Machine Age, often anticipates or echoes the most outspoken detractors of this new era, such as the American cultural critics, Lewis Mumford and Ernest H. Gruening, and the German sociologist Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Toennies, as well as historian Oswald Spengler. As is the case so often with Cather, her concerns have remained fresh and relevant to our own age.

To appreciate fully Cather's contributions to a critique of urbanism, it is useful to survey some of the seminal statements on the rise of the city and its cultural and social consequences. Lewis Mumford, in his 1938 study The Culture of Cities, postulates that the large modern city evolves from a metropolis to a megalopolis to a necropolis (qtd. in Sutcliffe, "Introduction" 2). His association of the final stage of city development with death resembles closely what Oswald Spengler wrote in his The Decline of the West, volume 2, published in German in 1922 (English translation 1928), about the city's inevitable drift toward ruin: "Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country" (102). In turn, having sacrificed "first the blood and soul of its creators to the needs of its majestic evolution, and then the last flower of that growth to the spirit of Civilization," the world-city, "doomed, moves on to final self-destruction" (107). Ernest H. Gruening, in a 1922 article entitled "New York City: Work of Man," published in The Nation, wrote in much the same pessimistic vein. In his most scathing criticism of New York's effect on its citizens, Gruening charges that". . . like war, the New York Moloch demands and gets its victims. Countless moths and butter- flies are singed at its flame, countless brave swimmers dragged down into its maelstrom, sunk without trace" (575). This image conjures up not only the moloch in the form of a machine that is fueled by the lives of workers to keep the city running in Fritz Lang's 1926 movie, Metropolis, but also Cather's own depiction of how the Mont Blanc Hotel is constructed in "Behind the Singer Tower."

Twelve years before Gruening's essay, Cather uses the same imagery to describe modernity and urbanism's fateful pull. In the aftermath of the burning of the Mont Blanc Hotel that killed scores of people, the story's narrator, Fred Hallet, tells the story of his Italian friend, Caesarino, who died while helping to build the hotel because of the architect's negligence and disregard for his immigrant work force. Hallet reflects on the modern obsession with city building and its attraction to foreign workers who leave their rural lives behind. "Why do we do it? And why, in heavens name, do they do it? . . . why do they come, like iron dust to the magnet, like moths to the flame? There must be something wonderful coming. . . . What it will be is a new idea of some sort" (290-91). This assertion sounds hollow and is at best a wishful rationalization of waste and death in the age of the city. After all, Cather points to a series of examples that illustrates the destructiveness of the age of urbanism. Just prior to the assertion that all this striving occurs in the "service of this unborn idea," presumably progress, technology or materialism, the narrator concedes There's a lot of waste about building a city. . . . Wherever there is the greatest output of energy, wherever the blind human race is exerting itself most furiously, there is bound to be tumult and disaster. Here we are, six men, with our pitiful few years to live and our one little chance for happiness, throwing everything we have into that conflagration on Manhattan Island, helping, with every nerve in us, with everything our brain cells can generate, with our very creature heat, to swell its glare, its noise, its luxury, and its power. (290)

The question Cather raises here, of course, is whether the human cost of this endeavor is justified. Caesarino dies because Stanley Merryweather, who oversees the construction of the Mont Blanc, sacrifices him to his maxim "that men are cheaper than machinery" (287). To maximize profits, Merryweather skimps on the maintenance of his equipment until finally a cable breaks and Caesarino and five other men die under a load of sand.

Cather's choice of name here is not only ironic, since Merryweather clearly does not create a joyful climate for those around him, but it links the developer to the great explorer of the American continent, Meriwether Lewis, suggesting the progression from the exploration of America to the conquest and taming of the continent in the era of urbanization. Yet while Meriwether Lewis's expedition earned the respect of the people he encountered on his journey, this modern incarnation of the empire-builder is seriously flawed in his contempt for workers' safety and his pursuit of profit at any cost.

Cather decries here not only the developer's inhuman nature, but also the inhuman scale of the project. She describes the four-acre site, which she refers to as "that big hole" (285), as hellish in nature, a dangerous battle zone between man and machine, "with little crumpled men crawling about like tumblebugs under the stream from a searchlight" (287). Caesarino, the name is surely ironic given that he is merely fodder for the construction moloch, is crushed like a bug, or burned like a moth that has strayed too closely to the deadly flame of the modern world's grand aspirations.

Caesarino's journey from Italy to this American metropolis charts a passage from an earth-bound, organic existence to life in a barren urban setting. The Italian's struggle and death are a far cry from his life on Ischia, where he made his living as a coral diver and vintner, member of a family and community closely tied to the sea and land. "His father, a symbol of fertility, had done the best he could to insure the perpetuity of his breed before he went under the lava to begin all over again by helping to make the vines grow in that marvelously fruitful volcanic soil" (284). In contrast, Caesarino succumbs to ". . . the pressure of their time and ours" (285), as Hallet puts it, suggesting Cather's belief in a historical determinism that anticipates Oswald Spengler's fullest articulation of this idea in The Decline of the West by six years. Caesarino dies childless in a hole that soon will be filled by the monumental hotel, suggesting symbolically that even in death he is cut off from the ecological web to which his fathers body contributed in the end, thus reinforcing the barrenness and deadly grasp of the new era.

In Cather's short story, high rise buildings are not only associated with death because they are erected upon the dead bodies of construction workers, just as Henry David Thoreau's railroad workers' corpses embody the sleepers under the tracks, nor because the maintenance of skyscrapers kills more than one window cleaner a day (280), as Fred Hallet notes in the story, but because the structure itself, far from being the crowning achievement of architectural ingenuity, turns out to be a death trap. Unlike its namesake in the French Alps, the Mont Blanc Hotel is not a majestic, enduring marvel of nature, but a fragile structure that is quickly consumed by fire. The name, then, is ironic, an expression of overconfidence, just as the race to build taller and taller buildings is a sign of modern hubris. Cather implies here what Ernest H. Gruening would articulate ten years later in his essay in The Nation: The skyscraper, in part a response to the irrefragable horizontal straightjacketing of the city plan, was conceived in constriction, sired by aspiration[. . . } it is a symbol of mans conquest . Here man has not only been in conflict with nature. Here nature has been not merely checked, tamed and converted to his service. Here nature has been fully conquered and is now being destroyed. (575)

Yet as the hotel fire shows, these "puerile structures," as Lewis Mumford called them, can quickly obliterate their inhabitants (City Development 50).

In a central passage in "Behind the Singer Tower," Cather uses pathetic fallacy to evoke the sense of bewilderment, confusion and fear that results from the rise of the city. This literary technique usually attributes human activities or feelings to aspects of the natural world, but here Cather applies it to the new urban context: There was a brooding mournfulness over the harbor, as if the ghosts of helplessness and terror were abroad in the darkness. One felt a solemnity in the misty spring sky where only a few stars shone, pale and far apart, and in the sighs of the heavy black water that rolled up into the light. The city itself, as we looked back at it, seemed enveloped in a tragic self-consciousness. Those incredible towers of stone and steel seemed, in the mist, to be grouped confusedly together, as if they were confronting each other with a question. They looked positively lonely, like the great trees left after a forest is cut away. One might fancy that the city was protesting, was asserting its helplessness, its irresponsibility for its physical conformation, for the direction it had taken. It was an irregular parallelogram pressed between two hemispheres, and, like any other solid squeezed in a vice, it shot upward. (278)

The sighing of the black water exemplifies the traditional use of pathetic fallacy, but what follows consists of a series of attributions to the group of skyscrapers that make up the core of the city. Their "tragic self-consciousness," their questions concerning the confusing placement of one to another, their loneliness as a result of being removed from a sustaining context, and their protest against those responsible for their design suggest that the New York skyline does not reflect a triumph of modern architecture, but rather the gloom of an experiment gone gravely wrong. The shooting upward of these structures results from the application of a terrible force and creates an environment unsettling and even hostile to human habitation.

While "Behind the Singer Tower" expressed Cather's concern for the human cost of constructing the megalopolis and the city's threat to people's physical safety, "Neighbour Rosicky" shows her dismay with the decline of human values, dignity and solidarity in the age of urbanization. Cather incorporates these impressions into "Neighbor Rosicky" when Anton tells Polly, his daughter-in-law: "Dem big cities is all right fur the rich, but dey is terrible hard fur de poor" (34). He remembers London as a place rife with squalor, ill health and lack of privacy, "with another crowded, angry family quarrelling just across the dumb-waiter shaft" (37). Most haunting, though, are his memories of the moral corruption he witnessed in London: In the country, if you had a mean neighbour, you could keep off his land and make him keep off yours. But in the city, all the foulness and misery and brutality of your neighbours was part of your life. The worst thing he had come upon in his journey through the world were humans, —depraved and poisonous specimens of man. To this day he could recall certain terrible faces in the London streets. There were mean people everywhere, to be sure, even in their own country town here. But they weren't tempered, hardened, sharpened, like the treacherous people in the cities who lived by grinding or cheating or poisoning their fellow-men. (51)

Cather's shares her view of urban life as divisive, competitive, individualistic and promoting selfishness and economic dependency with many early sociologists and psychologists.

The census of 1920 showed that for the first time more people lived in cities than in rural areas. This radical shift did not occur without psychological consequences for the urban population. As Richard Lehan points out, "Dr. John M. Beard, anticipating the problem in his American Nervousness (1881), coined the word neurasthenia to describe the mental instability attributable to the pace and pressures — of city life" (183). In a lecture in 1900, Georg Simmel explores the psychological consequences of city life, ideas that would later appear in an article titled "The Metropolis and Mental Life." He writes that "the psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli" (409-10) and adds that "the metropolis extracts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. Here the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly" (410).Simmel also notes that the psychic life of rural people is "rooted in the more unconscious layers of the psyche," whereas the city dweller reacts with his head instead of his heart" against "the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him" (410).

Simmel ties the rise of intellectuality as a defense mechanism against the stimuli of metropolitan life to the prevailing money economy in the city. What results is a "matterof- fact attitude in dealing with men and with things; and, in this attitude, a formal justice is often coupled with an inconsiderate hardness" (411). As has been suggested earlier, Stanley Merryweather in "Behind the Singer Tower" embodies this modern personality type that represents the nexus between rationality and financial profit at the expense of humanity. Simmel's observations, however, also shed light on Anton Rosicky's city experience: "What an escape he had had, to be sure! He, too, in his time, had to take money for repair work from the hand of a hungry child who let it go so wistfully; for it was money due his boss. And now, in all these years, he had never had to take a cent from any one in bitter need,— never had to look at the face of a woman become like a wolfs from struggle and famine" (52-3).

Simmel explains that in more intimate settings, such as in small towns or villages, "the inevitable knowledge of individuality as inevitably produces a warmer tone of behavior, a behavior which is beyond a mere objective balancing of service and return" (411). In the metropolis, however, calculation, matter-of-factness and anonymity all result in indifference and reserve (415). While all this accounts for the personal freedom that is characteristic of metropolitan life, it also involves the paradox that this freedom is experienced as loneliness in the narrow confinement and mass population of the city ("The Metropolis" 418).

While these characteristics of urban life dominate Rosicky's struggle in London and New York, one feature is particularly significant: the restlessness Cather observed in London's slums in 1902 becomes the most prominent symptom of Anton's alienation in the city: "But as the years passed, all alike, he began to get a little restless. When spring came round, he would begin to feel fretted, and he got to drinking. . . to get a temporary illusion of freedom and wide horizons" (28). Simmel explains that this "secret restlessness" (The Philosophy 484) grows out of metropolitan man's "feeling of tension, expectation and unreleased intense desires" and results in the typical quest to find "momentary satisfaction in ever-new stimulations, sensations and external activities. . . . We become entangled in the instability and helplessness that manifests itself as the tumult of the metropolis, as the mania for traveling, as the wild pursuit of competition" (The Philosophy 484).

All these ideas come together in the crucial scene of Rosickys epiphany on the Fourth of July in Park Place: The lower part of New York was empty. Wall Street, Liberty Street, Broadway, all empty. So much stone and asphalt with nothing going on, so many empty windows. The emptiness was intense, like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running. It was too great a change, it took all the strength out of one. Those blank buildings, without the stream of life pouring through them, were like empty jails. It struck young Rosicky that this was the trouble with big cities; they build you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground. You lived in an unnatural world, like the fish in an aquarium, who were probably much more comfortable than they ever were in the sea. (28-9)

This emptiness, the sudden lack of stimuli and the absence of fellow human beings, all contribute to the deflation of Rosicky's strength. The three images of the machine, the jail and the aquarium summarize the dehumanizing, restrictive and artificial nature of urban life. The three references to Wall Street, Liberty Street and Broadway represent in short hand Cather's quarrel with urbanism. Wall Street symbolizes not only the false lure of material success but also the human enclosure in a world disconnected from nature and love, a point already made in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Significantly, Anton has sought refuge in a park, but clearly this small piece of nature, artificial as it is, cannot sustain him. It is no substitute to the "ties to the earth and the farm animals and growing things" (29-30) that he had established as a child on his grandparents' farm in Czechoslovakia. Cather's point runs counter to the idea of the park as a means to humanize the urban living space, popularized by Frederick Law Olmsted who argued that "No one who has closely observed the conduct of the people who visit the Park [Central Park], can doubt that it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city,— an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance" (96).[1] Anton's retreats to the park certainly do not stop his drinking, and his intuition tells him that he must leave the city.

Cather's reference to Liberty Street is ironic since it clearly does not lead Rosicky to liberty at all. In fact, he finds his independence only by leaving the city streets. Georg Simmel describes another kind of freedom engendered by the city, one that applies directly to Anton's experience. In the city, ". . . the bodily proximity and narrowness of space makes the mental distance only the more visible. . . . For here as elsewhere it is by no means necessary that the freedom of man be reflected in his emotional life as comfort" ("The Metropolis" 418). In order to find this comfort, Anton Rosicky must become "Neighbour Rosicky," a man no longer lonely in the crowd, but part of the social network of a close-knit community.

The destruction of community resulting from the rise of the city was one of the central concerns critics of modernity articulated. In 1899, the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies postulated that "community is old, society is new, as a phenomenon and as a name," and that entering society is like entering "into a strange country, a mechanical aggregate and artefact" (qtd. in Frisby 92). Despite the countless interactions and transactions between individuals in society, particularly in an urban, metropolitan setting, they remain "alien to each other, have nothing in common with one another, and confront each other in an essentially antagonistic and even hostile manner" (qtd. in Frisby 92). In looking for an alternative form of social organization, Toennies suggested cooperative and collective structures in which authentic human relations would take the place of social relations based on utility. This utopian vision harks back to older forms of communities related to agriculture, and Anton Rosicky's escape from urbanism leads him appropriately to just such a communal, creative and ecologically conscious existence.

Cather's reference to Broadway in the earlier quoted scene of Rosicky's awakening in Park Place relates precisely to an inauthentic life in modern America, associating popular culture not only with the urbanite's search for "momentary satisfaction in ever-new stimulations, sensations and external activities" (Simmel, The Philosophy 484), i.e. to the voracious America appetite for entertainment as distraction, but also to Lewis Mumford's view of Broadway as the great compensatory device of the American city" (City Development 12). Mumford explained further that Broadway. . . is the façade of the American city: a false front. The highest achievements of our material civilization. . . count as so many symptoms of its spiritual failure. In order to cover up the vacancy of getting and spending in our cities, we have invented a thousand fresh devices for getting and spending. As a consequence our life is externalized. The principle institutions of the American city are merely distractions that take our eyes off the environment, instead of instruments which would help us to mold it creatively a little nearer to humane hopes and desires. (City Development 13)

Rosicky apprehends all this intuitively: "To work on another man's farm would be all he asked; to see the sun rise and set and to plant things and watch them grow. He was a very simple man. He was like a tree that has not many roots, but one tap-root that goes down deep" (30).

Antons escape to a life of contentment in the country is qualified by his struggle to protect his children from the lure of the city, an effort whose success remains uncertain. Just as the motorcar spoils the city— Cather describes one in Coming, Aphrodite!" as mis-shapen and sullen, like an ugly threat in a stream of things that were bright and beautiful and alive" (65), the industrialization of agriculture represented by the Marshall's mechanized farm may well spell the end of Rosicky's dream for his children's independence in the countryside. The pull of the city may yet draw them away from the land, just as it drew Caesarino from rural Italy to New York City. It seems that the end of" Neighbour Rosicky" echoes what Cather said in a New York Times interview in 1924: "Restlessness such as ours, success such as ours, striving such as ours, do not make for beauty. . . .It is possible that machinery has finished us as far as this is concerned. Nobody stays at home any more, nobody makes anything beautiful any more. Quick transportation is the death of art. We can't keep still because it is so easy to move about" (11). This commentary sums up Cather's conviction that the rise of urbanism and the machine age threatened American culture and a way of life she held dear, themes that she explores in detail in "Behind the Singer Tower" and "Neighbour Rosicky."

End Notes

 1. This essay was first read at the request of the American Social Science Association at the Lowell Institute, February 25, 1870, and published the same year in American Social Science Association. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1870. 1-36. (Sutton 52). (Go back.)

Works Cited

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——. "Coming, Aphrodite!" Collected Sto- ries. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. 63-101.
——. "Restlessness Such As Ours Does Not Make For Beauty." New York Times Book Review. Dec. 21, 1924: 11.
——. Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey. New York: Knopf, 1956.
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——."Zur Einleitung in der Soziologie." Zeitschrift Fuer Philosphie und Philosophische Kritik, 115 (1899): 248.