5. Modern City
The MODERN CITY—epitomized by Manhattan's skyscrapers, bridges, neon lights, and 24/7 vitality—was the single most dominant icon of America in the 1920s. It lured many, repelled others, and fascinated all. What was lost and what was gained in the expansive, all-encompassing wonder-ful metropolis? Could the modern city herald man's ascendancy and nurture the human spirit? And just what made the modern city . . . modern?
Lewis Mumford, "The Intolerable City: Must It Keep On Growing." New York native Lewis Mumford was a thirty-year-old literary editor and architecture critic in 1926 when he published this piece for Harper's, a seminal work in his long career as the critic-philosopher of the modern American city. "The mouths of our great cities," he declaimed, "are gigantic hoppers" that devour the human spirit, a process he dramatized in the first half of this article (presented here) through three typical New York City residents—office worker "Mr. Brown," millionaire "Mr. Smith-Robinson," and suburbanite "Mr. Jones." The suburbs could provide only a temporary respite, Mumford insisted, and despite the bold futuristic visions of architects in "Cloudcuckooland," nothing could make the sprawling urban centers "fit for permanent human habitation." For the rest of his life, Mumford promoted the creation of new moderate-sized communities, surrounded by agricultural green space, designed to nurture the best that life had to offer homo sapiens. What makes the modern American city a "giant hopper" into which we pour food, energy, metals, and people? Why did Mumford reject the favored alternatives? What did he promote in their stead? (7 pp.)
Collected commentary on the skyscraper. In the American self-image of the 1920s, the icon of modern was the modern city, the icon of the modern city was New York City, and the icon of New York City was the skyscraper. Love it or hate it, the skyscraper symbolized the go-go and up-up drive that "America" meant to itself and much of the world. A sampling of Twenties commentary on the architectural phenomenon that still captures the American imagination is presented here. How did the skyscraper epitomize what was modern in America? How was it idolized and demonized? How did foreign observers respond to American skyscrapers? (Also see skyscrapers in art and film in the sections Modern City in Art and Modern City in Film.) Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (10 pp.)
Silent newsreels. What better subject for live action news in the Twenties than the construction of ever-taller ever-more impressive skyscrapers in American cities. These two newsreels differ widely in tone: why?
- - "Old and New Detroit," 1923 (~2:20). In this low-key newsreel, the transformation of downtown Detroit over fifty years is depicted in five then-and-now sequences.
DETROIT NEWS PICTORIAL/WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
- - "905 Feet High," 1929 (1:56). "Final steelwork completed on Bank of Manhattan—World's highest building. Our cameraman was there—of course!" With dramatic flourish British Pathé News reported the vertical dominance of 40 Wall Street (now the Trump Building)—the world's tallest building for a few days in 1930 until the completion of the Chrysler Building.
BRITISH PATHÉ NEWS
Poets and the modern city. Man's awe of his technological feats, and his ambivalence toward their consequences on his spirit and culture, fueled much literary exploration in the twentieth century. These two poems explore man's response to the modern dilemmas created by his technological dominance. Will it dominate him? What aspect of the modern city is central in each poem, and how does the poet use it as a metaphor for man's relationship to nature and his civilization? How is man accommodating to modernity? What future does modernity offer man, if any, that sustains the scaffolding of mankind's past? You might compare these poems with Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856) and Carl Sandburg's "Skyscraper" (1916). (2 pp.)
- - Robert Frost, "A Brook in the City," 1921. Not a nostalgic pastoral poem as its first words suggest, "Brook" reverberates with the submerged fury of a farmland brook cemented over by a "new-built city." Although imprisoned for no fault other than, perhaps, failing to submit to the city's imperious advance, the brook is not impotent. Its water, an "immortal force" that man has deemed superfluous, may already be haunting the city, depriving its residents of the equanimity they would have known if living, still, in an old farmhouse in an old meadow. What are its "thoughts [that] may not have risen," and what is their power? Read "Brook" aloud to hear the restrained ire in the meter (iambic pentameter). The rhyming couplets end in terse one-syllable words; of the 193 words in the poem, only three have more than two syllables (and those have only three syllables). Compare "Brook" with the similar-themed Frost poem, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" (1920).
- - Hart Crane, "To Brooklyn Bridge," 1930. In the introductory "proem" to his dense epic-length The Bridge, Crane addresses the Brooklyn Bridge, the engineering marvel completed in 1883 that connects Brooklyn and Manhattan Island. As the Statue of Liberty a few miles away symbolizes American independence and promise, the Brooklyn Bridge epitomizes America's technological and continental dominance—and its refusal to cower to natural limits. Bridges, by connecting, destroy isolation; by towering, they touch the heavens; by rooting deep in the waters, they affirm immortality; and by dominating any landscape they inhabit, they rule. In Crane's poem, the Brooklyn Bridge anchors America's past while connecting it to the undefinable but promising future. How does the bridge make the harsh city beautiful and sublime? How does it buoy optimism and exuberance (despite the suicide in stanza five)? How does it approach divinity, and offer "reprieve and pardon"? Although a product of man, what does it offer man that he cannot provide himself? (Crane intended The Bridge to offer a more optimistic and spiritual vision of American modernity than T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.1) For guidance in interpreting the poem, see Hart Crane's The Bridge: A Digital Resource, and other supplemental sites below. It is essential to read the poem aloud.
See also Modern City in Art, Modern City in Film, and City & Town.
- What aspects of the large American city defined modern in the 1920s?
- According to the commentators, what were positive and negative consequences of creating the modern city—and living in it?
- What made the modern city, despite its negative aspects, symbolic of American progress and optimism?
- What made it, despite its positive consequences, symbolic of American materialism and blind drive?
- Can the city be modern and nurture the human spirit? Cite opinions from the resources in this section.
- In other words, is the modern city the best environment for man's vitality and progress, or does it sap his will and spirit?
- According to Lewis Mumford, what made the modern American city "intolerable"?
- Why did Mumford reject the favored fixes and alternatives to the "intolerable city," including the suburb?
- What did he propose as a viable and sustainable solution?
- How did the skyscraper epitomize what was modern in America?
- How was it idolized and demonized? Was it a modern god? altar? to what?
- How did foreign observers (including newsreel producers) respond to American skyscrapers?
- How did skyscrapers contribute to civic pride? economic efficiency? urban risk? national self-image?
- How did the response to skyscrapers reflect childlike awe as well as self-congratulatory hubris?
- Characterize the modern city of the 1920s, as presented in these resources, in one phrase, e.g., using two adjectives, a noun, and a qualifying phrase—a vast triumphant spectacle of modern wizardry, or a brainless fire-breathing monster devouring its creator. What can you learn from this exercise?
- From these resources, write an overview of the modern American city in the 1920s, beginning or ending with one of these statements:
- - We do have a love of bigness.
R. F. Duffus, "The Vertical City," The New Republic, July 3, 1929
- - Gigantic chaos, that is the first feeling I had in New York.
W. L. George, Hail Columbia!, 1921
- - "905 Feet High!"
Newsreel, British Pathé News, 1929
- - The farm house lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in.
Robert Frost, "A Brook in the City," 1921
- - Surely, this is the best that modern civilization can offer, this New York with its dazzle of pointed towers, this Chicago with its sweep of avenues, this Detroit with its thick pageant of motors?
Lewis Mumford, "The Intolerable City: Must It Keep On Growing?" Harper's, February 1926
- How do the poems by Robert Frost and Hart Crane explore man's response to the modern dilemmas created by his technological dominance? Will it dominate him?
- What aspect of the modern city is central in each poem? How does the poet use it as a metaphor for man's relationship to nature, human civilization, and modernity?
- How is man accommodating to his own modernity? Can he survive and thrive?
- What future does modernity offer man, if any, that sustains the scaffolding of mankind's past?
- Consider the conclusion of each poem. Which is foreboding and conveys doom? Which is prayerful and awaits redemption?
- In Frost's "Brook," why can the brook not be "kept forever under"? What are the brook's "thoughts [that] may not have risen," and what is their power?
- In Crane's "To Brooklyn Bridge," why is the bridge addressed as "thee"? How does the bridge offer "reprieve and pardon"? religious redemption?
- How does the bridge buoy optimism and exuberance (despite the suicide in stanza five)? Although a product of man, what does it offer man that he cannot provide himself?
- Study the first-person "I" statements in each poem: "I ask," "I wonder," "I think." Is Crane speaking to the bridge? Is Frost speaking to the brook?
- Read each poem aloud and analyze the poet's use of meter, rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and other poetic devices to make the poems be as well as say.
- How is Crane's "Bridge" a modernist poem? How does Frost's "Brook" reflect modernist as well as pastoral elements?
- Compare "Brook" with the similar-themed Frost poem, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" (1920). What must man sustain from his pre-urban past? Why?
- Compare Crane's "Bridge" with other poems based on the Brooklyn Bridge. See Supplemental Sites below, and see Modern City in Art for visual depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge. Why has the bridge remained a compelling image for over a century?
- How was modernity defined in the Twenties? What did "becoming modern" mean to the nation as a whole? to people in their personal lives?
- What aspects of modernity were welcomed, resisted, or unrecognized in the Twenties? Why?
- How were the social and political divisions of the period reflected in the debates over modernity?
- In what ways is the decade's experience with modernity familiar and resonant today?
Mumford, "The Intolerable City"
Commentary on the skyscraper
Poems: Frost & Crane
"City as Community: The Life and Vision of Lewis Mumford
," by Robert Wojtowicz, art historian, Old Dominion University
The Roaring Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City
, by Emily Thompson, Professor of History, Princeton University
Symbols of the 1920s: New York City Skyscrapers in Photographs and Paintings
, by Roberta McCutcheon (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)
Above & Below: Skyscrapers to Subways in New York City, 1913-1949
(Syracuse University Art Galleries)
(Digital Archive of American Architecture, Boston College)
, New York: exhibitions
The Chrysler Building
, architect: William van Allen, constructed, 1926-1930 (Picturing
America: Teachers Resource Guide; also see online gallery
40 Wall Street
, Trump Building (New York Architecture, personal site of architect Tom Fletcher)
How to Read a Poem
Resources on Robert Frost and "A Brook in the City"
Resources on Hart Crane and "To Brooklyn Bridge"
Brooklyn Bridge Poetry
: seven poems (personal site of Gary Feuerstein)
Brooklyn Bridge in American poetry
The Poetry of the Brooklyn Bridge
, by John Lundberg (Huffington Post)
, in The Gilded and the Gritty: America: 1870-1912 (National Humanities Center)
Gregory Woods, "Hart Crane," in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal
, eds. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995); © 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.; excerpted in On The Bridge
, website: Modern American Poetry, Dept. of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/crane/bridgecrit.htm.
– Aerial view of Manhattan, including 42nd St., Fifth Avenue, Bryant Park, Paramount Building, etc., photograph, 1931 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 1558472.
– Samuel H. Gottscho, "View of New York from Roof of St. George [Hotel]," photograph (detail), Sept. 10, 1932. Museum of the City of New York, 22.214.171.124. Reproduced by permission.
– "Brooklyn Bridge & Woolworth B'ldg.," photograph by Irving Underhill, 1921 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection, Digital ID 800560.
– Charles Forbell, "Would Columbus Have Turned Back If—?" cartoon, Life
, late 1920. Copyright holder unknown; search in process.
– Still from silent newsreel, "905 Feet High" (New York City), 1929. Courtesy of British Pathé News.
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