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« Spinning Yeats | Main | Tennyson and LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN »
Tuesday
Nov302010

Spinning The City

As you know by now, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is forthrightly a novel of the city, of New York City, a Walt-Whitmanesque catalogue of the voices filling an urban space that, as Judge Soderberg says in "Part of the Parts," is "uninterested in history." "[New York] assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief" (page 247).

As the book goes on to say, "[New York] wasn't like London, where every corner had a historical figure carved out of stone, a war memorial here, a leader's bust there. [Judge Soderberg] could only really pinpoint a dozen true statues around New York City--most of them in Central Park, along the Literary Walk, and who in the world went to Central Park these days? A man would need a phalanx of tanks just to pass Sir Walter Scott. On other famous street corners, Broadway or Wall Street or around Gracie Square, nobody felt a need to lay claim to history. Why bother? You couldn't eat a statue. You couldn't screw a monument" (page 248).

We live in the country, of course. Rurally. With breathing room. Many of us have chosen to leave New York City (or perhaps some other city) to live up here, in what Faulkner called "the cold air, the iron New England dark."

And yet. The city calls. We go in. We see it. We're glad to see it as it's coming toward us in the windshield or from the window of the train. We're also glad to see it moving away in the rearview mirror.

As you think about this novel, consider these other voices about the city:

Just as language no longer has anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connection with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle. Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet, 1903.

Today's city appears impregnable. However, it is the most vulnerable structure ever conceived by man. Martin Oppenheimer, American lawyer, specialist in labor relations, 1969.

The city is a fact of nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city, and in turn, urban forms condition mind. Lewis Mumford, American architectural critic, 1938.

The country only has charms for those not obliged to be there. Édouard Manet, French painter, 1860.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn't changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman. John Berger, British cultural critic, 1987.

The American city should be a collection of communities where every member has a right to belong. It should be a place where each of us can find the satisfaction and warmth which come from being a member of the community of man. Lyndon Baines Johnson, American politician and president, 1965.

The cities of America are inexpressibly tedious. The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere; their 'Hub,' as they call it, is the paradise of prigs. Chicago is a sort of monster shop, full of bustles and bores. Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry. Baltimore is amusing for a week, but Philadelphia is dreadfully provincial; and though one can dine in New York, one could not dwell there. Oscar Wilde, British author and gadabout, 1887.

Indeed the metropolis is a complete cyclopedia, where every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable. Pierce Egan, British journalist and sportswriter, 1821.

A hick town is one where there is no place to go where you shouldn't go. Alexander Wolcott, American critic, member of the Algonquin Round Table, 1935.

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