English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Three-- The Urban Environment


Carl Sandburg

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in assignment three and four of this course is the urban environment.

This third assignment asks you to read works by four American poets--Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Allen Ginsberg--and an American fiction writer--Herman Melville. Urban areas started to become more important in America during the nineteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth century most Americans lived in cities. American literature reflected this change. The works we are reading this week portray a range of reactions toward these man-made environments.

Walt Whitman found equal inspiration in natural and urban landscapes. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Whitman worked to expand the acceptable subject matter of poetry, asserting that the objects that composed the typical cityscape were as worthy of poetic representation and as filled with meaning as the flora and fauna celebrated in pastoral literature. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" Whitman mixes images of factories and ships with word pictures of the diverse people who crowd the streets and wharves. He asserts a transcendent vision that sees the same sort of spiritual teaching available in the man-made urban environment that Emerson and Thoreau found in nature. Whereas Thoreau worried that "We do not ride the railroad, it rides upon us" Vol. I (p. 968), suggesting that mechanical and technological progress opposed spiritual growth, Whitman celebrates all that surrounds him. And Whitman more than Emerson or Thoreau celebrates the value of earthly love. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" he includes the "unpoetic" inanimate aspects of the cityscape--"barges," "rigging," "storehouses" "foundry chimneys"--with the human and natural elements--gulls, sailors, passengers, workers--in one coherent whole. All of these sights and sounds are the "dumb, beautiful ministers" (line 126) that preach to the poet about the eternal wholeness of experience. One useful online source is the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive at the University of Virginia .

Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" does not gloss over the rough aspects of the rapidly growing cities of the early twentieth century. Instead, with the optimism of the progressive era that preceded World War One, Sandburg celebrates Chicago's vitality. In contrast to Emerson's vision of becoming a "transparent eyeball" in a transcendent union with all nature, Sandburg focuses on the practical, hard-earned accomplishments of the city and its citizens, proudly calling it "hog butcher to the world."

Gwendolyn Brooks, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, focuses on black urban communities and the challenges that urban environments present for their human inhabitants. "Kitchenette building" paints a brief picture of life in a tenement where residents share a common bathroom and shows how dreams frequently must give way to more practical matters of daily survival. In "We Real Cool" she uses the jive talk of 1950s hipsters to suggest that corrupting influence of the city, where young people "sing sin" and "die young." To hear Brooks read her poem click on the title above.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Herman Melville
Herman Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and his story "Bartleby" is one of the best and earliest portraits of urban life in the first half of nineteenth century America. The optimistic lawyer believes that the "easiest way of life is the best" Vol. I (p. 1158). His confidence that good intentions and a willingness to compromise can resolve any problem is, however, shattered by his interaction with Bartleby, the disturbed scrivener. The story effectively paints the dehumanizing aspects of life on Wall Street where Bartleby stares out a window at a brick wall or curls up to die at the base of the wall at the Tombs prison. Melville shows that the new white collar office jobs such as scrivening -- copying documents by hand -- could be as dehumanizing as the brutal manual labor of which you will read next week in Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills."

Critics have taken a variety of approaches to Melville's story. In "Melville's Parable of the Walls" Leo Marx suggests that the character Bartleby represents Melville himself, who complained in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne that "Dollars, damn me . . . a presentiment is on me, -- I shall at last be worn out and perish. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot." In Herman Melville, Newton Arvin calls the story "a wonderful intuitive study of what would now be called schizophrenia." In "A Second Look at 'Bartleby,'" E. S. Oliver has suggested that the story promotes Thoreau's political ideas of passive resistance to authority. The story also questions the efficacy of Christ's commandment to "love one another" (John 13:34), for even the lawyer's most generous offers fail to "save" Bartleby.

The opening line of Allen Ginsberg's " A Supermarket in California" echoes Walt Whitman's assertion in line 87 of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"--"What thoughts you have of me now, I had as much of you." Both poets extend the usual range of poetry into new settings: Whitman's poem describes the busy diversity of a nineteenth-century urban dockside; Ginsberg sets his poem in a modern supermarket.

Allen Ginsberg

For 250 years after the arrival of Europeans, the American colonies and the United States were predominantly agrarian. The independent American "yeoman farmer" was seen by men such as Thomas Jefferson as the necessary component of the American society and the one factor that distinguished us from the teeming oppressed masses of Europe. Review the basic tenets of Agrarianism as defined in M. Thomas Inge's book Agrarianism in American Literature. In the last century, however, cities have become the seats of power and the home of most Americans. Even in small towns such as Russellville television and the Internet make us part of a modern "urban" world, where information is instantaneously available and where we can connected to any place on the earth.

Two contrasting views predominant most literary portraits of cities. On one hand they are seen as the sparkling jewels of human accomplishment and culture; on the other they are seen as the source of sin and corruption. Remember this contrast when you read Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman Major Molineaux" in two weeks.

Return to course syllabus Email Instructor
updated: June 14, 2018