Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (review) Academic Article uri icon


  • The city has never failed to fascinate us with its enormity and monstrosity, its teeming diversity of human life, and above all, its modernity. The experience of modernity is an urban one that challenges the social hierarchy, moral values, and sense of time and space that were familiar in a pre-industrial and predominantly rural age. It is no wonder, then, that the nineteenth-century novelist should be attracted to the urban experience as a testing ground for both the practice of literary realism and the representation of contemporary society. The city became the topos as well as the locus of writing when a new literate public was forming and when the cultural, economic, and political power of the nation was shifting to urban centers. In The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History (1998), Richard Lehan joined together urban studies and a Marxist orientation to give us a literary history of the European and American cities. The interstice of literary studies and human geography is exemplified in Writing the City, edited by Peter Preston and Paul Simpson-Housley (1994), which looks at modern literary representations of cities around the world, not just in European and American traditions. We are accustomed to this topic being treated under the heading of modernism, as in Burton Pike's seminal The Image of the City in Modern Literature (1981), and we have become used to a thematic treatment of a mythical place in studies that focus on Dickens's London, Balzac's Paris, or Joyce's Dublin. But we do not often pause to consider how the novel form may have been affected by the urban revolution, how it responded in its language to the fragmentation and commodification of urban life which, as Georg Simmel showed, affected the senses as well as the sensibilities, changing the way we see things. Robert Alter's Imagined Cities is an original contribution to the growing body of criticism which examines the connection between literature and the modern city. Its underlying thesis is that only by looking at the language of the novel can we understand how the city experience impacts literary traditions. This is not, then, a study of how the historical situation of city life is reflected or of how the novel participates in the city's cultural production. Indeed, Alter promptly, and without too much ceremony, brushes aside New Historicists and anyone who reads extra-textually. Not that context is unimportant to Alter — it is — but for him the literary text is not to be submerged in theoretical structures or ideological strictures. Citation and referencing of secondary sources (as befits lectures delivered in New York, Oxford, and elsewhere) are kept to a minimum. Instead, Alter treats us to an efficient reading, with generous but not heavy helpings from the texts themselves in order to show a paradigm that precedes and influences modernism. The development of the realist novel is, as Alter reminds us, too messy to be considered linear, and Zola, in his poetics of demolition in the description of Hausmann's reconstruction of Paris in La Curée (The Chase), proceeds from Balzac rather than from Flaubert. It is in Flaubert, however, that Alter finds the key to a mode of realism that anticipates the modernists. The flâneur in The Sentimental Education, he explains, is no longer the leisurely stroller gazing on fetishized objects of desire but a filter for the "mind of the new urban man" that "becomes a maelstrom in which the centrifugal elements of experience are whirled together in dizzying combinations" (20). The demise of the flâneur results not so much from Walter Benjamin's analysis of this figure as anachronistic during the Second Empire but from Alter's conclusion that "Flaubert's breakthrough in the representation of the urban realm was to perceive the modern metropolis simultaneously as a locus of powerful, exciting, multifarious stimuli and as a spatial reality so vast and inchoately kinetic that it defied taxonomies and thematic definition" (20). London was the largest metropolis, a world city, and heart of an empire. It was larger than Paris, and the river Thames, unlike the Seine, was bustling with trade. In Victorian Babylon (2000...

publication date

  • January 1, 2006