THE ART OF THE CITY: Views and Versions of New York by Peter Conrad

THE ART OF THE CITY: Views and Versions of New York

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The author of Imagining America (1980) now sweeps up literary and artistic images of New York City, from Washington Irving to Claes Oldenburg, into an extravaganza of association and symbolization. Whitman is the linchpin--though no where called, simply and exactly, our first urban poet. Writing in newspapers, Whitman identified his life with the city's: ""As an individual, Whitman is species; as a single man, he holds within himself a germinal city. In furnishing that city, he's running off copies of himself, in a typographic feat of self-renewal. The newspaper is both an appropriate medium for and a symbol of the urban epic, communalizing and equating (or typing) those to whom it is distributed."" Conrad of course knows that Whitman was trained as a printer, and worked as a journalist and editor; he may or may not know that newspapers were a unifying force in American communities of all sizes. Biography has no place here, and history's place is minimal. Juxtaposed to Whitman, naturally, is Henry James (along with Wharton and Howells). Here, the text's virtues and failings stand out dearly. ""Washington Square means its title; it is a fable of urban development and an act of determined resistance to that development."" Conrad expands upon that theme in ingenious and not unconvincing detail; the only trouble is that Washington Square is also and primarily about something else, within the lives of the characters. In the interpreting, the individual work is effaced--and so is the actuality of its creation. Paul Strand, writes Conrad, abandoned the soft-focus lens ""in order to accuse the city of a cruel, unmitigatable geometry."" In fact, Strand turned to straight photography for documented, near-antithetical reasons--abstraction, the machine aesthetic, the Stieglitz/Steichen/Sheeler connection--and employed it equally to photograph Wall Street, rocks, and picket fences. Reading significance into another isolated example, Conrad takes seemingly shrewd note of the ""recondite statistics"" in the Frederick Lewis Allen/Agnes Rogers photo-album Metropolis; similar captions, however, appear in a whole series of Allen/Rogers albums. Conrad, a demon interpreter, sometimes sees things that others don't--but he also sees a lot of things that aren't there.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press