Fictions of New York: The City as Metaphor in Selected American Texts

©2013 Textbook 53 Pages


‘New York City as Metaphor in Selected American Texts’ tries to capture the picture and meaning of an ever-changing city which has casted and still casts a spell over people all around the world.
An uncountable number of authors have dedicated their works to New York City because of their fascination of its diversity and constant change that promises its dwellers a life in wealth and freedom.
Surprisingly, all novels that have been analyzed reveal New York as the complete opposite of the American Dream that everyone expects when arriving on Ellis Island. The protagonists have to realize that their dreams will never become fulfilled and, consequently, become disillusioned and corrupted by their unhealthy environment.
John Dos Passos describes a City that becomes a modern Babylon; it is fragmented and on its way to greed, capitalism and corruption. The New York of Stephen Crane’s Maggie Johnson and Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart is like a gigantic deterministic cage that denies every attempt of escape. Moreover, the metaphysical novel ‘City of Glass’ by Paul Auster does not show any sign of the promised life in wealth and freedom, but rather a city that is split into pieces, ruled by chance and misunderstandings.
The city literally dehumanizes its inhabitants as they are dazzled by its addictive quality.


Table Of Contents

by the East River. Other frequently used nicknames are 'The Big Apple'
, 'Center of the Universe', 'The City that Never Sleeps' and 'The
Capital of the World'.
The city's history describes quite effectively why especially New York has
inspired so much great writing and became famous for its literary variety and
sheer volume. Phillip Lopate, in Writing New York: A Literary Anthology,
summarizes the city's past as follows:
From the start, the place was fast, boisterous, crowded,
dirty, secular, and on the make. It began as a cosmopoli-
tan, international port, a walking city with a vital street
life and a housing shortage, and stayed that way. The more
the metropolis grew, the more it attracted writers (Lopate
Yet, two incidents at the beginning of the nineteenth century helped New York
to strengthen its identity and personality as a metropolis. One was the War
of 1812, that changed America's self-opinion because then it could consider it-
self both politically and psychologically independent from Great Britain. This
feeling also encouraged New York to "untie [its] provincial apron stings with
British cities
"(Gates x). The second event was the completion of the Erie
Canal during the early 1820s, which connected Lake Erie further west with
New York and established it as the new and busiest mercantile center in the
United States. "Post-Civil War prosperity and the opening of the West had
encouraged massive waves of immigrants to seek success in the new world, and
the first port-of-call for most was New York" (x). In the following years, the
number of people immigrating to the United States and especially New York
increased explosively
The term was coined by the sports journalist John Fitzgerald in the 1920s. It referred to
the award, winner of the horse races around New York received.
Washington Irving used Gotham City for New York in this essay collection Salmagundi,
or the Whims and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff and Others meaning "goat-town".
British cities New York was always compared to were especially London and Liverpool,
but also other European cities such as Paris.
Figure no.1 shows this development and can be seen in the appendix at the end.

A result of the rise of the city's population was the establishment of eth-
nic neighborhoods and consequently also the rise of the first tenement slums,
because many failed to pursue their dream of success in the new world. Poverty
became a major aspect and created a polarized city "with clearly defined bor-
ders between the lifestyles and habitations of the rich and poor" (x).
Nevertheless, New York managed to save itself, because of its adaptabil-
ity to new times and circumstances. Exactly this is represented in the great
volume of different literature about the city of New York. For each author
writing about the city, New York stands for something else. Consequently,
making a proper choice with reference as to what novels should be analyzed
was quite difficult. It serves as a metaphor and can be interpreted in vari-
ous ways depending on the intention of writing, the author's experiences with
the city and the living conditions of the characters within the story, because
"the city often is part of the journey in the development of a protagonist [...]"
(Sauter 37).
Therefore, this thesis wants to analyze how New York City is depicted
and interpreted as a metaphor in selected American texts.
The first chapter (2 The City as a Metaphor) explains what a metaphor
is, how the city has become one and serves as a basis for further analysis of
the main part. The main part then gives different images of the city, starting
with the novel by John Dos Passos which gives a panoramic overview of New
York City between the 1890s and 1920s (chapter 3.1.1). In a second step, this
work goes deeper into the city by analyzing the polarized neighborhoods of
Edith Wharton and Stephen Crane (chapter 3.2.1) and their meaning for the
protagonists. A third chapter is dedicated to Paul Auster who gives a very
modern, metaphysical view on the city (chapter 3.3.1).
The thesis is summarized in form of the last chapter that tries to eval-
uate if the topography of New York plays an important role for the different
meanings of the city.

2 The American City as Metaphor
Looking at the heading of this chapter, there are two words that need further
explanation: This is first of all the word metaphor, then the American City
with regards to its development, and finally the connection between the two.
Defining the term 'metaphor' offers an interesting insight into the topic.
The term has its origin in Greek and means "carrying one place to another".
It is a figure of speech and according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of
Literary Terms it makes a statement
in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word
or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or
action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by
the two [...] (Baldick 205).
The quote does not say anything about the quality of the metaphor itself,
meaning if it shows negative or positive characteristics of the City. How most
of the authors chosen for the thesis interpret New York will become clear in
the following chapters.
The development of the use of the term 'metaphor' in connection to daily
life can be traced back to Jeffersonian or even Crèvecoeurian times. America
started out as a country that heavily depended on agriculture. Accordingly,
Lester Roy Zipris points out that "[t]he seeds of the American Dream were
sown in the soil of a rural society, but with the growth of immigration, tech-
nology, and industrialization, the nature of American society changed" (Zipris
3). Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father, principal author of the Dec-
laration of Independence and the third president of the young nation, was a
great advocate of this way of life. In his work Notes on the State of Virginia
(1785) he states "[t]hose who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God,
[...]. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure govern-
ment, as sores do to the strength of the human body" (Jefferson 164-165). He
regarded cities as a burden to the American society because he was frightened
that the young nation would increase their dependence on nations like Great
Britain. It was his aim to support America to become independent politically
and economically, which could only be achieved by the humble and virtuous

Looking at the early years of the American society, one can aptly state
that nature functioned as a metaphor for the people's place in life. This is
supported by Zipris, who writes about J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's
Letters from an American Farmer (1783):
[L]and, in his work, is no longer a symbol, as it was for
the Puritans, but an emblem - a badge of one's citizenship
rather than a sign of God's natural bounty. Land [...] [is]
indicative, in a real and concrete way, of one's place in the
daily life and world of one's community." (Zipris 8).
He introduced the ideal American citizen, the 'Yeoman', being in fact any
man. By tilling the earth, the farmer will be able to gain citizenship in the
democratic Republic and help fostering a simple, yet virtuous society.
Nevertheless, Jefferson soon had to accept cities as the centers of com-
merce and manufacturing because it would help the young nation to settle
economically. He finally yielded: "'An equilibrium of agriculture, manufac-
tures, and commerce, is certainly become essential to our independence'" (15).
Still, he deeply distrusted life in the cities and already anticipated problems
for the generations yet to come: vice, crime and poverty will be issues that the
urban society will have to deal with.
Though, from then on the development of the cities could not be stopped
anymore. "In the decade from 1860 to 1870, America's urban population in-
creased only by about 9%; [...] During the fifty years from 1870 to 1920, the
percentage of farm population declined steadily, sinking as low as 30.1% in
1920" (4). The transition from nature as a metaphor for life to the city as a
metaphor was inevitable and so it became the new, "'generative frontier of ...
growth and change'" (Hoffmann 401).
In 1978, Gerhard Hoffmann publishes his work Raum, Situation, erzählte
Wirklichkeit, where he gives his reader further information on why the city be-
came a metaphor for so many people at all:
Hoffnung auf Verwirklichung des amerikanischen Traums
von Glück, Erfolg und Freiheit in der großen, glänzenden
Stadt [...]. Dieser plot der Queste macht die Stadt für
die Literatur der Moderne, insbesondere für die moderne
amerikanische Literatur und hier vor allem den amerikanis-
chen Roman, zum Symbol, nicht nur zum Schauplatz und
Milieu (401).

The city and especially New York City as the fastest growing and changing
metropolis, now represents the American Dream. Irene
Sauter points
out that this is Manifest Destiny
since "[t]he United States have 'consistently
defined [their] national identity through spatial models of expansion and as-
cension'" (Sauter 37).
Applying this to New York, one can say that the City is a perpetual mo-
tion machine, there is always movement, "it is always 'becoming'; it is not yet
there yet nor will it ever be" (48). There is a constant physical change going on,
new buildings are built and the infrastructure changes so that people can stay
in motion. Furthermore, there is a constant change in the population of New
York, for numerous immigrants arrive and look for a place to live and earn their
living. These developments lead to certain urban characteristics that can be
applied to New York: This is for once, the city's contradictory faces of glamour
and misery and its man-made quality. Then, the gigantic built environment
and the relative unimportance of nature. Additionally, what makes New York
attractive or even the other way around is its offer of anonymity to the many
as well as its large, dense population which provides space if not always the
warmest of welcomes, for the immigrant. Typically New York is also its affa-
ble, loquacious working-class population speaking a streetwise vernacular, its
fabled loneliness and alienation. Very important is its symbolic importance
as the modern city par excellence and its addictive, temptress quality, which
entraps newcomers and convince them - no matter how they may suffer at its
hands - that no place else will do (cf. Lopate xvii-xix). This is what makes
the city special and therefore also a metaphor for the life of the people living
in New York.
Numerous writers have specifically dealt with the topic of the City as
metaphor and one of them was Joachim von der Thüsen. He says that image-
making of the city is governed by three linguistic operations: the symbolic, the
metaphoric and the metonymic level (cf. von der Thüsen 2). For the sake of
the argument, the symbolic and metonymic level are not considered here, but
Manifest Destiny is the belief of the 19th century America that the United States are
chosen by God to expand across the continent.

only the metaphoric one. He states that
[o]n the metaphoric level of image-making, the city is ex-
pressed in terms of relatively concrete constructs and pro-
cesses that have no overt connection to urban life. Thus
the city is seen as body, monster, jungle, ocean or volcano
(von der Thüsen 2).
That this is true shows on the one hand the quote of the song at the begin-
ning of this work, where New York is described as a "concrete jungle", but on
the other hand also several other literary works, such as Upton Sinclair's novel
The Jungle (1906) or also the novels that will be discussed and analyzed in the
following chapters. It will become obvious that the city cannot be understood
as one metaphor, but must be seen as several metaphors, because "[t]here are
as many cities as there are imaginations" (Weimer 6).
Another author who dealt with the city as a metaphor is David R.
Weimer. He considered the question of reality within the stories, but he stresses
that "most literary historians take [...] for granted - that the city is objectively
real, [...]" (6). For many authors, such as Stephen Crane or Walt Whitman, it
does not matter if the city is real, "but they wonder whether it is solid, which
is to say prosaic, identifiable or unambiguous" (6). Thus, what really matters
is that the city can be clearly identified as being typically New York, Boston
or Chicago. In his novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane does
so by giving prominent street names or places that can only be found in New
York City: "Pete, ranking his brains for amusement, discovered the Central
Park Menagerie and the Museum of Arts" (Crane 36).
Therefore, one can summarize all the considerations on the city, the
metaphor and their connection by quoting Weimer: "The 'city' of American
literature is thus several cities, whose meaning and appeal derive first of all
from their singularity" (Weimer 13). Nevertheless, one can assume that cer-
tain traits of the City can be found in each of the following novels since all the
authors observe New York City in a time that was known and is still known
for its rapid change and growth.
Exactly this can be discovered by taking a closer look at the various given
pictures of New York by John Dos Passos, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton and
Paul Auster.

3 Pictures of New York City
3.1 Panorama of the City
3.1.1 John Dos Passos'Manhattan Transfer
John Roderigo Dos Passos (1898-1970) was considered to be a member of
the so-called Lost Generation. This is a group of authors from the United
States who came of age during World War I (1914-1918). According to the
Encyclopedia Britannica,
[t]he generation was 'lost' in the sense that its inherited
values were no longer relevant in the postwar world and
because of its spiritual alienation from a U.S. that, bask-
ing under Pres. Warren G. Harding's 'back to normalcy'
policy, seemed to its members to be hopelessly provincial,
materialistic, and emotionally barren.
This generation of writers became disillusioned by the atrocities of the Great
War and saw the development of greed, aggressiveness, corruption and cap-
italism with a very critical eye devolving to the cities of the United States,
especially New York. A lot of these concerns and their consequences for soci-
ety are worked up in their writings.
Furthermore, Dos Passos was one of the most important modernist writ-
ers in American literature. He made use of some very innovative novelistic
techniques which, among others, are flashbacks, stream of consciousness or
cinematic techniques. His impressionistic style
becomes evident throughout
the novel by appealing to our senses with means of color, sound and smell.
The novel Manhattan Transfer was published in 1925 and was received
as "'a novel of very first importance'" (Sinclair Lewis) (Passos Cover). Con-
trary to the plot, the novel is ironically clear structured. It comprises three
sections which can be titled as 'arrival', 'stay' and 'farewell'. Each section
again is separated into chapters, the first and last section having five and the
Definition by the Encyclopedia Britannica:
topic/348402/Lost-Generation (April 3, 2012).
Impressionism is a rather vague term applied to works or passages that concentrate on
the description of transitory mental impressions as felt by an observer, rather than on
the explanation of their external causes (cf. Baldick 166-167).

middle section consisting of eight chapters. The smallest entity is the chapter
itself, which can be structured as well. There is a headline, an epigraph and
the text. From the headings of the several chapters one can deduce the topics
of the novel, as will become clear in a later step.
Looking at the title of the novel, one can also draw conclusions as to what
is important concerning structure, style as well as content. Matter of factly,
Manhattan Transfer was a ferry connection on the Hudson River between New
Jersey and New York City. The novel starts here, telling
[g]ates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men
and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tun-
nel of the ferryhouse, crushed and jostling like apples fed
down a chute into a press (3)
and also ends "[o]ut [on] the empty dark fog of the river, [where] the ferryslip
yawns all of a sudden, a black mouth with a throat of light" (342).
Taking a more careful look at the word "transfer", one gets the impres-
sion of motion and change. People transferring from the railroads to the ferries,
a busy, pushing crowd of people. Everything is in motion, like a machine never
willing to stop. This restless atmosphere can be discovered in every corner of
New York City, because "in Manhattan Transfer the City continues to grow at
a frantic pace; [...]. The birth of a megalopolis is on the horizon" (Gates 71).
The changes in the City after the Great War were of both physical and mental
nature. Industrialization and mechanization gave New York a whole new look,
"creating concrete valleys of darkness during the day, and a dazzling display of
lights at night" (64). The cityscape was now dominated by skyscrapers, such
as the Lincoln Building or the Chrysler Tower. Many companies installed their
headquarters in Manhattan and Gates further describes that "[n]ew roads were
built as well as an extensive mass transit system that interconnected the sep-
arate Boroughs" (63). The growth and change is effectively described in the
beginning of the by name fitting chapter Metropolis:
His eyes fell on the headline on a Journal that lay on the
floor by the coalscuttle where he had dropped it to run for
the hack to take Susie to the hospital.

There were also a lot of changes in the heads of the people living in the City. A
fast increasing middle class that was hungry for setting themselves apart from
the previous generation and achieving their own mores and ideals, created a
new type of woman, "who considered herself totally liberated from the eco-
nomic and social restrictions imposed upon her mother. She held jobs, wore
shorter skirts, and bobbed her hair" (Gates 63). A higher affinity to organized
crime and corruption could also be recorded during the post-war years, but
was widely ignored until the stock market crash of 1929 made it all come to
an end.
Though, not everyone saw this development being all positive. H.G.
Wells observed that New York was becoming a "'steel-souled machine room',
a city where 'individuals count for nothing ... the distinctive effect is the mass
... the unprecedented multitudinousness of the thing'" (65). This feeling is
also noticeable in the novel of Dos Passos and so the intention of Manhattan
Transfer is "to show the drift towards monopoly capitalism" (Gelfant, "John
Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel" 139) and its effects on society. It was not
possible for the author to voice his criticism openly in the public, so he had to
find a way doing it implicitly, "inherent in the picture of the times" (139). Dos
Passos achieves this effect through various special techniques. Mrs. Gelfant
aptly states: "The techniques that create the dramatic world of the novel es-
tablish toward it a firm social and moral attitude. Thus technique becomes
the vehicle of social commentary" (141 f.). By analyzing the different stylistic
means, it will become obvious in how far New York City serves as a metaphor
in Manhattan Transfer.
A special trait of the novel is the "kaleidoscopic panorama of disparate
scenes and characters that eventually collide with each other during the course
of the plot" (Gates 71). This means, the author just gives a certain impression
of reality. He does not give all the details and so achieves that the reader has to
become active and complete the picture himself. The technique of abstraction
helps Dos Passos to create the City as a place with a certain atmosphere and
way of life embedded in its history. What becomes obvious is that Manhattan
Transfer is not so much concerned with the people living in the City, but more

with the development from the world's second metropolis to a mechanized,
corrupted and alienated City. Thus, New York becomes the true protagonist
of the novel and so justifies the heading of this thesis' chapter: Panorama of
the City, for it provides the reader with an overview of the metropolis in a
historical as well as social and economic sense. By abstracting the scenes pre-
sented in the novel and shifting from one to another quite often, something else
is achieved: It "accelerates the novel's pace to suggest the incessant restless
movement within the city itself" (Gelfant, "John Dos Passos: The Synoptic
Novel" 143). So, the assumptions from the beginning, when the title of the
novel was analyzed, is proved to be true.
Since John Dos Passos was known for his impressionistic streak, he pro-
ceeded his abstract technique through a distinctive use of colors. The first
chapter of the novel concludes with a man buying a razor at "a yellowpained
drugstore at the corner of Canal Street". Before, he walks up another East
Side Street, "the sunstriped tunnel hung with skyblue and smokedsalmon and
mustardyellow quilts, littered with second hand gingerbread-colored furniture"
(Passos 9). The whole scene is just about one page long, a "fleeting sensuous
impression" (Gelfant, "John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel" 143), but the
dramatized use of the colors gives it "the quality of movement, so that ab-
stracted colors 'agitate', 'flutter', and 'slide together'" (144). Seemingly static
scenes become dynamic, because Dos Passos plays with light, shadow and color
like a painter would (cf. Gelfant 144). An example is provided by a scene at
a Mall at Central Park:
She is walking [...] in the middle of great rosy and purple
and pistachiogreen bubbles of twilight that swell out of the
grass and trees and ponds, bulge against the tall houses
sharp gray as dead teeth round the southern end of the
park, melt into the indigo zenith (Passos 171).
The verbs "swell out", "bulge" and "melt" make the scene very dynamic, but
they also exert a certain kind of pressure, which emanates from the great power
the metropolis exerts on the individual. Gelfant concludes that "[t]he beauty of
the city lies in its color formations, sometimes brilliant and gaudy, sometimes
muted and subdued. All other sensory details, those of sound, weather, and
odor, are oppressively ugly" (Gelfant, "John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel"

Related to the statement given above by Gelfant, another technique of
Dos Passos is the assault of the senses in general. Next to colors, he makes
extensive use of addressing the reader's sense of hearing and smelling. Dos
Passos has brilliantly brought the two sensory aspects together in one scene:
The night was sultry. [...] The faraway sound of sirens
from the river gave him gooseflesh. From the streets he
heard footsteps, the sound of men and women's voices,
low youthful laughs of people going home two by two. A
phonograph was playing Seconhand Rose. [...] There came
on the air through the window a sourness of garbage, a
smell of burnt gasoline and traffic and dusty pavements,
a huddled stuffiness of pigeonhole rooms where men and
women's bodies writhed alone tortured by the night and
the young summer (Passos 164).
The sensuous impressions are not only perceived as dissociated parts by the
reader, but also by the characters of the novel itself. In a crowded subway,
people are seen as "[e]lbows, packages, shoulders, buttocks" (125), not as in-
dividuals. This reveals another striking aspect of City life: impersonality and
loneliness. This irony is observed and noticed by Jimmy Herf who is then
finally able to leave New York behind.
By incorporating visual, acoustic and olfactory senses, Dos Passos wants
to make his abstracted and fragmented scenes become more vivid, the pictures
are set into motion and the City becomes what it is: "'[...] a city of cave-
dwellers, with a frightful, brutal ugliness about it ...'" (Gates 78). In addition,
this kind of technique imparts to New York a personality, so that one can
rightfully say that Manhattan is the protagonist of Manhattan Transfer.
Dos Passos' treatment of time is another technique that contributes to
the hectic and frantic atmosphere of the City. If one considers time as tempo,
the life of the characters runs by as fast as the life of the City. "As odd mo-
ments in the lives of the characters receive stress and time intervals are chosen
in an irregular pattern, the movement within the novel becomes syncopated"
(Gelfant, "John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel" 148). But, if one considers
time in the sense of years passing by and important moments, it is different for
the City and its characters: "In Jimmy Herf's personal history, the moment


Type of Edition
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Publication date
2013 (June)
Panorama Polarized City Metaphysical City Paul Auster Stephen Crane

Title: Fictions of New York: The City as Metaphor in Selected American Texts
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