The Imagination of Disaster, Revisited
Max Page. The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008. 271 pp. $37.50 hc; $25 pbk.
Nick Yablon. Untimely Ruins: An Archeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. xiii + 380 pp. $70 hc; $25 pbk.
Max Page writes about the imagining of cataclysm and destruction. Nick Yablon writes about imagined and real ruins—the results of destructive processes. The one book is about verbs, the second about nouns. New York is the target for Page, the only one that interests him; it is a featured player in Yablon’s discussion. The books make a very effective pair, different but complementary in subject matter, style, and analytical approach.
The City’s End is a sweeping and eclectic tour through the different ways that we have imagined the death of New York over the last century and a half. Page examines novels and magazine fiction, paintings and drawings, poems, comics, and videogames, and throws in a few millenarian prophecies and think-tank scenarios for good measure. He may not have read or viewed every depiction of the city’s end, but certainly far more than almost any of his readers. The book grew out of plans for an exhibit at the New York Historical Society that was cancelled by the events of 11 September 2001, with the author eventually revisiting, augmenting, and reinterpreting his materials for this book. As a consequence it is visually rich: there are sixteen pages of color plates and more than a hundred black and white illustrations, some with multiple panels (although unfortunately several of the images are not called out or explicated in the text).
Page places depictions of urban destruction in the context of the social and political forces and tensions that were shaping the actual city at different points in its growth, ranging from worries about immigration to debates about military preparedness. The four core chapters deal in succession with the years from the Civil War through World War I, the 1920s and 1930s, the immediate post-World War II decades, and the period from the 1960s to 2000. The introduction sets the interpretive framework and the last chapter explores the complex response to 9/11, especially fraught because the World Trade Center towers had figured prominently in many fictional devastations of New York. The book is more descriptive than theoretical, although Page brings in the tradition of the American jeremiad and the thoughts of Susan Sontag and W.G. Sebald about the literary processing of disaster.
Each chapter moves easily from historical background to texts and back to historical context as appropriate. There is some analytical punch, but the chapters read like free-flowing essays. Key texts for each chapter get 500-1500 words, with these subsections embedded in quick citations to numerous other stories, films, and images that presumably would support similar conclusions. The chapter on the nineteenth century, for example, gives two or three pages each to books that everyone would expect—Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890) and H.G. Wells’s The War in the Air (1908)—but it gives equal attention to Joaquin Miller’s Destruction of Gotham (1886), George Allan England’s Darkness and Dawn (1912-14), and Thomas J. Vivian and Grena J. Bennett’s story “The Tilting Island” (1909). Even readers who are familiar with the dystopian and cataclysmic literature of the era, as analyzed in Frederick C. Jaher’s Doubters and Dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America 1885-1918 (1964), will find new examples to pursue. The same is true of later chapters where the scope expands to movies, television, poetry, and comics.
The author’s efforts to contextualize stories and images of destruction lead to a book that is rich in examples and allusions. The usual suspects are to be found—King Kong (1933), Soylent Green (1973), Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937), Orson Welles, Chesley Bonestell—but plenty of writers, artists, and movies will be new for many readers. I always find it instructive to peruse a book’s index. In this case, fascinating juxtapositions of index terms demonstrate the range of Page’s knowledge. Fred Astaire (from the film On the Beach ) is next to asteroids. Deep Impact (1998) is next to Don DeLillo, Ralph Waldo Emerson next to the Emerald City of Oz, the Erie Canal adjacent to Escape from New York (1981), flying saucers before Gerald Ford, and Graham Greene precedes Matt Groening.
Where Page may falter is in his efforts to find meaningful patterns among all these high-brow and low-brow fantasies of cataclysm. He argues that each era has destroyed New York out of its own particular fears, which is true enough, but many categories of fear reappear decade after decade. The number of destruction narratives is limited, after all. External forces (invaders, bombs, monsters, Mother Nature) may end the city. Internal chaos and revolution may end it. Or it may decay and collapse from internal contradictions. Bombardments by German battleships or by Russian bombers are simply variations on a theme. So are earthquakes triggered by overbuilding in “The Tilting Island” and the feral creatures stirred by environmental degradation and urban renewal in the 1981 film Wolfen. The same tropes and images also recur over the decades—silent streets wandered by the last survivor, the shattered remains of the Statue of Liberty, the last couple contemplating the Adam-and-Eve option, skyscrapers toppling to earth or drowned by a rising sea. The cover of the The New Yorker for 23 May 2011 depicts the New York Public Library lions in a green underwater shade and festooned with vegetation at some future time; the artist is Eric Drooker, whose post-9/11 work also appears in The City’s End.
In his last chapter, Page uses the response to the 9/11 attacks to restate his argument about the meaning of New York disaster stories. The quick return of such stories within a few years of the tragedy he takes as an affirmation of the city’s importance. Throughout the book, he sees the jeremiad outweighed by stories that celebrate New York. He sees every exuberant imagining of New York’s destruction as testimony to its importance, for who would want to see a movie about King Kong climbing a twelve-story building in Akron. This reader is not convinced, however, and tends to side with Mike Davis, who sees the repeated imaginary destruction of Los Angeles as evidence of antipathy to the big city. Not everyone loves New York. Some of us have never quite forgiven the Yankees, and thus New York by proxy, for arrogantly and skillfully crushing the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 World Series. More seriously, some Americans still dislike or fear it for both good and bad reasons (the recent financial debacle did not help its reputation in the hinterlands, making New York scenes useful for anti-Republican campaign ads). Page notes that many of the New York narratives end with survivors rebuilding civilization in Colorado, Africa, or somewhere else outside Manhattan, which seems to argue for anti-urban rather than pro-urban values.1
Nick Yablon is interested in how Americans and visitors have thought about ruined or abandoned places and buildings that have seemed not to fit in a nation that has always been moving forward and which are therefore “untimely.” They appear while the nation is waxing rather than waning, and they may themselves disappear before their time under the wave of new development. These may be pioneer cabins and canal locks abandoned as the frontier moved onward (Chapter 1), speculative cities that were never more than dreams on paper (Chapter 2), New York buildings torn down only a few years after being built (Chapter 3), or San Francisco quaked to ruins in the midst of explosive growth (Chapter 5). To these actual ruins of various types, he also adds imagined ruins. Chapter 4 explores the narrative device of the traveler or explorer from the far future who comes to gaze on the ruins of once-great America. The last chapter explores fantasies of the direct destruction of New York and thus overlaps with Max Page.
Where Page wants to know why stories and predictions of destruction appealed to readers and viewers, Yablon wants to know what people have thought about the leftovers of destruction. As the worked-up version of a history dissertation written with University of Chicago cultural historian Neil Harris, Untimely Ruins is thus more heavily theorized than The City’s End. Its touchstones are Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin, both observers of changing cityscapes and connoisseurs of ruins with somewhat exacting standards about the proper degree of decrepitude and proper amount of moss. By the time we get to the tribulations of Martin Chuzzlewit with the paper city of Eden, speculations about the future of New York’s gigantic Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, or amateur women photographers in the ruins of San Francisco, however, it is not always clear how the theory is necessary for the very specific and insightful discussions.
Untimely Ruins is an effort to refute the common observation or cliché that the United States had no ruins to match those of Europe. The lack, of course, might be seen as a bad thing, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complaint in The Marble Faun (1860) that the United States had no antiquity to fuel the romantic imagination. It might also be seen as positive, as in Goethe’s poem “Amerika.” They were both wrong, Yablon, says. America has had plenty of ruins that have done interesting cultural work:
however inaccessible and indecipherable they might appear, American ruins were imagined in futurological speculations as unintended time capsules that could ultimately ... expose the hidden histories of nineteenth-century cities.... [T]he banal detritus of America’s vernacular structures—unlike the grand monuments erected in honor of the leaders and gods of antiquity—would preserve the unofficial traces of history: the suppressed voices, secret hopes, and lived experiences of everyday people, even marginalized ones, who had built or passed through them. It is this revelatory potential of America’s unintended monuments that gives rise, in some of the texts discussed here, to various utopias (16).
Like Page, Yablon argues that ruins had specific meanings in different historical eras—an ill-built aqueduct on the Erie Canal being different from fire-ravaged San Francisco or from Manhattan skyscrapers that were obsolete almost as soon as they were built. He sorts his discussion by types of ruins and by the different media in which they were depicted, discussing travelogues, literary fiction, paintings, cartoons, Kodak snapshots, and pulp-magazine stories, including seventy-two images.
The subtitles of the “science fiction” chapters display his method of framing fictions about ruins in the context of the times. Chapter 4 is “Relapsing into Barbarism: Labor, Ethnicity, and Ruin in Prospective Histories of Urban America, 1865-1906.” Here we get “histories” of American urban collapse from the viewpoints of future historians as imagined by Jack London, Henry George, Ambrose Bierce, and several more obscure writers—all of whom worried that an increasingly polarized and heterogeneous nation could not survive. Chapter 6 is “The Metropolitan Life in Ruins: Architectural and Fictional Speculations in New York, 1893-1919.” Metropolitan Life is both the insurance company skyscraper that was the world’s tallest building when it opened in 1901 and, of course, a metaphor for the city’s life or death. Yablon explores the ways in which people imagined the building’s collapse as a way to comprehend its size, and the ways in which the building figured in stories about the end of New York (including Murray Leinster’s first sf tale, “The Runaway Skyscraper” from 1919).
There is also an opportunity to compare the books in their treatment of George Allan England’s serialized post-apocalyptic novel Darkness and Dawn. An engineer and a stenographer awaken after thousands of years high in the Met Life Tower to find themselves the only humans left in New York. Like other visitors to the future city, they explore its shops and streets as they struggle to survive, fall tastefully in love, express early twentieth-century racism by fighting off mutated ape-men who cross over from New Jersey, and escape westward. Allan is strong and capable, Beatrice strong but happy with standard gender roles. The publisher sold it as “Romance, Mystery, Adventure.” With his relatively limited space, Page is able to summarize the story and conclude that the underlying theme is that civilization stops when New York, the pinnacle of civilization, stops. With many more words to work with, Yablon explores England’s socialist background and reads the story as an explicitly anti-capitalist revolutionary allegory that uses the post-apocalyptic setting as a way to make readers think about alternatives. He brings in Henry James (who thought a slowed-down New York would be nicer), Georg Simmel (on the ability of ruins to reveal the web of society), and Walter Benjamin (on the fragility of a commodity-based culture). Yablon’s discussion is not necessarily better, but it is thicker.
As a last point of comparison, both authors explicitly refer to the work of economist Josef Schumpeter, especially his concept of “creative destruction.” Capitalism’s built-in dynamic of creative destruction is nowhere more prominent than in New York. This is also a topic that Page addressed in a previous book on The Creative Destruction of Manhattan: 1900-1940 (2001). The ways in which Americans have come to terms with rapid change is central to both scholarly agendas, Page zeroing in on direct imaginings of destruction and Yablon supplementing the sf mode by introducing the views of Tocqueville, Cooper, Melville, James, Henry Adams, and other leading lights of the American Studies canon.
As suggested at the start of this review, Max Page and Nick Yablon have given us books that inadvertently work as a team. They share some common territory and texts, but they have different goals, intellectual frameworks, and intended audiences. Each adds significantly to the ways that we can comprehend the imagination of disaster.
1. For an amplification of this idea, see my essay “The Light on the Horizon.”
Abbott, Carl. “The Light on the Horizon: Imagining the Death of American Cities.” Journal of Urban History 32.2 (2006): 175-96.
Davis, Mike. The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. 1998. New York: Vintage, 1999.
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