David Weimer’s “The City as Metaphor” traces the concept of the city through a century of American fiction, to find that its depiction has a trend. Where once the city was a symbol of hope, a place to seek one’s fortune, where expectant immigrants and starry-eyed farmboys sought success, all has changed.
The City as Metaphor, by David R. Weimer (151 pages, Random House, 1966)
Shifting symbols fascinate me. Years ago, David Weimer traced The City as Metaphor (1966) through a century of American fiction. I distinctly remember one part where Mr. Weimer paired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s travels with his short fiction, analyzing Fitzgerald’s life experience, such as Hollywood screenwriting, to his story craft. Over time, life bred life. Fitzgerald’s exposure to different writing challenges in one city led to growth in his writing in another one. As New York City no longer enticed Fitzgerald, Los Angeles became a new haven, a pilgrimage of sorts, for a time.
Throughout The City as Metaphor, Mr. Weimer considers many more authors and their reliance on the city as setting, explaining that the city is many moving metaphors because “there are as many cities as there are imaginations.” But more alarmingly, Mr. Weimer concedes that fiction itself showed a trend. Where once the city was a symbol of hope, a place to seek one’s fortune, where expectant immigrants and starry-eyed farmboys sought success, all had changed. Many characters now rejected the city and looked for fresh starts elsewhere. By the 20th century, for those who stayed or were stuck, the city ironically became a symbol of man’s limitations, not of his aspirations or achievements.
Depicted as an illusion, a trap synonymous with failure, the city as metaphor can be interpreted in different ways depending on the author’s experiences of the city, their intention, and even the living conditions of the characters within the story. I consider the short fiction of Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and these few examples do reveal an ugly reality.
The grimness of a city is often suggested by a focus on man-made buildings. Think of characters who are easily entranced by the physical details of what they see. In Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited,” for instance, Charlie is dazzled by whirling colors as he views Paris through a taxi window. “Outside the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain . . . the bistros gleamed . . . the Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty.” As Charlie reminisces about the deterioration of his family, the very colors normally associated with happiness ironically augment his sense of loss. His shadowy impressions mirror the vague recollections of his previous time in Paris as a drunkard. In Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” Wilhelm, who already is a failure, shares the sense of confusion and obscurity. “Why did I come here in the first place? . . . New York is like a gas. The colors are running. My head feels so tight, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
These cities appear to be concealing some truth, possibly a key to success. But this “truth” could also be reality; for the beauty and appearance of people and their cities fade. Baldwin, for example, blatantly portrays the deadness of Harlem from his own life experience—“the green of the park and the stoney, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid killing streets of our childhood.” He even describes his home, a rundown housing project, as “a parody of good, clean, faceless life.” Of these authors, Baldwin most distinctly depicts the city as a place of failure both for “Sonny” and for himself. Baldwin had to leave, though Sonny wouldn’t.
But the city cannot exist without its people, though people can live independent of it. I wonder then if the city appears void of life, are the people, then, lifeless? Bellow addresses this question in the ironic setting of the old Hotel Gloriana in New York City. The retirees living there create an impression of success because of the luxurious environment. In reality, though, they reflect the waning life of the Hotel itself. As the hotel is decaying with time so are the people. This microcosm suggests the city’s unpreventable demise, even the state of man.
As another example, Fitzgerald’s Paris seems lifeless because the Americans have gone. Charlie no longer feels at home. His first encounter upon arrival in Paris reveals his misplaced identity. “He was not really disappointed to find Paris so empty. But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar anymore . . . it had gone back into France.” Was being alive then equated with being American? Surely not. By the superficial and unthinking actions of Charlie’s old drinking pals, specifically his indifferent American French sister-in-law, Marion, Fitzgerald intimates that Paris and the French are lifeless. Baldwin, on the other hand, begins with the understanding that Harlem is already lifeless. His characters do not need to experience loss or failure. They are born with it.
The use of irony in Bellow, Baldwin, and Fitzgerald’s works magnifies the city’s parity with failure. Baldwin maintains that the city can never be a place of peace and safety. In “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator asserts that “some escaped the trap [the city], most didn’t.” It’s no wonder Sonny wants to enlist simply “to get out of Harlem.” Yet unlike Baldwin, Sonny never leaves the city. The city somehow entices its inhabitants to remain. Bellow’s Wilhelm also seeks escape from the maze of the city because “things were too complex.” Wilhelm ironically identifies Dr. Tamkin as the source of his confusion, yet he continues to listen to him. The extensive disarray of Dr. Tamkin’s knowledge seems to coincide with the chaotic state of the city. Only, Tamkin knows the system of the city and deceives Wilhelm, an innocent, by such manipulation.
By comparing Europe and America, the ironies compound further in the similarity of Bellow’s New York and Fitzgerald’s Paris. The greatness and affluence of Europe has faded like America’s. For example, in “Seize the Day,” a newspaperman refers to a hotel as “the neighborhood’s great landmark . . . looks like a baroque palace from Prague or Munich.” Bellow’s New York almost parallels Fitzgerald’s description of Paris. Both writers refer to great hotels, restaurants, landmarks, and to the smoking and drinking lifestyle of the upper class. Furthermore, as Weimer points out, Fitzgerald’s Paris, a “Babylon,” is synonymous to the American Hollywood in Bellow’s “Seize the Day.” Wilhelm even attempts stardom for seven years there, contrary to his father’s wishes. He never succeeds at what he or what others want him to become. Even the name of Wilhelm’s first agent, Maurice Venice, is ironic—Venice being a classic city of beauty in contrast to the deceptive character of the agent. Through these ironic twists of life, Bellow, Baldwin, and Fitzgerald’s characters become failures.
Perhaps the greatest irony concerns man himself. In this post-modern fatigue, the conflict between success and failure revolves around man, the city’s very foundation. Since the city relies on man’s success, its potential failure can mirror man’s failure. Authors Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald depict the somber reality of and a sense of defeat within the city. The hopeless city can no longer be a place of refuge. Man does not belong. Bellow’s Wilhelm concludes, “Recovery was possible. First he had to get out…”
Though writing in the 1960s, David Weimer was not dismayed, not yet. Yes, he surveyed the plight of cities in fiction but he was ever hopeful for the nature of the metaphor—its changeableness:
The quests of these heroes and of their authors are for fresh starts, for adjustment to the natural laws of conduct, for self-assertion, for making amends, for knowledge, for a score of other ends comparably private and individual. Discovering how far and in what respects these ends involve a rejection of the city, as they appear to, is a task with its own intricacies and wonders, now left for another time.
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The featured image is “The Rush Hour, New York City” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.