Contexts | Industrial London / urbanism

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                  “Urbanism” or the condition and experience of urban living received intensified attention with the arrival of modernity, the Industrial revolution, and the attendant expansion of major cities. For modernists the rapid transformation of city life and the greater concentration of people in the metropolis signaled more than the usual associations: crowded living conditions, pollution, personal anonymity, the breakdown of the extended family into smaller social units, more regimented and impersonal working conditions and (on the less dire side) convenience, modern modes of transportation, and increased accessibility to public institutions (usually housed in major cities). These associations, as I suggest, remain relatively familiar to city dwellers and non-city dwellers alike into the twenty-first century. In addition to these, then, many of the major figures typically labeled “modernist” in literature and the arts as well as in the social sciences tried to go beyond surface manifestations to examine aspects of urban experience and urban psychology which fundamentally distinguish them from those that follow from traditional and rural modes of living. The renowned German sociologist Georg Simmel considered a range of the consequences for the individual of living in an urban environment in the essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903). For Simmel urban life is radically different from life in small towns, rural areas, and the newly emergent suburbs; urban life is so different, he argues, that it requires entirely distinct categories of behavior and human character to describe that experience. Without necessarily knowing of Simmel’s work, many of the modernist authors concerned with urban life (Henry James, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, etc.) shared his basic premise of the radical difference of urban experience and often dramatized through their fictions the conditions he explored as a social scientist. Woolf’s provocative declaration that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed” may refer in large part to the changes brought about by urban experience.
Simmel’s immediate objective is to account for what he calls the “psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality”. First, this basis “consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.” “With each crossing of the street,” moreover, “with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast to small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life.” Woolf seems to portray a similar experience in her description of Clarissa Dalloway, the title character of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), as she walks through the streets of London early in the novel. Clarissa and the crowd of people about her are disoriented by the unexpected appearance of skywriting. They look up in incomprehension—“The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd.” Only retrospectively—recovering from the initial shock of a new stimulus—do they realize (comfortingly?) that it was an advertisement for toffee that was being printed across the London sky. They are perhaps relieved to know it is not an air raid such as those of World War I that killed 2,300 Londoners.
If a new type of individual, with a new psychology and a new sensory apparatus, emerges from urban centers such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin, its prime, symptomatic manifestation is found in a new set of attitudes. A recurrent attitude that Simmel describes (and one of the descriptive terms his essay popularizes) is “the blasé attiude,” defined as “an incapacity . . . to react to new sensations with the appropriate energy”: this attitude of general indifference derives, according to Simmel, directly from urban experience. The indifference, that is to say, is precisely a product of overexposure to external stimuli (such as advertising stimuli). Simmel concludes, “There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which has been so unconditionally reserved to the metropolis as has the blasé attitude. The blasé attitude results first from the rapidly changing and closely compressed contrasting stimulations of the nerves.” For British modernists specifically (excepting Joyce whose consistent setting is Dublin), the concerns surrounding urbanism were tied to the realities of life in London, the first major European city to be extensively industrialized. The city experienced rapid population growth; the number of people living in the city reached approximately 2.5 million in 1851, the year of London’s Great Exhibition which celebrated the British Empire’s commercial power, and then 6.5 million at the beginning of the new century. Health problems (especially cholera outbreaks) and poverty plagued the city in the first decades of the twentieth century. The historian Samuel Hynes maps the city in the Edwardian years (1901—1910) along the lines of the enormous imbalance in wealth: “The poor were more wretched and more numerous than at any other time in English history, and the rich were richer and more conspicuous in their luxuries. The extreme gap between penury and ostentation, between the East End of London and the West End, was an unavoidable social fact.” Socially conscious writers and journalists of the time, Hynes further notes, referred to this as “the crime of poverty.”
Hynes, Samuel. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”

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