Monday, October 25, 2010

From The New Radicalism in America, by Christopher Lasch

I will discuss this passage (and the book's argument more generally) at a later date, but for now, I just want to put this interesting analysis of the geographic shape of American culture out here:
The convergence of the world of culture with the world of advertising and entertainment was only incidentally a function of the rise of mass communications. It was primarily a function of the concentration of cultural life in the city of New York, a development, in fact, which was indispensable to the creation of an intellectual class in the first place. In the nineteenth century the United States was a country without a cultural capital, the best example of such a country in the world. The years between the Civil War and the First World War, however, saw the steady dissolution of provincial culture and the concentration of intellectual life in Chicago and New York, and by the time of the Second World War the isolated preeminence of New York had long been assured. Neither the newspaper business nor the publishing of books and periodicals nor, indeed, any form of cultural activity escaped the centralizing pull that governed the economy as a whole. The economic advantages of large-scale production gave rise to the popular press and the national magazine, both of them geared to an urban readership. Publishing, accordingly, gravitated to the cities. In publishing as in every other industry, moreover, a fierce competition tended to eliminate the smaller producers and to concentrate the control of the market in the hands of a few firms strategically located at the financial heart of the nation. By the turn of the century most of the major magazines and all but a handful of the publishers of books had taken up residence in New York. Journalists, writers, artists, intellectuals of all kinds had no choice but to follow. The demands of this process again and again gave a new shape to men's [sic] careers. William Dean Howells moved from Ohio to Boston to New York. A whole group of intellectuals—Floyd Dell, Susan Glaspell, Carl Van Vechten, and others—migrated from Iowa to New York by way of Chicago. The 'renaissance' in Chicago at the turn of the century was short-lived because by the time of the First World War most of its leading figures had gone on to New York. From then on, New York was unmistakably the spiritual home of the American intellectual. The New York Times and The New Yorker became national institutions because they provided, for the exiled multitudes, a tenuous link to the Mecca of the East (319-320).
 I imagine few historians of ideas or of popular culture would give geography this kind of primacy; far more, I believe, accept the mass communications argument that Lasch immediately rejects. I am perhaps overly inclined to accept Lasch's geographic emphasis as it dovetails very nicely with a number of my interests and projects, but I also see some limitations to his understanding of what this "concentration" entailed, and certainly I think it can be noticed immediately that the chronology of this concentration business is unhelpfully loose, smearing a few different processes or fields, each with their own shape and dynamic, together to achieve a thick and bold effect. On the other hand, even among the examples given, Lasch clips off some details (for instance, he elides Howells's very important Italian residency from the itinerary given of his career) which would make this a less unified narrative (although in Howells's case, I think the addition of a transatlantic or, rather, a transcontinental dimension improves the argument rather than weakens it, but I'll return to that perhaps in the coming post about Lasch's book).

Yet, like the book as a whole, Lasch's argument brings to light some isolated (one of Lasch's favorite words) recognitions of particular cultural shifts and moments—for instance, it is quite interesting to note the geographical shift signaled by the difference between the nineteenth-century's leading intellectual periodicals, The Atlantic Monthly and The North American Review, and the twentieth-century's dominant publications, The New Yorker and The New York Times. I think a few different conclusions can be drawn (if, that is, any should be) from this shift, but it is plausible, at least, to read it in just these terms that Lasch is laying out here.


Shelley said...

I love New York (although I haven't been in years)so I have no quarrel with its influence.

But where, in this geographic argument, does Texas fit?

Jonny said...