YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 21, 2012

Big Cities and the Mob

Hip cultural historians are still studying the anomie (rootlessness) they impute to big cities. While watching a recent PBS documentary on the achievements of Oscar Hammerstein II, it occurred to me that his oeuvre as a whole pointed back to a period of imagined rural or small-town neighborliness, to a time before his mother died when the lyricist was only fifteen (Fordin bio). That “neighborliness” (a soothing social bond represented in the mother-child dyad) was then translated to his idealized anti-racist international community, as then proposed by the United World Federalists (also a pet project of Harvard’s social psychologist Henry A. Murray) or in the premises of the United Nations. Although Hammerstein was a noted liberal anticommunist, his attempt to unite groups and nations with clashing political and economic interests, reminded me of Hitler’s populist elevation of the Volk, and also the Soviet attempt to merge peasants and workers, notwithstanding that peasants and workers had different material interests, as explained in this blog. http://clarespark.com/2009/08/27/hitler-and-the-jewish-mind-part-three/.

Although I had not thought of nostalgia for the pre-urban America as an underlying theme in the social thought of the early progressives, I suggest that fear of Cain’s cities, with their imputed urban neurasthenia and exacerbated individualist striving, not to speak of class warfare, animated the emotions of the intellectuals described below. The Scary City is a theme now being taken up by cultural historians, mostly writing from the left, who may have more in common with these agrarian critics of modernity than they realize. (If you have time for only one blog, choose the scary city.)

http://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/

http://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/

http://clarespark.com/2009/11/17/melencolia-i-and-the-apocalypse-1938/

http://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/

http://clarespark.com/2011/08/14/review-in-the-garden-of-beasts-by-erik-larson/.

http://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

http://clarespark.com/2012/10/07/christian-socialism-as-precursor-to-orwell/.

It is important to remember that “mass culture” was considered to be a mobbish urban phenomenon that explained Hitler’s support and rise to power (the Frankfurt School story, see http://clarespark.com/2011/10/21/did-frankfurters-kill-the-white-christian-west/), but it was also the explanation for all manner of mental illnesses, particularly narcissism (vainglory), deranged relations between the genders, and constant back-stabbing. For an example, see the NBC series Smash, which although it appears to sympathetically portray the New York theater world from a feminist, pro-gay perspective, Smash also calls into question the values it apparently celebrates, for instance contrasting the loneliness of stardom with the mutual solidarity offered by chorus members to the Katherine McPhee character. (In the last installment, nothing “works” in NYC, including the plumbing and heating. I have watched all seven episodes again, and wonder if the contrast drawn between country and city life will now evolve into the corruption of the innocent Karen, who will, like Marilyn, be ruined by the mercenary, anti-art values of show business.) (For more on Smash, see http://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.)

We are so wrong about the imputed innocence and wholesomeness of the  [judenrein] small town life hitherto enjoyed by “Karen Cartwright” who starts Smash with a truncated performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (JFK used “innocence” and “wholesome” to describe Marilyn Monroe’s lascivious Happy Birthday song). Alongside of tight families and neighborliness, there were also troubled social relationships and authoritarian conduct pushing toward mindless conformity, as such writers as Sherwood Anderson were quick to identify and condemn. We do better to read Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), along with such authors as Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy for a better reading of force and fraud in American 19th century frontier life and beyond. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/.)

It is time to rehabilitate the “rootless cosmopolitans” who have been unfairly demonized by multiculturalists: Stalinists and Nazis alike. As the black novelist and ex-communist Richard Wright once implied: “any place I hang my hat is home.” Thornton  Wilder’s Stage Manager, in Wright’s scenario, is nowhere to be found. (For one rendition of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song alluded to, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtEp2paaes.)

Thornton Wilder as Stage Manager in Our Town

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2 Comments »

  1. [...] was a great fan of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. For related blogs see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/21/wilsonian-internationalism-as-our-town/, and [...]

    Pingback by The subtle racism of Edna Ferber and Oscar Hammerstein II « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 24, 2012 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

  2. “It is time to rehabilitate the “rootless cosmopolitans” who have been unfairly demonized by multiculturalists: Stalinists and Nazis alike.”
    Oh, these multiculturalists only continued the inherited “monocultural” Christian “Wandering Jew” demonization. Like everything in anti-Judaism and antisemitism, this aspect is “charming.” Jews were expelled from their land, prohibited from returning (ideologically/theologically too), were expelled from other lands any time this or that ruler felt like or forced out by a mob, but were blamed by their rootlessness. Really charming.

    Comment by anna — March 21, 2012 @ 7:41 pm | Reply


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