New York City as Metaphor in Selected American Texts

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

50 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The American City as Metaphor

3 Pictures of New York City
3.1 Panorama of the City
3.1.1 John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer
3.2 Into the City
3.2.1 The Polarized City of Edith Wharton’s The House of
Mirth and Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
3.3 The Metaphysical City
3.3.1 Paul Auster’s City of Glass

4 Conclusion

5 Appendix

6 Primary Literature

7 Secondary Literature

1 Introduction

New York,

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, There’s nothing you can’t do, Now you’re in New York, these streets will make you feel brand new, the lights will inspire you, lets hear it for New York, New York, New York1

These lines from the song Empire State of Mind (2009) by the famous American rapper, record producer and entrepreneur Jay-Z, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, reveal the challenge of capturing the City of New York in words or text. New York City is on the one hand celebrated as the place "where dreams are made of", whose "streets will make you feel brand new" and whose "lights will inspire you", but on the other hand also as a "[c]oncrete jungle".

The contrasting, yet at the same time very tempting ideas of the ’City that Never Sleeps’ make it not only the most popular city in the United States, but also the most "dynamic, varied and perplexing in the world" (Gates ix). Robert A. Gates further describes the challenge for the writer, singer or songwriter: "There are no standards [one] can grasp; no guidelines [one] can follow", because [t]he City presents no standard language, philosophy, or neighborhood that can be labelled as typically New York" (ix).

In order to understand the city and its influences at least to some extent, it might be useful to talk about the name ’New York’ and the events in history that helped to make it the most important and most famous city in the world.

When people talk about New York, the City of New York is referred to and more precisely the most densely populated borough of Manhattan. In 1898, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island were consolidated to the City of New York, which is part of the state of New York. Therefore, New York and New York City are almost always used synonymously and refer to the same part of the city: Manhattan. It can be subdivided into Lower, Midtown, and Uptown regions. Westbound the Hudson River divides the city from New Jersey and East Manhattan is separated from Long Island by the East River. Other frequently used nicknames are ’The Big Apple’2, ’Gotham’3, ’Center of the Universe’, ’The City that Never Sleeps’ and ’The Capital of the World’.

The city’s history describes quite effectively why especially New York has inspired so much great writing and became famous for its literary variety and sheer volume. Phillip Lopate, in Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, summarizes the city’s past as follows:

From the start, the place was fast, boisterous, crowded, dirty, secular, and on the make. It began as a cosmopoli- tan, international port, a walking city with a vital street life and a housing shortage, and stayed that way. The more the metropolis grew, the more it attracted writers (Lopate XVII).

Yet, two incidents at the beginning of the nineteenth century helped New York to strengthen its identity and personality as a metropolis. One was the War of 1812, that changed America’s self-opinion because then it could consider it- self both politically and psychologically independent from Great Britain. This feeling also encouraged New York to "untie [its] provincial apron stings with British cities4 "(Gates x). The second event was the completion of the Erie Canal during the early 1820s, which connected Lake Erie further west with New York and established it as the new and busiest mercantile center in the United States. "Post-Civil War prosperity and the opening of the West had encouraged massive waves of immigrants to seek success in the new world, and the first port-of-call for most was New York" (x). In the following years, the number of people immigrating to the United States and especially New York increased explosively5.

A result of the rise of the city’s population was the establishment of eth- nic neighborhoods and consequently also the rise of the first tenement slums, because many failed to pursue their dream of success in the new world. Poverty became a major aspect and created a polarized city "with clearly defined bor- ders between the lifestyles and habitations of the rich and poor" (x).

Nevertheless, New York managed to save itself, because of its adaptabil- ity to new times and circumstances. Exactly this is represented in the great volume of different literature about the city of New York. For each author writing about the city, New York stands for something else. Consequently, making a proper choice with reference as to what novels should be analyzed was quite difficult. It serves as a metaphor and can be interpreted in vari- ous ways depending on the intention of writing, the author’s experiences with the city and the living conditions of the characters within the story, because "the city often is part of the journey in the development of a protagonist [...]" (Sauter 37).

Therefore, this thesis wants to analyze how New York City is depicted and interpreted as a metaphor in selected American texts. The first chapter (2 The City as a Metaphor) explains what a metaphor is, how the city has become one and serves as a basis for further analysis of the main part. The main part then gives different images of the city, starting with the novel by John Dos Passos which gives a panoramic overview of New York City between the 1890s and 1920s (chapter 3.1.1). In a second step, this work goes deeper into the city by analyzing the polarized neighborhoods of Edith Wharton and Stephen Crane (chapter 3.2.1) and their meaning for the protagonists. A third chapter is dedicated to Paul Auster who gives a very modern, metaphysical view on the city (chapter 3.3.1).

The thesis is summarized in form of the last chapter that tries to evaluate if the topography of New York plays an important role for the different meanings of the city.

2 The American City as Metaphor

Looking at the heading of this chapter, there are two words that need further explanation: This is first of all the word metaphor, then the American City with regards to its development, and finally the connection between the two.

Defining the term ’metaphor’ offers an interesting insight into the topic. The term has its origin in Greek and means "carrying one place to another". It is a figure of speech and according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms it makes a statement in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two [...] (Baldick 205).

The quote does not say anything about the quality of the metaphor itself, meaning if it shows negative or positive characteristics of the City. How most of the authors chosen for the thesis interpret New York will become clear in the following chapters.

The development of the use of the term ’metaphor’ in connection to daily life can be traced back to Jeffersonian or even Crèvecoeurian times. America started out as a country that heavily depended on agriculture. Accordingly, Lester Roy Zipris points out that "[t]he seeds of the American Dream were sown in the soil of a rural society, but with the growth of immigration, tech- nology, and industrialization, the nature of American society changed" (Zipris 3). Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father, principal author of the Dec- laration of Independence and the third president of the young nation, was a great advocate of this way of life. In his work Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) he states "[t]hose who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, [...]. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure govern- ment, as sores do to the strength of the human body" (Jefferson 164-165). He regarded cities as a burden to the American society because he was frightened that the young nation would increase their dependence on nations like Great Britain. It was his aim to support America to become independent politically and economically, which could only be achieved by the humble and virtuous cultivator.

Looking at the early years of the American society, one can aptly state that nature functioned as a metaphor for the people’s place in life. This is supported by Zipris, who writes about J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1783):

[L]and, in his work, is no longer a symbol, as it was for the Puritans, but an emblem - a badge of one’s citizenship rather than a sign of God’s natural bounty. Land [...] [is] indicative, in a real and concrete way, of one’s place in the daily life and world of one’s community." (Zipris 8).

He introduced the ideal American citizen, the ’Yeoman’, being in fact any man. By tilling the earth, the farmer will be able to gain citizenship in the democratic Republic and help fostering a simple, yet virtuous society.

Nevertheless, Jefferson soon had to accept cities as the centers of commerce and manufacturing because it would help the young nation to settle economically. He finally yielded: "’An equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, is certainly become essential to our independence’" (15). Still, he deeply distrusted life in the cities and already anticipated problems for the generations yet to come: vice, crime and poverty will be issues that the urban society will have to deal with.

Though, from then on the development of the cities could not be stopped anymore. "In the decade from 1860 to 1870, America’s urban population increased only by about 9%; [...] During the fifty years from 1870 to 1920, the percentage of farm population declined steadily, sinking as low as 30.1% in 1920" (4). The transition from nature as a metaphor for life to the city as a metaphor was inevitable and so it became the new, "’generative frontier of ... growth and change’" (Hoffmann 401).

In 1978, Gerhard Hoffmann publishes his work Raum, Situation, erz ä hlte Wirklichkeit, where he gives his reader further information on why the city became a metaphor for so many people at all:

Hoffnung auf Verwirklichung des amerikanischen Traums von Glück, Erfolg und Freiheit in der großen, glänzenden Stadt [...]. Dieser plot der Queste macht die Stadt für die Literatur der Moderne, insbesondere für die moderne amerikanische Literatur und hier vor allem den amerikanis- chen Roman, zum Symbol, nicht nur zum Schauplatz und Milieu (401).

The city and especially New York City as the fastest growing and changing metropolis, now represents the American Dream. Irene Belleter Sauter points out that this is Manifest Destiny6 since "[t]he United States have ’consistently defined [their] national identity through spatial models of expansion and ascension’" (Sauter 37).

Applying this to New York, one can say that the City is a perpetual mo- tion machine, there is always movement, "it is always ’becoming’; it is not yet there yet nor will it ever be" (48). There is a constant physical change going on, new buildings are built and the infrastructure changes so that people can stay in motion. Furthermore, there is a constant change in the population of New York, for numerous immigrants arrive and look for a place to live and earn their living. These developments lead to certain urban characteristics that can be applied to New York: This is for once, the city’s contradictory faces of glamour and misery and its man-made quality. Then, the gigantic built environment and the relative unimportance of nature. Additionally, what makes New York attractive or even the other way around is its offer of anonymity to the many as well as its large, dense population which provides space if not always the warmest of welcomes, for the immigrant. Typically New York is also its affa- ble, loquacious working-class population speaking a streetwise vernacular, its fabled loneliness and alienation. Very important is its symbolic importance as the modern city par excellence and its addictive, temptress quality, which entraps newcomers and convince them - no matter how they may suffer at its hands - that no place else will do (cf. Lopate xvii-xix). This is what makes the city special and therefore also a metaphor for the life of the people living in New York.

Numerous writers have specifically dealt with the topic of the City as metaphor and one of them was Joachim von der Thüsen. He says that image- making of the city is governed by three linguistic operations: the symbolic, the metaphoric and the metonymic level (cf. von der Thüsen 2). For the sake of the argument, the symbolic and metonymic level are not considered here, but

only the metaphoric one. He states that

[o]n the metaphoric level of image-making, the city is ex- pressed in terms of relatively concrete constructs and pro- cesses that have no overt connection to urban life. Thus the city is seen as body, monster, jungle, ocean or volcano (von der Thüsen 2).

That this is true shows on the one hand the quote of the song at the beginning of this work, where New York is described as a "concrete jungle", but on the other hand also several other literary works, such as Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906) or also the novels that will be discussed and analyzed in the following chapters. It will become obvious that the city cannot be understood as one metaphor, but must be seen as several metaphors, because "[t]here are as many cities as there are imaginations" (Weimer 6).

Another author who dealt with the city as a metaphor is David R. Weimer. He considered the question of reality within the stories, but he stresses that "most literary historians take [...] for granted - that the city is objectively real, [...]" (6). For many authors, such as Stephen Crane or Walt Whitman, it does not matter if the city is real, "but they wonder whether it is solid, which is to say prosaic, identifiable or unambiguous" (6). Thus, what really matters is that the city can be clearly identified as being typically New York, Boston or Chicago. In his novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane does so by giving prominent street names or places that can only be found in New York City: "Pete, ranking his brains for amusement, discovered the Central Park Menagerie and the Museum of Arts" (Crane 36).

Therefore, one can summarize all the considerations on the city, the metaphor and their connection by quoting Weimer: "The ’city’ of American literature is thus several cities, whose meaning and appeal derive first of all from their singularity" (Weimer 13). Nevertheless, one can assume that cer- tain traits of the City can be found in each of the following novels since all the authors observe New York City in a time that was known and is still known for its rapid change and growth.

Exactly this can be discovered by taking a closer look at the various given pictures of New York by John Dos Passos, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton and Paul Auster.

3 Pictures of New York City

3.1 Panorama of the City

3.1.1 John Dos Passos’Manhattan Transfer

John Roderigo Dos Passos (1898-1970) was considered to be a member of the so-called Lost Generation. This is a group of authors from the United States who came of age during World War I (1914-1918). According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

[t]he generation was ’lost’ in the sense that its inherited values were no longer relevant in the postwar world and because of its spiritual alienation from a U.S. that, basking under Pres. Warren G. Harding’s ’back to normalcy’ policy, seemed to its members to be hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotionally barren.7

This generation of writers became disillusioned by the atrocities of the Great War and saw the development of greed, aggressiveness, corruption and capitalism with a very critical eye devolving to the cities of the United States, especially New York. A lot of these concerns and their consequences for society are worked up in their writings.

Furthermore, Dos Passos was one of the most important modernist writ- ers in American literature. He made use of some very innovative novelistic techniques which, among others, are flashbacks, stream of consciousness or cinematic techniques. His impressionistic style8 becomes evident throughout the novel by appealing to our senses with means of color, sound and smell.

The novel Manhattan Transfer was published in 1925 and was received as "’a novel of very first importance’" (Sinclair Lewis) (Passos Cover). Con- trary to the plot, the novel is ironically clear structured. It comprises three sections which can be titled as ’arrival’, ’stay’ and ’farewell’. Each section again is separated into chapters, the first and last section having five and the middle section consisting of eight chapters. The smallest entity is the chapter itself, which can be structured as well. There is a headline, an epigraph and the text. From the headings of the several chapters one can deduce the topics of the novel, as will become clear in a later step.

Looking at the title of the novel, one can also draw conclusions as to what is important concerning structure, style as well as content. Matter of factly, Manhattan Transfer was a ferry connection on the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York City. The novel starts here, telling

[g]ates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferryhouse, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press (3)

and also ends "[o]ut [on] the empty dark fog of the river, [where] the ferryslip yawns all of a sudden, a black mouth with a throat of light" (342). Taking a more careful look at the word "transfer", one gets the impres-sion of motion and change. People transferring from the railroads to the ferries, a busy, pushing crowd of people. Everything is in motion, like a machine never willing to stop. This restless atmosphere can be discovered in every corner of New York City, because "in Manhattan Transfer the City continues to grow at a frantic pace; [...]. The birth of a megalopolis is on the horizon" (Gates 71). The changes in the City after the Great War were of both physical and mental nature. Industrialization and mechanization gave New York a whole new look, "creating concrete valleys of darkness during the day, and a dazzling display of lights at night" (64). The cityscape was now dominated by skyscrapers, such as the Lincoln Building or the Chrysler Tower. Many companies installed their headquarters in Manhattan and Gates further describes that "[n]ew roads were built as well as an extensive mass transit system that interconnected the sep-arate Boroughs" (63). The growth and change is effectively described in the beginning of the by name fitting chapter Metropolis:

His eyes fell on the headline on a Journal that lay on the floor by the coalscuttle where he had dropped it to run for the hack to take Susie to the hospital.


There were also a lot of changes in the heads of the people living in the City. A fast increasing middle class that was hungry for setting themselves apart from the previous generation and achieving their own mores and ideals, created a new type of woman, "who considered herself totally liberated from the eco- nomic and social restrictions imposed upon her mother. She held jobs, wore shorter skirts, and bobbed her hair" (Gates 63). A higher affinity to organized crime and corruption could also be recorded during the post-war years, but was widely ignored until the stock market crash of 1929 made it all come to an end.

Though, not everyone saw this development being all positive. H.G. Wells observed that New York was becoming a "’steel-souled machine room’, a city where ’individuals count for nothing ... the distinctive effect is the mass ... the unprecedented multitudinousness of the thing’" (65). This feeling is also noticeable in the novel of Dos Passos and so the intention of Manhattan Transfer is "to show the drift towards monopoly capitalism" (Gelfant, “John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel” 139) and its effects on society. It was not possible for the author to voice his criticism openly in the public, so he had to find a way doing it implicitly, "inherent in the picture of the times" (139). Dos Passos achieves this effect through various special techniques. Mrs. Gelfant aptly states: "The techniques that create the dramatic world of the novel es- tablish toward it a firm social and moral attitude. Thus technique becomes the vehicle of social commentary" (141 f.). By analyzing the different stylistic means, it will become obvious in how far New York City serves as a metaphor in Manhattan Transfer.

A special trait of the novel is the "kaleidoscopic panorama of disparate scenes and characters that eventually collide with each other during the course of the plot" (Gates 71). This means, the author just gives a certain impression of reality. He does not give all the details and so achieves that the reader has to become active and complete the picture himself. The technique of abstraction helps Dos Passos to create the City as a place with a certain atmosphere and way of life embedded in its history. What becomes obvious is that Manhattan Transfer is not so much concerned with the people living in the City, but more with the development from the world’s second metropolis to a mechanized, corrupted and alienated City. Thus, New York becomes the true protagonist of the novel and so justifies the heading of this thesis’ chapter: Panorama of the City, for it provides the reader with an overview of the metropolis in a historical as well as social and economic sense. By abstracting the scenes pre- sented in the novel and shifting from one to another quite often, something else is achieved: It "accelerates the novel’s pace to suggest the incessant restless movement within the city itself" (Gelfant, “John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel” 143). So, the assumptions from the beginning, when the title of the novel was analyzed, is proved to be true.

Since John Dos Passos was known for his impressionistic streak, he pro- ceeded his abstract technique through a distinctive use of colors. The first chapter of the novel concludes with a man buying a razor at "a yellowpained drugstore at the corner of Canal Street". Before, he walks up another East Side Street, "the sunstriped tunnel hung with skyblue and smokedsalmon and mustardyellow quilts, littered with second hand gingerbread-colored furniture" (Passos 9). The whole scene is just about one page long, a "fleeting sensuous impression" (Gelfant, “John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel” 143), but the dramatized use of the colors gives it "the quality of movement, so that ab- stracted colors ’agitate’, ’flutter’, and ’slide together’" (144). Seemingly static scenes become dynamic, because Dos Passos plays with light, shadow and color like a painter would (cf. Gelfant 144). An example is provided by a scene at a Mall at Central Park:

She is walking [...] in the middle of great rosy and purple and pistachiogreen bubbles of twilight that swell out of the grass and trees and ponds, bulge against the tall houses sharp gray as dead teeth round the southern end of the park, melt into the indigo zenith (Passos 171).

The verbs "swell out", "bulge" and "melt" make the scene very dynamic, but they also exert a certain kind of pressure, which emanates from the great power the metropolis exerts on the individual. Gelfant concludes that "[t]he beauty of the city lies in its color formations, sometimes brilliant and gaudy, sometimes muted and subdued. All other sensory details, those of sound, weather, and odor, are oppressively ugly" (Gelfant, “John Dos Passos: The Synoptic Novel” 144).

Related to the statement given above by Gelfant, another technique of Dos Passos is the assault of the senses in general. Next to colors, he makes extensive use of addressing the reader’s sense of hearing and smelling. Dos Passos has brilliantly brought the two sensory aspects together in one scene:


1 Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys Empire State of Mind. 20ft.%20Alicia%20Keys/Empire-State-Of-Mind-405440.html. (February 25, 2011).

2 The term was coined by the sports journalist John Fitzgerald in the 1920s. It referred to the award, winner of the horse races around New York received.

3 Washington Irving used Gotham City for New York in this essay collection Salmagundi, or the Whims and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff and Others meaning "goat-town".

4 British cities New York was always compared to were especially London and Liverpool, but also other European cities such as Paris.

5 Figure no.1 shows this development and can be seen in the appendix at the end.

6 Manifest Destiny is the belief of the 19th century America that the United States are chosen by God to expand across the continent.

7 Definition by the Encyclopedia Britannica: topic/348402/Lost-Generation (April 3, 2012).

8 Impressionism is a rather vague term applied to works or passages that concentrate on the description of transitory mental impressions as felt by an observer, rather than on the explanation of their external causes (cf. Baldick 166-167).

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New York City as Metaphor in Selected American Texts
University of Wuppertal
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New York, New York City, Literature, Metaphor, Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane, Metaphysics, Paul Auster, City of Glass, New York Trilogy
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Kim Vahnenbruck (Author), 2012, New York City as Metaphor in Selected American Texts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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