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The Dark Side of Prose

I’ve been thinking about newspapers lately, and their most recent avatar, TV news, both the network and the cable kind. What intrigues me most about this use of prose is that it mainly dwells on catastrophes, setbacks, misfortune and misery. It is prose born of the modern city, London to be exact, in the form of The Spectator, edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele for about a year (1711-1712). It had a circulation of 3 thousand readers, but the pass-along, as magazines call it, reached some 60,000 readers, about a tenth of London’s 18th century population.

The paper was intended to help city dwellers learn the ways of urban life; it was only within the previous century that vast numbers of people began to migrate to London and live there full time. Canals were the main way to travel, and leaving behind country life was partly the result of the Enclosure Acts, which began in 1604 to end the use of common lands for tilling and grazing. That meant only the landed gentry could afford to stay; others had to find a living elsewhere.

Hence, the need to instruct the arrivistes on how to behave, stay out of trouble, avoid the pitfalls of the built environment. The Spectator’s narrator was himself a country gentleman new to the city, and was often naïve and a bit careless in his actions. He embodied the readers’ concerns and was their guide to negotiating the labyrinth of narrow streets, the haunts of pickpockets, prostitutes, muggers, and other predators of the innocent. In other words, the first urban prose sprung from the notion that the built environment was suspect, inclined toward corruption. The city’s bad reputation imprinted itself on journalism from the very start, and has continued to inspire a narrow, moralistic attitude toward human behavior.

Ten years after The Spectator dies, Daniel Defoe publishes Moll Flanders, about a woman who is born of a convict mother in Newgate Prison, London. She grows up and learns the ways of the city, is deflowered early, ends up deported to colonial America, and after a series of misadventures returns to London only to find herself back in Newgate with a possible noose dangling over her head. She talks her way out of execution and finds herself married to a half-brother in America, the son of her biological mother. All this adds up to a portrait of a girl raised without parents in the moral anarchy of London. She turns out well at the very end, but only to soften the plot a little for readers. Stephen Crane comes up with a new Moll in his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, published in 1893. Maggie was born in a tenement in the Bowery, wanders into trouble, ends up as a prostitute in the slums of New York. The paradigm of the city as the underworld spreads from London to Paris to New York, and in nearly every case, the “girl” is the victim of the city’s lust and mayhem.

Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) sweeps away the Victorian moral machinery and studies how a girl from a small town learns to manipulate men to her advantage, and winds up a star on Broadway, rich, famous, sought after while the men in her life have all been swept into ruin. She conquers the city but not without becoming the very symbol of fallen human nature. But the notion of the city as a Dantean underworld meant that prose, whether romantic or realistic, was predetermined to report on the death of innocence in the urban landscape. And newspapers flourished for the next two centuries, serving up hefty portions of ghoulish tales of gentlemen turned into syphilitic rakes, ordinary men into gin drunks, and of youths learning how to survive by stealing and killing. The gang was the metaphor of how the city corrupted the young early and ruined their lives.

Prose was a telescope with a lens ground in the early 17th century by ardent puritanical moralists; you couldn’t put the instrument up to your eye without it pointing to an alley to witness a mugging, or a window where adultery was in progress. It was inevitable that the suburb would become, around the middle of the 20th century, the pastoral alternative to urban corruption. In fact, the era was seized with the ideal of “Garden Cities” and “Green Belts” where morality would be rejuvenated. But crime was a contagion of the streets and suburbs were as vulnerable to moral decay as were the avenues of Manhattan.

Photographers like Weegee drove around New York with police radios and were first on the scene of a murder or suicide. Weegee had a “dark room” installed in the trunk of his car and could deliver his gory prints of corpses in pools of blood before anyone else – and his pictures appeared everywhere in the tabloids. He was mining an old prejudice with his flash bulbs and Speed Graphic cameras – he was simply proving the point that the city bred pestilence and destruction. Often his photographs included the laughing, leering faces of the crowd gathered to gawk at the twisted body of a victim. Their faces expressed a kind of carnival hilarity, a joyful celebration of the underworld’s preeminence in life. Walter Winchell reported the malfeasance and scandals of the upper world in his gossip columns, while the reporters on the City Desk sifted through police bulletins looking for any lurid events. Noir films comlpete the picture of a culture obsessed with urban treachery.

It doesn’t seem that strange that the cable news, the electronic tabloids of our time, from CNN to Fox News should dwell obsessively on murder stories, the endless replays the O.J. Simpson car chase and trial; the Trayvon Martin case, and all the other episodes like it, where a youth is shot by the police in a nondescript neighborhood. Eric Garner becomes an instant symbol of the generic victim of police brutality. “I Can’t Breathe” is on t-shirts, in the latest album by the Russian girl-group, “Pussy Riot.” The names are symbolic of something much deeper and more pervasive, a fear rooted in an ancient prejudice against the secular world. For the city is not religious or sacred in the modern world; it stands for the separation from religion, and the elevation of commerce and mere survival without the influence of the church. The city is where the soul perishes for lack of divine intervention or instruction. The modern city is that construct that emerged the moment religion’s grip on the world loosened, according to the moral pessimists of the press.

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