Category Archives: cities

seaport towns

[Source-Wikimedia Commons-public domain]

Reading Gary Nash’s Urban Crucible made me think about the importance of urban history–specifically the importance of seaport towns–for understanding demographic and social change in the eighteenth century.  As a lit scholar, I was simply unaware the significance of these towns, until I read this paragraph from the Preface [Abridged Version]:

What I think this book captures is a large-scale social process whose origins can be traced in these little Northern ports (New York, Philadelphia, and Boston), which were admittedly tiny in comparison with the great urban centers of other continents. It is perhaps the size of these North American towns that allows us to recognize a process taking place all over the world.

According to Nash, this transformative process radiates outward to dissolve and recast social structures and relations throughout North America by the time of the American Revolution.  Nash wants to discover the origin of both class consciousness and modern capitalism in these towns and their history. His extraordinary facility with his sources helps him make this argument persuasively, by matching traditional historical sources like pamphlets and newspapers with economic and demographic evidence. (And I’m glad to see that social historians still agree with me on this, even if they’ve been studying the book for a lot longer than I have)

After reading this opening, my first question was whether these kinds of forces were shaping England, or Europe, as well?  What kinds of comparisons could we make between British and colonial seaports?  And how might literary history have been shaped by this particular dimension of urban history?  I can just barely discern it in Equiano’s accounts of London and Philadelphia, but where else might we be able to find it?  Wycherley’s Plain Dealer?  Somewhere in Mandeville?  Defoe? Or is every important town in 18th century writing a seaport, anyway?


moral economy

“Riot was a calamity.  The ‘order’ which might follow a riot could be an even greater calamity.”–E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” 50.

Rereading Thompson in the wake of this week’s riots, I was interested to see him distancing the behavior of rioters from a too narrowly reductive and rationalist language of deliberate political gestures. Instead of assuming that plebeian riots are a form of disruption of “the way things work,” he neatly reverses the analysis by showing rioters as trying to restore traditional understandings of collective rights and reciprocities, traditions that elites disrupted or ignored at their peril.

In other words, eighteenth-century riots occurred at moments when political and economic institutions were felt (for whatever reason) to be losing  legitimacy, and when the men and women populating those crowds felt that they needed to defend “traditional rights or customs” in particular ways.

As such, Thompson concedes,

“while this moral economy cannot be described as ‘political’ in any advanced sense, nevertheless it cannot be described as unpolitical either, since it supposed definite, and passionately held, notions of the common weal–notions which, indeed, found some some support in the paternalist tradition of the authorities; notions which the people re-echoed so loudly in their turn that the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people.” (78-9)

For those who would try to understand such moments of collective behavior in the present, Thompson’s equivocal description of the riot as not-quite-political/not-quite-unpolitical seems more persuasive than what I’m currently seeing and hearing from pundits like Zygmunt Bauman, who seem to be finding it hard to analyze what happened.  But what notions of the “common weal” might have been held by this week’s rioters?


franklin’s philadelphia

And who else so completely dominates the history of a major city, or its modern identity, in the same way?

It’s funny, while I work at the LCP during the day, I’ve been spending my evenings rereading the Autobiography. It’s hard to remember the role of anyone else in that book, when you compare them to the vividness and centrality of Franklin.  He fills the frame.

Jonathan Swift visits London, Paris, and (of course) New York


[Bust of Swift from St. Patrick\'s Cathedral, Dublin]As one of the governors of the city’s hackney coaches, carts, and carriages, [Swift] enjoyed preferential treatment by the coachmen of Dublin, but this pleasure, along with his delight in evening walking, had to be curtailed because of dizziness. Swift nevertheless continued to regard the liberty of St Patrick’s (a precinct independent of the archbishop’s administration) as a little world under his own absolute control. (Clive Probyn, ODNB, “Jonathan Swift”) (image from Sacred Destinations Travel Guide)


It’s funny how much we associate Swift with cities, but these are never major cities, at least not in his own mind.  The Journal to Stella has some superb descriptions of London, and apparently there was an intended trip to France (and, I presume, Paris) in 1727 that was scotched because of George I’s death and Stella’s final decline. 

Throughout Swift’s writings, satirical and otherwise, we can always recognize his rage at his displacement from the centers of power and authority, as well as his resentment at not being where he was supposed to be.  Dublin is not London.  No wonder that Said wrote about Swift with such solicitude for his “exile,” which was a fate chosen for him and a role he consciously assumed.  There were two equal and contradictory desires, to return to the center to receive his due, but also to stay where he was and exercise power and authority on his own terms.

But how easy is it to imagine Swift in the role of Addison or Prior, as a successful politician, courtier, diplomat who just happened to be major writer?  When I read Swift on the abuses of power, his ridicule carries an unmistakable whiff of frustrated desire, an aftertaste of sour grapes along with his disavowals.  In his impersonations of the stupid and the powerful, he works with what is almost a sympathetic identification with their banality, as if to say, “this is what I might have become.”  For Swift, the pain of exclusion provides his insights into the workings of power.