An analysis of the urban sublime is overdue. The challenges that faced naturalist authors who represented the spatial, social, and economic configurations of the industrializing U.S. have been the subject of several important studies in the past decade or so. Most influential for Christophe Den Tandt are Walter Benn Michaels’s The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism and Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines, although neither makes discourses of the sublime a central focus. Building on these and other New Historicist studies of literary naturalism, drawing from Marxist critiques of naturalist discourse (Georg Lukács, Fredric Jameson) and Jean-François Lyotard’s writings on the Kantian and postmodern sublime, Den Tandt reorients the focus of discussion from mimesis—the attempt to produce cognitive maps of industrial cities—to the formal qualities of the discourse of the naturalist sublime.
In The Urban Sublime’s closely argued opening chapters, Den Tandt lays the foundation for his investigation through critical surveys of two key terms of the study, “the sublime” and “naturalism,” before moving to a consideration of three important manifestations of the urban sublime: industrialism, corporatism, and crowds. The principal registers of the naturalist sublime studied by Den Tandt are an oceanic (or oedipal) sublime most common in representations of the corporate-industrial economy, and gothic (pre-oedipal) representations of atavism and abjection that predominate in portrayals of urban crowds and mark certain narratives of artistic education. He distinguishes naturalism from a realism that seeks to exercise “a demystificatory, documentary [End Page 1028] gaze with a local scope”; the naturalist represents the totality of urban industrial society (or the failure of that attempt) in a heteroglossic narrative that incorporates such disparate discourses as atavism, Darwinism, hypnotism, mesmerism, and abjection.
The title’s third key term, “the urban,” receives less consideration. In fact, a surprisingly large portion of The Urban Sublime has little to do with cities. Frank Norris’s The Octopus, Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon and his stories of the Yukon, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, Hamlin Garland’s A Spoil of Office, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” all further discussion of the sublime, but their connection to anything urban is at best tenuous, as is the relation of some authors—Henry James and Cather—to naturalism. Den Tandt is correct in arguing that representations of the rural are changed by the discourse of the urban sublime, and that a discourse of the sublime is present in James and Cather, but these inclusions only blur The Urban Sublime’s focus and obscure its principles of selection.
The issue matters more than it might because other important aspects of urban form and function are neglected. The built landscape ought to be a prominent focus of any exploration of the urban sublime; immigrant narratives of entry into the great city might have helped to address the sublimity of urban space. One wishes as well that Den Tandt had considered consumption, the missing third term when he delves into “The Mysteries of Production and Exchange.” Attention to what one might call the “consumer sublime”—for instance, reading Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie with Kate Chopin’s story, “A Pair of Silk Stockings” in the context of the rise of department stores—would have explored another distinctive feature of the urban experience and mitigated somewhat the overwhelmingly male focus of the discussion. The possibility is foreclosed by Den Tandt’s Lukácsian criticism of the commodity form. (Although he does use Patricia Yaeger’s work on the female sublime in a discussion of Cather, its relation to naturalism and the urban is slight.)
Nevertheless, The Urban Sublime’s chapters on the industrial economy are the book’s strongest. Den Tandt moves ably among the many discordant depictions of the economy as a bachelor machine, an uncontrollable female reproductive system, and as a homosocial order (a point he could have strengthened by tracking the heroine’s progress in Sister Carrie). More controversial is Den Tandt’s claim that the urban [End Page 1029...