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Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840–1930, and: A Mighty Mass of Brick and Smoke: Victorian and Edwardian Representations of London (review)

From: Victorian Studies
Volume 51, Number 3, Spring 2009
pp. 569-572 | 10.1353/vic.0.0205

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To paraphrase Ford Madox Ford's well-known dictum, England is a small island, the world is infinitesimal amongst the planets. But writing on London is illimitable. The abundance of primary sources discussed in the books under review here demonstrates that this is not a phenomenon of recent date: a good proportion of the tons of paper printed during the nineteenth century emerged from and concerned itself with London. The existence of these two books is further testimony to London's enduring ability to generate critical discourse in the twenty-first century. They approach their subject from opposite directions: the essays collected in A Mighty Mass of Brick and Smoke are primarily literary in focus, while Cities in Modernity is grounded in the social sciences. Still, both volumes are informed by urban studies and cultural geography and, like much recent writing on London, can be said to meet on the capacious if somewhat unstable ground of cultural studies. And both volumes are at their best when moments of concentrated research blossom forth from this theoretical ground into original and illuminating nuggets of microhistory on the period they basically share, from the middle of the nineteenth through the first third of the twentieth century.

Like many books written over the course of many years, Cities in Modernity is long, thorough, and carefully constructed. Richard Dennis has a number of different goals, but the underlying thrust of his book is to bring together what we can call a critical mass of urban modernity. From networks of communication and transportation to retail sales and consumption, from patterns of labor to modes of habitation, he shows how modernity during this period was characterized by a trend toward ever greater concentration: mass production, mass transit, mass media, mass consumption, mass commuting. And, he argues with more than a bit of nostalgia, by the end of the 1920s this critical mass had dispersed into various forms of individuation. Although well aware of the human costs and social consequences of this trajectory, Dennis nevertheless wants to celebrate a unique moment in which the cities of his title "[held] in tension the contradictory impulses to segregate and to integrate, the paradoxes of order and diversity, rationality and pluralism, modernization and modernism, representations of space and spatial practice" (349). It is an argument more frequently made of modernist literature than of the city itself, and Dennis does himself somewhat of a disservice in mimicking that literature by striving for a style to match the "crowding and frenetic energy" of his subject (xiii); however, the end effect greatly expands our understanding of the intricate web of modernity generally studied in discrete strands under the rubric of individual academic disciplines.

To his center of gravity in London, Dennis adds substantial material on New York and Toronto, while making additional forays into Boston, Chicago, Hamilton (Ontario), Melbourne, Montreal, and Paris. After an introductory chapter comparing his trio of cities, Dennis includes three chapters surveying urban images and representations; the following eight chapters are devoted to the spaces of modernity, primarily housing, but also streets, offices, shops, and networks of sanitation, communication, and transportation. The book incorporates a truly impressive range of primary and secondary sources, and it is a testimony to Dennis's skill as a synthesizer that his own voice consistently emerges from this cacophony of texts. Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre provide the theoretical underpinning—particularly the latter's triad of conceived, perceived, and lived space—and Dennis puts them to good use. Especially in the book's second part, he moves deftly between the angles of this triad: maps, plans, and statistics; their sometimes unrecognizable realization in practice; and "spaces of the imagination, of resistance, of carnival, of subversion and appropriation" (2). So, when he argues that "we cannot consider the history or the geography of flats in isolation from all the other new sites and experiences of modern cities" (260), he is not just paying lip-service to current academic fashion. We discover that Xenophon, the apartment building in which the March family settles in William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortune (1890), is not only the name of a Greek historian but also alludes...

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