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Reviewed by:
  • Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819–1919
  • Francesca Russello Ammon (bio)
Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819–1919. By Nick Yablon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. xi+380. $35.

Untimely Ruins convincingly dismantles three myths: that ruins were marginal to nineteenth-century America, that their appearance and significance have remained constant over time, and that American ruins—when they existed at all—were just variations on a European theme. By uncovering ruins in an impressive array of cultural forms—including painting, travelogues, fiction, cartoons, snapshot photographs, and pulp magazines—this imaginatively constructed cultural and intellectual history demonstrates the powerful presence of ruins in both the physical world and the cultural imagination of the period. These representations and built forms shaped contemporary conceptions of American modernity and urbanity.

The image of the classical ruin, epitomized by Thomas Cole’s 1836 painting Course of Empire: Desolation, was of a picturesque, decaying monument, overcome by age and nature. Modern American ruins, by contrast, were cheap, banal, illegible, and ephemeral. In their essence, Nick Yablon argues, they were “untimely.” Owing to their rapid creation and consumption, they lacked the temporal distance necessary for nostalgic appreciation and historical situation. Their modern materials also yielded troubling impermanence. Old before their time, and yet somehow not old enough, these “day-old ruins” highlighted the incongruity of a young nation undergoing destruction while still in its earliest stages. By interrupting linear narratives of progress and decline, these ruins exposed the uneven nature of American urban development, in both its outward processes and its cultural manifestations. As contemporary observers invoked these ruins, they were attempting to illuminate and resolve the problems of an age in physical and temporal flux.

Yablon’s story spans the century between the opening of the Erie Canal and the close of World War I. This was an era of rapid urbanization, when new technologies of construction and representation, the “creative destruction” of capitalism, and popular fantasies of urban desolation helped make the “city in ruins” a common trope and reality. His case studies traverse space and time, from the unintended ruins along New York State’s newly opened Erie Canal to the speculative “paper cities” of the 1830s and 1840s in Cairo, Illinois, the demolition wrought by the urban restructuring of antebellum Manhattan, the destruction of San Francisco after its 1906 earthquake, and the fantasy ruination of Progressive Era New York City skyscrapers.

In the manner of some of the best cultural history, Untimely Ruins succeeds [End Page 828] by assembling such diverse examples under a shared, but previously invisible, theme. Yablon then excavates these examples with deep research and thoughtful interpretation. While historians often have depicted this period as one of progressive urbanization, the archaeology of nineteenth-century urban America demonstrates the complicity of ruins in this growth process. Rather than being exceptions, it suggests, ruins reveal the period’s central political, economic, and aesthetic tensions. Thus this narrative adds a new piece to the story of the development of American identity and of modernism, as well as a foundational backstory to the destruction that came to characterize the era of the “urban crisis” of the post–World War II period.

Yablon is at his best when he marries the physical world of the built environment with the cultural world of its representations and theorizations. His chapters on San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and New York’s Metropolitan Life Building are especially strong in this regard. They will also particularly interest historians of technology as they consider how the rise of amateur photography and the skyscraper spurred new visions of ruins. When he relies too heavily on fictions alone, as in the less geographically located chapter on labor and ruin in urban America, the argument loses some of its persuasive material grounding. The project’s impressive expansiveness also comes with a potential risk: whetting the reader’s appetite for even more. Following David Nye’s 2003 America as Second Creation, for example, Yablon might have paid more attention to the associated ruins of nature during this period, as well as to the specific technologies that created both built and natural ruins. In addition...


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pp. 828-829
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