Not so very long after John Butler Yeats prophesied that “fiddles” would be “tuning up” throughout American intellectual life in the years before World War I, the private musings of John Reed strike another, less hopeful set of notes. The lament emerges in an unpublished tale Reed wrote in 1913 entitled “Success,” about a poet named Alan Meredith, age twenty-two, who, like Reed, has just come from the country to New York to answer his vocation. “The whirling star of Literature revolves in the Big City,” Reed explains. “By force of gravitation the minor bards sooner or later fall within its orbit, and nine out of ten emit no sparks from that time forth.” Alan's project is an epic poem tentatively entitled New York, A Poem in Twelve Cantos-but he gets nowhere beyond his title. “You see,” Reed writes, “he was making the same mistake as you and I, when we heard the voice [of the city] for the first time and tried to translate it without knowing the language.” Reed elaborates:
A poet writes about the things nearest to his heart-the things he does not actually know. As soon as he gains scientific knowledge of anything, the glamour is gone, and it is not mere stuff for the imagination. The bard of green fields and blossoms and running brooks is always a city man, and he who sings the Lobster Palaces and White Lights lives in Greenwich, Conn. Never do the stars seem so beautiful as to him who looks up between brownstone houses on a breathless night; all the magic of the city lies in the glow of lights on the sky seen thirty miles away.