Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Describing downtown Chicago (birthplace of the modern skyscraper in 1884) in his novel The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), Henry Blake Fuller metaphorically compared its cityscape of tall buildings and narrow streets to the spectacular cliffs and canyons of America’s rugged Southwest, whose natural formations scientists working for the US Geological Survey were only just beginning to study. “Each of these cãnóns,” Fuller wrote, referring to the city streets,
is closed in by a long frontage of towering cliffs [i.e., tall buildings], and these soaring walls of brick and limestone and granite rise higher and higher with each succeeding year, according as the work of erosion at their bases goes onward – the work of that seething flood of carts, carriages, omnibuses, cabs, cars, messengers, shoppers, clerks, and capitalists, which surges with increasing violence for every passing day. (1–2)
Though playful, Fuller’s comparison of Chicago’s business district to an imposing geologic phenomenon registers the startling magnitude of the transformation American cities underwent during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Chicago metropolitan area’s growth was especially stunning – from not quite 110,000 people in 1860 to over 1,700,000 by 1900 and then to 2,366,000 people by 1910. During the same period, New York City’s population more than quadrupled, from just over a million people in 1860 to a total of 4,766,883 inhabitants in 1910 (Gardner and Haines, “Metropolitan Areas”). Fuller’s comparison with canyons and cliffs provides his readers with a natural lens through which to view the changing visual profile of the modern city. Just as moving water erodes and reshapes rock, a “seething flood” of mixed crowds and modern conveyances has forced the cityscape into a striking new form. For Fuller, the “increasing violence” of its “surges” suggests a frighteningly destructive potential. The torrential urban flow sweeps up everything in its path, jumbling together objects and people, even wealthy “capitalists” who might normally be thought of as somewhere above, controlling the flow. Late-nineteenth-century realist writers took as one of their primary challenges to represent in literature a phenomenon – that of the rapidly changing, rapidly expanding American city – that in the eyes of many Americans combined menacing dangers with new and exciting, if disturbing, forms of spectacle.