Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cities and Writers

What is the relationship between literature and cities? The ancient Greek tragedies and comedies were all written for the Great Dionysia held annually in Athens. Virgil wrote his works while living in Rome. Shakespeare of course wrote his plays in London. Milton was a lifelong resident of London. The list of authors who lived in Paris or New York City could go on and on and on. How many works of literature either address the nature of the city itself (Frederick Fierstein, whom I have written about here is the contemporary poet of New York City life), or are written in response to city life (many works, particularly poems, in praise of country life)? Frederick Barthelme advises his creative writing students (of whom I was one) that they cannot become a real literary writer until they have lived in a large city like New York (I asked him if Dallas was good enough, and he said it was, but there are times when I really wonder if that's really the case).

This of course raises questions about how and to what degree cities affect the creation of literature. Cities allow for knowledge spillovers due to density. Surely this affects literary production and themes. It might be an interesting thing to consider in a scholarly paper; the research for such a paper would of course be difficult, but not impossible. One might consider the complexity of knowledge in a person's personal canon, comparing rural authors to urban authors, for example.

What other effects might the city have on writers?


  1. A fascinating question! I'm in the middle of Joyce's Ulysses right now, which strikes me as a work about (among many other things) life in a modern city. Joyce cannily makes his wanderer, Bloom, an advertising salesman, indicating the importance commerce has to modern urban culture.

  2. Indeed. Perhaps the modern city itself had a great influence on the style of that work as well. There is a great business and cacophony in a modern city -- simulated by Ulysses?