It is not only conservatives but Americans in general who have had a hard time reconciling what they think of as characteristically American aspirations with the actual life of modern American cities. It’s a certain disharmony between the way we think and the way we live. Our fierce attachment to ideals of individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and closeness to nature do not always seem, for many Americans, to comport with the conditions of modern urban life. Perhaps that is because America, as historian Richard Hofstadter quipped, is a nation that was born in the country and has moved to the city but has never entirely adapted its mentality. Or, to put it another way, altering a famous saying about the British Empire, we became an urban civilization in a fit of absence of mind, having never fully adjusted our ideas about ourselves to the conditions in which we find ourselves actually living.
This outlook stands in marked contrast to that of many Europeans, who have a more robust urban ideal, taking pride in their great cities as centerpieces of their civilizations and “naturalizing” their urbanism with the pleasant concept of rus in urbe. Not so Americans, who more often than not resist seeing urban life per se as a worthy ideal, instead preferring to see America symbolized by its natural beauty—Grand Canyons and Rocky Mountains, redwood forests and gulf-stream waters. Suburban life is embraced as a second-best form of country living, a form of urbs in rure that, at its best, has the conveniences of city life without the disadvantages. Something similar can be said about our passion for “country” music, which is actually a thoroughly urban and commercial music suffused with nostalgia for the lost virtues of country ways.
This American resistance to an urban identity goes back to the very beginnings of American history. Consider these words of Dr. Benjamin Rush, in a letter written in 1800 to his friend Thomas Jefferson: “I consider [cities] in the same light that I do abscesses on the human body, viz., as reservoirs of all the impurities of a community.” Needless to say, the agrarian-minded Jefferson, who famously asserted that “those who labor in the earth” are the “chosen people of God,” was likely to agree completely, even if it meant putting out of mind his own memorable experiences in the sublime precincts of Paris.
Yet there has long been something wrongheaded about this anti-urban disposition, and there is no reason why it has to continue forever. In fact, there is every good reason why American conservatives in particular should be the ones to look most skeptically at it. One should, to begin with, set aside the idea that conservatism is at bottom merely a timeless philosophy of landed elites and fixed social structures. For the idea of conservatism, far from being anti-urban, has always been inextricably bound up in the history and experience of great cities. When Russell Kirk wrote his celebrated book The Roots of American Order, he ingeniously built it around the central cities of the history of the West: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London (and arguably also Philadelphia). Each city was taken to exemplify a foundational stage in the development of American liberty and American order. This was not merely a literary conceit, like a metonym. Such developments could only occur in cities. The civilization that conservatives wish to conserve is rooted in them. It is no accident that the Book of Revelation at the conclusion of the Christian Bible aims at the creation of the New Jerusalem, not the New Tara Plantation or the New Grover’s Corners.
On a more immediate level, while we have often been taught to think of our American cities as hothouses of “creative destruction” and ceaseless dynamism, and also as holding pens for atomized and anonymous “mass men,” our actual experience of cities tells us something entirely different. For one thing, every great city is really a collection of strong neighborhoods, in each of which there is far less anomie in fact than may appear to be the case to an outside observer. And because conservatism is, or should be, partly about faithfulness to memory, it is highly important to note that a great city is much more likely to carry forward the material vestiges of the past, and the memories those vestiges hold, than is most any American suburb or small town.
No one should read veiled suburbia-bashing into these remarks. I grew up in a very agreeable suburb of Baltimore and have abiding affection for the place. But my very earliest memories are of urban scenes: toddling across a busy Cincinnati intersection while clutching the hand of my big sister; or gawking at the glorious lobby of the Palmer House in Chicago and hearing about the famous people who had been there before me; or my early glimpses of the Lincoln Memorial and the National Gallery in Washington or of the most beautiful tall building in the world, the Empire State, a sight that still catches my breath. These are all scenes that I can revisit and experience and enjoy today, along with the memories, both personal and collective, that flood back when I see them. They serve as sources of continuity in my life, and the life of the nation. But my beloved home town, and even the house that I grew up in, have been transformed almost (but not quite) beyond recognition. Which setting, one may well ask, is more conducive to a genuinely conservative outlook? It is not an obvious call.
Indeed, it’s complicated in my own case by the fact that my interest in conservatism and my interest in cities arrived together, at precisely the same moment. On a Fourth of July holiday during my undergraduate years I visited a college friend who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This friend suggested that we might want to meet up with his Uncle Henry, who, he said, was very knowledgeable about the architecture and history of lower Manhattan. We could wander around with Uncle Henry for a while, eat someplace together, and end the day at the Battery for the fireworks. Well, it turned out that Uncle Henry was Henry Hope Reed, founder of an organization called Classical America, which has fought valiantly to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward anti-traditional and anti-monumental modernist assumptions about the built environment, and a man of ebullient energy and infectious curiosity.
Uncle Henry made an enormous impression on me. As a callow, would-be advanced mind who had internalized all the correct attitudes about such things, I had never before heard such an intelligent and cultivated man skewer the platitudes of high modernism with such convincing flair. But what really impressed me most about Uncle Henry was not his critique of modern architecture but his intense and very concrete love of New York City, which he revealed in the six hours or so that I spent walking around lower Manhattan with him. It seemed that there was literally no building on our informal tour whose history he did not know, and could not relate instantly, in thick and lively detail. It was like hearing the Song of Songs translated into a catalogue of urban delights. Moreover, you had the sense, in his company, that you were strolling through the chambers of time itself, coming into communion with the men and women of the past. It crossed my mind that this experience would only be possible in a city like New York.
I again thought of Uncle Henry when I arrived in Rome this past January to take up a post as a Fulbright professor. That most fascinating of cities is a place in which the achievements of humankind over twenty-five centuries have been accumulated and recorded, though as a largely haphazard and undifferentiated collection riddled with serendipities and self-contradictions—which is to say, just as the past actually manifests itself to us. Its physical and political history is so deep and so rich that no one could ever fully control the meaning of any architectural addition to the city. Rome does not tell one story, or five, or even a hundred, but an infinitude, and it is up to you simply to jump into it all, if you ever hope to begin sorting them out for yourself. It is an immersion that brings the personal and the world-historical into vivid and unpredictable contact. “In Rome,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana, who spent his final years in the Eternal City, “I feel nearer to my own past, and to the whole past and future of the world, than I should in any cemetery or in any museum of relics.”
Rome is, of course, unique—the conservator of an almost unfathomably vast portion of human history. But every great city does something like the same thing and can engender something like the same experience: an experience forming the core of any authentic conservatism. For conservatism cannot be merely an attachment to certain abstract principles. It is also an attachment to real and tangible things, and to the past out of which those things, not to mention we ourselves, have emerged. Cities are, and remain, the chief places where these meanings are conserved and cultivated.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Photo by Justin Brendel.