NEW YORK-PARIS: WHITMAN, BAUDELAIRE, AND THE HYBRID CITY by Laure Katsaros, Reviewed by
 

NEW YORK-PARIS: WHITMAN, BAUDELAIRE, AND THE HYBRID CITY
By Laure Katsaros
(Michigan, 2012), 146 pp.
Reviewed by on 2014-10-11.

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The title tells it (almost) all. This short, clearly written book furnishes a graceful, shrewd introduction to the ways in which Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire reacted poetically to changes in the modern city. Looking at the poets' engagement with the hallmarks of modernity, from panoramas to photography, from hurrying crowds to tormented individuals, New York-Paris shows how each in his own way, the democrat and the dandy, created a newly "realistic" and aesthetically challenging poetry from the burgeoning hordes of people and things that threatened to overwhelm traditional forms of culture and social organization. "Baudelaire's poetry is in the deepest sense an offshoot of his life in Paris, just as Whitman's is an offshoot of New York" (10), Laure Katsaros writes, pointing out that for the poets each city "encapsulated the political, cultural, and aesthetic uncertainties of the time" (11).

So far, so familiar. But after carefully outlining where the poets differed and where they were alike, Katsaros presents an ingenious thesis: that each poet saw his own city in terms of its transatlantic other. Taking pains not to oversimplify, Katsaros argues that in the poetry of Whitman and Baudelaire, "it is as if New York and Paris had exchanged their auras. In Whitman's eyes, a city often identified not only with capitalism, but with ruthless robber-baronism, is transfigured into the cultural beacon of America, while in Baudelaire's prose poems, Paris becomes synonymous with degradation, and is stigmatized as the most whorishly commercial of cities" (11-12). Or, to put it another way, "Whitman reinvents New York in the likeness of a European capital, while in Le Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire imagines the eponymous city as a copy of the American metropolis" (12). The "hybrid city" each created sprang from their readings of modernity: while Whitman envisioned how much New York had to gain, Baudelaire dreaded how much Paris had to lose. As the tide of modernity rose, Whitman hoped it would float Manhattan into cosmopolitan prominence even as Baudelaire feared that it would drown Paris in vulgarity. "For Whitman," writes Katsaros, "Paris was what New York could and should become, while for Baudelaire, New York was an image of that which he feared Paris was becoming. In brief, Whitman's dream was that New York could become the Paris of the New World, while Baudelaire's nightmare was that Paris would become the New York of the Old World" (12).

Devoting two chapters to each poet, Katsaros pursues her thesis through a wide range of texts. While rarely glossing any one of them in full, she deftly shows how a few concrete features of urban experience become organizing metaphors for each poet: panoramas and pageants for Whitman, Haussmann's urban renewal and pantomimes for Baudelaire. The first chapter on Whitman sketches the picture of New York that horrified Europeans: a coarse, polyglot conglomeration of rudely competing interests that had, by 1860, become as populous as Paris. Well aware of New York's deficiencies and dangers, Whitman nevertheless found something to celebrate in almost every aspect of the city, from the morgue to the murderer. In Leaves of Grass, his catalogues of people, objects, and incidents coalesce into a vast panorama of city life where individuality and multiplicity jostle for attention. As Katsaros observes, the swelling cacophony of sound in Whitman's New York is juxtaposed with a torrent of time as the poet rushes from "aboriginal" Mannahatta and Paumanok (Long Island) to the future generations he addresses in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."

Linking this poem to Whitman's anxieties over the insubstantiality of photography and his "Terrible Doubt of Appearances" (the title of a poem about the ephemeral, intangible quality of the Broadway crowd), Katsaros reads Whitman's New York as a procession of ghosts and dreams. Circulating freely among the specters, the only living being is Walt himself, a Man of the Crowd whose power of sight and motion ensure his reality. But unlike Baudelaire, Whitman manages through his faith in the power of human connection to make his "crossing" not only a trip across the Styx, but also a return journey across time and into the reader's life.

Dead or alive, simulacrum or reality, New York is a giant theatre of moving images. Likening Whitman's New York to P. T. Barnum's American Museum of curiosities, Katsaros goes on to consider the role of spectacle--plays, parades, performances of all sorts--in Whitman's poetry. Examining Whitman's preoccupation with Broadway's tumult, from giant processions to glances exchanged between strangers, she locates many moments in which Whitman is closer to Baudelaire than one might think. Here the vision of New York as idealized European capital fades before the flickering uncertainties of what Manhattan's "shows," as Whitman called them, really show. When Katsaros writes that "Whitman places New York at the center of a web of correspondences between the mundane reality of everyday life and the world of dreams" (45), she builds on Baudelaire's "cité pleine de rêves" of "Les Sept Vieillards" as a way of introducing "Whitman's own struggle with number . . . the stage is so immense as to become almost immaterial" (41). Despite Whitman's ability to put a positive spin on the "kaleidoscope divine" of the city, what emerges most strongly in Katsaros' analysis is how "the fluidity of modern life in New York . . . transforms the bustling city into a strangely Baudelairean necropolis, peopled by phantoms watching other phantoms drift by" (48).

Shifting to Paris, the second half of the book ponders the effect of Haussmann's streamlined, gaslit Paris on a poet who loved the old city, with its dark twisting streets and promise of impenetrable mystery. In a phrase Baudelaire would have applauded, the Goncourt brothers called the new city an "American Babylon," a city of the future that represented not progress but regression into a primitive state of barbarism. Writing to the homesick, exiled Victor Hugo, Baudelaire warned him that "one single day in our sad Paris, in our boring Paris, in our Paris-NewYork, would be enough to effect a radical cure in you" (62). Examining Baudelaire's prose poems in Le Spleen de Paris (rather than his verse Tableaux parisiens in Les Fleurs du Mal) in the raw and literal light of Haussmann's remade city, Katsaros stresses their deracinated quality. Fragmentary in form, they do not so much describe Paris as suggest the experience of being randomly buffeted by its human flotsam. "These poems invent their own form as they go along," she writes; in their improvisation they waver between formal innovation and "an irreversible decline toward the prosaic and the banal" (63). Though Baudelaire enjoys bathing in the crowd, he feels vulnerable to its shocks and intrusions, the possibility of becoming a fragile flâneur whom no one will leave alone. Though Katsaros spends little time on individual poems, her numerous insights--about clichés, allegory, and in medias res techniques-- provide a valuable framework for understanding and enjoying works that "are, in themselves, an image of the chaos of Baudelaire's life" (71).

The final chapter looks at Paris as a stage and the prose poems as a form of many-faceted illusion. First, they resemble pantomime performances, self-conscious and discontinuous works whose exaggeration and artifice defy us to tell if they are based on urban reality or recoiling from it. But they also resemble dioramas by shifting location, scale, and subject matter. Even while invoking a comprehensive view of the city, they voyeuristically satirize it by means of bizarre transformations that foreground not the nobility but rather the grotesqueness of people and events. Finally, the prose poems emulate and condemn photographs and popular taste through their haphazard reproduction of moments where inauthenticity, image-worship, and counterfeiting come to the fore: "the simple fact that the prose poems exist," concludes Katsaros, "is an indictment of the public they were carefully crafted for" (97).

One can learn a lot from this book. The readings are sophisticated and intelligent, and the author skillfully handles a variety of materials, working back and forth between poetry, prose, journals, journalism, and contemporary culture. My only quibble regards what seems an inevitable imbalance in the book. While Baudelaire consciously decried what he saw as the Americanization of Paris, Whitman did not see Paris transforming a great American city. However much he may have shared Baudelaire's feeling of living in a city of ghosts (a convincing argument of this book), he did not firmly envision what his contemporary Nathaniel Parker Willis called "the imminent Parisification of New York." Furthermore, while Baudelaire regularly infiltrates Katsaros's chapters on Whitman, the American poet is largely absent from her chapters on Baudelaire. Nonetheless, in reading each poet through the lens of the other's insights and surroundings, Katsaros thoughtfully reappraises both men and their respective places.

Brief as it is (109 pages of text), the book is enhanced by several contemporaneous photographs of the poets and their cities. Substantial notes and a useful bibliography (which generously assign to me a book I did not edit) fill out the volume. As an exploration of urban change and poetic innovation that emphasizes the social vision of two iconic modernists, New York-Paris provides a keenly focused response to one of the nineteenth century's biggest cultural questions: what should we make of the new metropolis? Similar or different, Whitman and Baudelaire together mapped out many of the paths that "painters of modern life," whatever their media, are still pursuing today.

In her Conclusion, Katsaros meditates on the meaning of time in the modern city, where the future relentlessly impinges on the present: the city, she says, "is always about to become what it is" (108). Both poets, she contends, had to inhabit a gap "in which time has lost its value, but the future has not yet arrived" (109). Fortunately, since we readers still live (at least figuratively) in that city of endless becoming, the present that proved so elusive and upsetting to Whitman and Baudelaire has survived in their work, making their personal struggles into a permanent literary asset, a vital part of how we now look the future in the face.

William Sharpe is Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York.


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