Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Traditional City Living

Civis has been away for some time, to finish his dissertation in theology. With any luck, I'll be back on-line now and blogging regularly. Thanks for your patience the last few months. Please pray for a successful dissertation defense on May 5!

Many orthodox Catholics (and other people of traditional sensibilities) agree that country living is best because it is most traditional. I agree with the major premise of this argument: it is best to live according to tradition. Or rather, it is best to live in line with tradition. It is not right, I think, to reject everything modern, which would ultimately be a rejection of human reason, but neither is it right to break entirely with the past. A truly Catholic understanding of tradition, whether ecclesial or social, reads with what Pope Benedict calls a "hermeneutic of continuity" instead of a "hermeneutic of rupture." Vatican II referred to this as "organic development": not breaking with the past, but growing naturally from it, with firm roots.

Although there are obvious religious and moral implications to this -- human nature and divine religion do not change! -- tradition is important even from a secular perspective. The political philosopher Friedrich Hayek, in fact, argues for small government precisely to preserve the wisdom of the ages, which is far too rich for any social planner to understand. Miss Manners teaches us not just conventions, but the little means tested over centuries to help smooth social interactions. Tradition means preserving the wisdom of the ages. Traditional living means a lifestyle that can benefit from our traditions: religious, moral, and merely social.

Here, however, I want to challenge the minor premise of the "traditional living" argument. Modern "country living," I would like to argue, is far less traditional than city living. I'll approach the question through literature, because literature gives us a glimpse of what "normal" life looked like. I'll have to be brief in order to scan a lot of literature, but I hope this will provide a lens for further reading.

Let's start with Nathaniel Hawthorne, a representative of life in New England in the first half of the nineteenth century. I wish only to note that the entire milieu for The Scarlet Letter is intensely communal. The story would be meaningless if Hester Prynne lived in rural isolation. Indeed, the ultimate punishment is to be banished from the company of the broader community -- not just immediate neighbors, but the town. I note that the opening chapters, "The Custom House" and "The Marketplace," set a scene that is not only urban but commercial: life is lived in close contact with strangers. There are problems, to be sure -- perhaps the point of the book is to challenge the way people dealt with this communal life -- but there is nothing of isolation, except in punishment.

I have no representative of Southern literature at hand -- only because I'm working on the fly -- but I would note that Jefferson wrote his romances about "yeoman farmers" with the leisure gained from slave labor. Indeed, as any visitor to Monticello can tell you, the best thing you can say about Jefferson's life is that he lived as master of a town, in close contact -- not just with his favorite neighbors (though the Madisons did often drive over and spend the night) but with people whose relationship to him was primarily commercial. The people of Monticello shared nothing in common except a place and a set of commercial interactions.

Let's move to the West. Here is Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. It's been years since I read it; I believe Almonzo later ended up her husband, out West. But he grew up on a farm in rural New York: a good contrast to Hawthorne's more urban setting. Just flipping open the book, I see it begins with the children walking to school. It's not clear how far the walk was, but it was close enough that a nine-year-old child with only two pairs of socks could get there through an upper-New York snowstorm without suffering any ill effects. This is not city living, but it is even less like modern "rural" life. How many rural children walk to school today? Opening the book this way sets a scene of life in community: these are not people who live as rural recluses, but small farmers in close contact with their neighbors. Nor are their neighbors members of a commune: they are drawn together not by a desire to live in intentional community, but by the need to exchange commercial goods.

This economic community sets the stage for higher kinds of community. Chapter 16, "Independence Day," tells the story of riding the wagon in to "the Square," a space defined by the railroad station, to hear the band play and the Congressman give an address. On the way there through the "countryside," the streets are crowded. There are friends to be seen in town, of course, but the backdrop is strangers: "Hundreds of people were there, crowding to watch."

Like many, of course -- though far from the majority! -- Alonzo eventually went West, to where he met Laura. Little House on the Prairie (I picked it out of her many books only because it's most familiar) shows us true rural isolation. Chapter 17, "Pa Goes to Town" says it was a four-day journey, requiring a neighbor to come over every night and tend the family. This, I think, is a much better parallel to what modern traditionalists consider "rural" living: no contact with anyone but friends.

But is it desirable? The chapter ends with the joy of Pa having purchased glass windows. Discussing these things with agrarian traditionalists, I have often been pooh-poohed for my crass materialism: isn't family more important than stuff? Of course it is. But let me note that traditionally, "stuff" wasn't seen as such a bad thing -- and the stuff came from town. Even the most rigorous agrarians of the American West still pined for the latest modern conveniences, and treated them as nothing but joy. Meanwhile, the threat of Indians, wild beasts, health crises, and natural disasters define most of the chapters -- and I think it's pretty well agreed that Laura Ingalls Wilder played down just how threatening their life was. Nowdays people flee the cities for safer places, but traditionally, there was nothing more dangerous than rural isolation.

(An aside: to my knowledge, none of the recent school shootings has been in an urban environment -- most have been in suburbs, one hit the Amish. The terrifying Washington, DC, sniper stayed outside the city limits, preferring places of greater seclusion in the suburbs. Gruesome murders, from what I can tell, are pretty evenly distributed wherever there are human beings; they usually happen within families, so fleeing the city won't help you there.
The only "danger" of city living is gang violence. If you're curious about how "random" this violence is, check out this crime map of Philadelphia: look at how many people got murdered, then limit it to only white people. Modern-day urban crime isn't random, it's a scourge on the black community, which white people have chosen to run away from. Consider this statistic: last year, 1 in 7,500 Americans across the country died in a car accident (42,284 fatalities out of roughly 300 million). Philadelphia, the most violent of America's ten largest cities had 61 homicides among 680,000 white people, less than 1 in 10,000. So the average American is more likely to die in a car accident than to get killed, if they're white, in an especially dangerous and depressed city. And that's leaving out the role of behavior in determining which white people get murdered. If you want to survive this next year, move somewhere where you don't have to drive, stay out of gangs, and make sure you aren't black. Compared to other places, cities are no more dangerous now than they were in the past.)

Back to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House on the Prairie opens with their reason for going to the prairie: "Pa said there were too many people in the Big Woods now." Urban sprawl is not a new thing. Even in nineteenth century Wisconsin, the flood of people trying to live in seclusion meant not many places were secluded. Just like now, everybody moved to the "edge of civilization," and the wilderness was swallowed up. Why did Pa keep running away? Laura says he liked wild animals. But an awful lot of people went West because, like Hester Prynne, they had social problems. Traditionally, rural seclusion was a rare thing and not an entirely healthy thing.

Even in the West, Tom Sawyer is a more typical setting. Who can forget Tom running into his friends while painting the fence in chapter 2, "The Glorious Whitewasher"? Even running away down river brought them into continual contact with strangers. Characters like Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe, and the slave Jim (in Huckleberry Finn) are strangers, met on the way. From what we can see in Mark Twain, life in the "small town" of the old American West was not about seclusion and not about associating with just the people you liked. Traditional living meant constant contact, on foot, with strangers. I think this is a lot more like modern city life than anything in the country.

Of course, the US is strange, because for most of our history we had a wilderness. To conclude, let's take two glances at traditional life in England. First, consider the novels of Jane Austen. I just reread Emma and have it beside me, but I don't know how to make a good selection. For fans of Jane Austen it will probably be sufficient to say this: her drama revolves entirely around people walking from house to house and running into people they didn't expect to see. Reduce life to seclusion and only voluntary contacts, and Jane Austen's world is gone. I wish I could say more, but I don't want to go on all day.

For our last reading, let's go back a few centuries. The setting is London, around the year 1500. This is our first look at a Catholic country: although Henry VIII and his love-child Elizabeth were soon to impose a Reformation, I think scholars are now pretty well agreed with Eamon Duffy's thesis in The Stripping of the Altars that the Reformation was entirely forced on the people of England, who were deeply engaged in their faith. Our window into this world will be the research of Peter Ackroyd, one of the great writers about the City of London, in his vivid biography The Life of Thomas More. Here he's talking about the seven-year-old More's walk to St. Anthony's school on Threadneedle Street. I don't want to be pedantic, but this is great stuff, and Ackroyd has done his homework, so I'll quote at length (I'll summarize at the end, so you can skip the quote if you prefer):

On his customary journey of a few hundred yards from Milk Street to Threadneedle Street the young More passed the church of St Mary Magdalen near the corner of Milk Street and Cheapside; there was a cross in its churchyard which was 'worshipped by the parishoners there as crosses be commonly worshipped in other churchyards'. When he walked into Cheapside itself, or more accurately 'West Chepe', there stood in the middle of the thoroughfare a tall water fountain made of stone and known as the 'Standard'; here for two hundred years the citizens had filled their basins and pitchers with water, lately being taken from the River Tybourn. It was also a place of execution, and in More's childhood sentences of beheading and burning were exacted on this spot only a few feet from his house. Violent death was not hidden from the gaze of children. On the other side of West Chepe, beyond the Standard, stood the church of St Mary-le-Bow. The famous Bow Bell was rung each evening for curfew; this was the time for the shutting of the city gates and, to the delight of the apprentices, the closing of the shops. In More's childhood the tower was actually being rebuilt and was not completed until 1512 but still the bell tolled, according to season, at eight or nine o'clock. The tower had been brought forward to front 'West Chepe', and beside it stood a stone building with a gallery on its first floor known as the Seldam or the 'Crown slid'. It had been erected at the command of Edward III as a convenient site from which royal guests might watch the various pageants and triumphs that procedeeded down Cheapside on ritual occasions. But by More's time it had been leased out as business premises and was itself surrounded by other 'slids', sheds or shops. These were owned principally by mercers and haberdashers, together with the goldsmiths mentioned by the Venetian diplomat [in the previous chapter]. The old 'Chepe' had been crowded with street-stalls and street-sellers, but much of its atmosphere still survived in the late fifteenth century. With the ancient and familiar cries of 'satin!', 'silks!', 'foreign cloth!' and 'courchiefs!', it is appropriate to imagine the surroundings of an eastern bazaar or souk; the fifteenth-century city was closer to contemporary Marrakesh than to any version of post-Restoration London.

Thomas More turned left and walked down this relatively wide thoroughfare of mud and cobbles towards Poultry and Threadneedle Street. On his left hand he passed St Laurence Lane and Ironmonger Lane, among stone buildings with figures placed in niches, gilded and painted signs, timbers decorated with carved fruits or flowers, painted walls and gables, roofs of red tile, wrought iron poles bearing lamps, piles of dung and chips from firewood which had been chopped in the street before being taken indoors. In St Laurence Lane there was a large inn for travellers, known as Blossoms Inn, and in Ironmonger Lane there was a small church named St Martin Pomary on account of the apple trees which had grown in the vicinity. The whole quarter had once been the home of saddlers, tanners and tallow chandlers, but mercers had displaced them in one of those changes of commercial activity which are explicable only in terms of the city's own organic and instinctive growth.

There was, however, one other important former inhabitant. On the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Cheapside had stood the site of Thomas Becket's birthplace, now his church of St Thomas of Acre or Acon. So the young More passed each morning the memorial to the most famous of all London saints and martyrs. He proceeded east, past the Mitre tavern and the church of St Mary Colechurch which was 'built upon a wall above ground, so that men are forced to go to ascend up thereunto by certain steps'; it took its name from the coal and charcoal trades, like that of the smiths and ironmongers themselves, which had grown up around it. As he passed Old Jewry (from which the Jews had been expelled two hundred years before) he would have seen on his right hand, in the middle of Cheapside, the Great Conduit which had been erected in 1240 to provide sweet water from Paddington, carried in pipes of lead. In a contemporary map, it is possible to see the vessels of the water-carriers lying on the ground beside it.

Thomas More then took the left-hand turning towards Poultry and the Stocks Market; the poultry of Poultry are self-evident, but the 'Stocks' was actually a covered market-house for fishmongers and butchers. It took its name from a pair of stocks, for punishment, standing in the open space beside it. These were the streets and alleys among which More would spend most of his working life; he attended sessions, as under-sheriff of London, in the Compter or prison by Poultry and was also a member of Doctor's Commons, which met within the Court of Arches in the crypt of Bow Church. So the young Thomas More walked by Poultry and the 'pissing conduit' at the south end of Threadneedle or Three-neadle Street, passing several more parish churches and many 'fair and large' houses, until he came to a well at the meeting of Broad and Threadneedle Streets; just behind it, on the corner, stood St. Anthony's School. . . .

At the end of the day, after his release from school, it was a short journey from Threadneedle Street to Milk Street. The city surrounded More once again, and he noticed everything: his prose works are filled with brief but vivid intimations of London life, from the sigh of someone squatting against a wall in order to 'ease hym selfe in the open strete' to the beggars who display their cancerous or cankered legs on 'frydays about saynt sauyour and at ye Sauygate', from the 'meretrix' [prostitute] and her 'leno' or procurer to the wrestlers at Clerkenwell who take 'so great fallys'. He made his way among the pumps and springs and water conduits, past the gardens and the markets and the almshouses, along small lanes and even smaller footways, between the stables and the carpenters' yards and the mills, past brothels and taverns and bathhouses and street privies, under archways adorned with the images of saints or coats of arms, into courtyards filled with shops, beneath tenements crammed with the families of artisans, moving from the grand houses of the rich to the thatched hovels of mud walls frequented by the poor, hearing the cries of 'God spede' and 'Good morrow!', past nunneries and priories and churches. . . .
To be sure, the London of Thomas More's day was thoroughly Catholic; that's very different from the modern city. But I suspect encountering Protestants is the last of the modern parent's worries about bringing children to the streets. In his short walk to school, Thomas More saw extreme violence: not only the stocks where criminals were humiliated in the streets, but also the place of frequent executions and "wrestlers"--I think we're talking about open violence on the streets; this was a city where bear-baiting was considered good fun. He saw people defecating in the streets and people who were not just miserably poor but poor and ulcerous. And he openly viewed prostitutes and brothels as part of his daily walk to school. This is the very neighborhood where not just one but two of England's greatest saints were raised.

Along with the sex, the violence and the foulness, however, look at the crowds! On his short walk to school, he passed the cite of frequent pageants, street markets, businesses of every kind, and rooming houses of travellers. And I love Ackroyd's decision of the harmonious tumult of business: "those changes of commercial activity which are explicable only in terms of the city's own organic and instinctive growth." The old Catholic city was alive and changing, crowded, dirty, and glorious.

Of course, not everyone grew up in the cities. Medieval Europe was dotted with farms. In the time of Jane Austen, the farmers were tenants of great lords. In earlier times, they were "serfs," a friendly translation of a word that means nothing but slave. Of course, some masters were kind, just like some masters in the US South were kind to their black slaves. But let's not romanticize feudal serfdom. There's a reason they sang "the city air makes you free."

Now, I haven't proved that city life is good. You might still say that you want your children to grow up like Laura Ingalls Wilder, not St. Thomas More. All I want to argue here is that city life is much more traditional. Rural seclusion is not traditional. Complete control of who you see is not traditional. Traditional life, whether on a farm in upstate New York, on Thomas Jefferson's plantation, in Mark Twain's Missouri, in Jane Austen's English countryisde, or in Thomas More's London, was life on foot, among strangers, with the cry of the marketplace all around you. If it's traditional living you want, come join us in the city!