Open Doors, Closed Spaces: The Transatlantic Imaginary in American City Writing from Postrevolutionary Literature to Modernism
The Open City, that is, the densely populated immigrant city integrating settlers from different nations, has been described – by scholars of American Urban Studies (J. Jacobs, R. Sennett) – as a crucial model of cultural self-fashioning in the United States. The Open City of modernity, I argue in this essay, was conceived as part of a larger transatlantic discourse encapsulating ideas of cultural identity and belonging. Following Paul Giles’s notion of a “transatlantic imaginary,” I view the American Open City as a deeply ambiguous concept that, in its malleability and contradictoriness, was capable of negotiating the complex challenges of modernity. From post-revolutionary to modernist writings, the Open City is often deployed as a metaphor for the ambivalent nature of American democracy itself, oscillating between the cultural movements of inclusion and exclusion. The writings by Charles Brockden Brown, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Mary Antin, and John Dos Passos remind us, in their underlying structural patterns, that the American urban imaginary has always been obsessed with images of ambiguity and outright contradiction. The “aesthetics of cross-atlantic mapmaking,” as I term the process of transnational self-fashioning in these texts, must be seen as a vehicle of critical self-reflection, conjoining “openness” (freedom) and “closure” (restraint) as circulating elements of American culture itself.