Tales of the City
In 1887, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies described the transition from countryside to city as the movement away from social networks connected by communal, familial, feudal and religious ties (Gemeinschaft) to human relationships that are individual, impersonal, commercial and secular (Gesellschaft). Social anonymity was intensified by the scale and volume of the modern city. For Gustave Le Bon, in his 1895 study of crowd psychology, the urban masses represented a loss of individual will. By contrast, for Georg Simmel in 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' (1903), the very crowdedness of the city encouraged individuals to differentiate themselves from their environment and to devise new methods for rationalising the shifting experience of the city. Throughout the nineteenth century, novelists such as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and poets such as Charles Baudelaire, sought innovative means of describing the urban milieu. The short story was a further device that allowed the writer to adopt the role of a detached and impartial observer.
Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Man of the Crowd' (1840) begins with the firstperson narrator sitting in a coffee house in London coolly observing the various classes, types and manners within the passing crowds. As night looms and 'the general character of the crowd materially alters', the narrator spies 'a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention' (Poe 1998: 87–8). Fascinated by the stranger, and by the hidden history that his agonised expression seems to suggest, the narrator pursues him throughout the rest of the night and into the following day. Tracing and retracing his steps, secreting himself into marketplaces and gin-dens, the stranger is in constant pursuit of