Charles Glaab: Framing US Urban History

Framing U.S. Urban History: Charles Glaab and The American City: A Documentary History (1963)

In the early 1960s, Americans were rediscovering cities as objects of intellectual inquiry as well as targets for public policy.

The single year 1961 saw publication of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. These books took different intellectual stands, but all of the authors agreed that modern cities were phenomena that required fundamental rethinking/new thinking about current trends. Cities weren’t decentralizing properly said Mumford. Cities were killing their centers said Jacobs. Cities were growing into new forms that neither Mumford not Jacobs quite understood said Gottmann.

The next year came the book that I judge to be Glaab’s intellectual foil, namely Morton and Lucia White’s The Intellectual Versus the City.

Morton White was a professor of philosophy at Harvard and an expert on the American tradition of pragmatic reform and its failings. His landmark book was Social Thought in America (1949) with an examination of John Dewey, Charles Beard, and Thorstein Veblen. He grew up in the intellectually intense and politically charged environment of interwar Manhattan. He was an intellectual historian for whom ideas were fascinating in themselves, and who was therefore interested in the thinkers who occupied what were commonly recognized as the loftiest peaks of intellectual endeavor. The protagonists in The Intellectual Versus the City were men like Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Henry Adams, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The general impression that a new graduate student took away from the book a few years after its publication was that cities were unlovable—perhaps necessary, but little to be admired. According to the back cover of my 75-cent 1964 paperback, “Our nation’s most distinguished artists, leaders, and intellectuals have proclaimed open hostility toward the city. Unlike the Englishman’s London or the Frenchman’s Paris, they have found nothing to love in the sprawling American metropolis. This significant and thoughtful study analyzes for the first time the major intellectual reactions to urbanism . . . .and offers some provocative conclusions as to why our cities have been the traditional object of prejudice, fear, and distrust.”

The Whites wrote their book from the academic citadels of Cambridge and Princeton and acknowledged advice from luminaries like Carl Schorske, Perry Miller, John Burchard, Lloyd Rodwin, and Arthur M. Schlesinger among others.

Charles Glaab came out of a very different environment—born in Williston, North Dakota, educated at North Dakota University and then the University of Missouri, employed first in Kansas, then Wisconsin, then Ohio. His monographs dealt with places very much different from New York or Cambridge—Kansas City, Neenah-Menasha, Toledo. As someone who still, after years in Oregon, considers the Miami Valley of southwestern Ohio to be the garden of the world, these are choices after my own heart.

The documentary history that Glaab assembled and edited from his base at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has fundamental merits as a text that still gives it a place on my bookshelf, its cover substantially assisted by duct tape. Its organization and categories are clear. Its excerpts are drawn heavily from magazines and popular journalism, and thus readable and accessible for novices. The selections are substantial enough to be helpful to instructors and researchers as well as students. Richard Wade assigned the book when I took his course in urban history at the University of Chicago in 1967. Ray Mohl reports that Bayrd Still assigned it in his urban history class at NYU in 1964.

Apropos of my argument, The American City is also an antidote to the Whites.

Reading through the selections, we get a much better feel for popular ideas as well as elite critiques. The intellectual protagonists in its pages are the sorts of civic leaders who tried to keep up on events and solve problems while leading otherwise busy lives. They are the travelers and journalists who want to explain phenomenal cities to their readers (or perhaps to titillate them). They are the reformers who addressed practical problems while trying to understand the urban dynamics

I count only one author—the interminable Henry James—who held himself completely above the fray. Other “intellectuals” were also politicians (Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson) or activist/practitioners (Daniel Drake, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Addams)

We also get a balanced view. Readers encounter fearful and negative evaluations, for where would a course in urban history be without The Dangerous Classes of New York or The Shame of the Cities? However, there are also evaluations that are variously excited, positive, and hopeful. European visitors with unhappy views of American cities (Alexis de Tocqueville, Rudyard Kipling) are balanced by those more sympathetic (Michael Chevalier, Anthony Trollope rather than his cranky mother). We get the views of important social scientists like F. J. Kingsbury, Adna F. Weber, Richard Ely, Paul Kellogg, and Graham Taylor. There are reformers and critics aplenty, but also indefatigable promoters like DeWitt Clinton and Jesup Scott and John S. Wright.

And Glaab’s selections introduced me to two of my favorite commentators: George Tucker, one of the founding faculty from Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia writing The Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth in the 1840s, and the Urbanism Committee of the National Resources Committee writing in the 1930s. Without Charles Glaab, how long would it have taken me to encounter Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy?

As much as anything, The American City: A Documentary History sketches out a comprehensive intellectual history of American urbanization that recognized that, as George Tucker wrote, “whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free, and intelligent, tend.”

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