|University Press Group Ltd|
the guardian Fri 11 September 2009
Karen Newman's fascinating study contests the idea that the urbanisation of Europe is a 19th-century phenomenon. Between 1550 and 1650, she points out, London's population quadrupled to 400,000. Drawing her evidence from the literature of cities, Newman shows how the metropolitan subjectivity we associate with writers such as Baudelaire began far earlier. Discussion ranges from what Ben Jonson called the "filth, stench, noise" of urban life, Donne's poetry as an antecedent of flânerie and even today's psychogeographers, to sex in the city and what an Elizabethan pornographic poem (Nashe's "Choise of Valentines") tells us about prostitution in early modern cities. Cultural Capitals is in part polemical, arguing that we need to renegotiate the relation between fact and fiction. New historicist criticism has embraced what Derrida called that "prosthesis of memory" - the archive. Newman's return to the close reading of literary texts to explore the origins of urban subjectivity shows another way to, as Michelet said, "make the silences of history speak".