Essay: Down on Skid Row -

Essay: Down on Skid Row

“The city, no matter how small, is corrupt and unrepentant, while the sun shines brighter in the country, making people more wholesome.”
― Lori Lansens, The Girls

“The common image of the country is now an image of the past, and the common image of the city an image of the future” (Williams 297). This general opinion is a common trope found not only in everyday life but also in media representations of literature and film. Visually, the best example is The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film version even going so far as to have all the “country” scenes in a (then) traditional sepia, while the “city” scenes were in vibrant Technicolor. Most protagonists leave their small hometown, usually set somewhere in the country, to travel to the big city for fame, fortune, and adventure, e.g. Star Wars, Pokémon, Great Expectations, etc. However, this is not always the case, or even desired. For many, the city is a terribly dank spot, rife with sin and debauchery, while the country is heaven on earth, a place of “old ways, human ways, natural ways” (Williams 297). This assumption is becoming more ubiquitous with technology’s continually prominent growth and many feeling such progress is against human nature and/or God’s will for mankind. In the United States, the case of country against city is perhaps best exemplified in nineteenth century literature. Industrialization and urbanization during the period was spreading across the nation like wildfire, some authors considering it just as destructive. Maris Susanna Cummins’s The Lamplighter explores a typical rags-to-riches story, inverting the normal formula by having her protagonist find happiness through leaving the city. Jane Elton of Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s A New England Tale only attains freedom in the country. Therefore, in these novels, the city is a place to escape from, a vision of hardship and heartache that can never be alleviated while still within that space; returning to the country is the only path to a better future.

The heroine of The Lamplighter is Gertrude Flint, a orphaned young woman who spent the first eight years of her life being raised by a cruel relative in the slums of Boston (Cummins 1-2). Indeed, her desolate surroundings are described in the first paragraph:

It was a chilly evening in November, and a light fall of snow, which had made everything look bright and clean in the pleasant open squares near which the fine houses of the city were built, had only served to render the narrow streets and dark lanes dirtier and more cheerless than ever; for, mixed with the mud and filth which abound in those neighborhoods where the poor are crowded together, the beautiful snow had lost all its purity. (Cummins 1).

Even though the entire city is not portrayed as being completely horrid, Cummins points out that only the rich can truly enjoy being in a city. The “fine houses” are quite enormous, every member of the family having their own room, and separate areas for eating and relaxing. One of the houses that Gertrude observes via the window has a mirror up on the wall, which in interior decorating, is a way of making a room appear larger than in reality (Cummins 41). All of this parallels the amount of space found in the country like empty fields, great expanses of land, and open sky unmarred by buildings.

For Gertrude, though, such space is denied to her in the city. When taken in by a kindly lamplighter, they must rely on the assistance of friends and neighbors to help him care for his adopted daughter in their tiny home. One such helper is Emily Graham, who resides outside Boston and offers Gertrude a home when her benefactor dies. It is here, in the country (so to speak) that Gertrude finds happiness. She and Emily become as close as sisters, and her childhood love proposes to her in a (somewhat unromantic) rural cemetery. In fact, whenever she returns to the city, misfortune always arises. Besides her adopted father dying, her friend’s mother and grandfather also pass away after months of Gertrude caring for them .

In A New England Tale, Jane Elton has similar problems. Also orphaned at a young age, she is forced into a Cinderella-like servitude, working for her aunt and cousins. She is mostly confined to the house all day, cleaning and generally trying to keep out of the way. Jane is not a dreamer, and entertains no notions of ever leaving her current life besides marriage. Until she is hesitantly taken outside the village (the “city” for our purposes) by the town idiot, Crazy Bet, Jane does not realize what she has missed, being enclosed within civilization.

In “an open space, completely surrounded and enclosed by lofty trees” (Sedgwick 85), a sense of freedom and longing comes upon her. “It is a beautiful spot,” she muses. “I should think all obedient spirits would worship in this sanctuary of nature” (Sedgwick 85). Back home, the only beauty Jane can find is within herself. Constantly being blamed for acts she did not commit, she constantly walks a fine line between ignored servant and homeless beggar: “There is never a storm in this family, without my biding some of its pitiless pelting” (Sedgwick 99), she observes .

Henry David Thoreau, a contemporary of Cummins and Sedgwick, has his own opinion as to why cities are this way. Urban areas are created to be cheap and convenient. Instead of moving work to where the people lived, businesses force people to move to the work. Even then, there is a neverending sense of urgency. “Roads are made for horses and men of business,” he writes in “Walking.” “I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry…” (Thoreau 231). Thoreau considers cities to be for “narrow and executive pleasure only” and thus restricted only to those who are willing to sacrifice the inclusiveness of the country. Like Cummins, he knows that cities eventually try to imitate nature to make up for their pervasive invasion of the land. With a particular vendetta against front lawns, Thoreau holds that such attempts are “poor apolog[ies] for Nature and Art” (241). The longer a person stays within a city, the more mindless they become, essentially just going through the motions of daily life, without a single original thought. In a city, people are just parts of a great machine: they keep it running, but at the cost of their individuality (Thoreau 246).

Thoreau then proposes a return to the country, a restoration of a human values. People are not meant to live in a box or behind a fence. Any pleasure that a city can offer automatically becomes institutionalized and trite – “to enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it” (Thoreau 233). Some cities have the reputation of being ever-changing and always moving, but usually it is just the same thing over and over, only packaged in a slightly different way. Thoreau believes that urban escape was the only solution to ceaseless misfortune. Cities are unnatural:  “the agitation, perplexity, and turmoil of civilization oppresse[s] and suffocate[s]… (Thoreau 242)”; the country, even in a house or estate, is pure and whole. An escape to the country is an assertion of natural rights. It also is an equalizer. There is not a class system – that is, not of the same bureaucratic kind of the city. Rich and poor do indeed exist in both city and country, but where a homeless person resorts to begging for food (a life to which Jane Elton nearly accepted), a country dweller can survive in rural areas, relying on the land to provide necessities. In the city, the poor must depend on others to assist them (like Gertrude Flint at first), but it is no secret that humans are generally selfish and unreliable. It is proposed then, that escape is the best solution.

As stated above, the city holds nothing but bad memories for Gertrude. Her childhood sweetheart left her for foreign lands, her neighbors sickened and died, and she lost her surrogate father. It is in the country that the tables are finally turned. Gertrude’s lover returns and proposes, she finds a purpose in life through assisting blind Emily, and her birth father pops up to reclaim his parental right. Boston is not the only city in which hardships occur. Gertrude accompanies Emily’s family on a brief travel vacation, but the “heat and dust” of New York proves “insufferable”(Cummins 242), her equally unbearable peers wind up at the same tourist-filled hotel in Saratoga, and her love does not recognize her and appears to be dating someone else. It is no small wonder then, that Gertrude yearns for the comfort of the country-house before the end of the journey.

There is a moment when the country sanctuary is denied to her: she takes leave of Emily’s family in order to assist her former neighbors, as she feels is her duty since they were so kind to her when she was growing up. Emily’s father disapproves severely, as he enjoys Gertrude’s company, and indefinitely cuts off any benefits toward her when she refuses to stay. When those neighbors cease to be, she must forgo personal freedom and accept the charity of other friends if she wishes to survive. However, when the opportunity turns up for her to return to the country, Gertrude does not miss her chance. In the end, all are reconciled, and Gertrude starts her own life – outside the city.

Jane Elton’s spiritual retreat is John’s cottage and the area that surrounds it. John, a kindly bachelor, and Crazy Bet are the only people who treat Jane with any level of kindness and respect that she (secretly) feels she deserves. A Mr. Lloyd and her former servant Mary, who live in the city, are also very kind to her, but her city life is so overshadowed by her oppressive relations that she cannot take advantage of their attention. Only far and away, in the country, can Jane be free. When Bet leads her on what seems like a wild-goose-chase in the dark hills, she is at once impulsive and caring. She warns Jane about certain slippery rocks, something that Jane’s aunt would never consider doing for anyone besides her own children. Bet also allows Jane to take charge at the end of the hike, giving the girl a taste of what is it like having personal authority.

When Jane returns to the city, she is enlightened by her experience, and finally works up the courage to tell her aunt, “I shall not remain another night beneath a roof where I have received little kindness…” (Sedgwick 102). Of course, her only out is through marriage to a well-meaning friend. Despite her feelings toward him (or rather, the lack thereof), she tries to take a chance in making her escape. Fortunately, she manages to elude the ill-match through an honest confession – and a proposition from Mr. Lloyd. Her new life begins, like Gertrude, in the country.

From these examples, the city comes across as impersonal and unsavory. The country is friendly and has a great deal of sentimentality attached to it. Jane and Gertrude are people who come from the city and escape to the country. They discover that their homes hold nothing but heartache for them and upon the discovery of nature, decide to alter their life. Feeling that their pain can never be relieved so long as they remain in the city, they therefore return to the country, making their way to a bright future.

Works Cited

  • Cummins, Maria Susanna. The Lamplighter: or, an Orphan Girl’s Struggles and Triumphs. Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2010. E-book.
  • Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. A New-England Tale: or, Sketches of New-England Character and Manners. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. New York: Literary Classics of the United States,   Inc., 2001. PDF.
  • Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. PDF.



I confess that I remember almost nothing about these books! Except that they were pretty boring. Probably an unpopular opinion. I do appreciate now, since I didn’t realize this before, that we read quite a few women authors in this 2011 “19th Century American Novel” class, which is slightly – and unfortunately – unusual for a male professor to do, especially since few are well-known.

Here is his feedback (I got a B):

You have an interesting thesis and your supporting paragraphs effectively develop your idea. The first half of your paper where you are setting up the city as a dismal place to live needs some expansion and further connection to your thesis. After your discussion of Walking in the middle, you effectively show how the country is a sanctuary and place of escape from the city.

“Country – Explore #139 2/26/15” by Linda Tanner is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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