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Babylon Revisited

"When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe."
—Thomas Jefferson

This snowball of a book, gathering mass as it accelerates, is studded with accretions and revisions. A work of cultural criticism rather than of mere literary or even social history, it seems to make its own rules as it goes. You might say that it is about everything, and that is the best thing you could say about it—and the worst.

Perhaps we have seen this kind of book before. There have been volumes devoted to Paris and London and Vienna, as I recall, that take some of Professor Douglas's liberties in asserting that a certain city at a certain period was where and when modernism organized and asserted itself. Carl E. Schorske's Finde-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980) comes to mind perhaps first; and indeed we cannot be surprised to find in Schorske's acknowledgments a prominent citation of Ann Douglas.

Less schematic than Schorske and working with less coherent materials, Douglas is if anything more expansive, subjective, and aggressive. Any reservations we may entertain have to do less with her exposition than with her subject, for who does not have developed opinions about New York City? After all, Manhattan has continued to be (unlike Vienna) in cultural conflict with the rest of its...

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