The meaning of place seems especially difficult to retain in an age of increased mobility, when information flows are increasingly removed from any site, and offer multiplying perspectives. The work of cultural critic Marshall Berman (1940-2013) provides a clear eyed way to recuperate modernism through the inhabitation of place. Berman, a long-time New York City resident and echt urbanite, created rich qualitative maps of literary modernism that rhapsodized cities as places–as privileged and vital sites of generating meanings that were rooted in place. Even after his recent death, it’s hard not to be struck by the vitality that he mapped as rooted in cities, and whose existence he never stopped reminding us about and celebrating. A native New Yorker, Berman wrote from committed engagement in New York’s space and shifting fluidity, and in his works mapped the sense of fluidity or perpetual permutability of urban life. He showed us, in so doing, that maps are not only imposition from above, or Olympian views, but can map daily encounters best registered on city streets. Even when I best knew Marshall in the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the inveterate street-walker of the Upper West Side and Broadway who exulted in most everything he noticed on the street. Marshall maybe increasingly became an inveterate street-walker who took pleasure in public space, and enjoyed claiming for himself a spot on the street, finding a sort of release and liberation on the night-time sidewalks, in Times Square, or at the diners where he so loved to sit.
In retrospect, I imagine his championing of the street’s energy came from the magnum opus he was then completing, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982)–but that his love of street-life also shaped his voracious exploration of the space of literary modernism through the act of being in public. For Berman quickly recognized that the depersonalization of urban life was not only the trauma and drama of modernity, but, transfigured by literary expression, also a privileged site for individuality. In ways that are still resonant, his generous mapping of the modernity among cities extended from the city that he loved to the modern urbanism. R.I.P., Marshall.
Berman’s sudden and unexpected death in a booth at the Metro Diner, at the heart of the Manhattan Upper West Side, can’t but provoke a reflection on his relation to the concept of urban space, from the sense of public space he lived and explored relentlessly as an observer and city-dweller to that which he read so very widely to excavate and explore with a canny sense of the personalized human geography. For Marshall loved the lived urban environments and continued a life-long fascination he had with the living nature of a streetscape illuminated by electric lights, as if an ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, whose deeply modern possibilities he always felt beckoned and invited and which he was eager to explore. Marshall’s recent death has prompted several emotional reflections that note the inescapably autobiographical aspects of his work, some of which he would himself, surely, be the first not to hesitate to note. Marshall’s work was, first and foremost, that of a public intellectual who bridged personal criticism with urbanism. For Berman often described his engaged writing on modernism and modernist projects of urban space as part of the creative projects of his life.