The differences between urbanites and country people are an old story in literature and commentary. Shakespeare often has a country bumpkin for audiences to laugh at in his plays. Children of all countries are told a bedtime story about the country mouse who comes to visit the city mouse. Common sayings often remind us of the ironies of life by contrasting rural and urban origins. It has been said in many languages that the eager country boy comes to the city to have a brilliant career for the express purpose of buying a nice house in the country in which to retire.
In the two essays to be discussed in the following the authors contrast urban and rural life. Henry Fairlie (1924-1990) is British and writes in a manner that is often tongue- in- cheek to point to some of the amusing thing about the way that people take to city life. Underlying Fairlie s humor, however, is a longing for a vanished world in which there were sharp differences between city and country. Charles Creekmore (b. 1945) brings a younger and much more American perspective to the same discussion.
Where Fairlie appears to despair of the future of the human race which is jammed together into cities, Creekmore defends city life saying that it has more to offer and can bring out the best in people. Underneath the surface differences between Fairlie and Creekmore as they view the urbanite, however, is a single purpose which is to use the opposed realities of urban/rural life to make some interesting points about the nature of human beings.
In his The Idiocy of Urban Life Henry Fairlie puts together a long list of what is silly, humiliating, and even dangerous about life in the city. He begins with some sarcastic observations about the fact that the only truly civilized creatures in the city are the rats who come out at 4 AM and lick their paws after a night of eating garbage. After these inhabitants of the city go to bed, Fairlie says: the two legged inhabitants of the city begin to stir and it is they not the rats, who bring the rat race (527).
Then Fairlie proceeds to point to the most obvious paradox of rural/urban realities which is that of suburban life: The lunacy of modern life lies in the fact that most city dwellers who can do so try to live outside the city boundaries (527). Fairlie finds it quite amusing that the masses of people who want to work in the city also want to stream out of the city at the end of the work day. He looks back with longing on a time when the captains of industry had their large mansions on the hill to look down on their factories and their workers too.
Now people want the excitement and high pay of the city during the daytime and the calm and quiet of the country at night, Fairlie says. The only problem this gets them into is that everybody wants this at the same time and the result is the traffic jam. Some people spend large parts of their lives in rooms on wheels (cars) while others are jammed up against one another in public transport. Fairlie seems to be saying that we would have a better world if the old boundary lines between city and country could be re-established.
It is hard to believe that he means this. Fairlie is far too familiar with the tortures of the commuter s life to convince the reader that somehow he avoided the lunacy of urban/suburban life. What Fairlie is really saying is that we human beings are the sort of creatures who want it all, namely the sophisticated life of the urban worker and the relaxed life of the country gentleman. Charles Creekmore is more interested in what goes on in the city than in the ironies of urban life that are so difficult for Fairlie.
He begins his picture of city life, however, with a picture that would make Fairlie laugh. He is lined up at a toll booth trying to get out of the city and one of the charming people who works there screams at him to Grow up! Creekmore begins his praise of the city on an unhappy note when he talks about this confrontation: To me the incident has always summed up the essence of what cities are: hotbeds of small embarrassments, de-humanizing confrontations, monetary setbacks, angry people, and festering acts of God (532).
City life, Creekmore says, is the sort of thing that really should make a man lose his sanity. Then Creekmore looks at what a number of psychologists and sociologists have said about the reality (as opposed to the myth) of living in the city. An eminent psychologist, Jonathan Freedman, points out that while cities can be dangerous to the health of the inhabitants because of crowding, pollution, and so on, there are many more resources available to the city dwellers to care for their health.
A group of sociologists found that social support networks were more numerous for those involved in city life than for people living in the country, Creekmore points out. City life should drive you crazy, Creekmore says, but sociologist Leo Scrole in his Mental Health in the Metropolis: The Mid-Town Manhattan Study found that rates of mental illness are slightly higher in small towns. Creekmore s conclusion is surprising. When people can rise to the challenges of city life, Creekmore says, they can actually experience a high or sense of excitement about living in the city.
What both authors are saying, Fairlie in an ironic way, and Creekmore by using the results of psychological and sociological studies, is that people are urban animals. The fact is that the human being is a social creature and delights in human society even including the unpleasant aspects of social life. The reader might be reminded of conversations with people who come from or who spent some time in New York City. All they do is complain about the place, but each complaint is an example of bragging. City life is tough, but people feel good or even superior when they can live city life and survive.