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Untimely Ruins

An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919

Untimely Ruins

An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

American ruins have become increasingly prominent, whether in discussions of  “urban blight” and home foreclosures, in commemorations of 9/11, or in postapocalyptic movies. In this highly original book, Nick Yablon argues that the association between American cities and ruins dates back to a much earlier period in the nation’s history. Recovering numerous scenes of urban desolation—from failed banks, abandoned towns, and dilapidated tenements to the crumbling skyscrapers and bridges envisioned in science fiction and cartoons—Untimely Ruins challenges the myth that ruins were absent or insignificant objects in nineteenth-century America.

The first book to document an American cult of the ruin, Untimely Ruins traces its deviations as well as derivations from European conventions. Unlike classical and Gothic ruins, which decayed gracefully over centuries and inspired philosophical meditations about the fate of civilizations, America’s ruins were often “untimely,” appearing unpredictably and disappearing before they could accrue an aura of age. As modern ruins of steel and iron, they stimulated critical reflections about contemporary cities, and the unfamiliar kinds of experience they enabled. Unearthing evocative sources everywhere from the archives of amateur photographers to the contents of time-capsules, Untimely Ruins exposes crucial debates about the economic, technological, and cultural transformations known as urban modernity. The result is a fascinating cultural history that uncovers fresh perspectives on the American city.

400 pages | 76 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Architecture: American Architecture

Art: American Art

Culture Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


"Untimely Ruins is a magisterial work of scholarship, brimming with intelligence, insight, and interest on every page. Nick Yablon’s scholarship is prodigious. His extended meditation on the meanings of American ruins explains why they are distinctive, what they reveal, and how they matter. This is a book of exceptional historical expanse and interpretive ambition that is at the same time remarkably lucid from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and page to page."—Carl Smith, author of The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

Carl Smith, author of The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

“‘What! Ruins so soon!’ exclaimed Alexis de Tocqueville after encountering an abandoned cabin in frontier New York.  The close association between American ruins (both real and imagined) and modernity from the Revolution through World War I is the focus of this superbly erudite and insight-packed study. Nick Yablon locates ruins in a remarkable range of cultural locations, including Hudson River landscape paintings and Kodak photographs, Indian mounds and urban slums, disused canals and dystopian fictions. Nineteenth-century Americans, he demonstrates, found ruins good to think with, employing them to ponder the future of the American republic, boom-and-bust economic cycles, labor-capital conflict, natural disasters, and, above all, the modern city itself. Untimely Ruins bears the hallmark of the best work in cultural history, finding patterns in places where other scholars might not look.”—Karen Halttunen, University of Southern California

Karen Halttunen, University of Southern California

“Nick Yablon ranges widely, from log cabins to skyscrapers and from Tocqueville to pulp fiction. He combines imaginative research with probing interpretation. Untimely Ruins offers fresh and challenging insights about the American built environment on nearly every page.”—T. J. Jackson Lears, Rutgers University

T. J. Jackson Lears, Rutgers University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations




Of Light Bulbs and Bathtubs: Excavating the Modern City

1 Crumbling Columns and Day-Old Ruins:

Specters of Antiquity on the American Grand Tour, 1819–1837

2 "Even Eden, you know, ain’t all built":

Paper Cities, British Investors, and the Ruins of Cairo, Illinois, 1837–1844

3 The Petrified City:

Antiquity and Modernity in Melville’s New York, 1835–1865

4 Relapsing into Barbarism:

Labor, Ethnicity, and Ruin in Prospective Histories of Urban America, 1865–1906

5 "Plagued By Their Own Inventions":

Reframing the Technological Ruins of San Francisco, 1906–1909

6 The Metropolitan Life in Ruins:

Architectural and Fictional Speculations in New York, 1893–1919


Toward the Posthuman Ruin



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