Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

About the book

dust jacket copy

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.


Carl Smith, Professor of English, American Studies, and History at Northwestern University

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.”

Karen Halttunen, Professor of History, University of Southern California

“‘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.”

 T. J. Jackson Lears, Professor of History, Rutgers University

 “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.”

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