The Classic Poem of Urban Alienation by James Thomson
The City of Dreadful Night was first published as a serial in the National Reformer in 1874 and then in book form in 1880. Its author, James Thomson, was known at the time primarily for his essays, literary piece work, and associa- tions with freethinkers and radicals — and never found the larger readership he worked hard to gain. Poverty, insomnia, and alcoholism lead to his early death at forty-seven. Now regarded as a cult classic and a refutation of Victorian exceptionalism, The City of Dreadful Night is a journey through the vast new urban landscape created by industrialization. In social isolation and economic exploitation the soul despairs, while grim Darwinism has replaced God and charlatans hawk an impossible afterlife. Our edition features illustrations by artist Shannon Cleere on the cur- rent housing and mental health crisis in Seattle, as well as an afterword by Tacoma poet Robert Lashley. Nearly 150 years later, the city, both as imagined by Thomson and as lived in our late- capitalism experience, remains the same: starkly isolating and cruelly unjust for the poor and unwell.
Born in 1834 in Port Glasgow, Scotland, James Thomson was raised in the slums of East London, where his mother worked as a seamstress, supporting the family. Orphaned young, he was raised in a series of educational asylums and served time in the English Army as a schoolmaster. He started publishing essays and poems in radical journals during his time in the Army with the pseudonym "B.V." for "Bysshe Vanolis," after two of his most important literary influences, Shelley and Novalis. In 1862, he was court-martialed from the Army and returned to London to work as a clerk, hoping to support himself as a writer. Unfortunately, he never achieved the financial security he needed- his poverty, alcoholism, and increasingly erratic behavior plagued his ability to keep the social circles he needed to publish and find income. Despite favorable reviews of his work, including an 1880 edition of "The City of Dreadful Night" that went into a second printing, Thomson's health continued to decline, and his drinking bouts worsened as he increasingly needed friends' assistance to keep him housed. James Thomson died destitute and homeless in early June 1882.
Shannon Cleere is a visual artist based in Seattle, Washington. Born to Irish parents, she grew up in Brazil and Indonesia, then moved to Washington State to attend the Evergreen State College, where she pursued a Liberal Arts degree. She completed her BA in Florence, Italy, where she focused on fresco restoration, art history, and Italian. She is working toward her MFA in Visual Art at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.