65 pages 2 hours read

Marshall Berman

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1982

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Summary and Study Guide


All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, written by Marshall Berman, offers an exploration into the tumultuous and transformative nature of modernity. Published in 1982, the book explores the social, economic, and philosophical dynamics that characterize the modern world. Berman, a scholar of political theory and urban studies, dissects the complex relationship between modernization (the material process) and modernism (the cultural responses to it). He examines a wide array of sources, from literature and art to urban planning and architecture, revealing how modernity impacts identity, community, and the built environment. The book touches on several themes, including The Paradox of Modernity: Creation and Destruction, Urban Experience and the Transformation of Space, and The Impact of Economic and Technological Change on Culture and Society. It navigates through the paradoxes of modern life, arguing that to be modern is to engage in a continuous process of destruction and renewal.

This guide refers to the 1988 Penguin Books paperback edition.

Content Warning: This guide briefly mentions suicidal ideation.


Berman’s exploration of modernity is both broad and deep, moving from the philosophical musings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust to the urban upheavals instigated by Robert Moses in New York. Berman begins with an analysis of Faust, interpreting the tale as an allegory for the developmental tragedy of modern existence, where relentless ambition leads to both creation and destruction. This duality is a recurring theme throughout Berman’s book as he considers how modern forces have shaped the physical and cultural landscapes of cities like Paris, St. Petersburg, and New York.

The text then shifts to Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto, where Berman finds a critique of modern life’s fleeting nature and its transformation of all aspects of human relations. Marx’s vision of a society torn by its own economic forces serves as a springboard for Berman to discuss the paradoxes of freedom, identity, and progress that define the modern experience.

In his examination of Charles Baudelaire’s work, Berman identifies the poet as a quintessential modernist whose reflections on Parisian life capture the exhilaration and alienation of urban modernity. Baudelaire’s Paris is a city of paradoxes, where beauty and decay coexist and where the individual’s quest for meaning confronts the impersonal forces of the market and technology.

Berman’s narrative culminates in an analysis of New York City, from the transformative projects of Robert Moses to the 1960s counterculture and beyond. Berman portrays the city as a microcosm of modernity, where the struggles over space, identity, and community reflect broader tensions within modern society. Through the lens of New York, Berman explores how modernism, with its focus on innovation and its critique of tradition, continues to offer insights into the challenges and possibilities of contemporary life.