Comps Notes: Texts in the City

lit2Pardon the trite pun. Also, this might not be as interesting as can be, but keeping notes like this will hopefully help me on those comprehensive exams.

Urban Spaces, Class, and Race in 20th Century Multi-ethnic American Literature

I’ve not read all the books on my list that take place in the city yet, but I’m almost to that point. I’ve been thinking a lot about the class I took in 2011 about the American City (which was taught by a member of my committee). That course focused a lot on theories of spacial orientation and on 19th Century American Lit. We read How the Other Half Lives and Sister Carrie, as well as several works that made it onto my list–Twenty Years at Hull-House and The House of Mirth.

One aspect of the city in literature that I think is crucial is that it ties the plot to the confines of a specific place. While some works of American literature focus on the vastness of rural areas in a way that can obscure the specificity of location, often when a text takes place in a city it features places and landmarks that are real and with which the reader may have experience. That’s why, for example, we have literary tours of Holden Caulfield’s New York.

In this way, the city posed an important figure for naturalist and determinist writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, because as an environment it was rich with opportunities for describing the urban landscape and people’s interactions with it and each other. Sister Carrie opens with pages and pages of descriptions of Chicago and it is in this urban setting that Carrie is seduced not only by men but by the things of the city. (Carrie Bradshaw has to be named after Sister Carrie, right? Please? Google saves the day.) Similarly, in The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton focuses initially only on the richest people in New York City, detailing urban life through nights at the opera and tableau vivants. When the protagonist, Lily Bart falls into poverty, however, the reader sees, for the first time, the working class. Lily goes from being an object of beauty who is looked upon and circulated in the marriage market to being a worker who creates beautiful objects (hats) and looks but is not seen. The novel works beautifully as an example to teach Marxist and proto-feminist analysis. The city, however, functions as a setting for the consumption of goods but without the sharp attention to the way that environment determines/influences behaviors and “fates” found in Sister Carrie.

Likewise, in The Great Gatsby, the city is the playground where the rich go to make money, to drink, and to have their affairs. In between their safe Long Island egg and the fast and loose city is a wasteland of the ash of industrial waste. It’s significant that the woman Tom keeps and Daisy kills lives in this ash. The rich are hollow and careless and ultimately the poor pay for it. The Bonfire of the Vanities riffs on this more than a little, but in Tom Wolfe’s novel the Valley of Ash is the Bronx, the only part of the city that is really described in specific detail. While Sherman McCoy and his lot live in lavish pre-war apartments on Park Avenue (omg that view…), the Bronx is described as a jungle. (That seems terribly racist, and it’s supposed to be, as Sherman McCoy and his mistress Maria jump to conclusions about the young black men they encounter in a way that is chillingly similar to current everyday interracial encounters and the Trayvon Martin case.) In The Bonfire of the Vanities,  the city is represented less by landmarks than it is by institutions, namely Wall Street (which is a landmark, I realize, but it’s bigger than that), the justice system, and the press.

On the other hand, the city also functions as a setting that enables anonymity in a way that benefits certain people and characters. Nella Larsen’s Passing opens with a scene in which the main character takes a break for a cup of tea in a restaurant she would not be allowed to dine in if she weren’t passing as white. In that novel and, to a lesser degree in Quicksand, the crowds of the city allow for greater latitude in racial and gendered identities in a way that is not possible in rural contexts or small town where people know more about those around them. In this way, the city also functions as an escape or a freeing space. In that vein, the city works as the backdrop for many a rags to riches tale (so popular in American literature). Not only does Carrie find riches in the city, in Salome of the Tenements, Anzia Yezierska writes about a Jewish woman who works as a reporter and marries a rich man, getting herself into some power struggles between her new life and her old posse. In Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, the city is the space of her initiation into the melting pot, which she unabashedly celebrates as a sort of new birth.

There’s certainly more to theorize than this, especially after I read Urban Triage, but so far I’ve found the city a helpful place? symbol? for thinking through multi-ethnic literature because of the way that urban narratives so often dwell on interracial encounters and class disparities. The dense population and fast pace of urban life lends itself to a heightened sense of other people in a way that works both for narratives about those in power distancing themselves from oppressed groups and the stories of those struggling against racism and classism. Further, as Urban Triage analyzes, the city also becomes a site of celebrating multi-culturalism in a way that belies anxieties about racial tensions.

More Misc. Notes:

  • Moves from rural life to city life in When I Was Puerto Rican
  • Los Angeles as the setting for Ester Belin’s poetry, departing from generations of reservation-based Native American poets
  • The use of press clippings and city life in The 42nd Parallel
  • The importance of the city to immigrant narratives, especially in The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as Told By Themselves, the short stories of Abraham Cahan, The Promised Land, and Twenty Years at Hull-House.

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