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Urban Underworlds

Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Urban Underworlds
    Book Description:

    Urban Underworldsis an exploration of city spaces, pathologized identities, lurid fears, and American literature. Surveying the 1890s to the 1990s, Thomas Heise chronicles how and why marginalized populations immigrant Americans in the Lower East Side, gays and lesbians in Greenwich Village and downtown Los Angeles, the black underclass in Harlem and Chicago, and the new urban poor dispersed across American cities have been selectively targeted as "urban underworlds" and their neighborhoods characterized as miasmas of disease and moral ruin.The quarantining of minority cultures helped to promote white, middle-class privilege. Following a diverse array of literary figures who differ with the assessment of the underworld as the space of the monstrous Other, Heise contends that it is a place where besieged and neglected communities are actively trying to take possession of their own neighborhoods.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4981-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XII)
  4. An Overview and an Underview: Uneven Development and the Social Production of American Underworlds
    (pp. 1-29)

    This book is a journey into the depths of human misery and perversity, but it begins where you would least expect it: on top of one of the loveliest buildings in the world. In 1905 the journalist Edgar Saltus stood aloft Daniel Burnham’s Fuller Building at Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in order to see for himself “the most extraordinary panorama in the world—a survey of the American metropolis.”¹ The twenty-three story, triangular building, popularly known as the Flatiron, was the world’s first skyscraper and a stunning harbinger of America’s emergent modern capitalist economy. The Flatiron captured,...

  5. 1 Going Down: Narratives of Slumming in the Ethnic Underworlds of Lower New York, 1890s–1910s
    (pp. 30-76)

    “On the morning of June 18 last, New York was horrified by the discovery of the body of a murdered girl hidden in a trunk in a Chinese waiter’s room over a chop suey restaurant in Eighth Avenue. Within a couple of hours, detectives and newspaper men had established the girl’s identity, and the news of the crime went ringing to the ends of the world.”¹ So began William Meloney’s 1909 sensational exposé “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown: A Glimpse into the Sordid Underworld of the Mott Street Quarter, Where Elsie Sigel Formed Her Fatal Associations.” Meloney’s report had all...

  6. 2 Degenerate Sex and the City: The Underworlds of New York and Paris in the Work of Djuna Barnes and Claude McKay, 1910s–1930s
    (pp. 77-126)

    In a remarkable but overlooked interview in 1918 with the top law enforcement officer in New York City, Commissioner Richard Enright, Djuna Barnes, writing forNew York Sun Magazine, made this stunning admission: “some of the nicest people I know are either potential or real criminals,” and then noticing that Enright had not taken the bait, Barnes reiterated right before the interview was over, “I have a lot of friends, as I before said, who are either potential criminals or criminals.”¹ Barnes’s unnamed “criminal” friends were the gays and lesbians who were part of her social milieu in Greenwich Village...

  7. 3 The Black Underground: Urban Riots, the Black Underclass, and the Work of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, 1940s–1950s
    (pp. 127-168)

    “Have you ever stopped to think what the future Harlem will be?” James Weldon Johnson brightly asked in 1920.¹ The question was posed in good faith, but the answer may have brought tears. As we saw in chapter 2, “black Manhattan” had developed a reputation as a scintillating nightlife underworld in the 1920s, much to Johnson’s chagrin, but this itself was a minor blot, a mix of racial embarrassment and white opportunism that would pass like any other fad in a modern economy given to distractions. The upward arc of the neighborhood, like the stock market, seemed all but guaranteed....

  8. 4 Wasted Dreams: John Rechy, Thomas Pynchon, and the Underworlds of Los Angeles, 1960s
    (pp. 169-212)

    In September 1964, William Wilcox Robinson published a small, curious booklet titledTarnished Angels: Paradisiacal Turpitude in Los Angeles Revealed, which offered a thumbnail sketch of the history of prostitution in downtown L.A. beginning with the city’s founding in 1781. In this long history, offered up in no more than thirty tiny pages, the 1890s stand out as the peak years of “open and gaudy” prostitution in Los Angeles, the same decade, as we saw in chapter 1, that Jacob Riis and Ernest Ingersoll fretted over the possibility of being tempted by the inviting eyes of a woman into the...

  9. 5 White Spaces and Urban Ruins: Postmodern Geographies in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, 1950s–1990s
    (pp. 213-254)

    “It’s the decade of crack and homelessness. It’s the decade of the tunnels. . . . People’ve been down and out since the beginning of time, but we’s the first to actually live in tunnels. There’s been nowhere else to go. . . . There was too many of us”: these words belong to Seville Williams, a recovering drug addict and twelve-year denizen of the underground who in the 1980s lived “under Track 100 in Grand Central Station” and was one of an estimated five thousand people scratching out a life in the grimy interstices of New York City’s transportation...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 255-276)
  11. Index
    (pp. 277-292)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-293)