Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cities in Literature

The introduction to Volume B of the Norton Anthology discusses how literature was influenced by the social/political culture of certain eras. One of the ideas talked about was urbanization in the 1800s and how that led to writing about "mysteries of the city" (937). In general, literature is closely tied to the concept of setting - either the home/travels of the author or the way a real place comes to life in his/her imagination.

If I think about contemporary Washington DC, I see a relationship between literature and setting in many ways. Dan Brown comes to my mind (ignoring the quality of the writing) because his latest book "The Lost Symbol" dealt with DC's monuments, heroes, and potential dark side. We as residents of the city are given a sense of pride when we read about it while readers who don't live in the city they are reading about feel a sense of wonder. What other values do we see in urban literature?


  1. This is an interesting observation. I am currently reading a ton of books by Don Delillo, an author who uses NYC as a common theme in most of his novels . While I have never been to to New York, his writing is so rich in detail and style that I have a fairly clear picture of what the city must be like. The fact that NY has such an author must give them much pride.

    You should check out Edward P. Jones if you are looking for a good DC author. I believe that he is currently guest lecturing at GW as well.

  2. John Dos Passos actually describes DC quite well in his U.S.A. Trilogy. He also wrote another triolgy called District of Columbia, which I have not read.

    And yes, DeLillo has his finger on the pulse of NYC. Check the cover of his novel Underworld. Amazingly, the novel came out in the late 90s.

    For me, whenever I come across literature that represents places I know well, I get caught up in mimetic concerns and get frustrated when either 1) the representation comes across as just giving a vague sense of the place (in case you didn't know, those are Boston accents, folks) or 2) has to be completely fabricated in order to be cleared by the powers that be. How much does it cost to get into The Jeffersonian anyway?

  3. As soon as Bryanne mentioned literature in cities I immediately thought of Jean Toomer's Cane. In Cane, Toomer includes short stories and poems written in both the rural South and cities such as Washington, DC during the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout the work, setting plays a major role. Toomer really examines how industry wears on the natural world, and how people deal (or don't deal) when they are trapped in the middle of two extremes. To go back to Bryanne's question about the values of urban literature, a key value is that in a city an author has the ability to put a lot of modern pressure on the characters, and in that way their work of literature has the potential to serve as an emblem of that time.

  4. I personally love reading non-fiction and fiction pieces about NYC, since that is where I am from. I enjoy reading about other people's perceptions on "The Big Apple." I find it somewhat baffling to learn that other people view NYC as overwhelming and too chaotic when, for me, it is comforting because it is my home. Even though these accounts may not be accurate, they still teach me something new about the city and how others react to it.

    To answer Bryanne's question, I think urban literature values not only its setting but also its people. Many pieces of literature set in urban areas focus on representations of the people who make it up. I took an Urban Sociology class last semester, and we discussed in great length topics such as racism, crime, industrialization, and socioeconomic status in urban areas, which are also apparent in a great deal of urban fiction. Has anybody read American Psycho? That novel definitely has an interesting portrayal of New York City and its cosmopolites.

  5. When I think of cities in literature, Time and Again by Jack Finney pops into my head. I think you should read this, Sam (if you haven't already), because it is a story about time traveling in New York City from the 1970s into the 1880s. Finney made sure to be historically accurate when talking about buildings, houses, and parks that were located in the city in the 1880s. The entire novel is based on the main character's impression of NYC in 1880 and his observations of all the buildings that he could recognize. Since the setting was central to the plot, it became a character of its own.