Writing the Street: Discourses of Choice, Agency, and Mobility in Twentieth Century Street Lit

Smith, Alexandra V. Writing the Street: Discourses of Choice, Agency, and Mobility in Twentieth Century Street Lit. 2019. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation argues that the street, as a space of contact in which many different narratives, perspectives, and stories converge, operates as a compelling lens through which we can read twentieth century multi-ethnic literatures of the United States. While there exists a significant amount of critical literary scholarship on urban literature, these studies often focus on urban space more broadly and as represented via the ostensible canon of urban American literature—one dominated by white, male authors. In centering the street as the focal point, I move beyond these canonical standards by engaging a more expansive variety—both in terms of style and authorship—of urban fiction. Thus, this project conceptualizes street literature not as a subgenre within urban fiction but as a distinct literary category that includes a diverse range of genres and forms. Centering the street in this way reveals how the subversive and evasive movements of literary subjects continue to shift and adapt to the effects and agencies of particular historical moments. In street literature, the street emerges as a contested space between 1) the dominant cultural narrative put forth by urban sociological rhetoric that, I argue, emphasizes stagnancy and victimization and 2) literary representations that, I argue, subverts this narrative by emphasizing dynamic movement through both city space and oppressive circumstances.

In order to effectively trace this contestation, I employ a sociohistorical methodology grounded in critical spatial theory. This methodology rejects the impulse to think of physical and material space as a mere background or stage against which stories play out, and instead accounts for how space contains the agentive energy of the various sociopolitical and sociocultural ideologies that govern a particular historical moment. I use Edward Soja’s notion of a “socio-spatial dialectic”—one that animates the influence of the spatial as an active participant that both shapes and is shaped by its users and the influence of a particular historical and cultural moment—as a productive means of reading literary representations of the street. This project argues that authors such as Mike Gold, Odie Hawkins, Chester Himes, Ann Petry, Sister Souljah, and Anzia Yezierska use the dynamism of the street to challenge urban sociological narratives that attempt to stabilize, rationalize, and explain the unpredictability of literary street space. The texts examined in this project fight for their right to the city by imbuing the space with rhetorics of movement, and choice, and the philosophies of the absurd. These rhetorical and philosophical moves not only speak back to urban sociological discourses that seeks to control, simplify, and, thus, stabilize the productive chaos of the street, but also assert a sense of agency tied to the vitality of the city street, and one in direct opposition to the disciplining discourses that victimize residents. Thus, this dissertation demonstrates that the reclamation of the city street on the part of the literary category of street lit results in the production of new perspectives and narratives regarding the street and urban space.

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