restricted access Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Carla Cappetti. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. xii + 274 pp. $39.50 cloth, $17.50 paper.

Considering in 1942 the novels of Richard Wright and Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg sounded again the dire warning he had issued first in the aftermath of the Chicago race riots of 1919: "The slums get their revenge, always somehow or other their retribution can be figured in any community." It is not the mere political fact of retribution, but rather the breadth of Sandburg's "somehow or other" and the possibilities of such a figuration which Carla Cappetti investigates in this bold attempt to reconceive American modernism and to relocate the position of urban literature within it. Cappetti offers Chicago as the site of a potential disciplinary synthesis, one which restores to the fiction of Wright, Algren, and James T. Farrell the ethnographic methods and theoretical contexts developed by Chicago's urban sociologists as instruments of cultural observation.

Proceeding from Engels' premise that it is precisely the "invisible" slum which structures the industrial city and which conditions its sociological "legibility," Cappetti stakes a claim for the continuing importance of a literature too often relegated to the critical ghetto of naturalism, of "proletarian" [End Page 430] or "ethnic" writing. In its attempt to record and represent the most obscure of social strata, she argues, such a literature recapitulates the alienating move through which ethnography becomes self-reflexive and industrial society begins to recognize its own enabling class conditions. This literature, therefore, shares with the emergent academic discipline of sociology a need not only to document its material subterrain empirically but also to define its own ambiguously subjective position against that determinate setting. Fiction becomes a form of autobiography, working relentlessly to resolve the tensions inherent in the paradoxical role of the participant-observer and struggling to reconcile the received generic forms of the novel with the need to lend expressive capacity to invisible social margins.

The link to sociology, however, is a more complex one than a simple structural homology might suggest. Cappetti documents in impressive detail the debt of each author to the work of such figures as W. I. Thomas, Ernest Burgess, and Frederic Thrasher, demonstrating the degree to which both the subject matter explored ("deviant" sexual behavior, patterns of immigration, the structure of urban gangs) and the narrative techniques employed (most notably the form of the case study) by the novelists mark a conscious and intentional continuation of the academic project by other means. A survey of Chicago fiction in the 1930s, she suggests, is incomplete without a complementary survey of related attempts to understand the city as a functional whole. And more crucially, any reading of that fiction which ignores the pressure of a sociological perspective remains incapable of understanding the function of the realistic novel within that urban environment. Sociological analysis and urban realism achieve an almost dialectical interdependence. Each subsumes the other as a necessary component of its own project.

What emerges finally from Cappetti's analysis is a call for a form of political criticism more subtle and more specific than that which has traditionally attended modernism. Indeed the book's greatest strength lies in its selection of a narrow field. Cappetti extricates her subjects from the more familiar high modernist narratives of the 1910s and 1920s—and from the New Critical cliches which typically accompany those narratives—by reattaching them to the more extreme situations and the more radical solutions of the 1930s. By strategically framing modernism as a local phenomenon, she recasts its representative texts as attempted interventions in a non-literary but historically immediate scene of engagement. The same sense of political retribution which connected each writer inextricably to the slum, and which secured for each a measure of critical mistreatment, suggests a possible model for subsequent attempts to approach modernism as the product of emergent historical settings and exchanges without resorting to broad and unwieldy metahistorical generalizations. Farrell, Algren, and Wright provide useful examples not merely of an aesthetic turned to political ends, but also of a criticism devoted to the use of literature as a mechanism of historical agency. [End Page...