- Underneath, at the Edges, and in the Heart of the Urban Imagination
In his essay, "The Worlding of the American Novel," Bruce Robbins asserts that "The street is what most novels take for their subject most of the time . . . they do not encourage us to look at superstructures, or infrastructures, or the structuring force of the world capitalist system" (1096). All three of the books reviewed here, which center on the representation of the urban poor and disenfranchised in American literature over the last century, suggest that while such narratives may train their vision on the teeming, diverse streets of the city, they are also keenly attuned to the larger forces that determine both poverty and privilege. In Slumming in New York, Robert Dowling explores what he regards as the mutually satisfying [End Page 363] relationships that certain white mainstream "outsider" writers formed with their marginalized "insider" subjects to argue that such interactions ultimately shifted the flow of cultural capital, resulting in the triumph of the "insider" voice and a more open-minded middle-class readership. In Urban Underworlds, Thomas Heise similarly concentrates on the interplay between the marginalized "underworld" and heteronormative white privilege in order to critique the flow of material capital: he examines urban narratives by insiders and outsiders alike to argue that these works expose the faulty logic of capitalism's uneven development. In Writing the Ghetto, Yoonmee Chang also challenges the structural formation of poverty in her critique of what she calls the "ethnographic imperative" (7): for her, the exoticized insider voice obscures racialized class inequity by translating it into cultural preference and consumable commodity.
Of the three, Dowling's book is the most tightly focused in terms of space and time, concentrating on the gritty neighborhoods of Manhattan between 1880 and 1930—the Bowery, the Tenderloin district's "Black Bohemia," the lower East Side, and Harlem. Dowling considers the relationship that white mainstream outsider writers such as Stephen Crane, Hutchins Hapgood, and Carl Van Vechten formed with their marginalized insider subjects—immigrants, the ethnic working class, racial minorities—in their quest to accurately document life within these "moral regions," as Robert Park coined them (qtd. in Dowling 10). Taking on critics who have charged that these sorts of encounters amount to the "exploitation of disenfranchised insiders by privileged outsiders" (6), Dowling advocates for a more nuanced approach. He argues not only that outsider narratives "reveal a more open pattern of social transformation and moral experimentation" than has been previously acknowledged, but that they freed up the voices of insider contemporaries such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Abraham Cahan, and Claude McKay (2). Dowling's central claim is that white writers' realist narratives challenged middle-class Victorian ethnocentrism by representing "subaltern cultural landscapes as sites of cultural regeneration." Ultimately, Dowling argues, their interventions marked a shift in the stream of cultural influence, which "began to flow upwards on the social ladder, from the inside, out" (78), resulting in the "decided victory of the insider voice over the outside observer" (3).
Dowling provides the context for this cultural shift in his discussion of social reformers such as Jacob Riis and Helen Campbell, who may have cultivated relationships with the denizens of the slums they studied, but maintained that the only way these inhabitants could lift themselves out of poverty was by assimilating the moral and cultural codes of the classes above. In contrast, Crane wrote about "repressed [End Page 364] sexuality, hangovers, and jobless indolence with an ambiguousness that appalled genteel critics" and revealed the growing allure of insider culture for adventurous outsiders like himself (68).
But it is with two novels that depict life in the little known portion of New York's Tenderloin district, which catered to African American musicians, gamblers, stage performers, and prostitutes, that Dowling...