- The Squared City:Prizefighting, Tenement Reform, and Spatial Physiognomy at the Turn of the Century
In the opening to Abraham Cahan's novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), Jake—the eponymous Yekl—is introduced to the reader in the middle of an "impromptu lecture" on American prizefighting.1 Set during work hours in a small tenement garment shop in a Jewish immigrant district, the men and women of the shop kill time while waiting for their boss to return with more work. One half of the shop listens to Jake talk about boxing while the rest are occupied with the small tasks of adapting to their American environment—one reads an English newspaper, another seems to pray over a Yiddish socialist magazine, two young men compare stories about actors of the Jewish stage, and another uses his free time to mend his clothes. All of this takes place in a single, small tenement room with enough sewing machines, pressing tables, and other equipment for all of them to do their work—had they any work to do.
Through the familiar cultural idiom of prizefighting, Jake reframes the ethnic balkanization of the tenements into the staged ethnic conflicts of the prize ring. He highlights supposed differences between Boston and New York fighters, among Irish, Jewish, Russian, and Christian fighters, and so on. Through the language of prizefighting, he voices the dominant order as a way to access a kind of cultural capital. According to the implicit logic of his lecture, if he can successfully convince his listeners that he has mastered the masculine discourse of prizefighting, then he will also have convinced them of his American cultural expertise.
Jake believes that his lecture might serve as a hermeneutic tool for the other characters in the tenement shop listening to him (as it might also be [End Page 226] for Cahan's readers). The prize ring seems, in Jake's framing, to function as a living analogy for tenement life with all of its ethnic rivalries, social aspirations, and workmanlike commitments to focused training and self-improvement. When Jake's account leads to an extended and "minute exposition of 'right-handers' [and] 'left-handers' […] and other commodities of the fistic business," the others in the tenement shop seem implicitly to understand the overlapping frames of labor, sport, and the biologism of ethnicity.2 The ring allows Jake to paint a clear image of the felt relationship between spaces and bodies, between neighborhoods and ethnic groups, and between nations and fields of manual specialty. Handedness, in the context of the tenements, appears to be as much a sign of one's proficiency in the ring as it is of one's dexterity in the tenement shop.3 Like Susan Buck-Morss' concept of the "surface pattern," the ring's regularized geometries and rules, its highly visible bodies and motions, and its clearly defined spatial antagonisms become a way of "depicting the social body that technology had created—and that in fact could not be perceived otherwise."4 In the narrow geometry of the ring, the problematically undifferentiated urban industrial mass that Buck-Morss describes might be separated into legible racial, ethnic, and economic bodies that might be pitted against one another in physical contest. Jake's turn to the "right-handers" and "left-handers" of prizefighting reflects the demographically schematized spaces and bodies of the tenements.
However, Jake's lecture is competing with the other "noise" of the tenement shop, and even those present who are listening do not all agree with his pugilistic model for urban life. One of his critics, Mr. Bernstein, makes explicit that their dispute is over competing models of cultural fluency. Bernstein offers a counter-model based on language acquisition and says that Americans "won't even break bones without grammar" and that "[t]hey tear each other's sides according to 'right and left'" punctuation marks rather than "right-handers" and "left-handers" in the ring.5 For Bernstein, social hierarchies are articulated through grammatical figures, while for Jake, these differences are articulated in (the language of) violent physical contest. Their argument comes to a head when Jake becomes so...