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Urban Underworlds

A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture

Thomas Heise

Publication Year: 2011

Urban Underworlds is an exploration of city spaces, pathologized identities, lurid fears, and American literature. Surveying one hundred years of history, and fusing sociology, urban planning, and criminology with literary and cultural studies, it chronicles how and why marginalized populations-immigrant Americans in the Lower East Side, gays and lesbians in Greenwich Village and downtown Los Angeles, the black underclass in Harlem and Chicago, and the new urban poor dispersed across American cities-have been selectively targeted as "urban underworlds" and their neighborhoods characterized as miasmas of disease and moral ruin.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: The American Literatures Initiative

Front Matter

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Urban Underworlds was conceived in The Hole, a grimy, graffiti-covered bar in the East Village with no sign advertising its secrets and no locks on the bathroom doors. What drew me there on Friday nights when I was a PhD student was the promise of strong drinks in plastic cups, threadbare couches, and video projections of art-house films over a dancing crowd ...

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An Overview and an Underview: Uneven Development and the Social Production of American Underworlds

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pp. 1-29

This book is a journey into the depths of human misery and perversity, but it begins where you would least expect it: on top of one of the loveliest buildings in the world. In 1905 the journalist Edgar Saltus stood aloft Daniel Burnham’s Fuller Building at Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in order to see for himself “the most extraordinary panorama in the world—a survey of the American metropolis.”1 The twenty-three ...

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1. Going Down: Narratives of Slumming in the Ethnic Underworlds of Lower New York, 1890s–1910s

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pp. 30-76

So began William Meloney’s 1909 sensational exposé “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown: A Glimpse into the Sordid Underworld of the Mott Street Quarter, Where Elsie Sigel Formed Her Fatal Associations.” Meloney’s report had all of the ingredients of a lurid scandal and a cautionary tale: murder, the seduction and corruption of innocence, opium addiction, an exotic locale, and an interracial love affair gone horribly ...

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2. Degenerate Sex and the City: The Underworlds of New York and Paris in the Work of Djuna Barnes and Claude McKay, 1910s–1930s

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pp. 77-126

In a remarkable but overlooked interview in 1918 with the top law enforcement officer in New York City, Commissioner Richard Enright, Djuna Barnes, writing for New York Sun Magazine, made this stunning admission: “some of the nicest people I know are either potential or real criminals,” and then noticing that Enright had not taken the bait, Barnes ...

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3. The Black Underground: Urban Riots, the Black Underclass, and the Work of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, 1940s–1950s

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pp. 127-168

As we saw in chapter 2, “black Manhattan” had developed a reputation as a scintillating nightlife underworld in the 1920s, much to Johnson’s chagrin, but this itself was a minor blot, a mix of racial embarrassment and white opportunism that would pass like any other fad in a modern economy given to distractions. The upward arc of the neighborhood, like the stock market, seemed all but guaranteed. The black libidinal underworld would vanish into the ...

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4. Wasted Dreams: John Rechy, Thomas Pynchon, and the Underworlds of Los Angeles, 1960s

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pp. 169-212

In September 1964, William Wilcox Robinson published a small, curious booklet titled Tarnished Angels: Paradisiacal Turpitude in Los Angeles Revealed, which offered a thumbnail sketch of the history of prostitution in downtown L.A. beginning with the city’s founding in 1781. In this long history, offered up in no more than thirty tiny pages, the 1890s stand out as the peak years of “open and gaudy” prostitution in Los Angeles ...

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5. White Spaces and Urban Ruins: Postmodern Geographies in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, 1950s–1990s

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pp. 213-254

... these words belong to Seville Williams, a recovering drug addict and twelve-year denizen of the underground who in the 1980s lived “under Track 100 in Grand Central Station” and was one of an estimated five thousand people scratching out a life in the grimy interstices of New York City’s transportation network ...


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pp. 255-276


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pp. 277-292

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813549811
E-ISBN-10: 0813549817
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813547848
Print-ISBN-10: 0813547857

Page Count: 308
Illustrations: 11 photographs, 2 figures
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The American Literatures Initiative
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OCLC Number: 775302262
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Urban Underworlds

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social classes in literature.
  • Group identity in literature.
  • Difference (Psychology) in literature.
  • Place (Philosophy) in literature.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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