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Underground Movements

Modern Culture on the New York City Subway

Sunny Stalter-Pace

Publication Year: 2013

For more than a century the New York City subway system has been a vital part of the city’s identity, even as judgments of its value have varied. It has been celebrated as the technological embodiment of the American melting pot and reviled as a blighted urban netherworld. Underground Movements explores the many meanings of the subway by looking back at the era when it first ascended to cultural prominence, from its opening in 1904 through the mid-1960s. Sunny Stalter-Pace analyzes a broad range of texts written during this period—news articles, modernist poetry, ethnic plays, migration narratives, as well as canonical works by authors such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Ralph Ellison—to illustrate the subway’s central importance as a site of abstract connection, both between different parts of the city and between city dwellers who ride the train together. Writers and artists took up questions that originated in the sphere of urban planning to explore how underground movement changed the ways people understand the city. Modern poets envisioned the subway as a space of literary innovation; playwrights and fiction writers used it to gauge the consequences of migration and immigration; and essayists found that it underscored the fragile relationship between urban development and memory. Even today, the symbolic associations forged by these early texts continue to influence understanding of the cultural significance of the subway and the city it connects.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Science, Technology, and Culture


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-8


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

My book explores the impersonal community created in the underground space of the New York City subway. I want to take a moment to acknowl-edge the network of friends, colleagues, and family members that helped First, I express my warmest gratitude to my mother, Jill. She has been a cheerleader, a sounding board, and a friend. This book would not have been ...

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Introduction: Subway Stories

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pp. 1-23

Stories about technology proliferate in contemporary culture. In online forums, in mass media, and in everyday conversation, Americans nar-rate their relation to the world through their machines: my smartphone makes me feel connected, perhaps too connected; my car offers freedom of movement and shields me from fellow commuters. Technologies do not ...

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1. Forming the Subway Habit

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pp. 24-51

Before the subway opened, New York?s newspapers took sides on the issue, sensing that it would come to define the city in a new way. Some touted the possibility of traveling from City Hall to Harlem in fifteen minutes. Joseph Pulitzer?s New York Evening World made the claim a battle cry of its own, calling it on April 5, 1893, ?the definition of the term ?Real Rapid ...

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2. How the Subway became Sublime

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pp. 52-77

In the previous chapter I discussed the development of habits and mental models that New Yorkers used to navigate subway space. I characterized the experience of the subway passenger as navigation between the imme-diate?and resolutely partial?ride and the larger, otherwise incomprehen-sible system. Newspaper articles of the early twentieth century concerned ...

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3. Minding the Gaps in Modernist Poetry

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pp. 78-109

In the verse of Joyce Kilmer, Chester Firkins, and the other poets invested in the ideal of the subway sublime, the passenger?s orientation to the sys-tem parallels the believer?s relation to the divine: although neither person can perceive its object, each experiences f_lashes of wonder and peace that confirm its coherence. These middlebrow Catholic poets see the subway as ...

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4. Underground Assimilation in Ethnic Drama

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pp. 110-139

The Bridge ends with a retrospective look at the Brooklyn Bridge, imagining that the interborough icon unifies the poem and, Hart Crane suggests, the country?s history. In order to gain that syncretic perspective, the poem has to abandon the subway car and the habit-driven working-class physicality that it found there. The fantasies of cultural connectivity that the poem ...

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5. Uncanny Migration Narratives

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pp. 140-165

In the early twentieth century, Jewish New Yorkers could assimilate to the broader understanding of white American culture (as nineteenth-century German Jews did) or maintain their cultural specificity in a manner more common among the eastern European immigrants who came to the United States around the turn of the century. Some early-arriving German Jews ...

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Conclusion: The Private Subway in the Postmodern City

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pp. 166-190

Since the 1950s New York City?s population has fallen and risen; its econ-omy has gone through several cycles of boom and bust. The threat of crime, allied to the subway in the popular imagination from the 1960s onward, was counteracted through aggressive (some say too aggressive) policing in the 1980s and 1990s. Criminologist George Kelling and political scientist ...


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pp. 191-203

Works Cited

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pp. 205-223


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pp. 225-234

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About the Author

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pp. 235-252

Sunny Stalter-Pace was born in Peoria, Illinois, and now lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Paul, and their child, Arthur. She is an associate professor in the English department at Auburn University, where she teaches courses on American literature, drama, critical theory, and popular...

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762875
E-ISBN-10: 1613762879
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340542
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340540

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 4 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Science, Technology, and Culture
Series Editor Byline: Carolyn de la Pena, Siva Vaidhyanathan See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 867742122
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Underground Movements

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Subways -- Social aspects -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
  • Subways -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
  • Popular culture -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
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