- Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway. by Sunny Stalter-Pace
This is an uneven, scattered, and ultimately disappointing study of a compelling topic. Stalter-Pace’s study of “stories told about the New York subway in the first half of the twentieth century” (p. 1) is a welcome supplement to the broader scope of Michael Brooks’s and Tracy Fitzpatrick’s cultural histories, as well as to the substantial scholarship on the mythical decades of crime, graffiti, and subway subcultures of the 1960s to 1980s. Her thesis is that “these subway stories construct the passenger as a knowing urban subject, but one who is still part of the crowd” (p. 2). Stalter-Pace approaches this thesis through the subway as a technological space, arguing that “it manages to operate simultaneously as a technology of embodiment and abstraction” (p. 5). Although the book often loses sight of this argument, it does do a good job of demonstrating that the subway from 1904–55 was not exclusively a mechanized space of modernist alienation or an empowering realization of the American melting pot ideology; rather, it was, and mostly remains, a key technology and a key image for negotiating between connectivity and difference, between urban presents and rural or foreign pasts, and between individual agents and mass culture.
The book contains a critical methodological introduction and a conclusion focused on the post-9/11 subway, a chapter on early subway responses, and four central chapters on literary topics: middlebrow magazine poetry; canonical modernist subway poetry, specifically Hart Crane’s “The Tunnel” (1927); ethnic identity, primarily in Osip Dymov’s Yiddish play Bronx Express (1919/1925); and African-American migration narratives, particularly Rudolph Fisher’s “The City of Refuge” (1925) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The half-dozen magazine poems in chapter 2, while certainly historically significant, hardly merit the sustained attention they receive here. Similarly, Bronx Express gives a fascinating glimpse of the subway’s relationship to assimilation and the new Jewish Bronx, but is asked to scaffold too many different broad historical and critical claims. The many insights would have emerged far more sharply and persuasively with a broader comparison to texts addressing related urban and technological spaces. Exactly how, for example, do the questions of ethnicity and assimilation emerge differently in Dymov’s subway than in the space of the street in Elmer Rice’s 1929 Street Scene? A different problem arises in chapter 3, where the argument gets sidetracked into a long discussion of poetic influence negotiated through the underground, a worthy topic, but not one directly related to the book’s central questions of technology and urban modernity.
Chapter 5 is more successful, making important arguments about how [End Page 278] African-American writers used the subway to pose questions and highlight contradictions regarding class, racism, historical memory, and uneven development. Stalter-Pace is attentive to the subway’s paradoxical offer of freedom and agency at the cost of passivity and conformity. And she is sensitive to the power of this new technology to evoke and reimagine the historical trauma of slavery and the profoundly destabilizing effects of the Great Migration. She concludes with a welcome call for more “attention to intersections of race, class, and region when we talk about technology” (p. 163). This chapter is an excellent example of how a nuanced use of those categories can illuminate a cultural history of technology.
Except in chapter 3, Stalter-Pace keeps her attention fixed on the complexities of the subway as a technologized space and the myriad ways in which “subway narratives move beyond the critical position that considers ‘technology as material oppression’” (p. 164). Where she falls short is in the arbitrary and reductive way she rushes through the period of the 1960s through 1980s and in her failure to link the concluding material on the subway in the present to the core decades of the study. This is partly an effect of bringing dozens of different critical and theoretical approaches to...