- Introduction –Geographies of Promise and Betrayal:Land and Place in US Studies
In various ways, the essays published in this special issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies testify to the perils, potentials, and necessities of “aestheticizing” the rapidly shifting social topographies of the United States. The concentration of immigrant and rural populations in cities during the latter half of the nineteenth century, for example, demanded the development of new practices and perceptions of affect and place, new somatic vernaculars and discursive phenomenologies, new styles and habituations that might accommodate the shocks of the new within the hoarier mythological narratives of frontier republicanism and American exceptionalism. In a more palpably destructive, perhaps, but no less dynamic fashion, the post-industrial dismantling of the securities of “place” compels scholars, artists, activists, cultural labourers of all stripes to question anew the unstable domains and terrains of American identity, questions we posed when deliberating our themes for the 2012 Canadian Association of American Studies conference on place and space in American Studies: What makes a house a home? What makes a home a good investment? What makes a real estate “bubble” burst? Who “owns” the streets? The water? The land? What makes this land your land, my land, or our land, from California to the New York Island, or beyond? How do you “occupy” Wall Street? How can you “walk for the cure”? How is land/earth/terrain understood and used? What are the distinct debates, discourses, and spatial practices that have defined American culture and society in the past, and how might they be changing today? [End Page 271] American mythologies and narratives traditionally rely upon the presumed availability of space (the frontier thesis) and on an American identity typically performed through the occupation, subjugation, conquest, or mastery of space—so, too, our understandings. In Critical Regionalism (2007), Douglas Reichert Powell points out that “‘senses’ of place and region are not so much essential qualities, imparted by singular events, practices, or topographical features, as they are ongoing debates and discourses that coalesce around particular geographical spaces” (14). And, while “aestheticize” is a term often used as a shorthand to denigrate efforts to gloss over or even “prettify” harsh realities and subordinate suffering and social struggle, the communal production of “sense” across place and time is a quintessentially aesthetic practice; in consequence, as the essays in this issue convince us, political assessments of and responses to the conundrums that arise from the twinned vitality and devastation of classical and late capitalism cannot be delinked from “aesthetics,” much as hard-nosed sociologists might want to try.
For, given Henri Lefebvre’s insistence that space is itself a social production (and not just a backdrop), aesthetic labour works to locate us in a rapidly changing urban social and environmental terrain. In the opening essay of this issue, Samantha Bernstein demonstrates how, in William Dean Howells’s writing, the cultivation of a picturesque aesthetic to represent scenes of urban poverty both “shields” observers from the full menace of class difference and also secures an artistic language through which cross-class sympathy can be, however ambivalently, articulated. Thus, Bernstein asserts, it is key to envisioning practical democratic sentiment. In the essay that follows, emphasizing the links between the anxieties of the gilded age and our own, where the staggering concentration of wealth in the hands of the few has accompanied the decline of the post-industrial cities of the rust belt, Patrick Manning investigates Buffalo, NY, in order to counter urban, regional, and national accounts that have rendered poverty and racism invisible and so to disinter, in the archives, the potential for a more generous cultural imaginary.
Reva Marin’s essay offers a thorough exposition of the ways in which urban (and suburban) cross-racial encounters helped shape the direction of jazz, blues, and swing music. The memoirs and ghosted autobiographies of Jewish Americans offer insights into [End Page 272] their crafting of narrative (as much as a musical) self-fashioning, within the labile domains of what is stereotypically celebrated as a uniquely and supremely “American” music. The “mythic metropolis” of New York City is likewise the terrain on which Zac Schnier interrogates the...