Monday, March 15, 2010

New York Novels and Chicago Novels

Chicago and New York are to U.S. fiction what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are to the Russians.

Sorry, Boston. Sorry, L.A. Sorry, D.C. Sorry, San Fran. Sorry, the South. You have your claims, no doubt, but they are as the claims of Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, or Gogol. To be sure, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky do not account for the entirety of Russian literature, certainly do not exhaust all options, but they are irreplaceable, irreducible forces upon the landscape of the national literature, and so it is with New York and Chicago, Chicago and New York.

(I say this under the influence of Sister Carrie, which is known as a Chicago novel, but is actually both a Chicago novel and a New York novel, divided almost perfectly down the center—Carrie and Hurstwood leave Chicago about 53% of the way through. That's not quite unique, but it is unusual, almost as unlikely as a Russian novel that combines Tolstoyan sweep and Dostoevskian polyphony.)

The reason for this Chicago-New York division of U.S. literature (and not a more logical coastal binary) can be seen from the simple fact that for Dreiser's novel, the Midwest is west enough. No thought is ever given by any character to moving west (Carrie considers going back to her home in Wisconsin, but Columbia City is really just a transposition of Dreiser's Indiana hometown, so the geography still works in a non-trivial way). Of course, this is an accurate representation of the geographical imagination of most Americans at the time,1 and to some extent is still the mindset of many Midwesterners today.

For instance, although Jonathan Franzen's Midwest is centered on St. Louis and not Chicago, it can certainly be said of The Corrections that "the Midwest is west enough." As I've noted before, the geography of that novel is very peculiar given the claims it makes for comprehensiveness: it's so much a novel about the American family, about American society, about late capitalism, the turn of the century, etc., that what is left out in its cartography is almost shocking:
The way Franzen constructs his novel on a geographic plane is interesting: there is Lithuania, which exists as a sort of netherworld, and then there are three zones of declining cultural intensity or "hipness" or what have you: New York, Philadelphia, and the Midwest. Philadelphia is an intermediate zone—clearly more desirable for the Lambert children than their home in St. Jude (St. Louis?), but nevertheless ritually excused for a certain lack of... you know, New York-ness. Franzen depicts the Midwest sympathetically, but he never tries to redeem it culturally, allowing all the insults his characters fling against it to stand unaddressed and certainly unredressed. Franzen, I would say, does not mind being slightly ashamed of his own Midwestern origins (not that I blame him). But what is fascinating in this schematic geography is how much it excludes—California and the West for one, not to mention the South (including Florida), or the erstwhile Third World. California's exclusion is fascinating given its prominence in so many critiques of late capitalism; its celebrated ethos seems so antithetical to the personal ethic of Alfred Lambert that one might think Franzen had made a mistake in sending Alfred's children East—if Franzen intends to set up an antithetical binary, it should be the younger generation's California vs. the elders' Midwest. And yet the Midwest never has seemed to be in any ideological relation whatsoever to California; can you think of any novel or even film that plays the two off one another?
That's a question I still haven't answered, although I know Frank Norris's unfinished Epic of Wheat trilogy does have one novel set and titled as "A California Story" and the other set and titled as "A Chicago Story." (The Octopus and The Pit, respectively.) (And I don't consider Oklahoma the Midwest, so don't try The Grapes of Wrath.) I'd be interested if anyone else has some ideas or examples, but I'm pretty confident that this absence of Midwest-West opposition (or even juxtaposition) characterizes U.S. lit pretty consistently. New York and Chicago it is.

1Cf. William Cronon on "the Great West" in Nature's Metropolis (xviii):
By "the Great West," I mean a region that no longer exists on the mental maps of most Americans. According to nineteenth-century usage, it was the vast interior region of the nation that was neither the North (the region north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Appalachians or the Great Lakes) nor the South (the region defined most simply as the losing side of the Civil War). The Great West began either at the Ohio River or at Lake Michigan, and extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean… I am quite confident that for much of the nineteenth century the West began in Chicago, not in Denver or San Francisco. To try to redefine the West to fit our modern vocabulary is to do violence to the way Americans in the past understood that term…"

14 comments:

zunguzungu said...

Don't make me stand up for the West coast. Cause I will. Faulkner knew the score when he came to LA to be a screenwriter.

Andrew Seal said...

No, I want you to! This post is supposed to be one of those useful "visible failures" you were talking about--I want to see where the problems with this argument are.

zunguzungu said...

I'm mulling. I think "this absence of Midwest-West opposition (or even juxtaposition) characterizes U.S. lit pretty consistently" works pretty well until about the turn of the century, more or less because there's nothing in the West until then. But once LA starts to spread its tentacles through everything, it's the city of quartz' world and you're just living in it. It's a very different kind of dominance, of course, but the california of fantasy and dreams is so incredibly important -- and the post-whitman "american dream" USA is in all sorts of hollywood-y spectrally ways quasi-located there. In fact, I think the Octopus -- which is one bad ass novel -- is really a chicago-NY novel set in California. But a certain point Hollwyood starts to exert force on novels and every other aspect of "the" culture, in a way that dominates the 20th century.

Also? Grapes of Wrath, a novel based in the great migration from the midwest to the west. So there's that.

Also, also? Ed White's The Country and the City does a great job of thinking through the ways a rural-urban divide based on metro london and its hinterlands doesn't work in colonial America, where everybody lives in the backcountry, and the shivering minority in the city stay up nights worrying about the idiocy of the rural majority (and concoct federalist arguments about the tyranny of the majority because of it).

And also, also, also, this vintage Whitman seems like the right thing to drop on the BBQ:

"Our future national capital may not be where the present one is. It is possible, nay likely, that in less than fifty years, it will migrate a thousand or two miles, will be re-founded, and every thing belonging to it made on a different plan, original, far more superb. The main social, political, spine-character of the States will probably run along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and west and north of them, including Canada. Those regions, with the group of powerful brothers toward the Pacific, (destined to the mastership of that sea and its countless paradises of islands,) will compact and settle the traits of America, with all the old retain'd, but more expanded, grafted on newer, hardier, purely native stock. A giant growth, composite from the rest, getting their contribution, absorbing it, to make it more illustrious. From the north, intellect, the sun of things, also the idea of unswayable justice, anchor amid the last, the wildest tempests. From the south the living soul, the animus of good and bad, haughtily admitting no demonstration but its own. While from the west itself comes solid personality, with blood and brawn, and the deep quality of all-accepting fusion." (democratic vistas)

Andrew Seal said...

Well, you've just pushed The Octopus to the top of my to-read list!

I suppose I've always thought of the LA novel--and the Hollywood novel in particular--as fairly insular in its geography, circumscribed by either California or the West Coast or the Southwest. But maybe I'm just not reading the right novels, or maybe I'm just not realizing how much movement really is entailed in the ones I've read.

That Ed White book looks good too--thanks for the link and the reference.

Amateur Reader said...

The USA Trilogy and Lolita are novels in which the midwest is not west enough. Against the Day is a recent example.

They're not necessarily about California. Is California central to this argument?

Andrew Seal said...

I do think California is pretty important to my argument because it is so difficult for Midwestern writers to assimilate.

I did mean to write something about the way road novels (under which we could certainly classify Lolita, and also, obviously Kerouac and others, and maybe Against the Day?) tear this paradigm up, but I forgot to do so.

But then again, I don't mean for the "Midwest is west enough" idea to describe all American novels, just a lot of them, and that the fact that it does describe maybe more than we'd expect is something worth noting.

LML said...

In the industrializing period, maybe, NY and Chicago briefly had the kind of polar identities between which you could hang a national literature. Maybe. Mostly, though, you way overestimate Chicago, I think, not only because its literary produce is dwarfed by NY (without Bellow, Chicago is just another city smaller than NY--plus some of the best Bellow is set in NY, which makes you see that all of it really could have been set there with minimal loss of flavor), and also in terms of its capacity to generate metaphor. In the metaphorical realm, no American city comes close to NY. It is a black hole that swallows all literary references to American cities.

So it's urban/suburban vs. wilderness (rather than city vs. country). Wildernesses of water are obviously foundational (Melville, Twain). Faulkner writes about a society that can only have been crafted against a backdrop of wilderness. Same could be said of Hawthorne, maybe. (Do Emerson and Thoreau count?) Cather, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. Lolita? The laughable town versus the beautiful wasteland where all is permitted. Pop Westerns, obviously. The noir novels of Cain and Hammett and Chandler are a vision of the city as wilderness, a uniquely American terror, and despite the default LA setting, they can be set anywhere, as the movies show, if you just get the lighting right.

Andrew Seal said...

LML,
I definitely agree that the Chicago and New York were most dominant as a pair during the industrializing or modernizing period, but I don't think the period was that brief--at least in terms of its cultural impact. I'd call it something like between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of WWII--which is about 75 years.

And then we're just at the cusp of Bellow's work, which I think is more Chicagoan than you're allowing for--I mean, really only Mr. Sammler's Planet and The Victim are New York stories exclusively, and Chicago isn't just a setting or container for the plots in the others.

LML said...

Isn't Herzog mostly NY and the Berkshires? Maybe I'm misremembering, which is sort of my point--in most of the books it doesn't really matter which city it is, only that it has that industrial-period mix of European immigrants and some intellectual culture. Seize the Day like The Victim is straight NY, and could only have been NY. Sammler shows him unfortunately trying to generalize about "the decline of American culture," and his choice of setting is NY. To me the only book in which Chicago has a presence that is unmistakable for any other city is Augie March, which I grant you is a big one. Maybe I've missed a bunch of books somewhere, but Augie seems like the one and only "great Chicago novel" in existence. Faulkner's tiny little Mississippi town beats that by at least one book, and New York--hell, start with James and Wharton and just move through the non-Southern major American writers...

Andrew Seal said...

Herzog is mostly NY and the Berkshires, but Chicago's where Moses is from, and it matters. And the University of Chicago is definitely a Chicago university, not a generic cosmopolitan university, so Ravelstein and The Dean's December are very significantly about Chicago. More Die of Heartbreak, which isn't his best is also very self-consciously about Chicago as a place, and Humboldt's Gift features a Chicago gangster who would be very different (I think) if he were from someplace else. Dangling Man--the geography of Chicago shapes the plot fairly strategically, I think. Henderson--obviously it's mostly Africa; to be honest, I can't remember whether Eugene comes from Chicago or not, but I think he does. Even Seize the Day, while it is set in New York, is (in part, obviously) about trading on the Chicago futures market, an institution which is extremely Chicagoan.

I'm guessing you don't consider any of Dreiser's works to be great novels? Or Man with the Golden Arm? Nobody reads James T. Farrell anymore, but in his day... And The Jungle? And the aforementioned The Pit? Aleksandar Hemon's a favorite of mine, but I do feel pretty comfortable putting him up against anyone writing today. I haven't read it, but Then We Came to the End is supposed to be pretty good.

And then there's Native Son. Even if none of the above strike you as truly great novels, I would think Native Son might.

LML said...

Point taken on Bellow, I guess, but still, I lean toward a belief that Chicago was more important to his self-conception than to the work itself, which is usually (though not in Augie March) way more about mind and language than about place. Native Son is an important novel, definitely. I haven't read Sister Carrie. Man with the Golden Arm I couldn't get through...I like Hemon as well as anybody writing at the moment, for sure. But. NY is at least this: Whitman, some of Melville, James, some of Crane, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Ellison, Baldwin, Salinger, Singer, O'Hara, Lovecraft, Moore, some of Bellow, some of Roth (all if we're talking metro area), Malamud, Cheever, Yates, Albee, Beats, NY school poets, Barthelme, some of Pynchon, Paley, DeLillo, Hempel, Davis, Shawn...I'm probably missing dozens.

Andrew Seal said...

I definitely have no argument with you about New York: it's unparalleled, no doubt about it. I just want to assert that Chicago merits the title Second City. It may not be a balanced polarity, but it's not a unipolar system, I think.

Jonathan said...

I suppose what puzzles me as I think about this post, is why Chicago? Bellow's influence and talent are undeniable, yet, like LML above, if I remove him from your equation, the case for Chicago seems marginal.

In the second paragraph of the original post you wrote "Sorry, the South". I'd suggest there's a much stronger case to be made for the South being the second "city" of American fiction? Faulkner, O'Connor, Welty, Percy, Tenessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, McCullers, Toole, Peter Taylor and many more.

Bellow's Chicago is undoubtedly influential, and your alternate Chicago novels are good books, but if you measure Sinclair, Dreiser, Algren and Farrell against the writers from the South, Chicago is more of a third city.

There indeed may be a Chicago-New York opposition at play, but I'm not convinced it's literary. I'd be interested in how less-urban Midwestern fiction fits into your literary geography. I'm thinking here of Marilynne Robinson, J.F. Powers, William Maxwell and John E. Williams.

An interesting post.

Regards,

Andrew Seal said...

Jonathan,
if you measure Sinclair, Dreiser, Algren and Farrell against the writers from the South, Chicago is more of a third city.

I guess what I'd say (and this isn't really that fair since I kind of asked for this reading of my post) is that for me it's not so much about which region or city has the best "lineup" or roster of writers (and maybe that's not what you're saying), but more about how U.S. literature has organized itself. I think the primary axis has been an East-West one, and Chicago was, and for many writers still is, the actual endpoint of that axis.

I'd be interested in how less-urban Midwestern fiction fits into your literary geography.

I'm very interested in that too! It's not something I have really articulated to myself yet. I mean, looking at, for instance Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home. Chicago comes up a total of 4 times (5 if you count a stray reference to the Cubs) across the two books, while I think St. Louis comes up something like 25 times. Again, it's not so much that I want to try to put everyone on one (and only one) city's team, but I do think that this quantitative data is important. What this kind of data means for constructing a literary geography, I have yet to nail down.

Partly, this post came from the fact that I had just read William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, which I cited in the footnote about the Great West. He uses a geographical idea called central place theory which understands geography through hierarchical relationships of places. That's a bad synopsis of a complex methodology, but his argument in using it is that we understand the (Great) West the best by understanding the role of Chicago in shaping its economic development. I am very interested in doing something similar with literature, but in order to do that, I think I first have to come up with a way of understanding how a Chicago-New York axis functions, and why that axis seems to be the dominant E-W relationship for so long, and still persists as the dominant relationship in interesting ways.

That's a really verbose answer to your comment, but I hope it explains a little better what I was thinking about here.