Edward J. Ahearn, Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science, 1848-2001

Edward J. Ahearn, Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science, 1848-2001: European Contexts, American Evolutions (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), ix+236 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978- 0754668824.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Aside from its invocation of two critical and violent years, the title of this book is not enticing, yet what lies beyond is far from drab. Its author makes his case scrupulously but urgently. His urban confrontations happen in Paris, Chicago, and New York, between poor and wealthy, men and women, immigrants and local people; they happen, too, in debates about urban policy in city halls and academic spaces; with its juxtapositions of literary texts – poems, plays, novels – with social theory and research, they also happen in this book. The works he scrutinises are, according to his final words, ‘crucial, deathly pertinent to all of us now’ (203). Several of them are indeed contemporary: Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. At the other end of the temporal spread we have the prose poems of Baudelaire, and (several decades later) Durkheim’s Suicide, and Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’. Since Ahearn combines an awareness of historical change with an equally acute sense of continuity, he is able to see these earlier writers as enduringly pertinent.

Whether or not we live in one of them, events in major cities (financial transactions, political turbulence, cultural fusions and metamorphoses) affect us all, and thus the pertinence of Ahearn’s topic. Beyond this general appeal, is there any special pertinence to those who visit the BSLS website? I would argue that there is. Ahearn’s examination of city planning in the mid twentieth century, for instance, pays considerable attention to the formidable Robert Moses, whose power owed as much to his understanding of technology and design as to his ruthless manipulation of New York politics. In the context of studying literature and science, moreover, the fences between social and physical sciences are (and need to be) full of gaps. To read the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin, we acknowledge the significance of anthropology, and when we consider fin-de-siècle literature, we enter the domain of such fence-straddlers as Nordau, Lombroso and Le Bon. The fences themselves are often moved; what seemed rigorous then can sometimes look today like a priori bigotry. Ahearn cites the work of Robert Park, one of the founders of the Chicago School of urban sociology. Park’s essay ‘The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment’ (1915) reveals a ‘vehemently condemnatory attitude’ towards ‘racial mixing, sexual deviancy and inbreeding’ that takes him far from ‘objective science’ (25).

Yet fairmindedness is among this book’s many virtues. In the sociological study of race, immigration, marginality and human ecology, Park was one of the great initiators, and Ahearn recognises that despite the ‘phobic tone’ (24) of this essay, Park’s comments on machine politics and publicity retain their value. For Ahearn, the sociological scholarship of the past is not simply a horror show of deplorable prejudices but a complex engagement with complex issues by often brilliant but fallible people with all too tightly focused imaginations. In the same spirit he acknowledges the aesthetic qualities of Robert Moses’s parkways along with his fetishisation of the automobile, and his ‘idealistic vision of New York as the dazzling center of civilization and culture that it undoubtedly is’ (146) along with his far from benign neglect of areas such as Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Hell’s Kitchen.

When Ahearn reads literary texts, honesty and generosity are again at work. Rather than look severely down on fictional characters who are less than perfect, he hints that few of us have tickets for the moral grandstand; talking of Melville’s story, he asks: ‘Again, would we have done more than—nay, even remotely as much as—the lawyer, to save Bartleby?’ (133). Several of his authors, notably Baudelaire and Brecht, have attracted the kind of ‘harsh and /or schematic’ (28) commentary on life and works that points towards the academic pillory. Ahearn gives due weight to the rebarbative personae of Baudelaire’s prose poems, to their cruelty, exoticism and misogyny, without assuming that voice and vision are the same. He is not the only sympathetic critic to have done so, but as his readings of ‘Le mauvais vitrier’ (‘The Bad Glazier’), ‘Les yeux des pauvres’ (The Eyes of the Poor’) and ‘Assommons les pauvres’ (‘Let’s Bash the Poor’) demonstrate, he is both an exceptionally sensitive close reader and an accomplished historiciser. Baudelaire’s Paris is a city in transition from the old, smoggy labyrinth to the new, rationalised (and thus both healthier and more governable) metropolis desired by the new Emperor and implemented by Haussmann, the Robert Moses of his time and place.

One of the finest chapters covers Brecht’s early play Im Dickicht der Städte (In City Jungles). The setting is Chicago, and Brecht himself described its plot as ‘an  inexplicable wrestling match’ (50). The action is provocative, violent, excessive, marked by the perverse behaviour of characters who do not in the least conform to the economic model of rational self-interest. The play’s depiction of ‘the modern American city as the site of poverty, racial conflict among immigrant groups, the dissolution of familial, sexual and religious bonds’ (60) shows in particular what the sociologists presented in more general terms, and goes beyond them, staging homosexual desire, and presenting racial bigotry as a malign factor in the lives of Asians as well as African Americans. It ‘surpasses the insights and reach of mainstream social science. So much in the play is astonishing, in excess, more profoundly disturbing, more terribly revealing’ (64).

Ahearn does not imply that his literary authors started with the sociologists and then improved upon them. He credits Brecht with an awareness of the extremes of recent US history—of Chinese exclusion in California and recent ‘riots’ in Chicago and East St Louis that amounted to pogroms directed at African-Americans—rather than a specific knowledge of what the sociologists were doing to document the injustice of quotidian life. Elsewhere, he implies that Morison’s Jazz gives a thick description  (to crib a phrase from the anthropologists) of the very parts of New York that Moses didn’t want to know about. He also suggests that, among many other aspects of The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros exposes the realities of immigrant life in Chicago under the control of the Daley family. What these narratives share is the insistence on untold or unheard stories, whether extraordinary or in some way representative. They may display a ‘convergence’ between literature and the social sciences or ‘premonitory insight’, or, citing ‘Bartleby’ again, they may ask ‘“Do you not see?”’ (6). Largely on the grounds that they have different agendas and operate in different modes, Ahearn refuses to claim that literary understanding is superior to the scientific kind. Invoking the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky (himself a forerunner of Brecht), he accepts the argument that literature defamiliarises routine experience, but goes on to observe that ‘many works of social science also surprise us into new kinds of insight’ (2). Nevertheless, he provides plenty of examples where the literary observation leads rather than follows.

Here is another way in which this admirable book may speak to our particular audience. In the study of literature and science, we may sometimes be too apt to assume that literature is always a reaction or response to what Darko Suvin calls the Novum, the current state of theory and praxis. Sometimes the poem, or the story, or the drama has priority—and not only in science fiction.

By calling, Ahearn is a comparatist, and this is a fine example of what comparative literature can achieve. According to a more traditional understanding of the field, he pursues ideas and tropes across literary and linguistic boundaries: thus he gives us the New Yorks of Melville, Morison, and DeLillo, and several Chicagos, as seen by Brecht, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Sandra Cisneros; in turn, he contrasts Cisneros’ chicana vision of Chicago with the San Francisco Chinatown of Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone. According to contemporary practice, he also attends to what comparatists call ‘literature and’. In this way, he treats different modes of understanding, not in the spirit of competition or triumphalism, but alert to the possibilities of each mode. The scope of comparative work is extraordinarily wide, and much depends on what the scholar chooses from an ocean of possibilities. In every respect, Ahearn has chosen well.

Laurence Davies, University of Glasgow