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The city's 'Americanness' has been disputed throughout US history. Pronounced dead in the late twentieth century, cities have enjoyed a renaissance in the twenty-first. Engaging the history of urban promise and struggle as represented in literature, film, and visual arts, and drawing on work in the social sciences, The City in American Literature and Culture examines the large and local forces that shape urban space and city life and the street-level activity that remakes culture and identities as it contests injustice and separation. The first two sections examine a range of city spaces and lives; the final section brings the city into conversation with Marxist geography, critical race studies, trauma theory, slow/systemic violence, security theory, posthumanism, and critical regionalism, with a coda on city literature and democracy.
This chapter asks what American literature can teach us about democracy as a political practice premised on disagreement and as an ethical orientation toward others. It contends that many literary texts and much literary criticism concerned with politics seeks to get “beyond” politics to a hoped-for state of “the people’s” solidarity and turns instead to texts that try to imagine the what the work of democratic engagement looks like and the capacities it requires.
To set the context for the chapters to come, this introduction focuses on two items. First, it discusses the arc from postwar urban crisis and predictions of the posturban future that ran through the 1990s to the city’s apparent resurgence and the cultural and political backlash that are the volume’s occasion. It then turns to the antiurban theme that persisted in American literary history and American Studies through much of the twentieth century to remind us that disdain for the city, as site and symbol of modernity, has a history across the political spectrum.