When the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) announced that they would both be hosting their 2019 conferences in the capital of the Midwest, Chicago, during always balmy January, it was not surprising. The two often overlap, particularly in the convention-friendly Windy City. However, what did create shouts of joy was the decision by both organizations to honor the other’s registration. In other words, historians attending the AHA could abscond to the MLA to hear their more literary-minded peers debate similar topics, themes, and historical moments and vice versa.
In celebration, some scholars referenced the obscure but deeply influential hip-hop group, Das Racist:
A few–okay, at least one–pointed to Law and Order-like crossovers:
Others clung to past affiliations while looking to the promise of new ones:
Editors cried out for writers:
Others simply drew upon their sartorial leanings to express their euphoria:
The larger point here is that the two fields, though often siloed by academia and, perhaps, professionalization have long been in dialogue. As a young, impressionable undergrad I still remember eminent historian and literary scholar Rashid Khalidi incredulously asking our class (and I’m paraphrasing), “Wait, you people aren’t reading fiction? It’s one of the best ways to learn history.” That comment stuck. During my commute to work over nearly ten years teaching public high school in NYC, I devoured fiction on the subway on the regular. So it goes to say that historians and literary scholars have a lot to learn from one another, hence the reason for this blog’s “Fiction and the City” month, in which historians deployed their knowledge of fiction to explore urban history around the globe.
Though The Metropole published Fiction and the City in February 2018, it remains an ongoing pursuit. With the year coming to a close, The Metropole‘s editors have rounded up all those who provided contributions. Below you’ll discover links and descriptions for each.
“Welcome to Fiction and the City” – The Metropole
A general overview of our historical and literary purposes; it’s short and sweet, including the Kevin Kruse twitter thread on writing.
“Mickey Spillane’s Hell of a Town” – Brian Tochterman
“Spillane’s representation of a city in the throes of crisis may have been a stand-in for the atomic anxieties of the immediate postwar era,” writes Northland College professor Tochterman, “but it was also quite prophetic about the discourse of cities like New York in the not too distant future.” In many ways, Spillane’s problematic view of NYC served as a harbinger of things to come, a point which the writer explores through Spillane’s work, the history of domestic America during the Cold War, and New York City’s always unstable place in U.S. culture.
“The Urbanization of Chinese Fiction” – Kristin Stapleton
Outgoing UHA board member, University of Buffalo historian, and general Chinese literary enthusiast Kristin Stapleton takes readers through a tour of urbanity in Chinese literature. In particular, Stapleton notes fictional discourse about Chinese cities remains a relatively new development, yet serves as an indicator of great change underfoot in the East Asian power. “Much of the popular fiction of the last forty years reflects the fast-paced new culture of China’s megacities,” notes Stapleton.
Crabgrass Science: Failed Suburbs in Science Fiction – Carl Abbott
The former editor of Pacific Historical Review and Portland State Professor knows more than a bit about history and popular culture. As discussed at this past year’s UHA conference in Columbia, the Rose City resident has been working for several years with artists and others producing comic books about Portland’s urban history. Therefore, this Mike Davis/Eric Avila-like piece on the suburbs in science fiction speaks to old and new depictions of suburbia all while adjusting for issues of race, gender, and class over recent decades. “If science fiction suburbs are usually troubled and dangerous places,” notes Abbott “it’s in part because popular discourse about suburbia has been equally negative—from aesthetic and moral censure in the 1950s to critiques of suburban isolation in the 1980s and the trope of ‘slumburbia’ in the present century.”
“The View from 71st and Jeffrey”– Carl Rotello
Boston University American Studies chair Carl Rotello opens one of The Metropole’s most literary posts rather simply: “The best spot for ectoplasmic people-watching in South Shore is the raised wooden platform of the Bryn Mawr Metra station at 71st and Jeffery.” From there he cleverly uses the Metra stop as a means for evaluating local histories, known and lost, and the people and communities who populated them. “From the platform you can catch glimpses of the converging ghosts, and the lost cities they represent, that move among the current-day hangers-out on the corners, commuters waiting for buses or trains, and local residents running errands at the neighborhood’s principal intersection.”
Few genres elicit the kind of responses that satire does. When Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” some people truly believed he advocated eating Irish babies. Yet even amidst such confusion, it remains hard to deny the power of satire as means for resistance to prevailing political, social, or economic trends. University of Pennsylvania PhD candidate Kelsey Rice explores the work of Uzeyir Hajibeyov, a writer who arrived in booming turn-of-the-century Baku, a city one historian describes thusly: “It was as if the industry of Pittsburgh and the frontier lawlessness of Dodge City had been superimposed on Baghdad.” According to Rice, Hajibevov created some of the first operettas to engage Baku urbanity, as the city’s demographics, economy, and politics shifted. The operetta If Not That One, Then This One, “one of Hajibeyov’s most popular, grappled with the social challenges and violence presented by urbanization through a combination of biting satire and catchy tunes.”
“Race, Sexuality, and Noir in Chester Himes’ Wartime Los Angeles” – The Metropole
Today the works of Walter Mosely – Devil in a Blue Dress and Fearless Jones among several others – stand as testament to the power of noir fiction when retreating from the kind of mid-century tropes of the genre that regrettably equated blackness with dark corners of the changing postwar metropolis. However, the lesser-known Chester Himes contributed mightily to the Walter Mosely’s of the future when he penned If Hollers, Let Him Go in the 1940s. “Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality,” notes The Metropole, “all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.”
“Romance Novellas and the Post African City” – Emily Callaci
Recipient of the Urban History Association’s Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Scholarly Article on Urban History, University of Wisconsin historian Emily Callaci explores the role of popular romance novels in the 1970s postcolonial city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Featuring male protagonists styled in the fashion of Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley and Bruce Lee, such characters and the stories they offer up function “as an unintended archive of the emotional lives of Dar es Salaam’s young men in the mid-1970s through 1980s, the final decade of Tanzania’s socialist experiment,” writes Callaci. Of course, the novels do more than simply chart the paths of fictional lotharios across the city; they also speak to the tensions at the heart of a city escaping colonialism while mapping its own course toward the future.
“Children’s Fiction in the City” – Avigail Oren, Kevin Seal, Melanie Newport and other #Twitterstorians
The Metropole co-editor Avigail Oren, Pittsburgh educator Kevin Seal, and University of Connecticut historian Melanie Newport present a compendium of children’s works that engage urban life, including Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, When the Beat was Born by Laban Carrick Hill, Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street, and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia among many, many others. Oren, Seal and Newport break down individual works and discuss the importance of “fiction and the city” for both young readers and adults.
Perhaps it’s no secret that at least of one of The Metropole’s editors has a possibly unhealthy obsession with the work of Joan Didion. Still, the famed California writer continues to produce interesting and compelling works well into her 80s. In this piece, The Metropole examines how her first work of fiction explores the state of burgeoning post-World War II Sacramento and Didion’s own blindspots in regard to race and class. Though part of our April Metro of the Month on Sacramento, it neatly fits into Fiction and the City as well.