Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture

Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture

Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture

Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture

Synopsis

Urban Underworlds is an exploration of city spaces, pathologized identities, lurid fears, and American literature. Surveying the 1890s to the 1990s, Thomas Heise chronicles how and why marginalized populations immigrant Americans in the Lower East Side, gays and lesbians in Greenwich Village and downtown Los Angeles, the black underclass in Harlem and Chicago, and the new urban poor dispersed across American cities have been selectively targeted as "urban underworlds" and their neighborhoods characterized as miasmas of disease and moral ruin.

The quarantining of minority cultures helped to promote white, middle-class privilege. Following a diverse array of literary figures who differ with the assessment of the underworld as the space of the monstrous Other, Heise contends that it is a place where besieged and neglected communities are actively trying to take possession of their own neighborhoods.

Excerpt

“On the morning of June 18 last, New York was horrified by the discovery of the body of a murdered girl hidden in a trunk in a Chinese waiter’s room over a chop suey restaurant in Eighth Avenue. Within a couple of hours, detectives and newspaper men had established the girl’s identity, and the news of the crime went ringing to the ends of the world.” So began William Meloney’s 1909 sensational exposé “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown: A Glimpse into the Sordid Underworld of the Mott Street Quarter, Where Elsie Sigel Formed Her Fatal Associations.” Meloney’s report had all of the ingredients of a lurid scandal and a cautionary tale: murder, the seduction and corruption of innocence, opium addiction, an exotic locale, and an interracial love affair gone horribly wrong between a working-class, Chinese immigrant and a white, uptown “nineteen-year-old Sunday-school teacher” who was “a granddaughter of [a] famous Civil War general” (229). What began as a well-intended, if naïve “obsession to save ‘heathen souls’” ended with chloroform and “death with a cord” wrapped tight by the “yellow fingers” of Leung Lim (229, 230). If anything positive resulted from the Sigel murder case, it was the validation of the quick work of the police and of newspaper men, like Meloney himself, who sounded the alarm about the fatal attractions lurking in New York’s “sordid underworld” of immigrants (229).

Elsie Sigel’s murder may have been the occasion for William Meloney’s report for Munsey’s Magazine, but the scope of the article was wider and deeper. When Meloney returned to the scene of the crime, he did so not to search for clues to Lim’s motives, but to map firsthand . . .

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