James Baltrum

Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

DeRosa, Deborah C.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of English


Melville; Herman; 1819-1891--Criticism and interpretation; Crane; Stephen; 1871-1900--Criticism and interpretation; Wharton; Edith; 1862-1937--Criticism and interpretation; Dos Passos; John; 1896-1970--Criticism and interpretation; McKay; Claude; 1890-1948--Criticism and interpretation; City and town life in literature; American literature; Comparative literature; New York (N.Y.)--In literature


This dissertation characterizes the historical changes that shaped nineteenth and twentieth century New York City by examining how Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos, and Claude McKay expressed these changes in their literary works. I employ the ideological principles of scholars such as Henri Lefebvre, who viewed physical spaces including the modern city as socially constructed products, and the methodology of writers such as Michel Foucault, whose genealogical approach prompts an open-ended and multi-faceted analysis. Consequently, my argument shows how various economic, social, cultural, political, and technological developments worked with and against each other to shape (and reshape) people's perceptions of New York City and how particular writers have work such perceptions into their literature. Starting in the 1850s with the American Renaissance and concluding in the late 1920s with the emergence of Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, my dissertation focuses on Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1856), Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and George's Mother (1896), Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925) and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928). I focus on how the developments in the city influenced these authors to continually re-conceive New York City's commercial and domestic social spaces from the 1850s through the 1920s. Likewise, each texts illustrates how certain historical developments produced counter-cultural currents of resistance against hegemonic authorities in each author's given era.||My research reveals that these literary representations demonstrate just how fluid New York City's identity has always been. Much of the ebb and flow of the city's identity has been due to the contentious and volatile nature of the social struggles the city has been home to throughout its history. Some of the notable developments within the scope of my analysis, starting with Melville, include the labor and real estate contests of the antebellum 1850s as well as the solidification of Wall Street as the city's financial and commercial center, resulting in de-domestication of the neighborhood and northward migration of many of its residents. In Crane's texts, the Progressive reformers and the swelling immigrant populations of the 1890s swallowed up the city while waging combative cultural conflicts over standards and separations of gender identities and gendered spaces such the home, the workplace, public places of entertainment and culture---the saloon, stage hall, and museum. The House of Mirth tracks the emerging status-seeking affluence of the leisure class mentality following the turn of the twentieth century. In doing so, Wharton explores how the inverted private-to-public utilization of the family home and dual subjective-objectified nature of the leisure-class woman played into the redefinition of New York society. Other developments, as Dos Passos illustrates, include the rise of the city's skyscraper-dominant skyline and the city's proliferating advertising culture as well as the desensitizing and mechanizing effect they had on New York City's citizens. McKay's Home to Harlem charts the hopeful but all-too-human influences that the returning and largely marginalized African-American soldier had on the racial sanctuary of Harlem. McKay's novel also demonstrates the repercussions that the city's loosening mores and opening economic opportunities had on gender identities as well as hetero-social and homo-social relationships. From Melville to McKay, these authors shed critical and unique light on New York City's multiple faces and facets.


Advisors: Deborah De Rosa.||Committee members: James Giles; Mark Van Weinen.


240 pages




Northern Illinois University

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