Bad housing: spatial justice and the home in twentieth-century American literature
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Realist depictions of bad housing are pervasive in the canon of twentieth-century American literature. Insufficient abodes crisscross the literary map of the United States, appearing regularly in settings from New York to Los Angeles and from Alaska to Florida. This dissertation examines three case studies that themselves crisscross the map, and represent the diverse contexts of this common thematic concern. Anzia Yezierska writes of the deplorable housing in New York’s East Side tenements, Richard Wright tells of life in South Side Chicago’s kitchenettes, and N. Scott Momaday depicts dark and cold apartments in Los Angeles as well as emptying homes on the reservation. What is shared by all three writers is their use of realism to depict abject housing, their clear engagement with public discourses about living spaces, and the way their works expose the production of space by social, economic, and legislative factors. All three published works that were widely received by the reading public and thereby contributed to the discourses in powerful and surprising ways. All three literary authors of this dissertation register a sense of space that is produced by power. Yezierska, Wright, and Momaday provide fictional, narrative modes of engagement that employ a particularly material-spatial register to depict spatial injustice. In order to read the production of space in these texts, I draw on the work of the theorists Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and Edward Soja to help explain the wider circumstances causing disenfranchisement, exploitation, and disempowerment that all three authors investigate. What is at stake here is a more complete picture of social crisis. By illustrating how bad housing is a result of political, economic, and social powers rather than the result of an individual’s laziness or lack of character, Yezierska, Wright, and Momaday add another perspective to prominent social discourses about housing in the twentieth century. The literary houses they depict uncover a history of systematic inequality in which prevalent national attitudes led to policy that put lower-classes and minority populations in bad housing and consequently foreclosed their potential to partake in the supposed full possibilities of citizenship.