Realism and the “Abracadabrant” Word:  Literary Productions of Lower Manhattan a doctoral seminar developed and taught by Jennifer Scappettone at the University of Chicago, Fall 2007

“He doesn’t know, he can’t say, before the facts, and he doesn’t even want to know or to say; the facts themselves loom, before the understanding, in too large a mass for a mere mouthful:  it is as if the syllables were too numerous to make a legible word.  The illegible word, accordingly, the great inscrutable answer to questions, hangs in the vast American sky, to his imagination, as something fantastic and abracadabrant, belonging to no known language, and it is under this convenient ensign that he travels and considers and contemplates….” —Henry James, “The Effect of the Infusion,” from The American Scene

His way ain't so tough 'n he can't speak form above mm . . .

'n' wid proper rational understandin'  …  —Louis Zukofsky, “A foin lass bodders,” after Pound’s translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s 13th-century “Donna mi prega”

This course will sound the limits, permissions, and implosion of realist strains in American experimental literature through a genealogy of writing surrounding Lower Manhattan—an area defined by the contrast between federal and financial power on the one hand, and the evolution of the US’s densest immigrant neighborhood into a countercultural (now turning boutique-city) mecca on the other.  Reading through the objectives of both tourists and inhabitants, we will consider texts as inventors, not merely representations, of urban textures.  We will begin and end in the zone’s—and the global future’s—epicenter of power, on Wall Street, in order to grasp the stakes of its inversion by the underground and to sound the reciprocal interference of work and leisure, fortune and emiseration within the metropolis.  We will then turn to the (Lower) East Side—a magnet for millions of workers, black and white, and for Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, and Jewish immigrants over the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In reading the neighborhoods surrounding the Bowery, we will ponder Henry James’s sense of the illegibility of the American amalgamation witnessed downtown:  “something fantastic and abracadabrant, belonging to no known language.”  We will then ask what new languages and forms were enabled by the tenement environment’s compression of ethnic and linguistic traditions—taking Louis Zukofsky’s polylingual lyrics and homophonic translations as a key example.  We will move from modernist strains of the Lower East Side’s depiction through an explosion of post-war artistic activity in the neighborhood, asking how its unparalleled collision of Englishes may be linked to experiments in orality and literacy typical of the New York School or the polylingual, performance, sound, and spoken word poetry of arenas such as the St Mark’s Poetry Project and the Nuyorican Poets Café.  We may close with questions surrounding this region’s transmogrification following the devastation of September 11 and/or the breakneck gentrification of Soho and the Lower East Side.

Books available at Seminary Co-op:

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (recommended)

Herman Melville, Melville’s Short Novels (Norton Critical Editions)

Stephen Crane, Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets, & other New York Writings; Intro. by Luc Sante

(Modern Library)

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (with 100 photographs, Dover)

John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (Mariner)

Henry Roth, Call it Sleep (FSG)

Louis Zukofsky, Selected Poems (Penguin)

Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci, ed., 0 to 9 (Ugly Duckling)—you may want to share this as it’s costly

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (Scribner)

Alice Notley, Descent of Alette (Penguin) (recommended)

Edwin Torres, The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker (Roof/Segue)

Other materials are on e-reserve (denoted by (e) on syllabus); some suggested supplementary readings are on reserve.  The reserve list as well as Chalk will be evolving based on participant interests.


Research paper of about 20 pages, due the last day of finals.  *Those who wish to fulfill the “substantial paper requirement” can easily do so, but must write at least 25 pages.*

20-minute oral presentation applying outside/reserve material to the core readings (see supplementary readings for suggestions)

Brief (5-10-minute) oral “site report,” aimed at understanding the dynamism of inter-arts relations in the neighborhoods.   Examples:  in performance:  Yiddish theater; Bowery theater; Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater; Rent (the Broadway show); Yippees.  In the visual arts:  exhibitions and “Happenings,” The Store;  Joe Brainard, collaborations with John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, and other poets; Gordon Matta-Clark, selected NYC projects.  In music:  No New York; CBGB’s; Tzadik.  In film:  nickelodeons; Ken Jacobs, East Side films.  In dance:  Judson Dance Theater.

Drafted list of readings (subject to revision based on class interests):

9/25  Week 1:  Introduction:  Crossings

Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856, rev. 1881)

Louis Zukofsky, 55 Poems, #s 4-6 (1923-25)

Meredith Monk, Ellis Island (1981)

10/2  Week 2:  Wall/Street:  Power and Subversion in Lower Manhattan

Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) and “The Stranger” (1908) (e)

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (e; also a recommended title)

Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener:  A Story of Wall-Street (1853), plus Leo Marx, “Melville’s Parable of the Walls,” and Elizabeth Hardwick, from “Bartleby in Manhattan,” from Norton Critical Edition

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981-1989) (images on documents tab of Chalk)

Richard Serra “Tilted Arc Destroyed” (e)

Rosalyn Deutsche, “Tilted Arc and the Uses of Democracy” and “Agoraphobia” from Evictions:  Art and Spatial Politics (e)

Supplementary reading:

Additional essays on Tilted Arc controversy (e)

Robbins and Fraser essays in Bruce Robbins, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere (e)

Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere:  An Encyclopedia Article” (e); “The Social-Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere(e)

10/9  Week 3: Tenement Taxonomies

Presenting:  Jim (Poe); on-site:  Colleen

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, with photographs (1890)

Lola Ridge, The Ghetto (1918) (on documents tab of Chalk)

Luc Sante, selections from Low Life (1991) (e)

Weegee, photos of Lower East Side (on documents tab of Chalk and on reserve)

Supplementary reading:

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Man of the Crowd" (1840) (e)

Rem Koolhaas, selections from Delirious New York (1978) (e)

Luc Sante, Evidence (1992)

10/16  Week 4:  Naturalism, Realism, & the Abracadabrant Word

Presenting:  Alyse; on-site:  Jim (the Bowery)

Stephen Crane, Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets (1893)

Henry James, “New York Revisited,” “New York and The Hudson: A Spring Impression,” “New York: Social Notes,” “The Bowery and Thereabouts” from The American Scene (1907), pp. 352-527 (e)

Henry James, Preface to The American (Documents tab of Chalk)

Sherman and Proust essays from Documents of Modern Literary Realism (e)

Supplementary reading:

John Berryman, Stephen Crane:  A Critical Biography

Henry James, The Art of Fiction

10/23  Week 5:  Modernist Transliteration

Presenting:  Colleen; on-site:  Darrel

John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (1925)

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” (e)

Supplementary reading:

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism:  Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature

10/30  Week 6:  Call it English

Presenting:  Chris; on-site:  Will

Henry Roth, Call it Sleep (1934), plus Kazin introduction and Wirth-Nesher afterword

Shelley Hirsch, O Little Town of East New York (Tzadik, Radical Jewish Culture Series, 1995) (reserve)

Supplementary reading:

Ania Yezierska, selected works

Harshav, eds., American Yiddish Poetry

Hana Wirth-Nesher, Call it English

Elias Canetti, The Tongue Set Free

11/6  Week 7:  Upper Limit Music, Lower Limit Speech

Presenting:  Darrell; on-site:  Jennifer

Louis Zukofsky, Selected Poems, plus entirety of 55 Poems (1923-25) (e), foreword, prefatory note, “An Objective,” “A Statement for Poetry,” from Prepositions + (e); and Ferdinand (1968) (e)

Deleuze and Guattari, “What is a Minor Literature?” (e)

Supplementary reading:

David Wray on Zukofsky’s Catullus, from Chicago Review (e)

11/13  Week 8: New York School(s)

Presenting:  Jennifer; on-site:  Alyse

New York School section from The New American Poetry: Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Guest, Jones, plus PennSound Baraka readings on Documents tab of Chalk

Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer, eds., 0 to 9

Michel De Certeau, “Walking in the City” from The Practice of Everyday Life (e)

Supplementary reading:

Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome

Stephen Clay and Rodney Philips, ed., A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, New York School section (e)

Anne Waldman and Lewish Warsh, ed., The Angel Hair Anthology

Jackson Mac Low, The Pronouns, with Meredith Monk

Alice Notley, Descent of Alette; Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets; & other 2nd-generation New York School poets

11/20  Week 9:  East Village Others

Presenting:  William; on-site:  Chris

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

Edwin Torres, The All-Union Day of the Shock Worker (2002)

Supplementary reading:

Selected issues, The East Village Other (cofounded 1965-1972)

Bob Holman, ed., Aloud:  Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café

11/27  Week 10:  Cross-Conclusions:  Abracadabrant Mini-Conference

Various, anonymous, Here is New York (photographs, on reserve)