"Urban Cultures of/in the United States: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Andrea Carosso" – Review by Irén Annus
Irén Annus is Associate Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail:
Urban Cultures of/in the United States: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
Edited by Andrea Carosso
Bern, Peter Lang, 2010
Paperback, 183 pages, Euro 35.40
This volume is a collection of seven articles written by scholars who participated in the World-Wide Style (WWS) Project at the University of Torino in 2008-2009. In the project, they were engaged in investigating the American urban scene, and this book is the outcome of their collaborative efforts. The thematic arrangement of the studies in the volume reflects the variety of disciplines these scholars represent, from cultural and social history through literary criticism to religious studies. The end result of their work is a truly interdisciplinary collection, covering a unique selection of topics, approaching them from a variety of theoretical positions and applying a wide range of methods.
In the first study, Danuta Romaniuk visits memoirs and pieces of autobiographical fiction written by Jewish American women of Polish origin between 1890 and 1939. The author examines the complex ways in which ethnic food played a vital role in defining various segments of identity, including ethnicity, religion, gender, and class. Romaniuk concludes that changes in culinary practices signified changes in identity constructions and that they thus reflect the success of assimilation processes and upward mobility among the Jewish immigrants and their children in their new homes in the American city.
Luigi Stefanizzi offers readers a closer reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings, arguing that in his The Philadelphia Negro and “Talented Tenth,” Du Bois in fact reiterates a form of determinism so popular in the common imagination of his age. Stefanizzi demonstrates that Du Bois managed to overcome biological – thus also racial – determinism and replaced it with cultural determinism. He argues that, in order to transcend racist discourses of his age, Du Bois employed the dominant discourse of eugenics characteristic of contemporary upper- and middle-class white America, through which he successfully advocated the possible achievement of upward mobility for the black race through education and morality, under the active leadership of a “black intellectual aristocracy” (p. 59).
Bahar Gursel presents a contrastive analysis of two world expositions: the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the International Exposition of Turin in 1911. By carefully guiding readers through these expositions and pointing out similarities as well as differences between them, Gursel demonstrates the complexities through which both international events provided a site for both host and participant states to present an idealized image of themselves, thus emphasizing their own perceived greatness and unity and encompassing their national drives to take their place in the economic power structure and cultural hegemony of the contemporary world order.
Carmen Concolio leads readers to the present-day literary scene in the fourth essay in which she maps Indian migrants’ experiences in New York City through two novels – both re-writings of previous fiction: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006). Through the study of literary and narratological strategies applied and the cultural context embraced in these novels – into which she integrates a study of the film adaptation of The Namesake as well – Concolio focuses on aspects of postcoloniality, migration and the urban ethnic experience. She finds that through the re-positioning of concepts, places, cultures, and societies, these writers successfully deconstruct traditional mental frameworks regarding ethnic groups and their realities and present us with two examples of the newly emerging global novel.
Yomna Saber analyzes the urban experience in Charles Johnson’s Faith and the Good Thing (1974). Maintaining that the act of walking opens up new places and offers fresh spatial perspectives, therefore allowing for the constitution of alternative narratives, Saber considers walking as a mechanism through which identities may also be created, forged, and enacted. Through a consideration of her spatial experience, which regards aspects of race, class, and gender, Faith, the protagonist, begins to make choices, to claim and to inhabit certain places and positions, ultimately finding her own self and consequently also the “good thing” for herself in the process.
Sonia Di Loreto investigates the relationship between contemporary culinary mystery novels and the American urban scene, specifically that of Los Angeles and New York. This genre, she finds, includes women as their protagonists: through their professions and the regularly recurring themes related to female existence, the city is domesticated. Di Loreto demonstrates that the city has emerged as a site within which boundaries between traditionally gendered spheres are destroyed in a number of ways, among them most significantly perhaps women’s work as well as acts of violence.
In the final essay, Andrea Carosso focuses on the appearance and current role of megachurches in the American exurbs. After contextualizing the appearance of megachurches on the American religious scene, he takes a closer look at three of these: the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA; Radiant Church in Surprise, AZ; and Lakewood Church in Houston, TX. Through an analysis of these, Carosso maps the evolution of megachurches, arguing that their appearance is closely related to the changing human landscape in the US connected to post-suburbanization; and that they have contributed to the expansion of the evangelical movement in the US in recent decades.
Overall, this volume provides a collection of very current, invigorating articles that reflect the multifaceted and complex set of experiences one may observe in the American urban culture. While the studies are somewhat uneven in terms of their length and depth of investigation, I welcome the fact that they all reflect the current state of academic investigation; they cover a wide time-span; they address a broad range of experiences, including aspects of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, along with related practices; and they tackle these as being deeply interrelated, and in a state of constant flux. This collection elegantly maps the expansive cultural web within which the urban environment shapes the inhabitants and their identities, in the process of which urban realities are also constituted, experienced, and narrated.