Modern Language Association
Viewing convention Program information from 2009

Session Details

Wednesday, 30 December

666. Writing, Walking, and Freedom

10:15–11:30 a.m., 411–412, Philadelphia Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Christina Mesa, Stanford Univ.

Speakers: Christina Mesa; Loisa C. Nygaard, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz; Gary Totten, North Dakota State Univ.; Michael Davidson West, Univ. of Pittsburgh

Christina Mesa's Annotation:
The Emancipatory Power of William Wells Brown's Walking and Writing

William Wells Brown's escape from slavery and journey North shows the material function of walking and differs sharply from the peregrinations of the flaneur, the bucolic rambler, and the journalist. Freedom lies in the destination, not the journey itself. As a slave who has stolen away, Brown does not have the luxury to muse and observe, nor can he lose himself in the beauty of nature. If anything, he needs the landscape as cover. Where there are fellow travelers, unlike de Certeu's "ordinary man" Brown cannot easily blend in. Furthermore, he must move quickly, under the cloak of night. Even in the North, Brown cannot rest easy, for fear of being captured. Traveling to Paris for the Peace Conference of 1848, and then to London, by contrast, allows Brown to walk along the boulevards of the City, in the footsteps of the flaneur, where he discovers a greater freedom. His promenades in Paris and travels in England result in his writing a first novel and travel memoir--most-liberating acts for a former slave.
Gary Totten's Annotation:
Abstract

Gary Totten, North Dakota State University

Walking in the City: Theodore Dreiser and Cultural Vision

“To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.”
--Michel de Certeau, _The Practice of Everyday Life_

Theodore Dreiser claimed that his writing career was influenced by his exposure before and during 1890 to Eugene Field’s realistic descriptions of local life in the Chicago Daily News. Inspired by Field’s perceptive representations of American culture, Dreiser believed that the best way for him to learn how to produce similar vignettes was to become a reporter. While it has become a critical commonplace to assert that Dreiser’s journalism and editing work had an important effect on the subject matter and style of his later career as a fiction writer, I suggest that the influence of his early journalism on his later work also can be found in the cultural vision or perspective that results as he walks city streets as a reporter. Like Field, he assembles for the readers’ consumption a gallery of scenes and character portraits intended to project an objective and generalized version of American culture, but which ultimately assert a particular cultural perspective. Dreiser describes his urban ramblings as “nosing about the city in an inquiring way” (_Newspaper Days_ 4), a stance that seems to be a modern iteration of the strolling flâneur, as described by Walter Benjamin in his readings of Baudelaire and Poe and based on the sketch of the flâneur in Auguste de Lacroix’s 1841 essay, “Le flâneur.” The flâneur is the supposedly detached observer (generally male) who strolls the streets of the city and possesses the ability, according to de Lacroix, “to seize everything in a single glance and analyse it in passing” (112). Dreiser’s intense fascination with the city’s “welter of life” (_Color of a Great City_ xii) and the time he invests “spying out” the city’s “strange and mysterious [cultural] picture” (xiii) coincide with the problematic and often voyeuristic vision of the flâneur.

Obviously, the perspective that Dreiser develops as a result of his early journalism experiences is both highly visual, attuned to the “color” of the urban scene, and dependent on his physical mobility and the wide variety of people and places which he encounters as he walks through the streets of Chicago. This physical mobility continues to influence his writing when his journalism work takes him to St. Louis and then New York. Dreiser pays tribute to the visual influence of the urban scene in the title of his 1923 collection of essays, _The Color of a Great City_, which contains some of his earliest writing about New York City. His attraction to life’s color became a lifelong fascination, revealed by his observation in his autobiography, _Dawn_ (1931), that “I take no meaning from life other than the picture it presents to the eye” (588). In many of his early journalistic pieces based on his walks through urban spaces, Dreiser attempted to flesh out this picture of life and to do so with the supposed objectivity that his statement from Dawn implies.

This objective stance is difficult to maintain, however, and is complicated by the mechanisms of both vision and movement—by Dreiser’s gaze and his physical body. While he might be able to maintain a semblance of this objective stance through the disembodied narrator of his novels, his actual physical experiences expose fissures in the carefully orchestrated objectivity of his nonfiction writing. And though the strolling observers that populate Dreiser’s fiction are subject to the indifferent forces of capitalism or sexual desire (for example, Carrie Meeber and Charles Drouet on the streets of Chicago in _Sister Carrie_), Dreiser himself is much less disinterested. His preconceptions about race, class, and gender, as well as the influences of popular culture, consumerism, tourism, and visual spectacle, complicate his objectivity as both a walker/traveler and writer. Michele de Certeau observes that “[s]urveys of routes miss what was : the act itself of passing by.” When the urban activities of walkers, wanderers, window-shoppers, and other passersby are “transformed into points . . . on the map” the activity itself is often forgotten and the “trace left behind is substituted for the practice.” The trace on the map, “[i]tself visible . . . has the effect of making invisible the operation that made it possible.” Traces of routes (and I would consider Dreiser’s narratives resulting from his urban ramblings as such a product) demonstrate the ability of geographical systems to “transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten” (97), in this case the act of walking itself and the cultural vision that it produces.

I argue that we must attend to the trace of Dreiser’s routes (the early magazine and newspaper narratives) but not forget the action that brought them into being, since the physical experience of Dreiser’s urban walking tours is responsible for the cultural vision that affects his wanderings, whether on foot, by boat, or in an automobile, for years to come. De Certeau further argues that “[t]o walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper” (103). Dreiser’s early walks in the city occur during a time in his life when he lacks both a definite personal and professional identity (a “place”) and his urban ramblings emphasize his search for such stability. In consequence of this lack, and the walking that it provokes, Dreiser finds a “proper”: a cultural vision that he then employs in his later writing and travels.

For abstracts, write to xcamesa@stanford.edu.

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