Book review of Edward J. Ahearn’s Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science, by Edward K. Kaplan

Urban Confrontations by Edward J. Ahearn

Urban Confrontations by Edward J. Ahearn

Edward J. Ahearn, Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science, 1848-2001: European Contexts, American Evolutions. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7546-6882-4;

ISBN 978-0-7546-9538-7 (ebook), 236 pp.

Edward Ahearn has developed a truly comparative, interdisciplinary investigation of representations of the modern city in literature and sociology (which he also calls social science). This is an excellent model of committed scholarship, extending stretching from mid-nineteenth-century Europe to the present-day United States. The author draws us in by explaining that the book “reflects my personal and professional life. Born in Manhattan in 1937, I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and1950s, stimulated by New York’s vast spectacle and the enormous energy and variety of crowds in streets and subways” (1).



A specialist in nineteenth-century French literature and author of a book on Rimbaud, Ahearn opens with Baudelaire’s prose poem, “The Bad Glazier,” as a metaphor of his critique of ideologies, both political and academic, characterized as “a hegemonic battle between literature, psychology and social theorizing,” in Baudelaire’s terms, “breaking the glass” (loc. cit.).

The entire book is organized around two domains of research: academic or politically engaged urban sociology and literature, mostly American. Given the wide variety of examples, Ahearn assumes that most readers would not have read the majority of works he cites. So he structures each of three parts to highlight the continuity of his focus on Chicago, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York.

In each part he first examines the writings of social science and then he interprets literary exemplars. Part I, “The Heroism of Modern Life? Baudelaire, Brecht and the Founders of Urban Sociology” (9-64), provides a pedagogical model, highlighting Baudelaire’s Parisian modernism and Brecht’s theatrical radicalism through his Chicago drama, “Jungle of Cities.” Part II, “Chicago Black and White: Immigration and Race in Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March” (67-112), deals with American identity in major works by Richard Wright and Saul Bellow. Part III, “Power, Governance and the Struggle for Human Realization” (113-179), introduces woman authors who portray struggles with ethnic and immigrant identity, and gender roles, Jazz by Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone.

A substantial Epilogue, “DeLillo’s Global City” (181-203), carefully examines Cosmopolis, “a novel of world quality” (181) published in 2003. Ahearn returns to Baudelaire’s “The Bad Glazier,” as he recalls his other literary examples to explain the “space-time” compression of Cosmopolis (183). Throughtout the book, the author accompanies his careful analysis of each work with a respectful, and often laudatory engagement with other critics, lending a generous dialogical dimension to his exposition.

Ahearn’s parallel (or complementary) theoretical analysis systematically studies the development of urban social science, lending a greater coherence to the otherwise scattered variety of literary interpretations, some of them quite detailed. I found the study of Robert Moses to be the most dramatic: chap. 6, “Bureaucracy and the Lone City Dweller: James Q. Wilson – and Michel Foucault – Meet Bartleby” (121-35), continuing in chap. 7, “Jazz and The Power Broker: Urban Tycoon versus Real Lives of Ordinary Black People” (138-60).

The reading experience is usually friendly but sometimes arduous. Ahearn provides deft plot summaries, and strategic reminders of his process, to clarify his interpretations and critiques.

This is an exemplary pedagogical work, the fruit of a life-time of award-winning teaching and co-teaching at Brown University. From the perspective of literary studies, it could be said that Baudelaire, and to a lesser degree Rimbaud and Balzac, comprise the foundation which justifies Edward Ahearn’s defense and criticism of urban sociology, a social science that illumines the sad, complex facts of big cities such as Paris and Chicago – the two prominent places of interest in this richly documented, militant but hopeful, and clearly argued book.

Edward K. Kaplan

Brandeis University


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