Jeffrey Steele

Position title: Resident Fellow (2012-2013)

English, UW-Madison

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The Visible and Invisible City: Antebellum Authors and the Literary Construction of New York City

My project explores the ways in which a generation of American writers conceptualized a new phenomenon, the emerging metropolis. While nature writing has been widely studied in recent years, we still lack a taxonomy of urban literary forms or a discussion of the most important literary strategies used by city writers. One of the reasons for this critical neglect lies in the connection between New York authors and the history of journalism (which has received little critical attention from literary scholars). With the exception of Herman Melville, all of the writers in my study (including George Foster and Fanny Fern) worked as journalists; five of them (Lydia Maria Child, Margaret Fuller, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and George Lippard) also served as editors. As I examine these authors’ literary construction of New York, I will be paying special attention to their conceptions of urban space, which for most of them contains important non-visual elements and is often discontinuous or folded. One of the primary goals of this project is to move beyond models of nineteenth-century urban writing based upon the flâneur–the strolling journalist who emphasized visual impressions of the city, often at the expense of ‘invisible’ factors such as class and ideological divisions. In this regard, I am following in the footsteps of Marxist and postmodern geographers like Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja who challenge the mystification of space into a visible plane excluding class or political divisions.

Jeffrey Steele, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializes in nineteenth-century American studies, American women’s writing (especially the writing of Margaret Fuller), and literary and spatial theory. He is the author of The Representation of the Self in the American Renaissance (1987), The Essential Margaret Fuller (1992, Choice “Outstanding Academic Book”), and Transfiguring America: Myth, Ideology, and Mourning in Margaret Fuller’s Writing (2001). He has published numerous articles on Margaret Fuller and her contemporaries, as well as essays on the politics of mourning and nineteenth-century racial stereotypes. Steele is a past President and Current Executive Officer of the Margaret Fuller Society. He also served on the Advisory Board of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. He is the recipient of a University of Wisconsin System-wide teaching award. In addition to his current project on nineteenth-century urban writing, he continues his research on Margaret Fuller, as well as on representations of gender and race in nineteenth-century advertising.