Guest Blog – Playfulness and Pseudonyms: Introducing George Fleming, yet another forgotten Transatlantic Literary Woman

Guest Blog by Lisa Nais, 
Doctoral Researcher,
University of Aberdeen 

Playfulness and Pseudonyms: Introducing George Fleming, yet another forgotten Transatlantic Literary Woman

The nineteenth century saw quite an astonishing number of literary talents named George: George Fleming, George Paston, George Egerton and, of course, George Eliot. The other thing that these Georges had in common was their sex: they were all female. Julia Constance Fletcher, Emily Morse Symmonds, Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright and Mary Ann Evans. With the exception of George Eliot, it is hard to determine which of these women is least known. Here, I shall make the case for George Fleming. If you type her pseudonym into Google, you have to scroll down four pages until you find the first reference to the author. A footballer, a managing director and a teaching fellow of the same name are more popular than my subject. I continued my little experiment and scrolled down another few pages, looking for my own publications on Fleming. Somewhat dejectedly, I gave up on page twenty.

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Hence, an introduction is in order. Julia Constance Fletcher was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1853 to a clergyman from Indianapolis and his Swiss wife, who was rumoured to be prone to infidelity. When Constance was in her teens, her parents’ marriage broke apart, and her mother started living together with her lover and the children. Eventually, they married and moved to Italy with Constance, while her brother joined the American military forces. Constance enjoyed a Bohemian lifestyle, and when they went on the Grand Tour in 1876, she transformed her experiences into a novel, Kismet, which, published in 1877 under the pseudonym “George Fleming”, turned out to be a bestseller. The next year saw the publication of another bestseller, Mirage, which is now thought to include the first fictionalisation of Oscar Wilde, whom Constance met and struck up a friendship with in 1876. In 1879, she was the subject of the London rumour mills, as she was engaged to be married to Lord Byron’s grandson. This engagement was short-lived, however, because of her mother’s reputation. Rather than despairing over her loss, Constance took her friend Robert Browning’s advice and returned to her literary career, publishing four novels and two short story collections in the years 1880-1895. In the 1890s, she turned to the London stage, producing several popular plays of her own creation and adapting, for instance, Rudyard Kipling’s The Light that Failed and Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesque, with great success. At the turn of the century, however, she suffered a ruptured blood vessel at the back of her eyes and partially lost her sight, which left her incapable to write as prolifically as she had done before. Her popularity waned and her income diminished in the last decades of her life. She died in Venice in 1938.

Part of the reason for the incognisance of Constance Fletcher and her body of work is her withdrawal from public life due to her diminishing eyesight; another part is the androcentrism of the literary canon. However, a decent amount of work has been done to re-establish Fletcher’s reputation. Type “Constance Fletcher” into Google, and the first three hits are a Wikipedia entry and two more scholarly biographical encyclopaedia entries for Fletcher, followed by my scholarly article on her novel Mirage and her contribution to the British aesthetic movement. While the majority of these sources also state her pseudonym, the name “George Fleming” seems not to be associated with Constance Fletcher nowadays, when the exact opposite was the case in the nineteenth century.

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George Fleming was well-known before Constance Fletcher was. Her first two novels were published as part of the Roberts Brothers’ No Name Series in the US and under the pseudonym George Fleming in the UK (Macmillan). The American mode of publication entailed speculation about the identity of the author, as books in the No Name Series were published anonymously. Fletcher playfully claims the novel back as her own, opening Mirage with the words “Her name was Constance” (9). However, the British and the American publishing context overlapped at times. For example, the two novels were reviewed by Henry James in the American periodical The Nation. James lived in London at the time and likely read the English edition by Macmillan, which was signed off George Fleming. The American edition, in contrast, was published anonymously, and this ambiguity is reflected in James’s review. Since he was acquainted with Fletcher, James picks up on her authorial playfulness, noting that “we say ‘her’ characters, for, in spite of the name on the title-page, the tone of these pages is irremediably feminine” (LC I 275). The title page of the American edition of Mirage, however, stated no name. The curiosity and speculation generated by these publishing practices are characteristic of Fletcher’s deployment of her pseudonym. I will spend the remainder of this blog article discussing the piece of writing that most overtly plays with Fletcher’s masculine alter ego: an 1888 essay that argues that women cannot think for themselves.

“On a certain Deficiency in Women” was published in the July number of the Universal Review, a short-lived London periodical. It was signed “George Fleming”. And the writer refers to himself in the first person. The piece, I venture to argue, only masquerades as an opinion article. The article opens:

Many years ago the present writer had the pleasant fortune of spending an entire Sunday afternoon lying upon the sun-warm bank of an alpine torrent by the edge of a pine wood, while, near at hand, two young girls discoursed at length upon the triumphant joys of solitude. (398)

Having marked my share of undergraduate (opinion) essays, I would like to grab my red pen, rudely circle the whole passage, and write in all-caps “You’re not in creative writing class!” across the top of the page. Indeed, this opening may well be that of a short story. Under this assumption, then, the question is: what does the opener tell us about the narrator and his story? “Many years ago” reminds rather of the fairy tale opening “once upon a time”. Next comes a parallel alliterative structure “the present writer had the pleasant fortune”, which includes an assonance on top of things. Such a complex, almost poetical structure is hardly deployed co-incidentally. In addition, to that, Fletcher sets the scene in a secluded, romantic spot: on a “sun-warm bank”, near an “alpine torrent” in a “pine wood”. I’m almost tempted to write “romantic” with a capital R. The opener of the piece locates the story in a romanticised setting, well before the year 1888, in which the essay was printed, and thus sets up “George Fleming” as the narrator of the piece whose memory and reliability cannot be straightforwardly assumed.

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The story continues for three pages before the actual philosophising begins. George Fleming’s hypothesis is summarised neatly on page 405 near the close of the piece: “In the present writer’s eyes [women’s] disability consists almost entirely in the feminine incapacity or radical disinclination (the word matters little) for serious, concentrated, and continued thought.” Blatantly misogynist on the surface, this statement also includes some subtle criticism of its superficial meaning. The tautology, “incapacity or radical disinclination”, conjures up a scientific or even medical context for the narrator’s argument. However, the evidence on which his argument is based is “the present writer’s eminent good fortune to [have] become acquainted with a vast number of women, old and young”—that’s not exactly good practice (400-401). Then, the parenthetical aside, “the word matters little”, comments on the pseudo-scientific (mal-)practice. Undercutting the narrator’s argument, the authorial voice butts in to belittle the effort of the androcentric scientific community to define woman’s place in the home with ostensibly scientific substantiation. There are numerous ways to refer to woman’s inferiority, but, really, the verbosity conceals a very simple argument, which serves to keep woman in her designated place.

This is exactly what Fletcher reveals in the sentence following George Fleming’s thesis statement: “And this again derives in a great measure from the crowded life, the gregarious habits, the sheep-like following and halting of educated women” (405). The statement constitutes not only the cause, but also the effect of the belief in woman’s inferiority. Note the use of the noun “halting”. It is not part of a sequence, as in “sheep-like following and halting”, which would imply that the sheep (apparently aka women) actively follow and halt. Rather, an Oxford comma or respectively an additional “and” between “gregarious habits” and “following” is ambiguously missing, which indicates that the agent that does the halting could either be the women or society. Fletcher’s authorial voice develops this ambiguity further. Conspicuously, she ceases to use the narrator’s pronoun “he”, and switches to an authorial “we”, concluding “And are such things [solitude, that is the time and space needed to pursue the same goals as men], then, finally denied to the larger half of our adult population?” (406). The verb “deny”, here, clearly indicates that the agent that imposes such limitations on women is not woman herself.

These instances of narratological as well as semantic playfulness reveal Fletcher’s authorial voice. This voice is that of a New Woman. As Margaret Stetz has argued, New Women’s writing often includes plots that “register outrage against constricting social limitations based on gender” (199). Fletcher’s essay does not merely register outrage; it playfully adopts a misogynist viewpoint in order to undercut and ridicule it, thus making blatant her disdain for such a perspective. And on top of that, her own illustrious career—two bestsellers and another three novels up to 1888—constitutes an antithesis to “George Fleming’s” flawed hypothesis.

Lisa Nais

References

Fleming, George. Mirage. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878. [published anonymously]

— “On a certain Deficiency in Women”. The Universal Review1.3(1888): 398-406

James, Henry. Literary Criticism: Volume I. New York: Library of America. 1984

Stetz, Margaret D. “New Women Writing Beyond the Novel”. In The History of British Women’s Writing, 1880-1920: Volume Seven. Ed. Holly A. Laird. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 189-202

Protest and Activism Workshop, Wednesday 7th November (co-organised with Hook Centre for American Studies).

Wednesday 7 November, 2-4.30pm, Gannochy Seminar Room, Wolfson Medical Building, University Avenue, Glasgow University.

We’re thrilled to announce that, following the success of our Modernisms Workshop and our Wharton Workshop, we’re teaming up with the Hook Centre for American Studies to run a workshop on the theme Protest and Activism. Given that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, and the 50th anniversary of the social unrest and protests in 1968, this theme felt timelier than ever. This is a relaxed, informal event. You can join us for part of the workshop or for the whole afternoon.

We’re now delighted to tell you a bit more about our three speakers:

Katja May (University of Kent): “Legacies of Resistance: From Womanist Writers to Radical Quilters”

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Katja May is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. This research aims to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. Katja is a passionate quilter and has organized multiple feminist craftivism workshops and the interdisciplinary conference ‘Emotional Politics – The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing’.

Kate Ballantyne (University of Birmingham): “Beyond a Rise and Fall: Tennessee Student Activism, 1954-1975”

Dr Kate Ballantyne is a Teaching Fellow in United States History at the University of Birmingham.  She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in October 2017, and is revising her dissertation into a book manuscript on the subject she will discuss today.

 

Nick Batho (University of Edinburgh): “Ocean Hill Be-In: Children’s Books and
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Nick Batho is a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His interdisciplinary work examines children’s books amidst the educational upheavals and Black Power movement in New York City. His work looks at the impact of children’s books in schools and the ways in which they were used. He is also a research assistant for the ‘Our Bondage and Our Freedom’ project at the National Library.

Janine Bradbury, “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”, 5.15pm, Tuesday 20th November, Room 101, 5 University Gardens

The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming Dr Janine Bradbury to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”. The talk takes place in room 101, 5 University Gardens at 5.15pm on Tuesday 20th November with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Racial Passing and its Transatlantic Contexts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire literary genre emerged in the United States that revolved around light skinned, mixed race African Americans who ‘fraudulently’ pretended to be or passed for white in order to ‘evade’ racism, prejudice, and segregation. Films like Imitation of Lifebrought the topic to a national audience and writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes featured passing in their works.

Given that the United States has a distinct history of race relations, how do stories about passing ‘work’ beyond these regional and national contexts? And do American stories about passing inspire and hold relevance for writers across the black Atlantic? How is gender and nationhood represented in these works? And what role do women writers play in the history of the passing genre?

This talk explores the phenomenon of ‘passing-for-white’ as represented in the work of transatlantic literary women ranging from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen to contemporary British writer Helen Oyeyemi and asks why passing continues to inspire women writers across the West.

Bio: Janine Bradbury is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at York St John University where she is also the Acting Subject Director of American Studies. Her work on passing has appeared in the Guardian and her forthcoming book Contemporary African American Women Writers and Passing will be published with Palgrave Macmillan.

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Jennifer Haytock, “Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War”, Wednesday 17 October, 5.15pm,

 

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The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming US academic Professor Jennifer Haytock to Glasgow on Wednesday 17 October.

Jennifer will be talking about American women writers in France during the First World War. Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Mildred Aldrich, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher will all be present! The talk takes place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15 on Wednesday 17 October, with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War

Looking back in her unpublished autobiography, the American journalist Mildred Aldrich wrote how “strange” it was that during the war “I . . . should suddenly find myself more alive than I had ever been, and possessed with but one idea—a wish to try and make everyone see the situation from my point of view.” Aldrich and other American women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, were either already living in France when the Great War began or came to France in order to contribute to the war effort. With the exception of the more domestic Toklas, all were professional women and many were well-known public figures before the start of the war, and they turned their skills and reputations to the work of educating Americans about why the invasion of France and Belgium mattered. While American men too worked behind the lines and wrote about the plight of France and Belgium, these women were able to write about the war without the baggage of masculinity, so often tied to martial prowess, thus opening up the ways in which war could be written about. In reportage, memoir, short stories, and poems, these writers showed Americans the suffering of refugees and the wounded, the physical devastation of the war, and the efforts of the French to take care of their own problems, all with an eye for engaging American sympathy and calling them to action. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the Armistice, we’ll examine the ways that American women writers sought to invest their fellow citizens in the plight of France.

Jennifer Haytock is professor of English at The College at Brockport, SUNY. She has published The Routledge Introduction to American War Literature, The Middle Class in the Great Depression: Popular Women Writers in the 1930s, Edith Wharton and the Conversations of Literary Modernism, and At Home, At War: World War I and Domesticity in American Literature.

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TLW/CAS Event: Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies (Sept 26th,University of Glasgow)

Please join us for a joint Centre for American Studies/TLW talk on Wednesday 26 September 2018 at 5.15 at the University of Glasgow.

Our speaker is Professor Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University) who will be discussing “conniving and surviving” women in 1930s movies. Full details below. The talk will take place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15, with wine, soft drinks and snacks available from 5. This is a free event, generously supported by a BAAS/US Embassy Small Programme Grant. Everyone welcome!

Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies

Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University)

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Since their beginnings in the early 1900s, mainstream Hollywood movies have been a perennially faithful barometer of gender norms and expectations for women, both reflecting and shaping the attitudes of U. S. culture as a whole. By the early 1930s, the vamps, flappers, and vixens of the 1920s began to fade from the screen along with the cult of youth and exuberant sexuality that pervaded movies such as It, Flaming Youth, and Our Dancing Daughters. In their place were women, no longer “girls,” whose response to the catastrophic economic times of the Great Depression was to seize control of their lives and bodies by any means necessary, from the canny conniving, played for humor, of the golddigger to the intense, driven women fighting for survival played by two leading actresses at Warner Brothers, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis.

Stanwyck’s and Davis’s careers spanned the early years of sound film through the television miniseries, yet in their career peak of the 1930s and 1940s, they epitomized women who would do whatever it took to survive in films such asBaby Face, Jezebel, and Double Indemnity as well as adaptations of fiction by writers such as Edna Ferber (So Big), Edith Wharton (The Old Maid), and Willa Cather (A Lost Lady). Their characters operating in survival mode mirrored the desperation of the real women who flocked to see the movies of Stanwyck and Davis, offering extreme solutions but also a sense of self-worth that countered cultural anxieties during the worst economic era of the twentieth century.

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Donna M. Campbell is a professor of English at Washington State University. Her most recent book is Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and her work on women writers and on film has appeared in Legacy, Journal of Popular Culture, Studies in American Fiction, American Literary Realism, Edith Wharton in Context, Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, and The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Her current projects include a critical edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in the 30-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of Edith Wharton, a series for which she is associate editor.

 

Marine: Angela Carter and America

Hello all!

I am a PhD student at Cardiff University, proudly representing TLW in Wales. My research focuses mostly on the portrayal of objects and materiality in the work of Angela Carter. Naturally I couldn’t miss an opportunity to talk a bit more about her. While my research doesn’t directly concern itself with transatlanticism, it is worth looking at Carter for an example of a British writer’s critique of America.

If you’ve been one of our attendees from year 1, you’ll know that we invited Dr Heidi Yeandle (Swansea University) to tell us about her research into Carter’s portrayal of America. The case for reading her work in a transatlantic light is therefore a well established one, with researchers like Yeandle, but also Sarah Gamble, and Edmund Gordon’s recent biography. Carter’s relationship to the continent was a fraught one on multiple emotional, cultural, and political levels. Her first experience of America was a trip to the ‘US of A’ after she’d won the Somerset Maugham literary Award for her novel Several Perceptions (1968). Then accompanied by her first husband Paul Carter, she took a road trip around the country before embarking on a plane to Japan. A month there led to some drastic changes: she left Paul and filed for divorce, and what was supposed to be a short stay became a 2-year long expatriation that lasted until 1972. While her trip to America was comparatively shorter and less eventful, Carter still acknowledges its effect on her imagination in the essay ‘My Maugham Award’ she wrote in 1970:

‘In America, I saw a great many hallucinatory midnight bus stations and lived in a log cabin in a redwood forest for a while. I heard the windbells of San Francisco and the picturesque cries of the street traders of the Haight-Ashbury quarter … ‘hash … lids … grass’ I made a sentimental journey to the jazz museum in New Orleans and looked at a glass case containing Bix Beiderbecke’s collar studs and handkerchief through a mist of tears. […]’[1]

The enumeration goes on. Carter compares the effect of the travels she undertook around that time with an ‘enormous barrage of imagery’ (204). Indeed, her writings bear the mark of an American inspiration, particularly her novel The Passion of New Eve (1977), set in the USA, and replete with allusions to Hollywood and the cinema industry. In addition, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) takes place in an imagined South America – a homage to the continent of Magical Realism and Borges, who Carter had started reading while travelling in Asia.[2]

When she returned to America more than a decade later, Carter’s career had blossomed. She had published her novels The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) and The Passion of New Eve (1977), and the short story collections Fireworks (1974) and The Bloody Chamber (1979). In her polemical essay The Sadeian Woman, she had put forward radical ideas about the politics of sex, pornography, and pleasure. During the 1980s, Carter lived in the USA three times in total: in 1980, as a teaching fellow at Brown University; in 1985, for a similar position at the University of Texas, Austin; and in 1986, to work at the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa.[3] Unsurprisingly, her journals from the decade testify to her growing interest in American history, but also in contemporary American culture, with topics ranging from snake fights (yes, yes) to urbanism – on a random note, she took extended notes on the malls she visited there. Nevertheless, Carter remained very ambivalent in her assessment of her temporary home country. Her notes from that time reveal her frustration:

‘It’s a culture so entirely without sensuality that I find it very difficult to work here. It’s not something I can talk to Americans about, either; the sensuous apprehension of the world was written out of the script very, very early on.’[4]

The short stories that she wrote during the decade, later anthologised in Black Venus (1984) and the posthumous Old World Wonders and American Ghosts (1992) show Carter working out her frustration with the American ‘script’ by exploring foundational myths. Carter’s America, home to Edgar Allan Poe, Lizzie Borden, Cotton Mather and John Ford, is a ghostly land, haunted by puritanism, violence, and repressed European paganism. It is also a colonised land, and the figure of the Native American appears in various guises throughout the collections. To conclude this (very) short introduction to Carter’s transatlantic aesthetics, I will leave you with her own depiction of the American continent, taken from the story ‘John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”:

America begins and ends in the cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the Arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross. America, with her torso of a woman at the time of this story, a woman with an hour-glass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two, and we put a belt of water there. America, with your child-bearing hips and your crotch of jungle, your swelling bosom of a nursing mother and your cold head, your cold head.

Its central paradox resides in this: that the top half doesn’t know what the bottom half is doing.[5]

Marine.

[1] Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings, ed. by Jenny Uglow (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 203.

[2] Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), p. 143.

[3] See Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), for a detailed chronology.

[4] Cited in Gordon, p. 314.

[5] Angela Carter, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (Random House, 2012), p. 21.

Guest Blog: Deborah Snow Molloy and her New York Gals

Hello everyone,

It’s lovely to be here, thanks very much to the team for welcoming me in a guest spot. I’m a part time, distance scholar writing from a very warm corner of Kent, and proud to be doing my PhD at the University of Glasgow under Laura’s steerage.  My project focusses on female mental illness in New York fiction of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with a particular interest in the relationship between the city and female distress.

On first glance there wouldn’t appear to be much transatlanticism contained within my project, but as I sat and wondered how I could write this blog I realised just how many of my texts include a journey across the Atlantic. New York City is a liminal space, situated as it is on an archipelago at the edge of a continent, a place where fact and fiction blur.  It was a site of both entrance and exit as people came and went through the harbour, before air travel was possible, following a dream or escaping a nightmare.

Djuna Barnes describes Manhattan in a wonderfully evocative piece written in 1917 about a boat trip round the island;

“New York rose out of the water like a great wave that found it impossible to return again and so remained there in horror, peering out of the million windows men had caged it with.[1]

She goes on to recount her dismay at the amount of refuse the city dumped on the wharf and the proximity between the rotting waste, an insane asylum and a home for old men. As she tells it, the waifs and strays of the city are lumped together in one unsightly mass on Randall Island, on the opposite side to the luxurious cruise liners docked in Chelsea. It is perhaps not surprising that Barnes left New York in 1921 to become one of the Lost Generation writers in Paris, though she continued to write about the city of her youth, and ultimately did return.

Edith Wharton, a TWL favourite, similarly left the Big Apple behind her in favour of a continental existence but could not escape the lure of New York in her writing. The extended Wyant/Manford clan run away from New York in Wharton’s Twilight Sleep (1927)and Kate Cleophane makes a brave return to the city in A Mother’s Recompense (1925), only to flee again from “the Babylonian New York which seemed to sway and totter toward her menacingly[2]. Wharton wrote the blurb for Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)in which we follow Lorelei Lee from New York over to Europe and back again on her increasingly sociopathic adventures. Helga Crane’s internal divisions are externalised as she shuttles between Harlem and Copenhagen in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) whilst Angela Mory seeks to leave the strain of prejudice and pretence behind her as she leaves the city for Paris in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun(1928). These ladies flee the verticality of the city for the horizontal space of the liner deck and the wide, blue ocean, looking to escape from their troubles but often coming right back to them.

Sonya Vrunsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements(1923) makes the crossing from Europe as a child, full of potential and hope for a new life, only to find clinging poverty and disillusionment in the East Village,

“on the ship to America, the sea, the sky called to me ‘Fly, fly, free, like the sea-gulls!’ But I was roped off, herded, like cattle, in the steerage, choked with bundles and rags and sea-sick humanity.”[3]

Her struggles to reconcile her Russian, Jewish heritage with her love for her American, Protestant husband forms the transatlantic heart of the novel. Betty Smith offers a similar vignette within A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944), as Aunt Sissy satisfies her baby-craving by adopting the illegitimate child of a young immigrant girl, who returns to Sicily with her parents after the failure of their American Dream.

Fannie Hurst is one of my more forgotten authors, though she was a best-seller for years.  She captures both the beauty and the terror of New York in her short story “The Vertical City” (1922).

“All who would see the sky must gaze upward between these rockets of frenzied architecture, which are as beautiful as the terrific can ever be beautiful.”[4]

Literary New York is an uneasy place, full of noises and motion that unsettle its inhabitants. The population ebbs and flows with the tide, and whilst characters do seek to escape it is hard to break free from the shadow of Lady Liberty.   Its many contradictions result in a disorienting map of broken lives, where only the toughest can survive, but there is also an undenial allure to the City by the sea.

As a final thought, I would like to recommend Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London(2016) to anyone looking for a slightly different literary read. In it she documents her own transatlantic travails through several major global cities, set against a back drop of insightful literary criticism.  A native New Yorker, she considers the ways that women interact with unfamiliar urban spaces in a self-deprecating and witty manner, retracing her own footsteps via the works of Jean Rhys, George Sands, Martha Gellhorn and more.  To give her the last word:

People move to New York from all over the world, drawn to what it stands for: work, success, freedom, acceptance, glamour…To approach the city from somewhere else amplifies it’s power. There are so many viewpoints on the city that ‘New York’ – the idea – is filtered in the imagination through millions of tiny windowpanes.”[5]

[1]Djuna Barnes, “’The Hem of Manhattan’ [New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, July 29, 1917]”, pp285 – 295 in New York: Djuna Barnes, edited with commentary by Alyce Barry, 1989, (Sun & Moon Press: Los Angeles),

[2]Edith Wharton, The Mother’s Recompense, 1986, (Virago Press Ltd: London), p36

[3]Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements, 1995, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago), 34

[4]Fannie Hurst, “The Vertical City”, 48-62 in The Vertical City,2015, (Jefferson Publication: USA)

[5]Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London,2016, (Vintage: London)