Literary and cultural representations of cities are much more than the secondary or tertiary responses they are sometimes made to be in urban historiography. Cities in literature (and other media) are not to be understood only in terms of traditions cut off from the actual sites and experiences they appear to describe – although questions of genre, period and literary ethos will always have to be acknowledged. This session wants to examine the materiality of literary representations of the city. To what extent do they reflect on, and (re-) produce the material, as well as the social realities in actual cities in a European and global context? Possible examples of case studies addressing these questions range from reappraisals of slum writing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century cities to the interaction between utopian city narratives in literature and urban planning, and the literary roots of current rhetoric of public housing, urban redevelopment, and place making.
In addition to the idea of city as performance, notions such as depth, individuality and materiality could be proposed as new ways of understanding the role of literary texts in the writing of urban histories. Within an environment characterized by mobility and ever-shifting, constructed and imagined class relations, literary texts while they have their own economic context and conditions of possibility based on the publishing industry, offer a specific sort of evidence about urban history that cannot be obtained elsewhere. In an important sense, everyone’s individual views are prejudiced and positioned and constructed within traditions. Literary texts are able, perhaps uniquely, to help us understand the lineaments of this reality. At the same time they reveal, in a way that resists reduction, the depth of individual encounters with urban sites as they exist in time.
This session aims at a re-examination of ‘cultural’ and ‘spatial’ turns in literary and social studies, and to explore how innovative sources and methods from literary studies may provide important new insights in urban history studies. Key questions addressed in this session are: How should urban historians evaluate written texts that are commonly labelled literary? How can such texts best be used and interpreted in their research? How do they interact (actively and retroactively) with urban materialities, and how do literary texts relate to other genres of urban writing?