The changing face of inner-city citizenry in American literature
James R. Giles examines the evolution of a literary tradition born with the rise of America's urban centers—American inner-city naturalism. Through an examination of the first inner-city novels and close readings of six twentieth-century examples, he argues for the continuing vitality of this complex genre. Giles uses narrative distance to measure the evolution of this literary tradition and finds that the slum dweller who was introduced—and held at arm's length—by Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Jack London assumed center stage in the works of such leading twentieth-century writers as Richard Wright, John Rechy, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Giles demonstrates that while Crane, Norris, and London saw the newly emerging ghetto as a source of sensational subject matter, they distanced implied narrators from settings and characters through their use of narrative perspective. According to Giles, Crane bridges this separation in his 1893 version of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets with the encounter between the grotesque "fat man" and the novel's heroine.
In contrast, Giles analyzes novels by Michael Gold, Nelson Algren, Hubert Selby, Rechy, Wright, and Oates to show that the twentieth century's most memorable American ghetto novels constitute a process of familiarization with, and humanization of, the slum dweller.
James R. Giles, a member of the department of English at Northern Illinois University, is author of Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren and Irwin Shaw: A Study of the Short Fiction