Somatic cities: Unorienting space, autonomy, and community in modern New York, Paris, London, and Berlin

Sarah Elisabeth Cornish, Fordham University


"Somatic Cities" engages with literary representations of Paris, New York, London, and Berlin and their specific cultural and historical contexts during the interwar period, a time when the importance of the metropolis as a center of cosmopolitanism, creative productivity, and socio-political activism peaked, through World War II during which three of these cities suffered massive destruction. With its feminist analysis of the effects of rapid urbanization on the literary landscape, "Somatic Cities" accomplishes two goals: 1) it dissects the dominant mythologies associated with urban life during the first half of the twentieth century (such as the city as a place that engenders corruption, vice, and loss of a spiritual center) to make space for exploring how women and other marginalized people occupy and move through the urban landscape, build community, and find a sense of self, and 2) it puts the four cities into conversation to build a topography of how interwar literary production spread across thresholds, penetrated liminal spaces, and challenged the boundaries of nationhood and restrictions set upon race, class, and gender. My methodology combines urban, cultural, queer, and feminist theory with literary studies; thus, "Somatic Cities" takes an interdisciplinary approach that fills an emerging objective in modernist studies, the practice of placing into conversation women writers, LGBTQ writers, and writers of color with canonical writers. "Somatic Cities" argues that the experiences of raced, classed, and gendered subjects within interwar period literature depends on identifying and developing language for the multiple points of view about the residual effects of empire, war, and institutionalized power structures that have coded the urban landscape. Such a process I call unorientation. The texts I analyze in "Somatic Cities" depict the built environment as one that shapes human subjectivity, and in turn, demonstrates the legitimacy of the city's own developing subjectivity. "Somatic Cities" brings to our understanding of the metropolitan dynamics of modernism fresh attention to the chiastic relationship between bodies, buildings, and the spaces in between, and offers a new way to think about how the city influences literary and cultural production during the interwar and World War II years.

Subject Area

Modern literature|American literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Cornish, Sarah Elisabeth, "Somatic cities: Unorienting space, autonomy, and community in modern New York, Paris, London, and Berlin" (2013). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3600971.