…what do literary maps allow us to see? Two things, basically. First, they highlight the ortgebunden, place-bound nature of literary forms: each of them with its peculiar geometry, its boundaries, its spatial taboos and favorite routes. And then, maps bring to light the internal logic of narrative: the semiotic domain around which a plot coalesces and self-organizes. Literary form appears thus as the result of two conflicting, and equally significant forces: one working from the outside, and one from the inside. It is the usual, and at bottom the only real issue of literary history: society, rhetoric, and their interaction. –Franco Moretti (5)
I pore over maps for much the same reason almost that I read and re-read texts. Both satisfy my “rage for order”; both require insight and artifice. Geographers and creative writers seek to organize space and time, the world and our experience in it. Maps—like works of poetry, fiction, and drama—rarely reveal all of their meanings during one examination. When I read closely a place’s literature and its maps—those produced at different times by different authors and cartographers—my comprehension of life in that locality intensifies, even if it is the one I inhabit. And these charts and narratives have not only a resemblance, but, as Franco Moretti asserts, an interrelationship, influencing one another, working together to complicate our understanding of each, revealing the “real issue of literary history”: the interaction between a place, its language, and its forms (5). Authors sometimes provide a map of a work’s setting, even when, as in the case of William Faulkner, the locale is imaginary. And, conversely, a work of imaginative literature intensifies our experience of real places and their representations.
The lines and shadings in Detroit area maps are especially significant, marking the stark inequalities of American society: Here, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties borders one of its poorest; the city itself is over 80% African-American, while most of its surrounding suburbs are over 90% Caucasian. For the first fifty years of the twentieth century, Detroit was the engine that propelled American prosperity; in the next fifty years, it became the visible reminder that things could go very wrong in America. “Detroit’s postwar urban crisis,” writes Thomas J. Sugrue, “emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality” (5). Detroit is where generations from all over the world have come to fulfill their hopes and aspirations. Here, too, the logic of American industrial capitalism played itself out, leaving huge swathes of desolate, empty space where neighborhoods, factories, and businesses once stood. And in the aftermath of the government-subsidized suburbanization of metropolitan Detroit, it has become very clear that racial injustice is not restricted to the American South. In many and contrary ways, Detroit is, as Philip Levine observes, “the exact center of the modern world.”
As Detroit’s industrial production has declined, its artistic production has risen. The last half century has witnessed unprecedented industrial and corporate disinvestment in Detroit, but at the same time, writers, artists, and musicians have invested the city with language, vision, and sound. This is the era of Motown, the Broadside Press, the Cass Corridor artists, the Heidelberg Project, and Techno; this is when Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall, Philip Levine, Naomi Long Madgett, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeffrey Eugenides, among many others, put Detroit on the literary map.
The poets and storytellers who have written about Detroit understand that something important has happened here, and they share an urge to reveal it. It’s difficult to live in this city, to care about it, without feeling the need to capture the experience, to define it properly, to let the outside world know about what has happened here. The popular images of Detroit are so lacking in appreciation of its complexity, its power, its seemingly irreversible decay and sometimes startling beauty—that if, as Lawrence Joseph says, “you’ve been here long enough,” you can feel a responsibility to capture the experience, to get it right. It is a fascinating experience, full of compelling images and powerful stories. That’s why writers who grew up in and around Detroit continue to write about the city long after they have moved away.
One who aspires to being a Detroit literary cartographer has one advantage: Perhaps even more than the writers other cities, Detroit’s authors and poets make specific references to places and times of their works. Titles and texts often include the names of streets, parks, landmarks, and dates: “Belle Isle, 1949;” “Blackbottom;” “Coming Home, Detroit, 1968;” “Drum: Leo’s Tool and Die, 1950;” “Elegies for Paradise Valley; ” “Grand Circus Park;” Middlesex;“St. Peter Claver;” “Woodward Avenue;” “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School;” and “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of correction and Began My Life over again.” In a city that has changed so rapidly—where yesterday’s thriving institution becomes today’s vacant lot—fixing place and time becomes especially purposeful.
This website identifies and describes places and times that are important in Detroit literature. Contributors include faculty, students, alumni, and friends of the Marygrove College Department of English and Modern Languages. In selecting contributors, I have made an effort to find scholars and writers who have some connection with the specific place under discussion. We are preparing more sites and will add them as they are completed.
I express deep gratitude to all the writers who have contributed to this literary map, Anna Fedor for her wonderful photographs, and David Deis of Dreamline Cartography for his cooperation in designing the prototype map. I thank the following members of the Marygrove staff, faculty, and administration—past and present—who have supported this project: Jamie Babcock, Katherine Blanchard, Karen Cameron, Pao-yu Chou, Forrest Johnson, Andrew Koper, Shane Sevo, and the late Chae-Pyong Song. I am grateful to these students who served as research assistants: Cassie Atkinson, Felicia M. Davis, Jacklene Johnson, and Laurie LePain Kopack. For their consistent support of this and other Institute of Detroit Studies projects, I thank Marygrove College Presidents Glenda Price and David Fike; Vice Presidents Jane Hammang-Buhl, Kenneth Malecke, and Jacqueline El-Sayed; Deans Judith A. Heinen, Rose DeSloover, and Donald E. Levin; Darcy L. Brandel, Chair of the English and Modern Languages Department; and Thomas A. Klug, Director of the Institute for Detroit Studies. I acknowledge with thanks the assistance and support of my faculty colleagues in the Department of English and Modern Languages and the Institute for Detroit Studies. I am especially grateful to Kim Stroud for her partnership and wise counsel.
The Literary Map of Detroit is sponsored by the Marygrove College Institute for Detroit Studies and the Department of English and Modern Languages and was originally made possible with the support of an SBC Ameritech Partnership Award administered by the Michigan Colleges Foundation.
Through the Literary Map of Detroit, we hope to emphasize Detroit’s importance to literature and literature’s importance to Detroit, to generate further thought and discussion of the connections between the city in space and the city in literature. As Franco Moretti has written, “Placing a literary phenomenon in its specific space—mapping it—is not the conclusion of geographical work; it’s the beginning. After which begins in fact the most challenging part of the whole enterprise: one looks at the map, and thinks” (7). May this map and the literature it describes help us to think in new and constructive ways about this remarkable American city.
The Literary Map of Detroit is an ongoing project. I welcome your comments and suggestions.
Frank D. Rashid, Editor
Professor of English
8425 West Mc Nichols Rd.
Detroit, MI 48221
Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel, 1860-1900. London, Verso, 1998. Print.
Sugrue, Thomas J. Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996, 2005. Print.
Revised June 1, 2014.