Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


John Brenkman


Hildegard Hoeller

Committee Members

Eric Lott

Duncan Faherty

Subject Categories

American Literature | Comparative Literature


Domestic, 19th Century, American Studies, New York City, Architecture, Cultural Studies


My dissertation, The Urban Domestic: Homosocial Domesticity in the Literature and Culture of 19th- and 20th-Century New York City,explores the relationship between transformations in urban planning and domestic ideology through American literature. Specifically, I take up Walt Whitman and Edith Wharton as two authors with distinctly ambivalent relationships to the hetero-normative nuclear family and the ways New York’s built environment shaped and controlled the nation’s gender and sexual politics. My reading bridges a critical gap between studies of culture and its literary expressions on the one hand, and of architectural design and the urban environment on the other. As I argue, the architectural shifts in New York’s urban and domestic spaces provided opportunities for Whitman and Wharton to reimagine traditional domesticity at the turn of the 20th century.

The project pairs each author with critical architectural developments: I examine Whitman’s poetry alongside Frederick Law Olmsted’s and Calvert Vaux’s plans for Central Park, and look at Edith Wharton’s late novels in the context of contemporary radical architectural feminists. These pairings allow me to investigate how changes in New York City’s domestic architecture and practices from 1850-1930 informed the reconfigurations of normative domestic spaces in Whitman’s and Wharton’s writings. I show how Whitman, despite his posturing as “one of the roughs,” and his overt rejection of conventional domesticity with its “rooms full of perfumes,” was actually invested in a reconfiguration of the heterosexual domestic arrangement that had a parallel in the way the park’s famous cruising grounds inhabited a space designed for the white, middle class family. And I explore how the charged, often uncanny scenes between women who live together in Wharton’s late texts such as “The Old Maid” and Mother’s Recompense revealthat Wharton shares with the material feminists arguing for new architectural configurations of domestic space the sense that the home was a site of instability marked by potentialities of female sociability, conflict, and power

Rather than authors more overtly concerned with the urban landscape such as Dreiser, Howells, or Lippard, or with the more obvious elements of Whitman’s and Wharton’s urbanism, I focus on Whitman’s and Wharton’s connection to the domesticated wildness of Central Park and the alternative cooperative living arrangements in New York City to reveal long obscured elements of gender and sexuality in these texts. I use popular women’s magazines to situate these readings in the shift that occurred in domestic ideology from the rural farm to the modern city. Whereas in the middle of the 19thcentury, the city was imagined to be a threat to proper, rural domesticity, by the turn of the century, the city had become the seat of a modern, scientific, and industrialized domesticity that needed to be brought to rural America by the first decades of the 20thcentury.New York City served during this period as the economic, intellectual, and imaginative fulcrum of Victorian urbanism between the rise of industrial approaches to building in the second half of the 19thcentury and the great migration to the suburbs that started in the 1930’s. Thus, my close study of urban domesticity during this period lends insight into the urban imaginary that shaped the nation’s sense of itself in modernity.

I Bring attention to the complex treatment of urban domesticity in Whitman’s and Wharton’s texts to deepen our understanding of their political orientations, as well as of the broader shifts taking place in the literary genres of the long 19thcentury. Putting the poetry and prose of these authors in dialogue with contemporaneous architectural projects such as Central Park and middle-class co-operative apartment buildings brings into focus the indeterminacy of the life of literary work and built structures. It shows us how both Wharton and Whitman worked within and against middle class, conservative forces in order to open up new spaces of imaginative dwelling. Critical debates about this period’s domesticity have tended to focus on either its cultural/literary or spatial/ architectural expressions. My dissertation bridges the gap between these modes of criticism by examining the relationship between the spatial and literary manifestations of urban domesticity in 19thcentury America. I thus revamp the question of the domestic by eschewing the gendered bifurcation of criticism that looks either at women’s home writing and literature or men’s architecture and design. My emphasis on queer domesticity, furthermore, offers a way to think past the critical tendency to conflate of the domestic with repressive and limiting categories of hetero-normative bourgeois culture in order to bring out its resistive potential.