What do literary representations of a place tell us about it?
I came to the intersection of place and literature via New Jersey. I became interested in the narratives I saw emerging from my home state through literature, and was compelled to identify an articulation of a collective Jersey identity or literary style. Last fall, I undertook an independent study where I read Philip Roth, William Carlos Williams, Junot Díaz, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Patti Smith, and Richard Ford. I also considered the music of Bruce Springsteen, films such as "Garden State", and TV shows like "The Sopranos".
I was left overwhelmed by the multifarious and often combative expressions. Nevertheless, a number of themes and ongoing dialogues emerged about what this place called New Jersey means, how it is represented mimetically, and what effect it has on those who dwell there.
Many of these authors speak to a sense of rootedness in a place, in direct opposition to the tradition of frontiersmanship that Stegner identifies in "Sense of Place." Stegnar writes of this kind of lone, wandering figure in American literature, a kind of "cousin not to Thoreau but to Daniel Boone, dreamer not of Walden Ponds but of far horizons, traveler not in Concord but in wild unsettled places, explorer not inward but outward. Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million long after the frontier has vanished."
Philip Roth's American Trilogy stage the tragedy of such men, characters who forsake their rooted, specific place (New Jersey) in favor of the broader American frontier. William Carlos Williams enacts his poetic philosophy that "the particular is the only universal" in his epic poem, Paterson, demonstrating that truth and poetry can only be found in going deep into the particular and the near, not the abstract frontier. Paterson is a wholly unglamorous city, and it was intentionally chosen by Williams over its more literary neighbor, New York City. In these and other works, New Jersey becomes a place of rooted place, the antithesis of this frantic expansionism, where humans "stop raiding and running, and learn to be quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but belonging."
On the other hand, there is a narrative about placelessness in the authors I read, and Jersey is a kind of non-specific, "could be anywhere" kind of place. Cross articulates placelessness as "a lack of emotional attachments to particular places" and the ability to find a home nearly anywhere. In Junot Díaz's short story "Edison, New Jersey", the delivery-boy protagonist gambles about where his next delivery will be, running his finger over a map and landing on Edison entirely arbitrarily, with "no magic" drawing him to the place. Even more so than not having a particular attachment to a place, the story suggests an impossibility of rootedness, of home.
This New Jersey project has opened up my concentration on literature to incorporate how we articulate the experience of place through narrative more broadly. I'm particularly compelled by the idea of a mythology about a place, a collective myth's origins, and its hold on people's identities, which Cross touched on through her interviews in Nevada County. I think in particular of the way the origin myth of Bruce Springsteen haunts the ethos of New Jersey and, in particular, the Shore. His presence around exit 102 is almost spectral, and everyone has a story of when they ran into Bruce. His poetry has been integral in many Jerseyans' identification with a blue-collar working-class ethos, which due to deindustrialization and urban blight may be less and less a reality and more of just that: a myth. Nevertheless, I am compelled to deconstruct why certain myths and stories have such a hold on a place, and why they continue to inform people's identification with their surroundings.
While studying a small state like New Jersey may seem myopic, it has allowed me to think more broadly about the way humans experience space, and has led me to believe that it is through specific interactions with the local, we can understand the "universal" experience of place, if such a thing should exist.