Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Literary Architecture of Singleness

American Fiction and the Production of Women’s Independent Space, 1880-1929

Dr. Katherine Fama

Abstract

The Literary Architecture of Singleness uncovers the reciprocal relationship between the early 20th-century novel, domestic architecture, and the single woman in America. The period witnessed two events constitutive for modern singleness: a crisis in the marriage plot and a revolution in urban domestic architecture. I trace the ways in which literary production and material experience of independent domestic space produced newly sustainable single subjects.

The book uncovers a reciprocal relationship between the early 20th-century novel, domestic architecture, and the single woman in America. I claim that the period witnessed two events constitutive for modern singleness: a crisis in the marriage plot and a revolution in urban domestic architecture. Modern singleness was born when it found a home; writers and architects provided women literary and material spaces beyond the family. I trace the ways in which the literary production and material experience of independent domestic space produced a new place for sustainable single subjects.

American writers of the late-19th century city faced both an influx of never-married, widowed, and divorced women and the displacement of single-family houses by boarding houses, French flats, and apartment hotels. The novel was remade by this rental city of unmarried working girls who, in Theodore Dreiser’s words, “did not exactly count on marriage.” The novel had long “cured” young women of their singleness with the marital home; modern American authors, in contrast, explored emerging rental spaces and portrayed women newly at home outside the family.

I assemble a constellation of writers who engaged the design and rental of urban space in order to reshape the position of single women. Singleness, I argue, presented reciprocal narrative possibilities, offering the novel a locus for literary renovation and resistance to the romance plot and its marital closure. As the city’s independent women transgressed narrative norms of temporality and closure, catalyzing a renovation of the novel, authors bolstered the single potential of their heroines, real and fictional.

While recent scholarship in the emerging field of “singleness studies” focuses on the last fifty years, my work establishes its unacknowledged architectural and literary antecedents. The project presents an intellectual history of singleness in dialogue with feminist geographers, scholars of narrative theory, queer theorists, and historians of domestic architecture and literature. I intervene in feminist history, situating female independence in terms of racial and social privilege, and tracing the long literary prehistory of the single woman in “a room of one’s own.” The book redefines singleness as a category of spatial independence, as the historically specific emergence of self-reliant female occupancy from older forms of family dependency. The “single” was not an identity category, but a structural link between diverse modern women at odds with marital imperatives.