Designing Community: Architecture, Race and Democracy in American Life Writing, 1900-­‐‑1950

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The turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century saw unprecedented growth and change in the demographics of United States urban environs. Not only did U.S. cities grow bigger, they grew increasingly multicultural and multiracial. American architects, urban planners, and social reformers responded to this change by attempting to instill democratic values in American cities through zoning, gridding, and housing reform that sought to alternately include immigrant populations while excluding populations seen as not white (in particular, black communities). Designing Community: Architecture, Race, and Democracy in American Life Writing, 1900-1950 examines autobiographies produced in this era that use architectural metaphors in order to either enforce or challenge this democratizing project. Narrations of the self granted space for members of minoritized populations to show the limits of the architectural project to build democracy.

In a critical introduction and three subsequent chapters, I use methods of literary analysis to study life writing as well as novels, essays, newspaper articles, and poetry. Through my analysis of three life writing texts, I center autobiography as a genre critical to the production of community formation in the United States. Each chapter examines both a particular writer as well as a particular autobiographical technique. In my first chapter, I primarily examine the 1924 autobiography of Louis Sullivan titled The Autobiography of an Idea. I argue that Sullivan uses techniques lifted from the Bildungsroman in order to show his readers who they, too, can develop into democratic subjects. In my second chapter, I examine the 1950 memoir of the Jewish immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska titled Red Ribbon on a White Horse. I argue that her use of the confessional produces space for her to generate self-determination as a critical component to the production of multi-ethnic community. In my third chapter, I examine Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir Black Boy. I argue that his use of the testimonial enables readers to see human life as innately interconnected. In my conclusion I show that architectural metaphors continue to govern contemporary visions of democratic life in the United States, particularly as Donald Trump’s administration has campaigned to build a wall on the United States’s southern border. I argue that this is a moment in which those invested in racial justice should listen to minoritized voices.






Seeskin, S. Abigail (2017). Designing Community: Architecture, Race and Democracy in American Life Writing, 1900-­‐‑1950. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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