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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


At a human level a violent stripping away of (positive) characteristics consigns its victims to an indistinguishable mass, a state that ensures their treatment as mere rubbish—social outcasts, foreigners,

others—and like representations of the damned in religious iconography simply stuff that can be pushed around, co-mingled with its similarly valueless and indistinguishable like, a pile of rubble to be moved from one place to another.

—John Scanlan, On Garbage

From the opening of Ironweed, when Francis Phelan figures out the distribution of the dead as he rides up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery to his last abode in the novel, the empyrean, William Kennedy displays what can be termed a geography of the in-between, a purgatorial space that makes itself evident in one of the headings of the novel from Dante’s Purgatorio. It is not the space of the blessed or the terminal site of the damned, but a different sphere of action, a magnified waiting room where repentance and psychological cleansing is possible, but where there is also a place for social commentary. In Ironweed, Kennedy relocates this middle category to Albany, New York, during the Depression era. The writer opens an urban space of indifferent spatial practices where the panorama city of Albany, as de Certeau would put it in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), is absent; what we encounter are the invisible and indifferent spatial practices of the homeless, a particular brotherhood that hangs around spaces of eviction: the mission, the weeds, abandoned houses, and shacks. The incipient capitalism that contributed to the symbolic geography of Purgatory in the Middle Ages has shown its stern face during the Depression era.5 What pullulates in the urban landscape is its residues, wasters and waste, the discarded materials that crowd the everyday. This indistinguishable mass made up of social outcasts and rubble embodies the disposable side of capitalist ideology, a gloomy presence that, like Bartleby, refuses to go. Like Melville’s character, Francis is “the part with no part” that unsettles the order and that rejects a teleological narrative of ends. The mere presence of this part with no part in the everyday material world creates a powerful exercise in simultaneity; it represents the secondhand, the residual that has been remaindered by capitalist modernization. Its redolence, however, situates it alongside the latest version and last year’s model. It represents the incessant accumulation of debris in the midst of the continual demand for the new (cf. Highmore 2002, 61-63). This intersection of temporalities and ontologies becomes paramount in the novel.

Although Kennedy divides the novel into seven chapters, reminiscent of the seven spheres that make up Dante’s Purgatorio, we will focus on the symbolic landscapes that constantly intermingle in the novel: the cemetery, where the dead repose; the junkyard, where another cemetery of the undesired awaits; the visible and invisible geography of Albany the characters constantly traverse; and the jungle, the fugitive city of the discarded. There is convenientia between these spatial dimensions, and this adjacency makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other. These spheres represent different faces and stages of ruins; not the conventional ruins of the great edifices of history, but rather different stages of physical and social collapse as the characters move between social and physical death.

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