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“At Home Too Everything Is Falling Apart”: Waste, Domestic Disorder, and Gender in Alison Lurie's Early Fiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2017

Department of English Literature and Creative Writing, University of Roehampton. Email:


This paper examines the gendered aspects of consumer waste, dirt, and domestic mess in three early novels by Alison Lurie – Love and Friendship (1962), The Nowhere City (1965), and The War between the Tates (1974), set in 1969 – which I argue provide an incisive account of the transformation of gender relations over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. By focussing on the signifying potential of material objects in these texts, I seek to demonstrate Lurie's relevance to the “thingly turn” in literary criticism, to reignite interest in an author whose work has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, and to instigate a wider discussion of waste in her work as a whole, where it in fact proliferates. In broader terms, I hope to complicate existing scholarship on waste in literature (including my own in this area to date), which remains almost exclusively focussed on male authors.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2017 

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1 Lurie, Alison, The War between the Tates (London: Abacus, 1989; first published 1974), 22Google Scholar. Hereafter references to this novel will be in the form of parentheses in the text, using the abbreviation WBTT followed by the page number.

2 Costa, Richard Hauer, Alison Lurie (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992)Google Scholar; and Newman, Judie, Alison Lurie: A Critical Study (Amsterdam: Rodopi: 2000)Google Scholar.

3 Female writers do feature in waste scholarship, but they are generally given far less prominence than their male counterparts. The following studies feature roughly one woman for every five to ten men: Viney, Will, Waste: A Philosophy of Things (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)Google Scholar, which includes Rosamond Lehemann; Smith, Christopher, The Poetics of Waste (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)Google Scholar, which includes Gertrude Stein; and my book Consumerism, Waste, and Re-use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)Google Scholar, which only studies Mina Loy in depth. Women writers are entirely absent from Scanlan's, John On Garbage (New York: Reaktion Books, 2005)Google Scholar; and Harrison's, Sarah K. Waste Matters: Urban Margins in Contemporary Literature (London: Routledge, 2015)Google Scholar. An exception to this male-centric trend is Morrison's, Susan Signe The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, in which female writers feature as prominently as men, and her earlier study, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)Google Scholar, which features an entire chapter on “gendered filth” (45–56).

4 While I make reference to these novels, I have chosen to largely omit Imaginary Friends (1967) and Real People (1969) from this analysis due to the far less prominent role that waste plays in these texts, where it serves, to my mind, rather different purposes to the ones examined here. A study of waste in Imaginary Friends might, perhaps, probe the relationship between feminism and madness – but it is beyond the scope of this article to do so.

5 Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-use, 68, 101.

6 I am thinking in particular of Georges Perec's Things: A Story of the Sixties (1965), and Barthelme and Beckett's prose across the 1950s and 1960s, which I discuss in Consumerism, Waste and Re-Use, 67–98, 102–12. For an incisive discussion of waste in Burroughs see Alworth, David, Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 5172CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Newman, 7.

8 Rogers, Heather, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New York and London: The New Press, 2005), 105Google Scholar, notes, “by 1960, each American tossed out about two and a half pounds of trash daily,” helped by an advertising model that emphasized expendability.

9 Barrow, Christopher J., Developing the Environment: Problems and Management (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 11Google Scholar, provides a useful summary of studies showing US environmentalism's predominance in the 1960s and 1970s among the white middle-classes.

10 “Cleaning the dishes, making the beds and laying the table are girls’ work; emptying rubbish, gleaning ash-trays and emptying waste baskets are for boys,” notes Ann Oakley in Sex, Gender and Society (London: Ashgate, 2016; first published 1972), 127Google Scholar.

11 Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 2007; first published 1966), 202Google Scholar.

12 Ibid., iix

13 Dini, 5.

14 Cox, Rosie, “Dishing the Dirt: Dirt in the Home” in Cox, Rosie, Smith, Virginia, Ralph, Brian, Pisani, Elizabeth, George, Rose, and Brimblecombe, Peter, Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life (London: Profile Books, 2011), 3774Google Scholar. See also Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983)Google Scholar.

15 de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex, trans. Parshley, H. M. (London: Vintage, 1977; first published 1949), 271Google Scholar.

16 Lurie, Alison, Real People (London: Abacus, 1987; first published 1969), 134Google Scholar.

17 Lurie, Alison, Love and Friendship (London: Abacus, 1987; first published 1962), 3Google Scholar. Hereafter references to this novel will be in the form of parentheses in the text and using the abbreviation LF followed by the page number.

18 Newman, Alison Lurie, 24.

19 Both Oakley and Schwartz Cowan cite surveys showing that between 80 and 85% of adult women throughout the 1950s and 1960s were housewives, and that women spent an average of 60 to 80 hours a week on housework. Oakley, Ann, Housewife (New York and Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985; first published 1974), 67Google Scholar; Schwartz Cowan, 159.

20 Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, trans. Jolas, Maria (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994; first published 1958), 69, 67Google Scholar, original emphasis.

21 Schwartz Cowan, 197.

22 O'Conner, Flannery, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), in O'Conner, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 117–33, 117Google Scholar.

23 Writing in 2005, Oakley noted that the word cabbage was mentioned by 12 of the 40 women she surveyed. Oakley, Ann, The Ann Oakley Reader: Gender, Women and Social Science (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005), 67CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Two of these references can be found in the transcripts published in Housewife, 154, 139.

24 Noble, Bernadette, “Who Says I'm a Cabbage?”, reprinted in Macdonald, Charlotte, ed., The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand, 1893–1993 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1993), 155–58Google Scholar.

25 Statistics from this period indicate this to have been a prevalent trend. Some 80% of wealthy US households owned a vacuum cleaner in 1926; by 1941 this had extended to 47% of all households. Schwartz Cowan, 173, 94.

26 Morrison, The Literature of Waste, 188, notes that this association dates back to at least the Middle Ages: Chaucer inveighs against adultery, equating it with filth, in Canterbury Tales X.848, 850 (86). The use of “dirty” in relation to jokes dates back to 1599, while the term “dirty word” to denote “smuttiness” or obscenity first gained entry into the OED in 1842.

27 Newman, 4.

28 See, for example, Murray, Douglas, “Donwell Abbey and Box Hill: Purity and Danger in Jane Austen's Emma,” Review of English Studies, 66, 277 (2015), 954–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar, available at, accessed 16 March 2017; and Jones, Darryl, Jane Austen (London and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 3961CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Jones, 57.

30 Lurie, , Real People (London: Abacus, 1987; first published 1969), 146Google Scholar. Hereafter references to this novel will be in the form of parentheses in the text and using the abbreviation RP followed by the page number.

31 Hinckley, Jim and Robinson, Jon G., “Bob's Big Boy and Howard Johnson: The Beginning of the Generic Age,” in Hinckley and Robinson, The Big Book of Car Culture: The Armchair Guide to Automotive Americana (St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks, 2005), 2425Google Scholar.

32 Lurie, Alison, The Nowhere City (London: Abacus, 1988; first published 1965)Google Scholar. Hereafter references to this novel will be in the form of parentheses in the text and using the abbreviation NC followed by the page number.

33 Newman, 24.

34 In her delineation of the development of LA's aircraft and related industries, Markusen dates the birth of the military–industrial complex to the mid-1950s, with the beginning of the Cold War. See Markusen, Ann, “Aerospace Capital of the World: Los Angeles Takes Off,” in Markusen, Ann, Hall, Peter, Dietrich, Sabina, and Campbell, Scott, The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 82117, 95Google Scholar.

35 Davis, Mike, City of Quartz (London: Verso, 2009; first published 1990), 18Google Scholar.

36 Mayo, Morrow, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA: A. A. Knopf, 1933), 319Google Scholar.

37 Bombaci sees traces of Eliot in The Dream Life of Balso Snell. Bombaci, Nancy, “Nathanael West's Aspiring Freaks” in Bombaci, Freaks in Late Modernist American Culture: Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, and Carson McCullers (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 33Google Scholar.

38 Eliot, T. S., The Waste Land (1922), in Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems (London: Harcourt, 2014; first published 1930), 2754 (42.30)Google Scholar.

39 Lucsko notes that both hot-rod culture and its by-product, street rodding (a response to the commercial coopting of hot rodding by the major automobile corporations), were “obsessed with the past” and viewed their salvaging projects as a form of art. See Lucsko, David N., “Junkyard Jamboree: Hunting for Treasure in the Automotive Past, 1950–2010,” in Lucsko, Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust: Salvaging the Automotive Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 98133Google Scholar.

40 Davis, 18, original emphasis.

41 Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-use, 1–17.

42 Newman, 48.

43 Judie Newman, in “Walter Benjamin Goes to Hollywood,” in ibid., 47–76, provides an incisive analysis of the strains of Adorno and Benjamin in The Nowhere City. For a concise history of the Arcades see Bowlby, Rachel, Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), esp. 77–78Google Scholar.

44 Fante, John, Ask the Dust (London: Canongate, 1980; first published 1939), esp. 46–47Google Scholar.

45 Pynchon, Thomas, Crying of Lot 49 (London: Vintage, 2000; first published 1965), 102, 34Google Scholar.

46 Acosta, Oscar Zeta, The Revolt of the Cockroach People (New York: Vintage, 1989; first published 1973), 198213Google Scholar.

47 See Paredes's reading of The Cockroach People as establishing a “lin[k] between the unsavoriness of LA and its long-standing abuse of its Mexican-American population.” Paredes, Raymund A., “Los Angeles from the Barrio: Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People,” in Fine, David, ed., Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Essays (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 209–22Google Scholar.

48 See, in particular, Bahramitash, Roksana, Liberation from Liberalization (London: Zed Books, 2005)Google Scholar; and Gibson-Graham, J. K., The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996)Google Scholar.

49 Cudd, Ann E., “Is Capitalism Good for Women?”, Journal of Business Ethics, 127, 4 (April 2015), 761–70, 762, 766CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 Newman, Alison Lurie, 24.

51 DeLillo, , Great Jones Street (London: Picador, 2011; first published 1973), 28Google Scholar.

52 Barthelme, Donald, “The Rise of Capitalism,” in Barthelme, Sixty Stories (New York: Penguin, 1981), 198202Google Scholar.

53 Strasser, Susan, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Holt, 1999), 183Google Scholar.

54 Ibid.

55 See, in particular, de Beauvoir's analysis of housework in The Second Sex, 270–74; Oakley's description of the central contradiction inherent to housewifery: “housework is work, housework is not work,” Oakley, Housewife, 2, 5, 77, 241; and Betty Friedan's questioning of the toll of housework on women's mental health – and cultural ramifications of the “hardening” of the housewife mystique – in The Feminine Mystique (New York: Penguin, 2010; first published 1963), 15, 34Google Scholar.

56 While an in-depth discussion of this is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that in Lurie's much later novel, Foreign Affairs (1985), dwelling in mess has anything but an emancipatory effect, in fact leading to the psychological breakdown of Rosemary Radley.

57 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, “I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” (1949), in South Pacific, perf. Mitzi Gaynor, South Pacific (20th Century Fox, 1958).

58 LaFeber, Walter, America, Russia, and the Cold War: 1945–2006 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 95, 358Google Scholar.

59 Nadel, Alan, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 2, 205CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Ibid., 206.

61 Newman, Alison Lurie, 110–26, provides an excellent analysis of Kennan's broader views, including his ideas about child-rearing, campus politics, and American exceptionalism in her chapter on The War between the Tates, which draws on a range of Kennan's published works and speeches.

62 Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989; first published 1977), 120–27Google Scholar.

63 Ibid., 122.

64 Ibid., 123.

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