Sites Unseen

Architecture, Race, and American Literature

288 pages

37 illustrations

August, 2011

ISBN: 9780814732472



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William A. Gleason is Professor and Chair of English at Princeton University, where he is affiliated with the Princeton Environmental Institute and the interdisciplinary programs in American Studies, African American Studies, Environmental Studies, and Urban Studies.

All books by William A. Gleason

Sites Unseen examines the complex intertwining of race and architecture in nineteenth and early-twentieth century American culture, the period not only in which American architecture came of age professionally in the U.S. but also in which ideas about architecture became a prominent part of broader conversations about American culture, history, politics, and—although we have not yet understood this clearly—race relations. This rich and copiously illustrated interdisciplinary study explores the ways that American writing between roughly 1850 and 1930 concerned itself, often intensely, with the racial implications of architectural space primarily, but not exclusively, through domestic architecture.

In addition to identifying an archive of provocative primary materials, Sites Unseen draws significantly on important recent scholarship in multiple fields ranging from literature, history, and material culture to architecture, cultural geography, and urban planning. Together the chapters interrogate a variety of expressive American vernacular forms, including the dialect tale, the novel of empire, letters, and pulp stories, along with the plantation cabin, the West Indian cottage, the Latin American plaza, and the “Oriental” parlor. These are some of the overlooked plots and structures that can and should inform a more comprehensive consideration of the literary and cultural meanings of American architecture. Making sense of the relations between architecture, race, and American writing of the long nineteenth century—in their regional, national, and hemispheric contexts—Sites Unseen provides a clearer view not only of this catalytic era but also more broadly of what architectural historian Dell Upton has aptly termed the social experience of the built environment.


  • “True to its title, Sites Unseen offers a remarkably fresh, provocative perspective on the role of race in American literature by grounding it securely in architectural history and making us see domesticity, in its many social and cultural dimensions, in an entirely new light.”

    —Eric J. Sundquist, Johns Hopkins University

  • "[A] fascinating book."

    —T.Bonner Jr., Choice

  • "William A.Gleason offers an intriguing way to look at race in America via the architecture mentioned in diverse literary genres."

    —Helen Bradley Foster, Journal of American History

  • "[The] book promises to invigorate critical conversations in the interdisciplinary study of literature and architecture."

    Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

  • "Like the work of Dell Upton, Sites Unseen intertwines the study of vernacular architecture and social history; it brings an altogether original perspective to the subject of the imprint of race relations on the architectural landscape.... One cannot recommend this innovative interdisciplinary study too highly."

    Michel Imbert, Transatlantica