Fall 2023 - Crime and the City

Susan Thorne
LS 770-07
Fall 2023
Wednesdays, 6-9 PM

David Simon’s The Wire (HBO 2002-2008) is a graphic depiction of the war on drugs in postindustrial Baltimore. Hailed by adoring critics as “the best television series of all time,” the series’ depiction of inner city conditions has frequently been compared to Charles Dickens’ fictional depictions of early Victorian London. In fact Dickens gets top billing in many reviews: “Baltimore has found its Dickens” or “Dickens for the twenty first century” or “Running like the Dickens”. Or, as the New York Times reviewer actually said out loud: “If Charles Dickens was alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it.”1 This course interrogates The Wire‘s Dickensian credentials, with respect to Dickens’s most popular novel, Oliver Twist (1837-8). Despite, or perhaps because, of the considerable distance between their geographical and temporal settings as well as genre, their juxtaposition provides a revealing vantage point from which to scrutinize the Victorian past as well as the present. The journey of Dickens’s parish boy to and through Victorian London, his capture and eventual escape from Fagin’s gang, is echoed in the struggles of The Wire‘s young corner boys. That said, the differences between each text’s “way of seeing” crime and the city are at least as instructive as their obvious parallels. We will locate these fictional tales of two cities in their respective historical contexts. Early Victorian London and postindustrial Baltimore make useful bookends for a survey of the modern city’s evolution from its emergence during the world’s first industrial revolution to its near collapse in globalization’s economic wake. How do urban crime, policing and punishment change over the course of the last two centuries? How have perceptions of urban crime changed over time? What does each text imply about the relationship between crime, individual morality and social inequality? And most important of all, how does each text teach us to “see” the urban poor “see through” law and order discourses about crime, criminality and poverty.

Course sources

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, edited by Fred Kaplan (Norton Critical Edition 1993)

“This Norton Critical Edition of a Dickens favorite reprints the 1846 text, the last edition of the novel substantially revised by Dickens and the one that most clearly reflects his authorial intentions.” Please note that our reading assignments include supporting material gathered in this edition, such as reviews of Oliver Twist and information about the historical context, which you won’t find in other editions of the novel.

Khalil Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard UP 2010)

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America (Liveright, 2017)

The Wire (HBO 2002-2008)

The Wire is available on closed reserve in the Lilly Library. It is also available on HBO’s streaming service. There are 63 episodes. Each season engages the theme of crime in the city from a different institutional location:

Season One: Drugs (organized crime, policing)

Season two: Docks (organized labor, ethnicity, globalization)

Season Three: City Hall (political corruption)

Season Four: Schools (public education, childhood on the streets)

Season Five: Journalism (includes episode “The Dickensian Aspect”)

About Susan Thorne

GLS Advisory Committee Term: 2019-2022

Susan Thorne, Associate Professor of History, teaches courses on the social history of Britain and the British Empire, and on the history of European expansion more generally. She is currently working on Charles Dickens’ influence on Anglo American “ways of seeing” the children of the urban poor.  The Dickensian Affect:  Reckonings with Reform in Early Victorian Southwark (in progress) juxtaposes Dickens’s representation of criminal poverty and urban childhood in his most popular novel, Oliver Twist (1837-8) to archival accounts generated by the poor law’s reform during the 1830s and hungry ‘40s.