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State of the Field for American Studies/19th C American Lit

By: Michael Druffel

I want to learn more about American Studies and 19th century American literature. I’m particularly interested in history as it relates to literature. I like learning about the political, social, and economic forces that shape our nation’s writing.

I hope this project will teach me more about the dominant kinds of criticism in American Studies right now.

Journals:

  • J19: The Journal of Nineteenth Century Americanists

J19 is a new journal that is published twice a year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It started in Spring 2013. Its bio on Project Muse indicates that it publishes research and analysis on the long 19th century (1783-1914). The articles I’ve read in J19 have a wide range of subjects. Sometimes articles try to link 19th century literature to hot button issues today (eg: the Occupy Wall St movement). Often the articles focus on the way literature navigates religion, race, and gender in the long 19th. [After reading a little of ALH’s bio, I realize I haven’t seen any reviews in J19]

  • American Literary History

ALH is published by the Oxford University Press four times a year. My understanding is that this is one of the premier journals of American literature. While it is not listed as exclusively about the 19th century, it often seems to have a number of articles each issue dealing with 19th century topics. The website bio states that ALH combines essays, reviews, and unpublished poems, letters, diaries, &c. Certainly, it appears reviews make up a large portion of the pages. ALH also seems to try to touch on current issues when possible: for e.g.: when 12 Years a Slave came out, ALH had several thoughtful articles dealing with the movie, the book, and more.

  • American Quarterly

Published by the John Hopkins University Press, American Quarterly seems to be one of the (if not the) marquee journals about American Studies. It comes out four times a year and features reviews and articles. The journal bio boasts that it has been published since 1949 and is the official publication of the American Studies Association. It features articles on politics, literature, cultural studies, and critical university studies. AQ also publishes the ASA president’s address. These addresses are often thoughtful speeches that tend to deal with current issues: debt, organizing, &c. The presidents’ speeches tend to set the focus for the ASA that year. While I do not know the politics of the other journals, I know AQ, representing the ASA, supports the Palestinian BDS movement.

Books:

  • Re-framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies, Winifred Fluck, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowed, eds. Dartmouth College Press, 2011.

I know this books is three years old, not two as the cut off suggested, however, I wanted to include it because I read some of Pease’s work for my class with Eric Lott called “Formations of US Cultural Studies.” Since I know Pease is a big name in the discipline currently (I understand he’s particularly well regarded as a critic of the discipline itself) I wanted to include his relatively recent book in my list.

The three books I’ve chosen to highlight in this post all feature the “transnational turn” in American Studies. Therefore, some of the comments could apply to any of the titles I’ve chosen. I’ll try not to be repetitive while giving an understanding of how I see the field right now. (To be methodologically transparent, I got all three titles of books from the reviews in the above-mentioned journals. I figure if these are some of the best journals, they’ll have insight on the most influential books.)

The review of Re-framing the Transnational Turn I read in ALH suggests that book discusses a turn in the discipline coinciding with the end of the “American Century.” As Pease has repeatedly pointed out, American Studies in the past have often helped further the aim of American Exceptionalism. Looking at this book, it seems that American Studies are (is?) now interested in correcting that deeply flawed view of Exceptionalism by balancing that view with a dose of transnationalism.

This could be riffing too far off the topic, but I detect in the books I’ve chosen and the ASA articles I’ve read a note of meta-criticism about the field itself. I think that this meta-criticism is part of the same zeitgeist that drives our often-stimulating discussions in our own class: how can we make up for the academic shortcomings of the past? I think right now the field of AS is deeply (and rightly) interested in that problem.

  • The Imaginary and Its Worlds: American Studies After the Transnational Turn. Laura Bieger, Ramón Saldívar, and Johannes Voelz, eds. Dartmouth College Press, 2013. 

This text seems awfully similar to the above text based on the review I’ve read. To avoid repetition let me touch on a few different points than those above. Yes, this book is rightly critical of past goals of AS; yes it is published by Dartmouth College Press, which suggests that DCP is interested in self-critical, exciting books about AS; yes it tries to remedy past shortcomings of AS with a transnational turn.

Where I’d like add new information is here: the review suggests that both of these books don’t look to new technology to as a way to grapple with the failings of past AS works to deal with a large section of American thought (namely the thought of non-straight, non-white, non-All-American, non-males). Interestingly, the review suggests that the absence of tech discussion could come from the fact that it takes academic books so long to publish, which is certainly good to know moving on as person who hopes to publish.

The fact that “new technologies” is mentioned in the review, I think, shows that they (the tech) are important, but are not yet integrated into the field of American Studies. I think this is useful to know about the field as I move further into it.

  • Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico. José David Saldívar. Duke University Press, 2012.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this book examines the transnational in relation to America. This seems the way AS is going from all the sources I’ve found, and, frankly, that sounds exciting and great.

This book picks up transnational ideas and applies them to Mexico. According to the review, the book suggests that only transnational methodologies can help understand how cultural, political, &c practices form in greater Mexico. While not part of this particular project, the review I read points out that Saldivar makes use of Amy Kaplan’s essays in his book, Trans-Americanity. Kaplan’s writing has appeared frequently in Professor Lott’s class and so I feel that she is also an important name to keep in mind.

Annual Conferences

  • American Studies Association Annual Meeting. This year’s is:

The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century, November 6-9, 2014: Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles, CA. The topic is, I believe, decided on by each year’s president, and informs the ASA’s goals that year, and to a large part, I imagine but do not know for sure (so please consider this more of a speculation awaiting confirmation), dictates the kind of work published in AQ. The conference seems a place to hear papers given by top scholars, present awards, make friends, and share ideas. It seems to be hugely influential on the work done in AS each year.

  • Hannah Arendt Fall Conference

This may be kind of a stretch, but I’d like to include it because I think it shows the range of the topics AS covers and the forums available to discuss them. I know about this conference because CUNY GC’s own Joan Richardson, who teaches my American Aesthetics course, was a speaker here. The topic of this year’s conference was “The Unmaking of Americans: Are American Values Still Worth Fighting For?”

Like just about everything else I’ve included in this list on the state of the field, the conference offers an introspective, critical glance at the way America has been studied and presented. While the questions posed in the conference may not seem to be as decidedly opposed to American Exceptionalsim as perhaps some of the other entries here are, the conference still shows that breaking down Exceptionalism is a hot button issue that is being thoughtfully debated by reasonable people, outside of the English department as well. It also shows that not all are onboard with rejecting America’s long-held exceptional status. While things seem to be trending that way, it feels like there may still be some holdouts.

  • International Melville Conference

This is not strictly AS, but I have a strong interest in 19th century American Literature. In fact, I really want to explore the intersection between 19th century American letters and AS. Melville is one of my favorite writers: my undergrad thesis was written about Moby-Dick. Thus, I think this is a conference that holds particular interest for me. This year it is in Japan and the topic is “Melville in a Global Context.” It’s not only AS that is trending towards the global. That is the trend in 19th century lit as well, and Melville seems an easy writer to examine w/ a global perspective.

University Press Series

  • America in the World Series. Sven Beckert and Jeremy Suri, series eds. Princeton University Press.

Going off what was written above, I’m just going to let the online description speak for itself with some underlining by me:

“American history is no longer the history of the nation-state alone. Instead of segregating the history of North America from the rest of the world, some of the newest and most exciting writing integrates America in the world. This movement toward transnational perspectives is taking shape across time periods, methodological preferences, and fields of analysis. American historians will continue to examine the “exceptional” elements of the nation’s history, and they will continue to produce local studies. Within the next decade, however, even the most locally centered and “exceptionalist” scholarship will be much more informed by attention to networks, identities, and processes that transcend the nation-state.

This series will bring together the work of a new generation of scholars writing the history of “global America.” There is a palpable sense of excitement about such a new perspective. Indeed, the most forward-looking scholars have already begun to broaden the geographical and conceptual range of analysis for many diverse themes in American history–including such classic topics as the American Revolution, slavery, abolitionism, Reconstruction, labor activism, the destruction of Native American societies, Progressivism, the Civil Rights Movement, and Cold War politics.”

I’d like to hazard a guess: Princeton is a little conservative, since Dartmouth College Press’s Don Pease has already torn up the idea of exceptionalism elsewhere. Princeton seems to still have some tiny place for it. However, if I’m right, even a slightly conservative press is turning to transnational work.

  • Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies. Don Pease, series ed. Dartmouth College University Press.

Don Pease. who criticizes American exceptionalism, also edits this series. This tells me that Dartmouth is interested in producing transnational works that speak to a Post-Cold War world. I’m not sure I have much to say that won’t sound broken-record-ish.

  • New Americanists Series. Donald Pease, series ed. Duke University Press.

I chose this series because Elizabeth Dillon (who is at CUNY) had her book published here. We read part of the book in Eric Lott’s Formations of US Cultural Studies class. Therefore, I know the book is being used and well regarded in the academy. I’m not even going to touch on DP except to say this: he edits this series as well, and I have now realized he is a major player in the formation of AS today. Other than that, I can note the transnational focus this series takes and note that Dillon’s book is well written and thoughtful.

Speaker Series

  • Eric Schocket Lecture Series, Hampshire College

To be methodologically transparent, I used a google search to find speakers I’d be interested in hearing. I found this series, which focuses, according to its bio, on class and culture, two subjects I’m interested in w/r/t AS. The names I recognized as speaking as part of this series were Michael Denning, and our own Eric Lott.

  • Sternberg Family Lecture in Public Scholarship, City College of New York

Perhaps this one is cheating, as it seems to be a yearly lecture and not strictly AS. However, I’d like to include because I think it shows the range of AS right now, and reinforces a point I made earlier that AS is incorporating some critical university studies. So far there has only been one speaker, Andrew Delbanco, whose biography of Melville I admire very much. Delbanco’s talk was titled “Do American Colleges Have a Future.” In it he discussed issues of access to college, ethics, opportunity, &c. Perhaps as I research in AS it is good to keep an eye on turning that research explicitly back on the discipline asking: “how does this new work I’ve found or done help us become better teachers/make the discipline better?” It seems to be the way AS is trending.

  • CUNY Graduate Center’s Critical Theory Today Lecture Series

Again, this might be cheating. However, I’ve read Slavoj Zizek & Fredric Jameson in my US Cultural Studies class and so I feel somewhat secure in saying that this series could help me understand the field. Plus I wanted to include a series that I could attend, and since this one is here at the GC, that seems no problem.

  • Huntington Library Lecture Series

Feeling that perhaps some of the other lecture series I put forth were weak or strayed too far from my topic, I’d like to add this one as well, which features lectures on topics that fit right into the AS wheelhouse including: the Roger’s Distinguished Fellow’s Lecture in Nineteenth-Century American History; the Ritchie Distinguished Fellow’s Lecture in Early American History; the Los Angeles Times Distinguished Fellow’s Lecture in American Studies. The Huntington Library, which is in Pasadena, hosts these fellows to do research and gives pretty sizeable awards. Seeing what kind of research these scholars are doing could give me an insight into what kind of work gets funded today.

Blogs

  • NYPL’s Blog

The NYPL blog is easily found on a google search and offers browsing by subject. It’s cool because each post seems to center on a topic (e.g.: Moby-Dick’s birthday, which was yesterday in Britain). That post then offers what NYPL has in the collection, highlighting unique material. This could be a great way to get a dip into the massive collections at the good old Schwartzman building.

  • Verso, the Blog of the Huntington Library

Riffing off the above blog, I thought it to include the Huntington’s blog. Aside from being home to a beautiful series of gardens and art museum, the Huntington has a great library full of rare books, not unlike our own NYPL. The blog combines art history, history, literature, and botany to give interesting takes on what’s going on at the Huntington.

  • ASA Blog

I feel like I’ve said enough about the ASA as one of the main players in American Studies.

Scholar’s Twitter Accounts

  • I’d like to single out David Reynolds’s twitter, @reysn1
  • Finally, I’d like to shine a spotlight on Michael Berube, @MichaelBerube1, who is an interesting, reflexive critic of American Studies. Berube also has a blog where he discusses politics, cultural studies, and disabilities.

Institutional Twitter Accounts

  • @CUNYenglish seems like it could actually be really helpful. It has links to events happening around the campus.
  • @MLAnews seems like another professional development account. It offers links to MLA references and potential job stuff.
  • @NortonCriticals is the twitter account for the Norton Critical Editions. I know that established scholars use it as a way to publicize their work when editing a Norton. It also seems good to keep a finger on the pulse of what Norton thinks is good.

Graduate Course Descriptions

  • Here’s a graduate course description from Yale, Engl 846, American Literature: Regions, Hemispheres, Oceans:

“How does the choice of scale affect our understanding of American literature: its histories, its webs of relations, the varieties of genres that make up its landscape? Through three interlocking prisms regional, hemispheric, and oceanic we explore multiple permutations of immediate and extended environments; the size of events; causal connections and input networks; and the changing patterns of labor, food distribution, linguistic practice, religion, and war. Fiction and poetry by Olaudah Equiano, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Bowles, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Dave Eggers, Monique Truong, Junot D az, Amitav Ghosh; and theoretical writings by Sheldon Pollock, Arjun Appadurai, Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, and Walter Mignolo.”

This course is not a period course as the authors pulled span many decades. It addresses the issue of scale, which seems interesting. One thing I note is that global perspectives are not mentioned, even though some of the language hints that way e.g.: scale, oceans, hemispheric, &c

  • Here’s another graduate course description from the University of Michigan. I picked it because it seems different and exciting and is one more way to take the future of American Studies and my own classroom. The course is Native American Literature, and I couldn’t find a course number:

“In addition to traditional “oral literature,” Native Americans have been producing written literature in English since the late eighteenth century. The purpose of this seminar is to survey that heritage and, in so doing, examine the contours of Native American cultural and political history. We will also engage the most important discourses in today’s Native American studies, including settler colonialism, tribal nationalism, global indigenism, and cosmopolitanism. Authors will include William Apess, Zitkala Sa, D’Arcy McNickle, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and more. No previous knowledge of Native American studies is required.”

  • Finally, I’d like to offer CUNY’s own Joan Richardson, whose course ENGL 80200, has this course description:

“As the great Indian monk and teacher Vivekananda points out in Practical Vedanta: Lectures on Jnana Yoga—a text William James knew and valued—most of our differences as human beings “are merely differences of language.” (James brought Vivekananda to Harvard to lecture in 1896, introducing him as “an honor to humanity.”) Pragmatism is above all a method for making adjustments for these differences, for measuring our words, we could say. Charles Sanders Peirce, the framer of American pragmatism, learned how to make ideas clear by adapting the methods of adjusting for parallax, of accounting for the aberrations of starlight and irregularities in earth’s orbit, to how we use words. He established the field of semiotics, a truly native American sign-language, as it were. His aspiration continued the Romantics’ project to devise a use of language that might repair the consequences of the Fall. Peirce and James had taken deeply to heart and mind Emerson’ s brilliant summation of where we find ourselves in relation to language, a condition painfully exacerbated by the Darwinian information: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments.” This observation is at the core of Emerson’s most unsettling essay, “Experience,” an offering that performs the revelation of experience—which shares its root with peril and experiment—as risk, adventure, as projective attitude and activity appropriate to inhabiting a universe of chance. William James repeatedly reminds us that we each have a stake in what the future is to be:

the idea of a world growing not integrally but piecemeal by the contributions of its several parts…offer[ing]…the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done.

The “co-operative work,” of course, depends on finding a method of not misreading one another’s signals as we shape language to imagine a future, knowing, as Wallace Stevens beautifully put it, that “the imperfect is our paradise.”

William James’s Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) will be at the center of our discussion throughout the term; we will read its eight lectures very slowly and deliberately. Around them will radiate other texts: some of those from which they grew and some of those growing from them—“…our knowledge grows in spots [James’s emphasis]. The spots may be large or small, but the knowledge never grows all over: some old knowledge always remains what it was.” Primary in this radiant circle will be excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, C. S. Peirce, Wallace Stevens—the usual suspects, in other words. Secondary readings will include some of my own work and great surprises!

A term paper/project will be required. – See more at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/Page-Elements/Academics-Research-Centers-Initiatives/Doctoral-Programs/English/Courses/Fall-2014#Richardson”