Abstracts 2016

Joshua Bartlett (University at Albany, SUNY)

“‘Then thro’ the wilderness I’ll run / Preaching the gospel free’: Samson Occom’s Hymnodic Ecology”

In this paper, I explore the ways in which the hymnody of 18th-century revivalist and evangelical movements served as an important conduit between religious affections and the natural world through a focus on the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom. I argue that, for Occom, hymns offered not only a methodology of spiritual expression but also a strategy for engaging with everyday realities of the New England frontier. Through attention to Occom’s attunement to the affective potential of sound, I develop a sense of his hymns as materially engaged and environmentally aware. I then frame these engagements as generative of a specifically ecological perception in reading the curious figure of “the slow traveller” in his hymn of the same name.

In his hymn, “A Son’s Farewell,” or, “I Hear the Gospel’s Joyful Sound,” Occom proclaims that he’ll “forsake [his] parents and their house and to the wilderness betake” and describes how “thro’ the wilderness [he’ll] run, preaching the gospel free.” I claim that the hymn’s double title and these textual assertions mark Occom’s “farewell” as a simultaneous pull toward “gospel-sound” and toward “wilderness” as such. Likewise, I argue that this correspondence frames a broader methodology for engaging Occom’s natural imagery and metaphor throughout his hymnody. Moreover, I suggest that this meaningful correlation between the materialities of “wilderness” and “gospel-sound” extends to a reading of his prose writing as well: his arrival at the Brotherton Indian settlement in October of 1785, for example, is marked by journal entries that intertwine, without transition or distinction, the day’s weather and the day’s singing.

Occom’s “slow traveller,” on the other hand, presents a different sort of environmental subject. The “slow traveller” demonstrates attachment to the world, telling “happy Souls” to “leave me here behind, don’t stop for me.” While the “slow traveller” insists that “I’ll come after you,” he discovers that “‘tho I’m behind, yet I can find I’ll sing Hosanna too.” I argue that this cultivation of slowness, of slow perception and “slow travel,” the hymn’s implicit melancholy, and the proposal that both the “slow traveller” and the “happy Soul” can “sing Hosanna” are all hallmarks of the ecological – and I conclude by suggesting how such a reading might alter dominant critical perceptions of both Occom himself and, more broadly, of early Native American encounters with the natural world.


Christopher Berardino (Cornell University)

“Paper Sons: Counter-Authentication in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone and Helena Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus

Under Title Eight section 1304 (e) of the United States Code, “[e]very alien, eighteen years of age and over, shall at all times carry with him and have in his personal possession any certificate of alien registration,” any failure to comply with this stricture can result in imprisonment. Recently, in Arizona, the passage of SB1070 allows state law enforcement to determine the immigration status of an individual where there is “reasonable suspicion.” In practice, these laws, and others like them, have targeted documented and undocumented migrants of color, an injustice that is subtly and effectively critiqued in contemporary Asian American and Chicano literature.

This prejudice is especially felt on the West Coast and in the Southwest of the United States where people of color are constantly forced to inhabit a liminal position of nationality. Put another way, to be non-white in these areas requires an extra certification in the form of “papers” to be taken as “authentically” American. This contingent recognition, however, creates a paradox. In requiring a specific subset of persons to produce registration and documentation, many migrants of color, both resident and non-resident, are relegated to a kind of half-personhood—afforded only a few of the rights and securities given to American-born citizens. This paper will trace the importance of paper, that is, the role of formal registration, authentication and legitimization of Chinese immigrants in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone and Mexican migrant workers in Helena Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus. Examining these two texts will shed much needed light on the process of attaining legal recognition as a full citizen in the case of Bone, and as “alien” in the case of Under the Feet of Jesus.

Moreover, I hope to follow this focus on “paper” and draw attention to how both Ng and Viramontes shape the novels themselves into working pieces of documentation. This paper will argue that these novels act as documents of counter-authentication, proactively resisting the legal distillation of migrant identities and rights down to half persons. Both texts utilize literature as a space of resistance that provides an alternative, extra-legal way of understanding and recording the complexities of the migrant experience in the American West.


Julia Cheng (New York University)

“Queering Lists: Culinary and Literary Modernism in The Book of Salt

Lists, and the practice of listing, represent avenues of insight into an understanding of Bình, the protagonist in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2004). A queer Vietnamese exile, Bình’s birth in the novel derives from a series of lists; his character is generated out of piecemeal references from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. His name, mispronounced “Bin” by his employer Gertrude Stein, signals the name-bearer’s function as a receptacle for French desires, particularly for the desires of his Mesdames. Even as he is constantly available for the taking, the linguistic and culinary mastery demonstrated by the live-in cook for the notorious expatriate couple is shown to rival the Steins’ own modernist projects. Framed within his own collection of lists, Bình’s competence is packed within the “mere” form. The list constitutes a “superficial” formal feature that stages the particularities of queer aesthetics through cuisine, topography, and story telling. Exercised with remarkable restraint, these generative accretions allow the list-maker to redress his insecurities in small acts of creativity. While each list inserts itself within The Book of Salt as a framing device for Bình’s artistry, the protagonist’s act of list-making can be read as a critical methodology more generally, one shown to be appropriate for his position as a liminal subject. This paper interrogates the achievements of a “minor” character within these frames, especially given the (counter)fact that their contents become sublimated within the literary archives of High Modernism. Building on David Eng’s The Feeling of Kinship, the list represents a stylistic feature that opens The Book of Salt to larger historical and theoretical reflections on postcolonial queer diaspora.


Michele Chinitz (City University of New York, Graduate Center)

“Affect, the Arts, and Displacement in Teju Cole’s Open City

In Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2011) a song played by a Chinese marching band in Manhattan reminds the narrator of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. Like the distant band, the offstage position of Mahler’s horns imbues the novel with a feeling of displacement. Descriptions of literature, art, music, and film riddle Cole’s text. Rather than read these references primarily as figures for aesthetic comment, I argue that through works of art Open City elicits ways to feel that register the difficulties of cognitive mapping, as Fredric Jameson has called it, or knowing about one’s relations in the time of late global capital. Critics have taken note especially of the delayed haunting of visual art, its “afterimages” (Karen Jacobs, 2014) and “after-affects” (Pieter Vermeulen, 2015). I advocate attending to the imbrication of setting and creative work, as foregrounding the globalized context of Cole’s descriptions of New York gives geopolitical valence to depictions of the way that arts make us feel. By examining Cole’s allusions to Mahler’s Second Symphony (1895), J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello (2003), and Roland Barthes’s memoir-essay Camera Lucida (1980) I will illustrate the affective links that the arts forge between Open City and multiple sites across the world. What are the stakes of generating empathy and consolation through works of art? I suggest that certain kinds of art, which show the difficulty of understanding our relations to be the shared character of our relations, represent the impact of globalization on modes of feeling. With that emphasis of feeling, a key insight of Cole’s novel is that aesthetic sensitivity is not a form of ethical training for navigating today’s world. That the three cited creators I discuss are white men relates to Cole’s subtle investigation of race and gender in discourses of violence. The disorder, violence, and technology of the last hundred years, which I trace through the places evoked in a few of the author’s allusions from this period, give the arts their cachet as sites for mediating affective states that, crucially, attune us to fractured collectivity rather than make up for it.


Mollie Eisenberg (Princeton University)

“‘Not That Kind of Story’: The American Hardboiled’s Anxiety of (British) Influence”

“It’s not that kind of story,” Raymond Chandler’s serial sleuth Philip Marlowe explains to his love interest, Anne Riordan, at the end of the 1940 Farewell, My Lovely. “It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood.” What kind of story isn’t it? The context here, with its references to features of genre formula and to the names of other sleuths, makes it plain: it’s not a classical British detective story, which is “lithe and clever” and, Chandler and Marlowe both make clear, fundamentally unreal—all conceit, no guts. Farewell, My Lovely exemplifies the wedge that the American hard-boiled detective novel tries to drive between itself and the “puzzle-box” mysteries of the British Golden Age of detective fiction. This effort actually parallels the British detective novel’s concern with similar intra-genre likenesses and unlikenesses, which often extend to a broader program of consideration of the place of detective fiction in the modernist literary moment. The resemblance doesn’t stop there: the hard-boiled novel also demonstrates an impressive array of features similar to the British detective novel, particularly around explicit thematics of text, even, in Farewell, My Lovely, down to the inclusion of Shakespearean intertext, a favorite device of the British “Queen of Crime,” Agatha Christie.

This paper explores the way that the American hard-boiled detective novel adopts, appropriates, or alters the signature textual strategies of the British Golden Age—metatext and intertext, reference and allusion, and always a kind of fending-off of other detective novels and a determination to establish a more legitimate frame of literary reference. Focusing on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in comparison to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, I hope to establish a kind of continuity of concern with genre and its literary status that can shed light on the valences of aesthetic hierarchy that cross—and don’t cross—the Atlantic in the mid-Twentieth Century.


Nora Eltahawy (Northwestern University)

“Neo-Scheherazade: Transnational Storytelling and the Iraq War in Alia Yunis’s The Night Counter

In the years between 2003 and 2008, and as the United States became increasingly embroiled in the Iraq War and the political rhetoric surrounding the larger War on Terror, no fewer than four Arab American authors incorporated The Thousand and One Nights into their writing. Since that time, scholars of Arab American literature have analyzed this trend as either a feminist reclamation of Scheherazade (Sabry, 2011), perhaps the most renowned female storyteller in literary history, or a self-Orientalizing gesture intended to appeal to the authors’ American readership (Orfalea, 2006). To date, however, little has been done to connect these authors’ re-appropriation of the classical text to the fraught political and military environment in which these works were produced. This paper focuses on one example of the trend, Alia Yunis’s The Night Counter, in order to examine how Arab American authors have utilized the model of Scheherazade’s storytelling to work against the cultural and national barriers of the years surrounding the Iraq War. The story of an eighty five year old Lebanese immigrant named Fatima who receives nightly visitations from Scheherazade and who is coached by the legendary storyteller into narrating tales about her life, The Night Counter moves seamlessly between the fantastical interactions between the two women and depictions of state surveillance practices and xenophobic violence directed at the wider cast of Arab American characters in the text. I argue that Yunis channels the classical model of storytelling that Scheherazade inspires in Fatima towards undoing these examples of cultural exclusions. More specifically, I maintain that Yunis utilizes Fatima’s stories, which move dizzyingly between Lebanon and the United States and frequently blur the lines between the two, to resist the boundaries constructed by the Iraq War between the Middle East and the United States and to create a transnational space more equipped to handle the multiple histories of Arab Americans in its stead.


Cynthia García (Stanford University)

“‘They Must Agree to Forget’: Urban Counter-Cartographies in Chicanx Literature and Public Art”

Reclaiming space as a mode of analysis and recognizing its potential as a site of intervention, Chicana writers and artists consciously reject hegemonic conceptualizations of space and instead use the space of their narratives to theorize new ways of understanding spatiality, history and time-space. My paper examines literary works and public art forms that serve to reimagine history and place the experiences of urban Chicanx communities at the center of their analysis, namely, Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came With Us, and a mural by an anonymous artist located in the Mission District of San Francisco. I argue that these works critique the processes of coloniality by producing nuanced representations of space that challenge spatial displacement and historical erasure. These artists’ works are ultimately a testament to the utopian possibilities of the arts and humanities—to provide a place for marginalized communities to imagine new worlds and conceptualize strategies for changing their material conditions.


Shawn M. Higgins (University of Connecticut)

“The Land of the Painted Fan: Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Raymond Egan’s Japan”

Josh Kun describes “audiotopia” as the concept “that music functions like a possible utopia for the listener” and suggests that songs are events “of cultural encounter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” which listeners can visit/access. This kind of work considers imagination, tourism, encounter, and migration amidst a “soundscape,” a term R. Murray Schafer promulgated referring to “events heard not objects seen” which serve as an indicating “means of fixing social and even political events.” Such aural and auditory imaginaries presage the focus of this paper, which takes seriously the ways in which cultural encounters can be mapped via music, sound, and lyric. In particular, I examine how politics of exclusion—especially those embedded in the cartographic prohibitions of the United States’ 1917 Act—are explored in what I term an “orientalist soundscape,” or a sonic environment that pervasively creates, remixes, and promotes both positive and negative images of the Orient and its imagined peoples. This acoustic perspective examines degrees of distance, nostalgic notions of space, folklore, and commodified notions of Japanese-ness

Specifically, I consider the “orientalist soundscape” via Raymond Egan and Richard Whiting’s “The Japanese Sandman.” Following the First World War, the music of Tin Pan Alley circulated widely via the burgeoning industries of sheet music production, phonograph records, film, and commercial radio broadcasting. This presentation considers how Egan and Whiting’s song, via Tin Pan Alley’s established soundscape, fantasizes about an idealized cosmopolitanism in the face of increased isolationism. The way the song’s English-speaking narrator encounters Japan and Japanese subjects makes visible an “orientalist soundscape” not only at the narrative level but also in the cultural ways imperialistic contact with Asia is imagined and recreated.


Mason Jabbari (University of Michigan)

“‘Art “copying from life” and life itself’: Klee’s Influence in Bishop’s Late Poems”

Elizabeth Bishop’s admiration for the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee’s aesthetic and its influence on her early poetics are well documented, as exemplified by Samuels’s Deep Skin (2010) and Anderson’s Lines of Connection (2013). Yet, Bishop’s arguably more mature poems in Geography III are rarely thought of in these terms. This paper touches on Klee’s notion of the “architectonic” and the “poetic” and argues that Klee’s fusion of the poetic into the visual, which renders them almost indistinguishable, is picked up by Bishop in these late poems and perhaps taken a step further. In “The End of March”, for example, the visual elements turn up on multiple levels: the em dash of the lines, strings and wires in the descriptions, and the metaphors. And her “Poem”, which is among the most ekphrastic in Bishop’s oeuvre, captures the process of remediation in its flux.


Martin Aagaard Jensen (City University of New York, Graduate Center)

“Worlding Domesticity: Methodology Debates and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Lamenting the absence of empire in the study of American culture, the New Americanists demonstrated the need to situate American studies in global framework, and to move beyond ideologies of separate spheres. In recent decades, hemispheric and transnational studies have indeed thrived, identifying and mapping connectedness across the domestic and foreign spheres, as well as the private and the public spheres. Aiming to discredit the nation-state as the main explanatory framework, critics working within these subfields prioritize the international scale of analysis rather than a national one. A central problem in their inquiry concerns the question of whether transnationalism should be regarded as a method to be applied to a literary text (thus, a function of the critic’s perception) or whether transnationalism is, rather, a feature of a literary text (appearing in evidentiary form as diasporic figures, spoken dialects, world-travelling characters). Literary critics such as Caren Irr, Madhu Dubey and Catherine Morley write disparagingly of some authors who choose to depict domestic American culture over overtly transnational material.

This paper intervenes in the New Americanists’ methodology debates, taking as its object of study the representational strategies of a contemporary domestic novel: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010). Against those critics who seek identifying markers of transnationalism in American novels, I argue that, in the neoliberal twenty-first century, domesticity indicates a kind of global consciousness: Freedom’s resigned psychological realism of family life sets up encounters between spheres of domesticity and global imperialism, forcing a inevitable breakdown of autonomous spheres. Indeed, in a globalized neoliberal world the representation of domesticity cannot but open up to a global network, the very matter in opposition to which the domestic sphere is defined. I conclude that, at a time when globalism permeates domestic America, we must re-establish the terms of the debate being conducted within New Americanist studies.


Sophia Mao (Harvard University)

“Different Lives: The Rise of Asian American Genre Fiction”

In her 2009 book The Interethnic Imagination, Caroline Rody argues that Asian American literature is moving from the realm of the “ethnic” to the “interethnic” in which recent novels are progressing from narratives of historical “return” to those of multi-ethnic “encounter.” Rody writes that “recent Asian American fictions portray less the struggle for a place in the American mainstream than the negotiation of shifting roles in an intercultural arena” (21). In other words, Asian American novelists including Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan who dealt with immigrants’ home countries and their investment in the American Dream are now making way for Asian American novelists that, while no less invested in these themes, have expanded to increasingly interethnic narratives that cross race, class, and nation.

While Rody’s study traces novels from Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker to Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, she ultimately leaves the realm of Asian American genre fiction untouched. In the past few years, novels including Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (2013) and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (2014) have skyrocketed to popularity as marketable pieces of genre fiction. While Kwan’s novel is sold as chick lit that details the lives of the extremely wealthy in the economic capitals of Asia, Ng’s novel is sold as a mystery that unravels the story behind the death of a mixed race child.

My paper seeks to bring Asian American genre fiction into conversation with Rody’s concept of the interethnic. By considering the marketing, reception, and plot of Ng’s novel alongside a similarly plotted literary counterpart, Suki Kim’s The Interpreter (2003), I hope to present Asian American genre fiction as continuous with, rather than separate from, Asian American literary fiction.


Tim Sommer (University of Heidelberg)

“Orestes Brownson and the World Republic of Letters”

In recent years, the revisionist consensus about American Transcendentalism’s ideological complicity with antebellum imperialist aspirations has itself become the subject of critical revision. As Lawrence Buell and others have emphasized, rather than sharing contemporary nationalist persuasions, the movement sought to translate national concerns into a broader cosmopolitan framework. While this more recent image of a “global Transcendentalism” (Laura Dassow Walls) has led to revaluations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, less interest has been shown in a figure like Orestes Brownson, who continues to be framed as a straightforward nationalist of at best marginal importance. Brownson was, however, among the movement’s most enthusiastic advocates of European continental literature and philosophy and, as such, merits greater attention in the current debate about the Transcendentalists’ idea of the relation between culture and nationhood. Reading representative examples of his transatlantic literary criticism (mainly published in the Boston Quarterly Review in the late 1830s and early 1840s), I aim to contextualize Brownson’s remarks about American literature against those of his contemporaries and to retrace the argumentative outlines of his negotiation between nationalist and transnational positions with the help of Pascale Casanova’s concept of a “world republic of letters.” I argue that Brownson’s writing on nineteenth-century American literature’s place in the world is permeated (and undercut) by his realization that the rhetoric of cultural nationalism – to which he himself often subscribed – was in essence an exhausted paradigm. His failure to articulate a coherent definition of “American” literature, I wish to suggest, was the result of a dialectical tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Approaching Brownson’s literary criticism from a broader transnational perspective brings his writing into clearer focus while also ultimately forcing us to reconsider Transcendentalism as a whole. Rather than being its jingoist Other, Brownson emerges as one of the crucial contributors to a movement that conceived of itself as simultaneously in competition and conversant with what lay beyond the borders of the nineteenth-century United States.

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