Abstracts 2013

Angela S. Allan         Brown University

Slouching Towards Neoliberalism: Joan Didion and Transnational Democracy

In more recent years, critical considerations of neoliberalism have tended to bemoan the displacement of democratic institutions by the capitalist order, arguing that traditional nation-centric approaches are no longer applicable in an age of global capitalism.  Yet this line of thinking, however persuasive, has tended to overlook the concurrent rise of America’s foreign and domestic policies—deployed in the name of democratic interests—that ensured the successful implementation and dominance of neoliberalism at the global level.  While foreign policy under the Carter administration witnessed the end of several US-friendly autocratic regimes, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s influential 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards” argued that many of these regimes—while non-democratic—shared US economic interests and should be thought of as less threatening than totalitarian regimes.  Suggesting that American foreign policy “could effectively encourage this process of liberalization and democratization” of the world, through the financial, military, and public support of anti-communist authoritarian regimes, Kirkpatrick became a leading policy advisor under Ronald Reagan and the US ambassador to the United Nations.  Such logic is integral to understanding American policy in the 1980s, but also suggests the need to rethink official state narratives about what constitutes democracy.  Tracing the complex networks in which money, politics, and information circulate in the late 20th century, this paper examines writer Joan Didion’s dissemination of print capital through the careful nuance between reportage and novelistic strategies.

Noted for both her work as an essayist and novelist, Didion chronicled the “mechanism of terror” that haunted US politics at home and abroad in the Reagan era.  A former Goldwater supporter turned critical of conservatism, Didion’s politics are often difficult to clearly identify—a task that has long frustrated her critics: as Mary McCarthy commented in her review of Didion’s 1984 novel, Democracy, “I do not quite see how democracy comes into the Didion tale.”  In this paper, I read Democracy, alongside her nonfiction writings in both Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987), arguing that Didion’s use of an ever-expanding narrative form—one that blurs boundaries between fact and fiction, past and present, the United States and the world—offers an alternative to traditional containment strategies.  By showing how state narratives of “democracy” have come to stand in for the protection of neoliberalism’s private, economic interests rather than the protection of public, political values, I suggest Didion’s work productively offers an alternative model in which the borderlessness of literary narratives might give way to transnational, democratic forms of expression.

Oliver Baker         University of New Mexico

‘In the old days we were free’: Frontier Anxiety and Monopoly Capitalism in S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema

As the first novel written by a Native American woman, S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), ironically envisions not the beginning of American Indian identity but its end. Its story is one of assimilation and eradication. The novel’s protagonist, the young Creek woman Wynema, must learn the ways of the white world if she is to have any chance at a future, while non-assimilating Indians in the novel end up dead. The ideology of the text, then, suggests that in the narrative of American progress the American Indian must disappear, either through death or assimilation. Callahan takes up the project of the latter as an alternative to the former. Yet, forced assimilation is violence nonetheless, and while the novel protests the mistreatment of Native peoples, it remains a text that calls for their forced absorption in white culture.

Making sense of this assimilation inevitably leads scholars to questions of culture and identity. For some, assimilation in the novel is the sign of a failed tribal politics, while for others, assimilation becomes an attempt at cross-cultural exchange. In both cases, the novel is important in so far as it speaks about the cultural and identitarian challenges American Indians faced in a time when dominant ideologies called for their disappearance. While the novel certainly teaches us about culture and identity, this study turns away from such approaches and instead focuses on questions of economy and ideology. If Wynema is a novel about cultural loss and identity fragmentation, it is also about market transformations, and economic uncertainty.

Specifically, Wynema is a novel that tracks the ideological movements of monopoly capitalism in a postfrontier America. Capturing the political unconscious of a time when monopoly capitalism emerged as the dominant mode of production, Wynema becomes a text that marks how such transformation took place. As the novel stages the American Indian as a figure of a lost agrarian frontier, the assimilation of such a figure becomes an allegory of the assimilation of frontier agrarianism into monopoly capitalism. Thus the logic of loss and disappearance of the American Indian becomes the logic of monopoly capitalism as it closes the frontier if only to eliminate and absorb what had been frontier alternatives to monopoly power. What Callahan’s novel teaches us, then, is how monopoly capitalism created the very conditions for the ideological closure of the frontier so as to stage its own perceived inevitability and endurability upon the American West.

Hadji Bakara         University of Chicago

Ahab After Evil: MobyDick, Global New Left, and the Limits of Liberal Imagination

Weatherman’s 1969 “War Council” is a signal moment in the radicalization of the American New Left. Attendees hung oversized papier-mâché guns from the ceiling and greeted one another with chants of “free Charles Manson,” marking the emergence of an emphatic aestheticization of violence undergirding, and perhaps permitting, Weatherman’s turn towards terrorism. The Ann Arbor Argus titled their coverage of the event, “Moby Dick.” The title referred directly to a speech by Mark Rudd in which he declared himself “monomaniacal” in his war against the state, and openly identified with Ahab’s struggle to hunt the white whale. At the same time, the title registered a broader shift in Weatherman from unmediated activism to symbolic warfare.

This paper tracks a shift from an earlier moment in the left’s thematization of Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which figures such as CLR James, Eldridge Cleaver, and Mao Tse-Tung identified with the crew and the white whale, to the New Left’s identification with Ahab and the hunters, exemplified by Weatherman and the Baader-Meinhof gang. I argue that while an older left used the novel to understand state violence, the New Left used it to justify violence against the state. For the generation of Vietnam and the global revolutions of 1968, the paradigmatic text of the American Renaissance and the “liberal imagination” had thus pivoted 180 degrees: from an Ishmaelite fable of negative capability to an Ahabian novel of commitment.

Ben Bascom         University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Museum/ Empire:  The Last American and World Culture

Six years after beginning Life magazine, one-time architect and illustrator John Ames Mitchell published The Last American (1889), an illustrated novel about a group of Persians who sail across the globe in the year 2951 and discover New York City in ruins, eventually making their way to the former nation’s capital where they kill the last living Euro-American. In this paper, I demonstrate how the narrative and publication history of this novel frames the emergence of a particular way of understanding empire as a cultural phenomenon. The novel’s narrative allegorizes the practice of empire in its ironic encounter between museumifying Persian explorers and a ruined American society. I contextual this representation of museum-building with the ubiquity of museums emerging during the Gilded Age, and then I read the material book itself as a sort of conceptual museum that amasses disparate visuals in the 1902 “edition de luxe.” Thinking through Nicholas Mirzoeff’s recent work about the relation between technologies of “visuality” and empire—in addition to Diana Taylor’s formulation of how nineteenth-century museums “literalized the theatricality of colonialism”—I conclude by showing how the novel provides a case study to assess the ways in which empire as a cultural phenomenon was represented in art and literature at the turn of the century and ostensibly put on display in the period’s museums.

Katherine Bishop         University of Iowa

“They Passed in Review”: Hybrid Bodies in Mark Twain’s Following the Equator

We read maps and travelogues in part to determine where we are and to find a route to our destination; we take these texts as residual markers of the world around us, accurate and real, to explain the lacunas in space and time that surround us: “What gradually fills the world’s voids with words, multiplies and details representations (geographical maps, historical enactments, etc.), and thus ‘conquers’ space by marking it with meanings, is a component of and force within history,” Michel de Certeau argues. The past, repressed by hegemonic ideologies, returns in the present, vying for visibility. The very title of Twain’s last travelogue is a nod to a circumnavigation of the globe’s prime imaginary divigation, a satirical jab at the cyclical farce of the ideology of progress and superiority written into so many travel-related texts and of Twain’s dueling criticism of tourism and travel literature and his participation in it. I argue Following the Equator’s merger of photography, engravings, and humorous texts allows Mark Twain–and through him his readers –to light out for geographic and imaginative territories in a Huck Finn-like exploration of the effects of imperialistic travel and policies and underlines the connections Twain feels with those he meets. In this paper, I will explore how the merger of graphics and graphemes in Following the Equator underlines the multiplicity of the gaze and estranges colonization, voyeuristic and otherwise, while revealing the impossibility of envisioning the human and geographical whole of a people and a nation.

Throughout Following the Equator (1897), the immortalization of Mark Twain’s last world tour, Twain criticizes what he sees as the United States’s participation in hypocritical exceptionalism and oppression of native peoples, particularly in travel-based texts, and their use in filling voids of identity and identifications. In “A Salutation Speech From the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth” (1900), Twain presents a “bedraggled” though “stately matron named Christendom” whose return from piratical, imperial escapades necessitates his readers to draw her a bath but to “hide the looking-glass.” Such comments seem to indicate a despondent outlook on America’s ability to look upon itself and its future because of its “pious hypocrisies” abroad. However, I argue that rather than universally calling to “hide the looking glass,” the rich visuality of Following the Equator yields a strong call to perception. The format of Following the Equator boosted sales while expanding Twain’s narrative circuitry and his political and humorous prospects—thus giving us deeper insight as to how he looked back, looked forward, and looked around himself at the cusp of the twentieth century, encouraging his readers to do the same.

Marvin Campbell         University of Virginia

“’Our Spanish Side’ in Wallace Stevens’ Key West: Toward a Hemispheric Modernism”

Against readings of Wallace Stevens that orphan his work from literary history and social reality and a geography of modernism still too oriented around the culture capitals of Europe, “’Our Spanish Side’ in Wallace Stevens’ Key West: Toward a Hemispheric Modernism” argues that our understanding of both the poet and formation would benefit from attention to a Key West that operates as a portal for each to the Hispanophone South. Closer to Havana than Miami, the liminal island stands imbricated in crosscurrents of difference and a shared modernist aesthetics that obtain across the Americas, dissolving national boundaries and excavating a history elided under the aegis of Plymouth Rock and the American Renaissance.

I argue that those crosscurrents and aesthetics find an ideal avatar in the famous Ramon Fernandez addressed at the conclusion of “Idea of Order at Key West.” Rather than merely representing a cri de coeur in the face of a Francophone critic Stevens was familiar with, as the critical consensus holds, Stevens’ breathless appeal articulates a partnership that spans across the course of his career. From that point of departure, literal as well as figurative, I show that such a presence can be felt most particularly in the work of the twenties and forties that bookends Ideas of Order. For the former, Ramon’s imaginary is legible in a Harmonium where the United States has been transformed into a “northern rim of the Caribbean,” to borrow a phrase from John Rowe, and the canonical quest poem into a “mock epic” in “The Comedian as the Letter C” that dramatizes the condition of belatedness the New World shares. Reeling from critiques of political quietism and the emergence of aesthetic commitment in the thirties, Stevens says “Farewell to Florida”—and Ramon—only to return in the postwar decade of the latter. Undertaking a correspondence with Jose Rodriguez Feo, the editor of Orígenes, an influential literary journal in Havana, the silent interlocutor becomes real, each figure—through an exchange not only epistolary but poetic—rendering explicit the hemispheric affiliations Stevens intuited as early as the teens.

Through the hemispheric modernism I articulate over the course of my work on Key West, it is my aim to show that Stevens’—and modernism’s—“Spanish” side holds far-reaching implications for twentieth century poetics writ large, extending far beyond the purely Hispanophone or even trans-American. Contemporaries in Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Hart Crane, leave no aspect of the United States and its literary culture untouched by energies of racial, national, and linguistic difference in the South, while inheritors in Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill extend this imaginary into Luso- and Grecophone territories that inform, in their creation, a Global South Atlantic.

Brian Goodman         Harvard University

Josef Škvorecký’s American Epigraphs: Hemingway, Mezzrow, and the Dangers of Influence in Communist Czechoslovakia

Josef Škvorecký’s novel The Cowards (Zbabělci in the original Czech), a major work in postwar Czech literature, was immediately banned upon its publication in 1958 for its supposedly “American” influences. A novelist, translator, and editor, Škvorecký (who passed away in 2012) was a key figure in the world system of literary exchange during the Cold War. A major translator of American literature—particularly Hemingway and Faulkner—into Czech during the 1950s and 1960s, Škvorecký fled to North America after the Soviet invasion of 1968. In Toronto he founded 68 Publishers, a major conduit of banned Czech writing into the West. (Škvorecký is a major figure in my dissertation, which examines the transmission of literature between the U.S. and the Eastern Bloc according to the groundbreaking model proposed in Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters.) This conference paper will examine the ways that Škvorecký, and his novel, negotiated the complicated politics of literary influence in communist Czechoslovakia, particularly through his introduction of two new epigraphs to the rehabilitated 1963 edition of The Cowards: one from the integrationist Chicago jazzman Mezz Mezzrow and the other from Ernest Hemingway.

Abigail Droge         Stanford University

I love you all I can, I think: Transnational Humor in Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazilian Poetry

As a transnational view of American studies, in the style of Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Wai Chee Dimock, becomes increasingly important in the flat world of the twenty-first century, Bishop provides a crucial contribution to any conversation about American literature and the world.  Living in Brazil from 1951-1967 and sporadically afterwards, and engaging in a lesbian relationship with Brazilian aristocrat and architect Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop wrote roughly a quarter of her poems about her new home and she translated both Brazilian poetry and prose into English.  The theme of expatriatism is now mainstream in Bishop scholarship; but the canon of Bishop’s Brazilian poetry must be re-explored and re-evaluated as American studies turns to a new understanding of the transnational.  This paper seeks to enter that conversation through the little-discussed angle of Bishop’s comedic sense.  By probing the nature of Bishop’s humor, we can explore the complex ethical issues that lie at the intersection between laughter and eros, issues central to the relationship between Bishop-the-exile and her adopted country.

Bishop has often been seen as an American poet living in, but largely isolated from, Brazil; few have focused on the creative parallels between her work and Brazilian culture.  This paper suggests new ways in which Bishop’s creative process, and specifically her humor, can be understood as trans-hemispheric.  I emphasize the symbiotic nature of Bishop’s relationship with Brazil and locate the direct ancestors of Bishop’s absurdist, sensual, and darkly comedic style, as seen in poems like “Pink Dog” (1979), in the long tradition of the erotic macabre in Brazilian Carnival.  I thus use Bishop’s comedic sense to place her poetry more firmly in a Brazilian context than has yet been done, allowing us to understand Bishop’s expatriate wit as part of a fuller transnational framework.

Such a Brazilian context, however, is incomplete without the inclusion of Brazilian reactions to Bishop’s humorous poems, which could often be construed as condescending towards their subjects.  I turn to current Brazilian media and blogs to explore the shift in generational responses to Bishop in the last half century; I seek to explain why a cold contemporary reception chiefly hinged on her unpopular politics has recently given way to a largely depoliticized, and consequently more humanized, view of Bishop as a social figure.  Pivotal in this transformation is Carmen Oliveira’s bestselling biographic novel Rare and Commonplace Flowers (1995), which imaginatively details Bishop’s intensely personal relationship with Lota and crucially emphasizes the wit of the two women as well.  Oliveira’s combination of eros and comedy provides us with a key way of understanding both the Brazilian cultural attitude towards Bishop as well as the sensual humor essential to Bishop’s Brazilian canon.

Kate Huber         Temple University

Incommensurability and Empire: The Failure of Translation in Cooper’s Mercedes of Castile

Nineteenth-century American depictions of Columbus present him as a quintessentially nationalistic figure embodying the ideals of self-reliance and manifest destiny, but Columbus also encapsulates the spirit of discovery that was beginning to drive American expansionism. By focusing on the failures of cross-cultural communication in zones of initial encounter, this paper will examine how Cooper’s underappreciated retelling of the Columbus story, Mercedes of Castile (1840), responds to the cultural blindness of contemporary expansionist projects like the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), which epitomizes how a disregard for cultural difference manifests in the expectation of easy and unproblematic word-for-word translation. While many commentators have criticized Cooper’s combination of historical fact and romantic conflict, Columbus’s historical misunderstanding of the New World and the people he found there is mirrored in the plot of romantic misunderstanding that Cooper adds to the Columbus narrative. When Cooper’s hero becomes infatuated with a native Caribbean woman, he imagines she is childlike and innocent. Consequently, he fails to see how her own set of cultural concepts, which do not translate literally into Spanish ones, cause the misinterpretation that drives the romantic plot. Because the Spaniards view their own ceremonies and social codes as the only options, they are unable to see the differences in Caribbean concepts and ceremonies. Like the U.S. Exploring Expedition, they mistakenly believe that translation between cultures can be accomplished by a simple, one-to-one change in terminology.

Jang Wook Huh         Columbia University

A Trans-Pacific Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Korea, and the Trope of Overlapping Dispossessions

It is little known that Korea was the first East Asian country Langston Hughes visited en route from the Soviet Union to Japan in 1933. Excavating his itinerary in Asia, this paper examines the ways in which Hughes innovates what I call a “poetics of overlapping dispossession” that connects the US and Korea. In particular, my paper brings to light Hughes’s poetic mode that combines racial and colonial subjugations against the entanglements of imperialism and racism.

In his “transpacific” writings, Hughes draws a parallel between the racialization of Koreans under Japanese rule and that of African Americans in the US. Hughes’s extension of the color line from the US to the Pacific extrapolates the concept of ‘inter-racism’ in Asia from quotidian forms of racism implicitly operating in the US. Korea has gone unexplored in Afro-Asian connectedness, but I argue that Hughes’s poetics of overlapping dispossessions between African Americans and Koreans recuperates Koreans who were colonized by another “colored” race.

Hughes’s poetic invention of Afro-Korean conjunctures was crucial for Koreans as well. Koreans living in the U.S. and Korea translated Hughes in subtle ways in the 1930s. They inserted the history of Korea’s colonial dispossession into Hughes’s texts of racial dispossession to stage a covert call for anti-colonialism under Japan’s colonial censorship. These Afro-Korean literary intersections brought together different national and racial histories to critique the surreptitious operation of the global color line, illuminating the expansive legacy of the Harlem Renaissance in the Pacific.

Palmer Rampell         Yale University

Kilroy Was Here: Faulkner in Japan, August 1955

In 1955, at the invitation of the United States Department, William Faulkner left his farm in Oxford, Mississippi and journeyed around the world.  His trip took him first to Japan, which, only two years earlier, had still been occupied by the United States.  Although Faulkner spent much of his trip inebriated and although many of his Japanese interlocutors knew little of his work, Faulkner would coin some of his most famous descriptions of his novels on this very trip to Nagano, Japan.  There he first called As I Lay Dying “a tour de force” and first referred to The Sound and the Fury as his “finest failure.”  He described The Sound and the Fury as the novel “that I feel most tender toward,” and he claimed, in its composition, to tell the “same story four times,” failing each time.  In Japan, in other words, our image of Faulkner as an American high modernist began to coalesce.  Before his 1949 Nobel Prize, before he became embroiled in the anti-Soviet discourse of humanism, Faulkner was primarily known for his potboilers, for his Gothic tales of violence and degeneration.

In the first half of my paper, I examine the Cold War context of Faulkner’s visit, in order to show how Faulkner’s comments in Japan lent support to American attempts to stall the spread of Communism.  In highlighting the similarities between the South and Japan, Faulkner participates in the Eisenhower’s administration attempt to promote sympathetic identification throughout the world, as chronicled by Christina Klein.  His trip also harmonizes with American efforts to reassure the world about race relations and to demonstrate to foreign elites that US artists produced artworks that merited serious contention, that it was possible to be both avant-garde and anti-communist.  In the second half, I consider Japanese accounts of Faulkner’s visit, which have never before been translated into English.  These accounts show his audience members’ bewilderment at the discrepancy between the in-the-flesh Faulkner and the Faulkner they encountered on the page.  How, they wondered, could he champion the potential of individual man?  How could he urge sympathy and goodwill, when his works often seemed so darkly portentous?  They sensed but ultimately chose to ignore the mismatch between Faulkner’s novels and his mission for the State Department.

This paper supplements the recent scholarly emphasis on the transnational dimensions of Faulkner’s work.  Pascale Casanova has shown how Faulkner’s novels serve as a kind of ready-made model for rural authors to subvert their own national literatures.  But at the same time that his novels often undermine colonial authority, Faulkner, the author, acted as an agent of the US State Department, helping to shore up American hegemony around the globe.  That tension, between his novels and his political mission to Japan, is the subject of my remarks.

Lindsay Van Tine       Columbia University

Old World Romance, New World History, and the Geography of Genre in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Calavar

Robert Montgomery Bird’s historical romance Calavar; Or, The Knight of the Conquest: A Romance of Mexico, published in Philadelphia by Carey, Lea & Blanchard in 1834, was the first work of U.S. fiction about the Spanish conquest of Mexico. While it has recently been rediscovered as a “hemispheric novel” steeped in the imperial rhetoric of the Monroe Doctrine era, this paper suggests that the implications of Bird’s work only become fully legible when we read his representations of hemispheric history in the context of his transatlantic literary ambitions. Situating Calavar within a literary marketplace eager for historical romances in the mode of Sir Walter Scott, I trace the transatlantic circulation of the historical romance genre to demonstrate that the tension between the generic conventions of an Old World form and the narrative demands of a New World history led Bird to adapt Scott’s model in significant ways—and to temper its imperial rhetoric of progress.

While Bird’s working notes reveal that he was initially drawn to Spanish conquest of Mexico as the most “romantic” episode of New World history, and therefore as the best subject for a historical romance that could rank alongside Scott’s, his engagement with historical sources led him to grapple with its ethical stakes. His portrayal of the conquest relied heavily on Charles Cullen’s 1787 English translation of the eighteenth-century Mexican Jesuit Francisco Saverio Clavigero’s Ancient History of Mexico, which invoked the Black Legend to condemn the Spanish and defend the Aztecs. Bird not only adopted this perspective in Calavar, but went even further by putting it in the mouth of an indigenous Mexican historian; drawing on the trope of the found manuscript, the conceit of the introduction is that the story proper is simply the translation of a “secret history” drawn from conquest-era indigenous codices. Thus, Calavar’s narrator is aligned with the protesting voice of the vanquished, even as the fictional romance plot attempts, in the manner of Scott, to resolve the contradictions of history and naturalize the victory of the forces of progress through a marriage. This romance plot ultimately fails to provide closure for the history plot, revealing the contradictions that arise when a fictional genre developed in the service of Old World nationalism becomes a vehicle for narrating a pre- and trans-national New World history.

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