1. Summary of
the 26th American Studies Forum:
Featured Speaker: Russ Castronovo
Sessions I and II: Common Sense and Revolution
In 1776, Thomas
Jefferson and his rebel compatriots famously declared, “We
hold these truths to be self evident….” This statement
presents revolution as an evidentiary fact that every person can
perceive and understand immediately. Tom Paine gave fuller expression
to this sentiment in his pamphlet, Common Sense, which, through
a mixture of logic and sentiment, stirred support for American
This session probes the link between such demonstrations of “common
sense” and revolutionary consciousness. It is link that takes
us to the ground of aesthetic judgment, a zone of feeling and supposedly
universal sensibility. But civic feelings can become overexcited
and popular sensibilities can become inflamed. The result is mob
rule, what Paine called the “popular rage.” How did
American revolutionaries—and how can we—distinguish
between popular democracy and “popular rage,” between
the rule of the people and the rule of the mob? In addition to
turning to Jefferson
and Paine as we seek answers to these questions, we will also consider
Hannah Foster’s epistolary novel of 1797, The Coquette, and
Hawthorne’s short story published n 1832, “My Kinsman,
This session will lead us to consider more
broadly the relationship between literature and propaganda. Can
a poem be revolutionary? Can revolution be
poetic? In studying American culture, how do we distinguish literature from
Cathy Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in
America (New York : Oxford University Press, 1986).
Jay Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language & the
Culture of Performance (Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press,
Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York : Oxford
University Press, 1976).
Hannah Foster, The Coquette (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” in
Tales and Sketches (New York: Modern Library, 1982.
Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence” in
The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York:
Thomas Paine, Common Sense in The Thomas Paine Reader (New York:
“The Liberty Tree” in The Thomas Paine Reader
(New York: Penguin, 1987).
Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the
Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1990).
Sessions III and IV: Literature and the Art of Social Government
“I have seen an armful of daisies keep the peace of
a block better than a policeman and his club,” wrote the pioneering
urban reformer and photographer Jacob Riis. His statement connects
tenement reform to the deployment of aesthetic resources, suggesting
that we might well wonder about the ways in which American literature
has been charged with a moral mission. Slum novels, documentary photography,
and reports from charities such as the Flower Mission reveal that
Riis was not alone in the belief that beauty could turn the urban
herd into disciplined citizens. This faith found its theoretical
complement in academic research, much of it disseminated through
the university extension movement, which argued for the existence
of a species-wide “art instinct” that strives for harmony
and perfection. At the same time, though, reformers observed that
magic lantern shows created unruly crowds, flowers bedecked prostitutes,
and nickelodeons encouraged larceny.
This session examines the transformative
powers of aesthetics that create law-abiding citizens as well as
Dismayed by the spectacle of urban poverty at the turn
of the twentieth century—squalid living conditions, prostitution,
lack of economic opportunities, and discrimination—social reformers
and “muckrackers” marched
into American cities with missionary zeal. Novels and photographic
essays provided important social criticism by drawing attention to
the plight of the poor and immigrants. But what happens when the
poor, when what is un-beautiful, becomes the subject of novelistic
or visual representation? Reformers grappled with this question by
suggesting that art itself, that a notion of beauty could enable
the poor to overcome hardship and inequality. Jacob Riis, Stephen
Crane, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Dewey will inform our conversation.
Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Short Fiction
(New York: Bantam, 1986).
John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn, 1958).
Michel Foucault, “An Aesthetics of Existence,” Politics,
Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, trans.
Alan Sheridan et al, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge,
George Levine, “Introduction: Reclaiming the Aesthetic” in
Aesthetics and Ideology, ed. George Levine (New Brunswick: Rutgers
Jacob Riis, The Battle with the Slum (Montclair, N.J., Patterson
How the Other Half Lives (New York: Dover, 1971).
Session V and VI: Lynching and Aesthetics
and spectacular nature of lynching reveals the murderous dimensions
of aesthetics. Many whites looked on the killing of a
black person as public entertainment and tourist spectacle. Photographs
often commemorated the grisly event. Against this aestheticization
of violence, black writers and intellectuals sought to combat injustice
by turning beauty into a zone of political combat. For W.E.B. Du
Bois, this strategy famously entailed the conflation of art and propaganda.
While African American poets of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston
Hughes and Claude McKay rejected Du Bois’s formula for political
art, they nonetheless made lynching and racial violence a poetic
subject. This tension feeds into a larger debate about the political
uses of art: when does art cease being art and when does it become
In this way, the concerns of Session V loop around to
the questions raised in Sessions I and II. Now we will be pushing
our focus on
literature and propaganda through the crucible of race.
James K. Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms, 2000.
Anne Carroll, Anne. “Protest and Affirmation: Composite Texts
in the Crisis” American Literature 76.2 (2004).
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races.
Phillip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black
America. New York: Random House, 2002.
W.E.B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art.” In The Norton
Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates,
Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1997.
Dark Princess: A Romance. Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1974.
Dusk of Dawn. Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1975.
Jessie Fauset, “The Sleeper Wakes: A Novelette in Three Installments.” The
Crisis 20.4-6 (Sept-Nov. 1920).
Michael Hatt, “Race, Ritual, and Responsibility: Performativity
and the Southern Lynching” in Performing the Body/Performing
the Text. Ed. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson. London: Routledge,
David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.
New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
Claude McKay, “The Lynching” in Anthology of Modern American
Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (NY: Oxford UP, 2000).
“If We Must Die” in Anthology of Modern American
Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (NY: Oxford UP, 2000).
“To the White Fiends” in Anthology of Modern
American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (NY: Oxford UP, 2000).
Session VII: Globalization and American Literature
session asks: What role does American Studies play in globalization?
Since the 1960s critics of American higher education have acknowledged
the ties between college curricula (especially the teaching of literature)
and the nation-state. But in the wake of the so-called demise of
the nation-state, universities and colleges have now set about educating
students as citizens of a global economy. This session investigates
the potential effects of this new global citizenship, particularly
dominant versions that are produced in the American university. But
there’s also a risk in seeing globalization as a wholly recent
phenomenon. We will contextualize global formations now occurring
at the start of the twenty-first century by looking at U.S. literature
in the late-19th century (e.g. Walt Whitman and Frank Norris).
We will pay special attention to U.S. military, economic, and literary
interests in Asia and the Pacific Rim in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Given this dual historical focus on past and present, what does it
mean to speak of “America” as opposed to “the United
States”? We will use this focus to illuminate the geo-politics
of American literature in the 21st century to investigate the role
of literature in the new world order since September 11, 2001.
Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age
of Empire (New York : Penguin Press, 2004).
Frank Norris, The Octopus (New York: Penguin, 1994).
Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman, The Futures of American Studies,
ed. Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman (Durham: Duke University Press,
Walt Whitman, “Passage to India” in The Portable Walt
Whitman (New York: Penguin, 2004).
Session VIII and IX: Racial Interstitiality and the Jim Crow Era
seminar explores race relations in the U.S. by casting a new lens
on the Jim Crow era in the American South. In focusing on the
schematic imposed by segregation, we will look at those individuals
and communities who came to represent a third caste within a caste
system predicated on the distinction between “colored” and “white.” In
exploring the ways in which Asians, Latinos, and Indians became understood
within the racial logic of the South, we will investigate the making
of social status within literature, sociology, history, and personal
narrative. In analyzing how color lines became drawn and what racial
identity segregation demanded of those who seemed to stand outside—or
rather, between--its structural logics, we will explore the ways
in which status arises out of multiple and intersecting axes of differentiation:
concepts of class, foreignness, sexuality, and gender in addition
to race. In looking at “other colored people,” what appears
to be unaccommodated within a system of relations may serve to unveil
the structures and interests that support it. Thus, we will situate
these racially interstitial populations not as aberrations to Jim
Crow, but as productive sites for understanding white supremacy and
Elizabeth Abel. “Bathroom Doors and Drinking Fountains: Jim
Crow’s Racial Symbolic.” Critical Inquiry 25 (Spring
Derrick Bell. Silent Convenants: Brown v. Board of
Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. Oxford: Oxford
Karen Blu. The Lumbee Problem: the Making of an American
Indian People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Edna Bonacich. “A Theory of Middleman Minorities,” American
Sociological Review 38 (October, 1973): 583-594.
Judith Butler. Bodies
That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex.’ New
York: Routledge, 1993.
Choong Soon Kim. An Asian Anthropologist in
the South. Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 1977.
James W. Loewen.
The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White. 2nd ed. Prospect
Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1988.
Ian F. Haney Lopez. White by Law:
the Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press,
Toni Morrison. “On the Backs of Blacks,” in Arguing
Immigration: Are New Immigrants a Wealth of diversity or a Crushing
Burden?,” ed. Nicolaus Mills (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1994),
Judy Yung. Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History,
ed. Crystal K. D. Huie. Seattle: University of Washington Press,
Sessions X and XI: Anarchy, Internationalism, and American Literature
the end of A Hazard of New Fortunes, the character Basil March doubts
that “something cataclysmal” can produce social “change.” But
the author of Hazard, William Dean Howells, along with his contemporaries,
wondered whether the everyday stuff of culture pack the charge of
social reform. While Howells’s literary criticism, especially
when considered in light of contemporary socialist texts and the
Haymarket Bombing, suggests that ordinary artifacts and common speech
are laden with revolutionary potential. Looking at anarchist “how-to” manuals
on bomb making and works on international socialism published in
the U.S., this session explores how foreign ideas about strikes and
social change lost their strangeness to become part of the familiar
landscape of U.S. cultural discourse. We will examine the circulation
of Karl Marx’s ideas in the United States, Walt Whitman’s
poetic visions of the French Commune, and Howells’s visions
of striking workers; in short, we will explore the international
dimensions of nineteenth-century American literature. These dimensions
often involve terrorism, suggesting a point of comparison to U.S.
responses to terrorism in the twenty-first century.
In addition to
literature, we also explore the lost potential of early U.S. cinema
as an international medium. Hailed as the “Esperanto of the
silent film was invested with a universal democratizing potential because its
images, independent of any national language, could cross borders and appeal
to all peoples. This session will thus include a few samples of Hollywood film
among its texts.
Daniel Borus, Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the
Mass Market (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989)
Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative
Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois
Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent
Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).
William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (New York: Penguin,
Johann Most, Science of Revolutionary Warfare (El Dorado, Ariz: Desert
William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson, Reframing Culture: The Case
of the Vitagraph Quality Films (Princeton: Princeton University Press,