U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal
Issue 3, Spring 2003: Special Conference Edition
Coast to Coast: An Aerial Introduction
Rachel van Duyvenbode and Colin Howley
© Rachel van Duyvenbode and Colin Howley. All Rights Reserved
On Saturday 23, November 2002 over fifty postgraduates from the United Kingdom and overseas congregated in Sheffield for the annual British Association for American Studies (BAAS) postgraduate conference. Titled ‘Coast to Coast: An American Trip’, the 2002 conference embarked upon a series of intellectual journeys that moved between disciplinary borders. In particular, the conference provided space for the performance of intersectional readings and this special edition of US Studies Online brings together six papers from the conference that call for the re-mapping of existing subject field/s.
James Campbell’s paper, ‘African American Responses to Crime in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia’, opens this collection. Campbell’s paper argues that re-examining African American interactions with local legal practices/institutions offers alternative ways of understanding the relationship between African Americans and the law in the antebellum South. Campbell’s archival research gives voice to the significant numbers of African Americans who, utilising the institutional settings of the Mayor’s Court and the African Baptist Churches, claimed their personhood through testimony. Campbell suggests that via legal testimony African Americans in Richmond experienced a degree of independence from the ‘legal hegemony of the slaveholding elite’, thereby challenging notions of African American powerlessness to the law.
Sara Upstone’s paper, ‘Toni Morrison and the Magical Re-Visioning of Space’ makes a similar gesture through relocating power for the African American subject within Morrison’s novel use of space. Upstone argues that an examination of space within Morrison’s novels provides both a critique of America’s colonial past and spaces of resistance to the legacy of colonisation for African Americans. Upstone identifies ways in which Morrison subverts colonialism’s reliance upon territory and mapping to witness the survival of African American communities.
The next two papers continue the reappraisal of American textual spaces through an examination of Puritanism’s ideological influence upon contemporary fictional landscapes. Elizabeth Rosen’s paper ‘The American West through an Apocalyptic Lens: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian‘ addresses the complexities of the Puritan ‘apocalyptic paradigm’ filtered through the postmodern, secular sensibilities of McCarthy’s Western novel. Rosen suggests the narrative of Blood Meridian revises Puritan thought by applying its conventions to a morally ambiguous historical period of frontier expansion in the 1840s. In doing so, Rosen argues that McCarthy’s text both questions and reconfigures the conception of finite ‘judgement’ and a ‘New Jerusalem’, inherent in the apocalyptic paradigm. Reconfiguring the apocalyptic paradigm, Rosen suggests that McCarthy’s fiction troubles binaries of good/evil thereby destabilising the coherence of America’s historical past.
Ben Williamson’s paper ‘The Unutterable Entertainments of Paradise: The Landscape and Waste in the Fiction of David Foster Wallace’ draws upon Puritan narratives of the New England ‘wilderness’ to analyse contemporary cultural discourses of ‘textualised spatiality’ represented in recent American fiction. Williamson argues that the discourses surrounding commercial landscapes of late capitalism are encoded with ‘heavily mediated data’ and mapped upon natural geographies in such ways as to supplant them with virtual ones. Via an examination of Wallace’s novels, The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest, Williamson reads the fictionalised localities of America’s surplus waste, ironically former New England territory ceded to Canada, as a contemporaneous rendering of what Cotton Mather once referred to as the ‘outer darkness’, the unsanctified landscape of Puritan thought. Synthesising the doctrines of these two disparate cultures and their propagation of a ‘mundas imaginary’, Williamson provides a critique of textual constructs of ‘wastelands’ as persistent forms of abjection, originating in the society of providential intervention and now entrenched firmly in the society of wilful consumption.
Catherine Morley’s paper ‘Epic Aspirations for the Great American Novel: John Updike’s Song of America’, akin to Rosen’s and Williamson’s papers, invokes the historical past to re-evaluate and resituate contemporary American fiction. The focus of Morley’s critique is upon a reconsideration of the generic conventions that comprise the tradition of the Great American Novel. Analysing Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom series of novels from the perspective of an ‘inclusive, trans-Atlantic frame’, Morley casts her critical eye over the American myth of individuality to suggest that a singular vision of nation is forestalled given the increasingly ‘disparate and miscellaneous aspects of American life’. Citing Updike’s novels as both representative of a polymorphic American identity and a palimpsest of American political and historical shifts from 1959 to the present, Morley argues that the narrative panegyrics of the Rabbit texts share significant associations with the tradition of the European epic. Aligning Updike’s protagonist with the ‘hero’ of Homer’s, Virgil’s, and latterly Joyce’s quest narratives, Morley asserts that the Rabbit series incorporates moments of American history, not to formulate a unified narrative (long the preserve of the Great American Novel) but to articulate the multifarious nature of American national consciousness.
Scott Duguid’s ‘Normal Mailer and Pop: Totalitarianism and Mass Culture in The Naked and the Dead’ is the final paper in this collection. Duguid argues that Mailer’s first novel struggles with the demise of a historical conception of the humanistic modern novel at a time when the forces of mass culture and postmodern aesthetics produce a culture increasingly ‘morally and politically neutral’. Tracing discourses of totalitarianism and liberalism through military hierarchies represented in the novel, Duguid situates his analysis within the context of contemporary intellectual debates of the period, including the Frankfurt School and the work of post-war New York intellectuals. Reading popular culture as political affront, Duguid’s paper shows how the ‘cultural iconography’ of Mailer’s internal aesthetic confronts both the demise of the modern novel and the emergence of hegemonic ‘cultural fetishism’ in American society.
Borne out of the annual BAAS Postgraduate conference, we hope that this special edition of US Studies Online provides a flavour of the dynamic scholarship currently undertaken by postgraduates within the field/s of American Studies.