IAAS Postgraduate Conference: ‘New Wave Coming: An Emerging Academics’ Symposium’
Held at Trinity College Dublin
22nd November 2014
The annual Irish Association for American Studies post-graduate symposium’s aim for 2014 was to explore and acknowledge the growing numbers of new scholars interested in American Studies, particularly in Ireland. Dr Philip McGowan, chair of the IAAS, opened the symposium by welcoming new and returning postgraduate members of the association, and by celebrating the renaissance that the IAAS is going through currently.
Dr Clare Hayes Brady from University College Dublin chaired the first panel, North American Identity, which I had the pleasure of starting with my paper on the many lives of Jewish American writer, Anzia Yezierska. Kate Smyth of Trinity College Dublin incisively outlined the themes of youth and memory in Canadian writer Mavis Gallant’s short story “In Youth is Pleasure”. Alexander McDonnell, from Durham University, discussed the challenges of national identity when faced with a racial Other in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. The three papers investigated the role of fathers in the chosen texts, as well as the difficulties of creating a national identity when individuals’ ethnicity or religion is seen as irreconcilable with society’s narrative of uniformity. This struggle to create a cohesive and inclusive sense of self quickly set the tone for the symposium’s focus on the emergence of new academic thought and scholarship.
The second panel of the day, Consuming Gender, was chaired by Dr Dara Downey (UCD). It began with a presentation by Rachel Alexander (University of Strathclyde) entitled, ‘Consuming Beauty: Mass-market Magazines and Make-up in the 1920s’. The paper focused on the differences between the portrayal of beauty products in American and Canadian magazines for women during the 1920s. In the American magazines beauty products were linked to an aspirational, middle class lifestyle whilst the Canadian magazines focused firmly on using products to emphasise natural beauty- and therefore not alter or change one’s appearance which had the dangerous association of being spiritually and morally deceptive. Alterations to one’s features through make-up had pejorative associations, and were also seen as an unhealthy American habit; therefore the Canadian magazines such as the Canadian Home Journal were careful to avoid such insinuations – even when advertising American products.
The second paper in the panel was given by Laura Byrne of Trinity College Dublin. She also discussed beauty and advertisements but in Nabokov’s novel of the 1950s, Lolita. Byrne examined the link between the teenage girl at the centre of the novel with the mass advertisements for youth and vitality in America in the 1950s, and suggested that the socially acceptable form for female desire was consumerism and consumption of mass-produced items.
Panel number three, US Foreign Policy and the Cold War, was made up by three panellists all from the School of History, in University College Cork. Geraldine Kidd started with ‘The Limitations of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Humanitarianism’. Within her paper she questioned whether Roosevelt’s reputation as a lauded humanitarian is fair or realistic. Most especially given her inadequate education- even for a woman of the time- which lead to difficulties in undertaking serious intellectual interrogations of documents and texts. For example, the paternalism of American society reinforced her views towards the Arab world- she believed that she knew best. And, due to her friendships with influential Jewish advocates for the state of Israel, Roosevelt idealised the idea of such a place and therefore strove to satisfy her friends’ desire to see it created.
Nevin Power was next on the panel, and presented his paper, ‘A National Energy Plan as an element of National Security: A Cold War Perspective’ which investigated the effects of inflation and foreign policy on US National security. Power outlined how the National Energy Plan would be a tool for reducing US oil consumption and thus, inflation. By reducing US demand for oil, European energy worries would be lessened and thereby ease the social unrest in Europe. Whilst signing the Energy Security Act into law in 1980, then president Jimmy Carter stated that, “[America’s] intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic security and also threatens our national security”. Power concluded that links between Carter’s declaration in 1980 and the energy problems are still in existence today.
The present echoing the past was also a theme of the final paper in the panel, ‘Reagan, Afghanistan, and the Strange Case of the “Yellow Rain”’ by Jacqueline Fitzgibbon (UCC). The presentation began by outlining that although chemical & biological weapons (CBWs) had been banned after WWI, they were often used outside of the Geneva conventions e.g. Agent Orange- a “herbicide”, and napalm- an “incendiary”. Fitzgerald discussed the Reagan administration’s hope that “Yellow Rain” propaganda would convince those reluctant that CBWs and their development were necessary in the US. Eventually, however, officials admitted that scientific enquiries debunked the claims of the use of the “Yellow Rain” CBW in Afghanistan.
Jonathan Sudholt (Brandeis University) began the fourth panel of the day with his paper, ‘They Cannot Represent Themselves: Narrative Expropriation in Herman Melville’s Clare’. Published in two volumes, Clare is the longest poem in American literature and is full of conflicting narrators and narrative voices, with a curious development of the narrator’s own character. Sudholt made an interesting reference to Adorno and pop music in relation to Clare’s structure. The foregrounding of inarticulate voices and the clunky nature of the tetrameter system leads Sudholt to believe that Melville is attempting to give voice to dissonant voices in society and literature.
David Deacon (UCD) presented, ‘Atheists with Souls’: Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, American (ir)religious identity and dissent. He discussed secularism as an ideology, deep-rooted religious ideology in the American psyche, and Goldstein’s novel in relation to the concept of the post-secular novel. This led to the question: is post-secularity different to pre-secularity? Deacon said he believed it is as there is a greater visibility to the public nature of religion in public discourse.
This discussion of authorial discussions linked neatly to Tim Groenland of TCD’s paper on “The Cult of the Sentence: Gordon Lish’s Influence on American Fiction”, and Lish’s incredible power editorial powers. For example, Lish had a habit of very heavy editing: he reduced What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver, by over 50%. Lish’s decisions and advice were adamantly adhered to by his followers, and Groenland explored Lish’s habit of cutting out introductory sections, making changes to the title, changing word choices, and also adding sentences at the end of texts which often changed the meaning of the piece. Lish encouraged students to reduce their work to the most urgent sentence possible, and had divisive teaching methods with an intense focus on the art of the individual sentence. The panel’s emphasis on the acts of writing and editing was thought-provoking, and incited a lively series of questions regarding individual authors’ methods, as well as encouraging the audience to consider their own writing styles.
Following the panels, there were two presentations: one from the organising committee of the IAAS 2015 Annual Conference, and one from the Irish Journal of American Studies editors (IJAS). The annual IAAS conference will be held in Trinity College Dublin, on the 24th and 25th of April 2015, with the Alan Graham Memorial Lecture delivered by Dr Lee Jenkins of University College Cork. The theme of the conference will be “Sight Unseen” and the CFP due date is the 16th of January 2015. The IJAS has been re-launched recently, and the editors encouraged the submission of work to them.
The final segment of the symposium was the Ignite Session, during which five early-stage PhD students outlined their projects- each of the speakers introducing their proposals in a three minute presentation using PowerPoint and strictly adhering to the time constraints. The speakers were Sarah Cullen, UCD; Agata Frymus, University of York; Erin O’Sullivan, UCD; Aoife Dempsey, TCD; and Gavin Doyle, TCD.
The symposium organisers, Jennifer Daly (UCD) and Rosemary Gallagher (NUI Galway), closed the conference on a positive note by thanking all participants and panel chairs.Those listening could not help but be encouraged by the standards of scholarship, and indeed, enthusiasm for American Studies that was in evidence at the symposium. Dr Tony Emmerson’s absence due to illness was noticeable at the conference; therefore it is with sadness that I must report that he died in December, leaving the IAAS the richer for his involvement and encouragement throughout the years since its inception, though he would certainly have been very pleased by the emerging scholars present at the symposium as a stalwart advocate for the Association and the growth of its membership throughout his career.