British Association for American Studies


Review: ‘Keywords: Nineteenth-Century American Studies in the Twenty-First Century’


BrANCA Symposium,  ‘Keywords: Nineteenth-Century American Studies in the Twenty-First Century’, University of Warwick, November 6-7, 2015

Early in November, the British Association for Nineteenth Century America (BrANCA) held its second symposium. Hosted by the University of Warwick’s School of English and Comparative Literary Studies, ‘Keywords’ brought together scholars from Britain, Ireland, France, US and Canada. Over the summer, researchers were invited to respond to a keyword—or suggest their own—that they felt was pertinent to studying nineteenth century America in the twenty first century. From this, eight keyword panels were formed: ‘Capital’, ‘Crisis’, ‘Development’, ‘Network’, ‘Sensation’, ‘Territory’, ‘Time’, and ‘World’. Opening the conference, organiser Mark Storey hoped that through these keywords we could, ‘consider the surprising presentism and strange otherness of the nineteenth century’.

Wuthering Heights dir. Andrea Arnold (Lionsgate, 2011)

Wuthering Heights dir. Andrea Arnold (Lionsgate, 2011)

This call was certainly responded to in Professor Susan Gillman’s (UC Santa Cruz) keynote talk, ‘Worlding Nineteenth-Century American Literature’, which traced nineteenth century literature both spatially and temporally. Professor Gillman argued for literary studies that is ‘worlded’, as opposed to the study of ‘world liteature’. For many, ‘world literature’ is problematic as syllabi can be Euro-centric, totalising and homogenous. In contrast, ‘worlding’ suggests an ongoing and generative study that continues to find links across time and space. Gillman laid out how she and Santa Cruz colleagues developed a World Literature major and graduate programme structured around second language study, translation theory, and a broad study of literature, which refuses to prioritise one national canon over another. To show an example of worlded research, Gillman discussed her new project on transatlantic blackness in relation to Wuthering Heights (1847). Moving beyond a simple historical focus that asks ‘is Heathcliff black?’, Gillman argued that a worlded perspective helps us to uncover blackness at different points before and after the novel’s 1847 publication. She asked why, in particular instants, black US-UK history become more prominent in the public imagination. Gillman traced and connected transatlantic moments such as the compensation of British slaveowners in 1833, scholarship on the slave trade in Wuthering Heights in the 1980s, and the launch of UCL’s Legacy of British Slave-ownership database this year. Highlighting two centuries of ‘slavery clusters’ that circulate around the novel, Gillman argued for a scalerly examination of time and space to situate British—and by extension American—text as ‘worlded literature’.

Across all panels, scholars paid nuanced attention to how their chosen keyword manifests in nineteenth century American literature. In ‘Development’, the three panellists all saw development speaking to postbellum concerns of ethnicity and class. Natalia Cecire (University of Sussex) delineated development and puerility along lines of gender, age, class and race and argued that Huckleberry Finn’s childish puerility attempts to critique a white, middle class and male drive towards development. Robin Vandome (Nottingham) read the shift from development to ‘modernity’ in Gilded Age anthropological and social observation that believed ‘we all must be modern’. Uniting aesthetics and politics, Sarah Wilson (University of Toronto) analysed literary responses to Tammany Hall, New York, contending that moral and aesthetic development in Five Hundred Majority (1872) work in tandem to criticise Democratic Party corruption in the late century.

Huckleberry Finn drawn by E. W. Kemble (1884)

Huckleberry Finn drawn by E. W. Kemble (1884)

All four papers on the ‘Sensation’ panel brought new viewpoints to canonical authors by analysing bodies and senses in Henry James, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. Both J. Michelle Coghlan (University of Manchester) and Michael Jonik (University of Sussex) used ‘critical sense theory’ to read taste in James’ memories of the Paric Commune in 1872, and hearing in Melville’s Pierre (1852), respectively. Also on Melville, Peter Riley (University of Exeter) argued how the shock of the present leads to moments of lyric reverie in Moby Dick (1851). On Whitman, Donald Moores (National University) argued for a spiritual corporeality in Leaves of Grass (1855), which dissolves the division of mind and body. When asked on the benefits of reading the senses, all panellists agreed that a sensory approach enables scholars to return to the surface of a text and value its aesthetic qualities.

Another canonical figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson, received in-depth treatment at the ‘Capital’ panel. Both Benjamin Pickford (University of Nottingham) and Dominic Jaeckle (Goldsmiths) interrogated the literary and cultural value of Emerson’s writing through a capitalist framework. Pickford argued that Emerson manufactures a mode of readership through a ‘poetics of the index’. By rewriting and reinscribing the same imagery in numerous texts over decades, Emerson aims to create surplus value by dislocation, mobility, and exchange of his writing. Examining ‘interest’ in Emerson’s work, Jaeckle contended that Emerson’s texts are always personal because they become the reader’s property. Each reading is a re-made text as meaning changes—and property moves—from owner to owner.

For one of the final sessions, panellists viewed ‘Crisis’ through a narional lens in the long nineteenth century. Bridget Bennett (University of Leeds) argued that crisis and home are ubiqituous in the nineteenth century, which she illuminated through a close-reading of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Both my own paper and Matthew Salway’s (University of Leeds) saw crisis in relation to white citizenship through readings of The Naturalization Act (1790) and Pierre. Jonathan Sudholt (Brandeis University) read Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s domestic fiction as an educating antidote to crisis as a permanent national state. This culminated in a discussion of the the different meanings of crisis and the value and limitations of this keyword in literary research.

Across a mixture of formats, from 10-30 minute papers and roundtables, it was a great opportunity to hear research and  engage in discussion on directions in the field and pedagogies. Although the eight keywords chosen eschewed the traditional critical axis of gender, race, sexuality and class, these concerns were still keenly felt across the symposium, but in more sophisticated ways through the nuanced approaches of the presenters. BrANCA is a small and welcoming organisation, so it would be fantastic to see more postgraduates in attendance at their events, such as their reading groups. Thanks to the University of Warwick, in particular Mark Storey, for hosting this event. You can follow @brancaUK on Twitter or visit branca.org.uk for more information of upcoming events.