The Best of 2015, and What’s Next for U.S. Studies Online in 2016

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2015 has been another fantastic year for U.S. Studies Online and 2016 is shaping up to be equally exciting. A year ago USSO entered the UK Blog Awards for the first time, receiving honourable mentions in both the Arts & Culture and Education categories. Here’s hoping we can go one better in 2016!

2015 in review

Thanks to our wonderful readers and the amazing American Studies community we have been able to produce a wide range of content throughout the year, including a number of special blog series to mark Women’s History Month, in collaboration with SSAWW and SHAW, the 150th Anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, African American Music Appreciation Month, Caribbean-American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars series. We have also had specially commissioned series on the topic of Islam/Muslims in America and ‘Teaching America.’ The latter, in collaboration with HOTCUS, was a huge success and will hopefully stimulate further discussion on how postgraduates, early career researchers, and academics can expand and strengthen their teaching on a variety of American Studies subjects.

Since launching book hour in late 2014 we have gone on to discuss 13 novels, starting conversations that have continued beyond the Twitter-based hour and into the ‘real world.’ Dr Rachel Sykes, Anna Maguire and Jennifer Daly have built on their book hour discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila to organise a one-day symposium on the work of Marilynne Robinson (submit your proposal by the 18th January!), while Dr Michael Collins, Dr Benjamin Pickford and Joanne Mildenhall organised a panel on Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod for the 2016 IAAS BAAS conference following their chat in May. You can also catch a U.S. Studies Online panel at the 2016 ‘What Happens Now: 21st Century in English’ conference where Dr Diletta De Cristofaro, Dr Dan King and Dr Fran Bigman are continuing their discussion of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. These developments would not have happened without the efforts of Donna Maria Alexander, Diletta De Cristofaro and Joanne Mildenhall who make up our fantastic team of book hour literature scholars.

Our reviews sections have gone from strength to strength, thanks to the hard work of assistant editors Emma Horrex and Jade Tullett, publishing reviews of a wide range of books and events, including the annual BAAS and IAAS conferences, as well as their postgraduate equivalents. We also expanded the USSO team in June when Becky Harding joined as an assistant editor and our social media coordinator. No doubt you will have noticed the fantastic work Becky has been doing across our social media platforms and newsletters.

What’s next?

“What about 2016?” I hear you cry. Well, we started 2015 with a series of interviews looking at American Studies Across Europe, so we are delighted to be strengthening our ties with “C’era una volta l’America”, the Italian postgraduates of the association Interuniversity Center of Euro-American History and Politics (CISPEA) with a collaborative series covering the 2016 US Presidential Election. We will also be featuring a new series of interviews called Career Stories that will hear from a wide range of academic and non-academic professionals, who will shed light on their experience and offer advice for those thinking of following in their footsteps. And as always, we will be looking to publish standalone research posts and special blog series showcasing the innovative and inspiring research undertaken by postgraduates, early career researchers, and academics within and beyond the UK American Studies community. In February, our first special series will mark LGBTQ Month so get in touch if you would like to contribute!

On a final note, we would like to thank BAAS for their ongoing support and our new and recurring contributors that have submitted posts this year. To date we have worked with 182 academics and postgraduates on the blog, and it is your submissions that brought 45,000 visitors to the site in 2015 alone. Whether you have yet to publish with us, or are one of our regular writers, we look forward to hearing more about your projects, conferences and latest publications over the forthcoming year.

Happy New Year and Happy Researching for 2016!

Michelle and Ben, Co-editors


Editors’ Picks of 2015

To see 2015 off in style the editors have weighed in on their favourite posts throughout the year. 

Ben’s favourite posts

Merging aesthetics and politics: Toni Morrison’s jazz affect in Jazz (1992) by Ellen O’Donoghue Oddy

I saw Ellen present the paper on which this post is based at the 2014 Postgraduate BAAS Conference. Even for a historian and literary philistine like myself, it was a fascinating talk that offered some incisive commentary on affect’s political power by incorporating theories of jazz music. Ellen’s post does the same.

“As for Morrison, she produces an aestheticism that is driven by her own political impulse, which means that her political impulse – to protest against American history – is felt rather than known. As a result the untold stories of black America become real. Because Morrison writes American history through feeling, sense, and blurred images, not through definitive, clear information and files of data, to the reader her history of America becomes more than a history, it acts like a memory.”

Teaching U.S Women’s History in British Universities: a Personal and Political History by Kate Dossett

Kate Dossett provides some wonderfully insightful reflections on her experience teaching women and gender in US history at British universities with mostly British students. By discussing some of the ways in which modules can be designed, as well as the ways that students often perceive issues of gender, she highlights the problematic nature of covering women’s history in a specially designated seminar week, rather than as an integral aspect of a topic essential to understanding broader narratives in American history. Kate’s call for universities to consider both the value of encouraging students to reflect on how their own experiences inform their studies and the direction of research undertaken by postgraduates and early career researchers (both of whom are often responsible for teaching the bulk of some courses) is timely and important if we want to rescue women/gender (and forgotten minorities, working classes, LGBTQ issues) from the ‘ghettos’ of compartmentalized seminars.

Michelle’s favourite posts

As Fragile as a Metaphor: Constructing Edna St. Vincent Millay from the Library of Congress records by Sarah Parker

Last year I approached Sarah Parker for a post on her new research project which I’m pleased to include today as one of my favourite of the year. Sarah’s post is based on her archival discoveries in the Library of Congress as a fellow under the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme, and focuses on the impact of portrait photography on the public persona of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Sarah argues Millay consciously crafted her public image during her career “[t]hrough her choice of photographers” as well as “clothing, expressions and bearing”, which reveals a new side to the “little poetess” as chameleon and clown. (Many thanks to Sarah for sharing one of her archival finds, a photograph of Millay dressed up as a clown!) It’s a great read for those interested in the poetic and political impact of gender, ageing, and sincerity on authorial personas and legacies. At the end of this post you’ll be left with new thoughts about authenticity, identity and the consumable body of the author(ess). What are you waiting for?

For more great posts on women writers, check out Karen Skinazi’s The Significance of “ME” (1915): The Literary Fame of Winnifred Eaton (Onoto Watanna), Sarah Chadfield’s ‘The speed of every incident is unbelievable’: Writer Muriel Rukeyser and the Spanish Civil War, and our special featured blog series on Muslims/Islam in America and Women’s History Month

Book Review of American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron edited by Branka Arsić by Ben Pickford

Ben Pickford’s review of American Impersonal will leave you rushing to get this edited collection, or at least rushing to the works of Sharon Cameron. It introduced me to a critic I had not engaged with before, and offered that much rarer find: a book that delivers on its intention to revise both perceptions and approaches to literature, American studies, and theory. As Ben notes:

“[I]t is a book with its eye on the future of American literary studies rather than its past. It proposes nothing less than a fundamental revision of the American intellectual tradition, and the readings it offers provide myriad opportunities to reinterpret the place of American literature in its social, political, and historical milieu.”

The promise of the collection is complimented by Ben’s own wide-reaching knowledge of theory and criticism that ensures this review goes far beyond a summary of the collection. Check it out here.

If you like this you should also check out Ben’s other posts this year (it was a struggle to choose just one). Read his review of Michael Mack’s Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis (Mack’s “defence of literature . . .  threatens to reinvest [literature] with Romantic privileges that criticism has done much good work to erode”) and his reading of Cape Cod (“Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod has never attracted scholarship in the way that Walden, ‘Resistance to Civil Government’, and the Journal have done, [but] it echoes the blend of geniality, history, metaphysics, and occasional grotesqueries found in the celebrated works of contemporaries such as Hawthorne, Melville, or Poe”). 

Emma’s favourite posts

The legacy of Black Power Visual Culture in 1990s Hip Hop by Hannah Jeffrey

Exploring the ‘conscious/political genre of hip-hop music,’ Hannah’s research post examines how hip hop artists of the 1990s were informed by the ‘visual culture’ of the 1960s Black Power movement. Bringing the two distinct periods together, this piece draws upon figures such as Malcolm X and hip hop group Boogie Down Productions, illustrating how artists reappropriated racial protest iconography for their own political purposes. I particularly like Hannah’s analysis of the images that she uses to underpin her ideas, and 90s hip hop related research is always of real interest to me. This important piece also led me to think of other instances in which late 80s and early 90s artists drew upon the Black Power era in song lyrics and music videos, such as Public Enemy’s single “By The Time I Get To Arizona” and Paris’ “Panther Power.” This was a really insightful post and if you haven’t already, make sure you check it out.

Book Review of Melville: Fashioning in Modernity by Stephen Matterson by Olga Ackroyd

This review is a really engaging read. Concise and written in a style that I found eloquent and accessible, Olga’s review considers how Matterson approaches Melville in a refreshing and unusual way. Examining the relationship between Melville and clothing, Matterson explores some of Melville’s lesser-known works including Israel Potter and Redburn. Providing a well-balanced review of Matterson’s study, Olga acknowledges how these often neglected texts are beneficial to Matterson’s examination but also recognises other opportunities for exploration. Highlighting both the book’s original contribution to the field and possibilities for further enquiry, Olga handles the book with careful consideration. Offering not only an analysis of the book itself but also the cover, Olga’s review is one not to be missed.

Jade’s favourite posts

Imagining a Female President: Commander in Chief and the unfinished business of presidential fiction by Gregory Frame

I enjoyed Greg Frame’s article for both its pertinent and incisive observations in the run up to the next US Presidential election. Predicting Hillary Clinton’s declaration to run, Frame explores the inherent ‘rigidity’ of the Presidential office as a ‘masculine conceptualisation’. He does so by marking how even fictional Presidencies struggle to imagine and place a woman behind the desk in the Oval office. Frame’s use of the TV series, Commander in Chief (2005-2006) as an instance of a TV series that ‘attempted to buck the trend’ of the male President is a particularly useful counter example to The West Wing (1999-2006). Frame clearly and concisely highlights the gendered tensions within Commander in Chief, positioning Geena Davis’s character, President Mackenzie Allen, as a figure struggling to appease the expectations of her role as a President, and as a mother. This is a particularly poignant piece that reveals embedded tensions and tropes within an ever-scrutinised power of position. Whether H. Clinton becomes the next President or not, Frame’s article illuminates both the ‘unfinished business of presidential fiction’ and presidential non-fiction.

Book Review of Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature by Aimee Pozorski by Lucas Thompson

Lucas Thompson’s review of Aimee Pozorski’s Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature is a succinct and in-depth analysis of Pozorski’s examination of post-9/11 artistic representations of the falling man. Thompson insightfully draws out the successes and failure(s) of Porzorski’s text, and is admirably not afraid to highlight its contradictions and oversights. In particular, Thompson picks up on the ‘contradictory’ nature of Porzorski’s notion of a “crisis point in art and literature”, and the ‘odd omission’ of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk. This is where Thompson’s review really comes into its own. He attempts to resolve this problematic by offering a potential counterpoint. He positions Petit as an ‘anti-Falling Man’, whereupon ‘his high-altitude capering represents a startling act of defiance against both gravity and the possibility of falling.’ This informal addendum stood out to me for two reasons. First, for its astuteness, and second, for its casual inclusion. Despite raising some credible counterpoints, Thompson is able to come to a considerate conclusion that positions Pozorski’s text as ‘nuanced and inclusive’ and ‘persuasive’. This approach is commendable in both its range of observation and its sympathetic balance.

Becky’s favourite posts

Cyborgs, Simians and San Francisco (part one) – Bodies and the American West by Antonia Mackay

In my own research I’m really interested in the relationship between bodies and the environments that contain them, and Antonia Mackay explores this idea in a fascinating way. In this post, the first of a two-parter, her subject matter is the tension between real and imagined versions of American identity, and how this tension manifests in both cities and in the human body. I’m a big fan of any approach that works to bring together individual experience and larger cultural systems, and I really enjoyed Mackay’s take on this, as she connects cultural studies to geography and body theory. She discusses the contradictions at the heart of American culture during the Cold War period, and looks at the complex status of the self that is expressed through the literature and culture within the period. Her argument takes us from Gilles Deleuze to Disneyland, Philip K. Dick and the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality of containment. She looks specifically at the complex and contradictory versions of identity that are particular to the American West, in which utopia and the hyperreal sit uncomfortably alongside one another, most notably in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco where we can see the ‘tense polarity between real and unreal, simulacra and original’. She identifies these anxieties as specifically American, eloquently noting how, ‘the repeated shoring up of mythological, fantastical and dreamlike versions of Los Angeles and San Francisco results in the destabilising of a reliable “American” identity’.

Conference Review of ‘The State of Fiction: Don DeLillo in the 21st Century’ by Tim Gurowich

I am a little biased in my choice here as I was one of the organisers of this conference. Shameless self promotion aside, I was really struck by my experience of the event, which I expected to be mostly one of stress and fear, but turned out to be a fascinating day of great papers. From my experience, single author events like this sometimes fall victim to repetition, or to a general attitude of the kind of fanlike praise that doesn’t leave much room for debate. I was glad that our opening keynote from John Duvall helped to set the tone for a day of lively and varied discussion. Tim Gurowich gives a really great and thorough overview of the day. If you are interested in DeLillo, or more generally in recent US history and culture, I’d highly recommend that you check out Tim’s review and the work of the speakers involved!

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