European Association for American Studies Conference, Constanta, Romania, 22-25 April 2016
As a recipient of an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship in 2015, I was asked to contribute a paper for a panel of Eccles award holders at this year’s European Association for American Studies (EAAS) Conference. The centre presented three panels at the conference, showcasing the wide range of research undertaken with its support in the British Library’s American Studies archives. Being grateful to receive an Eccles fellowship, it was an honour to make a reciprocal contribution and participate in the gathering of over four hundred American Studies colleagues.
Held this year in Constanta, Romania, EAAS’s biannual meetings attract international scholars at all career stages. It was encouraging to see American Studies thriving not only amongst researchers from Britain, but from across North America and Europe. The majority of attendees were established academics, with postgraduates and early careers researchers forming a minority (a difference from the composition of the joint BAAS-IAAS Conference held earlier in April in Belfast). Open to researchers from all areas of American Studies, the conference featured papers covering a range of topics, approaches, methodologies, and research across over one hundred panels in four days.
If EAAS 2016 was memorable for one thing, other than the depth of its programme and quality of papers presented, it was that it took the majority of attendees to a new destination. Many of the conference’s participants shared a sense of intrigue and curiosity about Constanta, swapping non-scholarly stories of sightseeing at the various breaks and evening receptions. Situated on the edge of the Black Sea, Constanta was once a Roman settlement to which the poet Ovid was banished and later died. He gave his name to conference’s setting – Ovidius University – which accommodated the large number of attendees over two campus buildings.
The first full day of the conference witnessed some forty separate panels, covering American history, literature, politics, culture and gender studies. One of the panels in the morning’s session focused on ‘Slavery and the Civil War’, offering interesting comparative analysis of cultural developments that shaped the formative years of mid-nineteenth century America. The panel included an examination of historical approaches to the legal causes of the conflict to Irish-American transnational connections between Daniel O’Connell and William Lloyd Garrison. Continuing what appears to be a common theme of study in recent conferences, the panel also featured a paper on Frederick Douglass, considering themes of empowerment and protest in the abolitionist’s narratives.
Embracing the reality that large American Studies conferences often involve papers on topics far removed from one’s own research, in the mid-morning session I was drawn to, ‘Transnational Politics of Visuality: Picturing Political Women’. Its five engaging papers embraced the methodologies of art, culture, photography, and political studies. This pre-organised gathering of scholars from Austria, the Czech Republic, Dublin, Germany and Serbia spoke on a range of topics, including Jackie Kennedy and the new image of American politics captured in the 1960s. A study of Hillary Clinton’s pictorial depiction provoked an animated discussion on the magisterial quality of Clinton on the covers of Hard Choices (2014) and other biographical works. In particular, the focus was on her often regal pose, and the removal of her hands from the frame. It was suggested that this removal may be an attempt to create a less feminine appearance. The comparisons between Clinton and Jacqueline Kennedy as First Ladies and women on the international stage then provoked such a lively debate that the presenters and audience willingly pushed the session into the lunch hour.
The post-lunch session saw the first of the Eccles Centre sponsored panels, showcasing the depth of American archival research being undertaken by postgraduates and established academics with the help of the Eccles Centre. Its three papers covered a broad range of American transnational history, including British imperialism in North America in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, and revelations from Teddy Roosevelt’s pre-First World War letters. This paper in particular stimulated an interesting debate concerning the potential influence that Roosevelt’s diplomatic connections may have exerted if he had been president during the conflict. What was known, however, was the panel’s reflection of the British Library’s rich archive of American sources, which never ceases to galvanise scholars’ projects.
The keynote on the first evening was delivered by Professor Gary Gerstle (University of Cambridge), who explored, ‘Democracy and Money in America: An Intimate History’. Professor Gerstle evaluated the way in which money has come to play an increasing role in the American political system, particularly in relation to presidential elections and whether Super PACS are truly democratic. Reflecting the location of the conference, attendees were then treated to an evening of Romanian culture, which included a performance of Romanian and Armenian blues and jazz.
As many academics balance an interdisciplinary focus with an American Studies approach, attendance at American Studies conferences enables a broadening of scholarly outlook and an introduction to a new and receptive audience of supportive academics. To an historian – like myself – a panel entitled ‘Digitextualities – Spatialities, Fluidities, Hybridities’ seems perplexing at first, but the fact such papers could sit alongside those on nineteenth century slave history or modern American literature demonstrates EAAS’s inclusiveness. The exceptional coordination of such a large and international conference was a credit to the organisers. My personal thanks to the Eccles Centre once again for awarding my fellowship and inviting me to present at this conference. I, along with the other conference attendees, am already looking forward to the next EAAS conference in London in 2018!