British Association for American Studies


2017 in Review: Editors’ Top Picks

Photo credit: Frankie Leon (Creative Commons license)

2017 in review

2017 featured a number of interdisciplinary guest-edited series covering a range of issues and fields. We published Alfred Cardone (King’s College, London) series, ‘Media Coverage and the Presidential Election of 2016’, which featured articles that took readers on a media-led tour of Trump’s election. Articles included an analysis of the Trump campaign’s relationship with the Tea Party movement, and a reading of the 45th US President through John Higham. Building on last year’s digital appendix, the series also featured a ‘trans-media post-mortem’ by Darren Reid and Brett Sanders. In May, USSO featured the series ‘Beyond the Graphic: Considering Violence, Sexuality and Obscenity in Comics’ guest-edited by Dr Harriet Earle (Sheffield Hallam). The six articles included analyses of vampires, sexual trauma, and notions of the divided city – two of which feature in the Editors’ Top Picks below.

2017 also saw us collaborate with Adam Matthew Digital, who sponsored a special series focusing on their treasure trove of collections. So far we have co-published seven articles, which cover a range of fields – from world’s fairs and frontier life, to Euro-Arab co-operation and popular medicine. From February we will be running our third collaborative series with AMD, exploring the ‘Popular Culture in Britain and America 1950-75‘, Meiji Japan, and Leisure, Travel and Mass Culture‘ collections.

2018 will continue to build on our featured blog series, beginning with our long-awaited State of the Discipline series. This set of reviews will survey cutting-edge work in the field while also celebrating its diversity. Christina Westwood (Keele University) will first take us to a contest fought between land and sea as Native Americans attempt to withstand colonial violence in Andrew Lippman’s The Salt Water Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (Yale University Press, 2015). Jonathan Poutney (University of Manchester) brings us the latest in cultural theory with his review of Michael Denning’s fascinating portrayal of sound and movement in Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (Verso, 2015). Our series concludes with Miles Powell’s ambitious 2016 project on species extinction, racial peril, and the origins of conservation. Vanishing America (Harvard), Angela Sparks (University of Hertford shire) tells us, is the story both of America’s past and its future.

The beginning of 2018 will also see a special book reviews series that will span the history of the United States from its inception to the present day with a veritable tour de force of this nation’s contested past: beginning with George Washington’s forging of a new state, we will consider communities of colour in the post-Reconstruction era, Brahmin capitalism in the Gilded Age and the emergence of the modern U.S. Army at the conclusion of the First World War, before wrapping up with a look at the Black Panthers in the Cold War, the origins of modern evangelicalism and the tragedy of the most recent war in Afghanistan.  Finally, we’ve also got a special series lined up guest-edited by Hasnul Djohar (University of Exeter) which engages with contemporary Arab/Muslim-American Writers.

But, before you hit the champagne, we would like to thank our special guest editors, collaborators, and you, the researcher-reader. We look forward to publishing your research and reading all about the exciting, valuable work you are all doing in the new year. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank BAAS for their continued support. A big ‘thank you’ also goes to those who took part in the running of 2017’s USSO Keynote competition, which was the last for the current team, whose term finishes in April this year. We are anticipating making initial calls for applications at the end of this month, so keep your eyes peeled!

So, for the last time from us, thank you and have a very Happy New Year.

Jade Tullett and Todd Carter, Co-editors.

Editors’ Picks of 2017

To mark the New Year the editors have chosen their favourite research posts and reviews of 2017.

Jade’s Top Picks

‘Beyond the Refrigerator: Superheroines and Sexual Trauma as Disability’ by Saljooq Asif

Saljooq Asif’s (Columbia University) piece ‘Beyond the Refrigerator: Superheroines and Sexual Trauma as Disability’ is part of the perceptive and provoking special featured blog series, ‘‘Beyond the Graphic’ – Considering Violence’, guest edited by Dr Harriet Earle (Keele University). The article primarily focuses on the neo-disability narrative underpinning the paralysis and subsequent sexual assault of superheroines such as Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Asif frames Gordon as an example of the “women in refrigerators” trope that is often found in superhero comic book narratives. The phrase refers to the ‘fridging’ of female characters through sexualized violence that often serves as ‘cheap shock value’. As Asif tells us, this most starkly contrasts with the notion of ‘superheroism’, which is aligned with victory after trauma; a recovery that most females are denied. Offering a sense of movement away from this problematic trope in the twenty-first century, Asif credits Gail Simone, who, in 2011, liberated Gordon ‘out of the proverbial refrigerator’ through a process of psychotherapy and physical therapy. Through this example, Asif helps us to reconsider the role and purpose of those disabled through sexual trauma in comic books. Notably, that it is possible for “women in refrigerators” to break out and become empowered as a result of the sexual violence that once disabled them.

‘O is for Oracle’. Photo credit: JD Hancock (Creative Commons License)

Conference Review: ‘Game of Thrones’: An International Conference by Dr Gill Jamieson

Drawn by the unstable viewing relationship I have with Games of Thrones (I often see more of the back of a pillow than I do full episodes), I read Dr Gill Jamieson’s (University of the West of Scotland) review of the GoT International Conference, with one open and intrigued, yet cautious eye. Particularly interesting was Jamieson’s reflection upon Professor Anne Gjelsvik’s keynote, which argued that the television adaptation has ‘distilled’ ‘the more provocative aspects of the novels’, for which the seemingly heroic re-characterisation of Tyrion Lannister stands as an example. The controversy and unpacking of the adaptation’s alterations is presented as one of the conference’s many threads, as is a preoccupation with the reaction and different levels of engagement by the audience. Additionally, Jamieson successfully outlines the platform that GoT provides for interdisciplinary perspectives and discussions. I would caution however, that, if like me, you’re new to GoT, there is a spoiler or two near the end, but if you’ve managed to avoid it so far (channelling my inner George R. R. Martin) I dare say it’s only a matter of time before you find out… Nevertheless, I finished the piece regretting not attending, and that’s the mark of a great review.

Todd’s Top Picks

‘‘Still being sent to Nam to protect America’s myths’: Anti-war Soldiering and the Challenge to Cold War Patriotism. Part I: Anti-War Activism within the Military’ and ‘‘We cast these medals away as symbols of shame, dishonor, and inhumanity’: Veteran Protest and the Rejection of Cold War Patriotism. Part II: Anti-war Activism within the Military’, both written by Lauren Mottle. 

Just like last time, it was incredibly difficult to choose just two favorites from this year’s truly fantastic output at U.S. Studies Online ( a task in which, as you will see, I ultimately failed). In the end, I’ll admit. I’ve cheated. I’ve chosen two research articles instead of one. I know, I know(!) – that’s breaking the rules…

In her two-part series examining anti-war feeling and activism among American military personnel in the Vietnam War, Lauren Mottle (University of Leeds) showcases that, in the 1960s and 1970s, many soldiers and veterans of the conflict took issue with the popular equation of their ‘service’ with acts of in-the-name-of-the-flag patriotism. Instead, she goes on, ‘they argued that true patriotism meant defending American ideals’, regardless of who was in the White House, or the latest trends and habits in US foreign and defense policy vis-a-vis Vietnam. Making extended use of a treasure trove of illuminating archival sources collected from the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Mottle demonstrates convincingly that soldiers and veterans alike contested Cold War ideological rhetoric, and argued that ‘US Foreign policy was undemocratic and undeserving of the sacrifice of American lives.

‘The Americans Are Coming’, P.E.A.C.E., vol. 1, no. 2 (1 September 1970) Miscellaneous Vietnam Era GI Underground Papers Microfilm Collection, Reel 5, Wisconsin Historical Society

Book Review: Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising and the Rise of Celebrity Politics by David Haven Blake (2016). Reviewed by Mark Eastwood.

I found University of Nottingham PhD student Mark Eastwood’s insightful review of David Haven Blake’s book, Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising and the Rise of Celebrity Politics, published by Oxford University Press in 2016, to be a particular personal highlight.

As Eastwood unfolds, Liking Ike sets itself a difficult task: to offer a convincing case that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s – not John F. Kennedy in the early 60s – who was the doyen of using television media, Hollywood and the politics of celebrity to capture attention and to ‘sell his campaigns’ to the American electorate. It was the Eisenhower years, after all, that ‘marked the moment in which image supplanted political dialogue, celebrities became vital tools of political endorsement and political spectacle became a central force in electoral politics.’ Eastwood offers a succinct, thought-provoking and intellectually honest summary of a thoroughly intriguing (and timely) piece of scholarship made all the more relevant given the current (turbulent) US political climate. 

Christina’s Top Picks

‘Penetrating the “Pink Wasteland”: Gender and Environmentalism in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)’ by Coco d’Hont

The diverse literary traditions of the American West are a familiar subject in American studies. Themes of gender and expansion in the American West, and the masculine pursuit of the American frontier, still preoccupy critics of Western regional literature. Coco d’Hont’s research post for USSO returns to Edward Abbey’s renowned American novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang (MWG, 1975), which was controversial for its representations of a group of eco-campaigners protesting redevelopment in the Southwestern United States. D’Hont’s essay offers a new angle on familiar discussions of Abbey’s work: she demonstrates how MWG relies upon ‘rigid conceptualizations of gender’ and upon the familiar equation of nature and femininity. D’Hont’s thoughtful close-reading indicates how canonical works of American literature offer lessons for American environmental studies. As these questions promise to become more important over the twenty-first-century, d’Hont’s essay demonstrates how American literary studies may contribute to contemporary discussions of American local and regional environments under the Anthropocene.

Robert Crumb’s cover evidences gendered undertones. 10th Anniversary edition (1985) from Dream Garden Press.

Conference Review: ‘Literary Archives in the Digital Age’, (Trinity College Dublin, 7-8 July 2017’ by Sarah Cullen and Zosia Kuczyńska

Whilst viewed as the preserve of historians and historical research, archives are essential for forming and challenging literary canons in American literature. Sarah Cullen (Trinity College Dublin) and Zosia Kuczyńska’s (University of Nottingham) review of the 2017 conference, ‘Literary Archives in the Digital Age’ (Trinity College, Dublin), overviews innovative archival research in literary studies, and recognises how this work intersects with the digital humanities. As Cullen and Kuczyńska meticulously recall, the conference raised important questions about the institutional status of the archive. Is an archive always associated with a university, library or similar institution? Is this respected status changing through the shift from analogue to digital? Questions focusing on the boundaries of the archive have provoked much-needed discussion about who may or may not access archives, and which privileged voices contribute to archival collections. For instance, Cullen and Kuczyńska cite Jonathan Creasy’s paper (Trinity College Dublin) on poet Susan Howe’s perception of the archive researching as a ‘process haunted by almost post-colonial anxieties of space and place: who owns this “house built for live encounters with privileged remains”’. Ultimately, as Cullen and Kuczyńska’s review recognises, the status of the archive is intertwined with questions of privilege and access for authors, researchers and the general public. These questions only become more urgent as digital humanities re-shape public access and perceptions of literary archives.

Katharina’s Top Picks

Anglo-American Isolationism: The Case for New Archetypes‘, by Dr Stephen Bowman

The special relationship between the UK and the US; Stephen Bowman (University of the Highlands and Islands) suggests, might paradoxically mark the absence of an international mindset. He points to the toxic nostalgia on both sides of the Atlantic, a phenomenon of memory politics remarkably deviant from historical reality, as a first step into his analysis of isolationist tendencies in both countries at the present moment. He traces his thesis, that this is the work of nationalist conservative elites rather than a democratic moment, back to US-UK relations in the 1920s. The Pilgrims Society, a club to promote British-American relations, is a particularly poignant example of this binational elitist isolationism. Bowman’s verdict of the current UK and US governments in comparison to those who acted with similar ideas in very different historical circumstances approximately a century ago, however, is damning. He points to clear parallels in both situations, such as the turn towards nativist politics; yet whereas he still detects  a genuine seriousness and interest in international relations in the Pilgrims Society’s members despite its obvious chauvinism, today’s leaders are found wanting even in this basic regard. Stephen Bowman’s article certainly touches a chord with observers grappling to comprehend recent political developments in both countries from an international perspective. And it serves as a warning of the thoughtlessness which populist politics thrives on.

The Conference on Limitation of Armaments, Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewin, 1921. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

Conference Review: ‘Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association 2017‘ (Utrecht University, Netherlands), by Saskia McCracken

Saskia McCracken (University of Glasgow) focuses on a question that reveals how poignant current developments in American Studies can be: along with the panellists at the Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association 2017, she asks what it means to be human, or, for that matter, posthuman. In a present defined by the Anthropocene and an embattled politics of supremacy,  this is not only a refreshing reminder that the human is, after all, part of a larger ecosystem. McCracken also perceptively shows how the transnational frame of a conference can diversify this question and showcase the complexity of theoretical and philosophical traditions dealing with our species in relation to the nonhuman. Modernism studies, thus, becomes a space for enquiry into how the human can be re-defined more productively as a participant in the multiple forms of life that people the cultural and natural ecologies of our planet. McCracken highlights how this enables innovative dialogues between strands of research that might easily be seen to be quite divergent – animal studies and concepts of the cyborg, for instance, even though she critically notes, too, the conspicuous absence of Donna Haraway’s work in cyborg and interspecies studies. In underlining the impact which such a posthuman modernism can have on scholarly perceptions of figures as central as Samuel Beckett, Saskia McCracken demonstrates the importance of interdisciplinary and transnational synergy effects in American Studies today.

Rachael’s Top Picks

‘Homo Abominum Americana’: The Cultural Tradition of the Vampire in Snyder and Albuquerque’s American Vampire (2010)’, by Craig Thomson

Third in the special blog series ‘Beyond the Graphic’—Considering Violence, Sexuality and Obscenity in Comics, Craig Thomson’s (Birkbeck, University of London) research post was of particular interest to me.  As Thomson notes, vampire literature has often been positioned as having little in the way of literary merit, a dismissal often amplified when combined with the comic form.  Yet as he demonstrates through his discussion of Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’s ongoing series American Vampire, these conventional assumptions ignore the ‘interesting insights and cultural evolutions’ represented in the portrayal of the comic book vampire.  For me, one of the most interesting points raised in Thomson’s discussion was regarding the seriality which often characterises the comic book form, and the ways in which this influences and shapes narrative possibilities.  He comments on the different story options afforded by the combination of the character of the vampire and the temporal spaces of American history, arguing that this is enabled in no small part by the seriality of the medium.  My own teaching and research draws heavily on serial print media, although this is usually confined to Victorian and modern magazines.   Thomson’s discussion highlighted some formal commonalities of these seemingly disparate texts, in the ways their form and content intersect to offer a range of distinct narrative possibilities.  He makes a strong case for the value of these sometimes dismissed texts, demonstrating that they offer ‘new and innovative representations from a broad scope of cultural texts and traditions’.

‘Homo Abominum Americana’, reproduced here under fair dealings provisions for academic purposes. © DC Comics

Conference Review: ‘Untold Stories of the Past 150 Years: Canada 150‘ by Dr Hannah McGregor

Given the transnational scope of my own research, I’m always particularly drawn to reviews which expand on conventional US-centric notions of American Studies.  Dr Hannah McGregor’s (Simon Fraser University) review is a particularly good example of this.  As McGregor points out, this conference took the opportunity of Canada’s 150th anniversary to interrogate—rather than simply commemorate—Canada’s narratives of nation and identity, ‘reframing the sesquicentennial not as a moment of blind nationalism but as an opportunity for re-evaluation and re-envisioning’.  In this, the conference considered not only existing or lost texts, but also methodological approaches and ways of reading in the digital age.  McGregor notes the ambitious aims of a conference curated around the theme of that which is not told, highlighting that ‘any attempt to address the omissions that have characterised the study of Canadian literature, culture, and history will be marked by its own omissions’.  Yet she astutely notes that the impossibility of fully answering the questions set was one of the event’s strongest features.  This is a useful position to take, both here and for other conferences which seek to question accepted national narratives concerning identity and citizenship.  McGregor’s review demonstrates the value of events which privilege difficult questioning over the pursuit of simplistic answers and the discursive spaces they open up.

Ruth’s Top Picks

It was difficult to choose my ‘top pick’ of the reviews this year as the submissions, as always, have been so diverse. Alongside Dan Rowe’s review, upon which I ultimately bestowed the honour, I wanted to offer a shout-out to Christina Westwood for her essay entitled ‘Nantucket as a Summer Holiday Destination’. This beautifully written piece about nineteenth century tourism on ‘the small spit of land off the coast of Massachusetts’ has not yet been published and so was not in the running this year but I think, nonetheless, that it deserves a mention. It will be something to look forward to in 2018.

Charles J.C. Hutson and Confederate Flag Culture‘ by Patrick Doyle

In 2017 USSO and Adam Matthew Digital collaborated on a special blog series to encourage young scholars to take advantage of the wide range of historical and literary sources available in the fields of American history, American studies and beyond – especially collections that are digitised. New researchers may not have been aware that AMD offers access to the foreign office files of Afghanistan, China, India, Japan, and Pakistan, as well as collections on Native America, Colonial America, the American West, African American communities, and contemporary consumer culture. What’s more, these collections are now accessible at the touch of a button.

USSO contributors were asked to work on a collection of their choosing and submit an article to be published on the blog. We received countless excellent entries, and it is from this group that I have selected an essay, both for its clean writing style and relevance to the many contentious debates in what has been a turbulent year for U.S. politics. In his piece on ‘Charles J.C. Hutson and Confederate Flag Culture’, Patrick Doyle (Royal Holloway) shows how the letters of a former student of South Carolina College and a soldier in the First South Carolina Volunteers can provide some insight into how southern Americans developed a relationship with their fledgling nation and created a political identity from ideas formed in the aftermath of their Civil War experience. Doyle pays particular notice to the gender politics of flag creation and nationalist ritual, calling attention to women’s involvement in Confederate culture, a complex relationship which remains under-analysed in many historical narratives, and indeed in contemporary journalism on the debates surrounding Confederate flags and statues in the public spaces of today’s southern cities. In the militaristic and highly masculine context of the Civil War and the patriarchal power of nineteenth century state and familial institutions, the role of women can be easily overlooked. Like Rowe’s review, below, Doyle ultimately demonstrates how the intersections between the local and the national are significant points of conflict: in this case, they can help to shed some light on the construction of southern notions of freedom and independence.

‘The Florida Independent Blues, Company B, 3rd Florida Infantry’, University of Virginia. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/flags/fib.html

Book Review: Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City by Michael Woodsworth. Review by Dan Rowe

In his review of Michael Woodsworth’s 2016 publication, Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City, Dan Rowe (University of Oxford) meditates on poverty, urbanity, and gentrification in a New York city suburb. This local study challenges the traditional top-down narrative of the so-called War on Poverty and as such expands our understanding of this history through the lens of the microcosm. This blending of the local and the national, the broad strokes and the minute detail, provides a comprehensive approach to the War on Poverty that considers both the ‘generals’, or decision-makers, behind federal policy and the ‘foot soldiers’ on the streets. Rowe, as in all his writing, adds a touch of humour to insightful analysis, and reminds us that it is not only Brooklyn — the place — but also its reputation, and ultimately its history, that have in recent years been thoroughly transformed.