Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #18)

Greetings From Chicago!

After an amazing NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore, MD, I am back in cold, damp, and drizzly Chicago getting ready for the school week ahead.  Special thanks to NEMLA Executive Director Carine Mardorossian and her staff for ensuring that everything ran smoothly.  I think I can say without exaggeration that this is the best convention of the organization I have attended.

My live tweeting skills are non-existent, but I did manage to tweet after the fact some highlights from the sessions I attended.  In my blog post for this month, I intend to do something similar, giving a recap of my convention experience and the conversations I was privileged to have with scholars during sessions but also out in the hallways and at the networking tables set up in the exhibit hall.

Thursday was spent on board related issues and a bit of sight seeing in the afternoon.  Former NEMLA President Ben Railton and I enjoyed the exhibits at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.  I can’t speak for Ben (if you’re reading this feel free to make a comment) but I enjoyed the “living history” aspect of the museum as it tried to demonstrate the ways in which the past shaped the present culture of Maryland’s African-American population in positive and not just negative ways.  Walking through these exhibits was like being invited to a sift through a family’s private collection of heirlooms.  Many thanks to the staff at the museum for being so welcoming.  I really enjoyed the artifacts related to Frederick Douglass’s life and time in Baltimore.

After the museum, I went to see the Baltimore maritime museum.  I especially enjoyed my visit the USS Constellation, which dovetailed nicely with the Lewis museum’s exhibit on ship caulking (Douglass’s job in the Baltimore shipyards).  The staff on the ship were highly knowledgeable in matters of 19th century nautical history and explained to me how a ship like the USS Constellation was built and maintained.  Walking through the sailor’s quarters in the berthing deck gave me a greater appreciation for Melville’s fiction, especially his great but hardly ever read novel White Jacket.  Being a sailor was (and in many ways still is) a hard life.

On Friday I began my day with a panel on poetry and had the pleasure of meeting Ron Ben-Tovim from the University of Haifa.  Our paths crossed several times on Friday and Saturday as we went to many of the same sessions.  He raised some very interesting questions about War Literature and the ways in which we as readers should respond to veteran’s writing.  In particular, he brought up the issue of whether veterans got what they were looking for by enlisting.  This, of course, raises the prior issue of what exactly they were looking for and whether their quest was directed into the appropriate channel. He also brought up the valid point that some people enjoy killing others and find liberation in the suspension of norms that is allowed by war.  In addition, he reiterated a point made by Paul Fussell in his discussion of his own service in WWII that war can be both terrifying and exhilirating at the same time.  It’s more complicated that being simply good or bad.

Many of these issues came up in conversation with attendees of the roundtable session I chaired and presented at on the issue of Teaching War Literature Since 9/11.  Special thanks to Brittany Hirth and Lea Williams for joining me on that panel.  For those who were unable to attend, my slides are available in the Writing Sample section of this website.

I also attended a session on Friday about Death and Dying (kind of a morbid subject I know) but gained a useful insight from Courtney Adams of Texas A&M University on Fight Club, a book and author that I have always had trouble connecting with.  The self-destructive hero trope she analyzed says a lot about the status of masculinity in the contemporary culture of the United States today and the need to reimagine what it means to be a man.

I also had the opportunity on Friday to chair a panel Agriculture as a theme in US fiction.  There were four amazing papers on very divergent topics and authors.  I was left at the end of this session with a curious thought about the connection between Deep Ecology and Nativism.  If you are “transplanted” to a different soil (metaphor for the immigrant’s experience) and fail to thrive, whose fault is it?  That of the soil or is it your own?

I finished off my day by attending the Keynote Address by Ilan Stavans on the problem of Monolingualism.  Two issues he brought up stayed with me for several days.  So much so that I was speaking with strangers about it on the plane ride home.  The first is the perfectionism that many of us bring to our attempts to study language.  This often stops people (myself included) from learning one language let alone many because I want to be fluent instead of functional.  It is a way to ensure that we stay monolingual.  The second was his observation that being multilingual isn’t simply about knowing how to speak and write in another language.  It is about being able to interact with another culture, often radically different from your own, but still relatable to your experience.  I though of this when I took a cab ride to the airport and had an amazing conversation with the driver, a recent immigrant from Ethiopia who wants the same things for his family that I want for mine.  Thank you Ilan Stavans for staying with me all the way from BWI to MDW and shaping my conversations with strangers.  And bravo for being able to speak to us for so long without notes or slides.  Something I aspire to.

Saturday I began my day with a panel on F.O. Matthiessen.  Who knew that people still read and/or talked about him?  I remembered his text American Renaissance from my undergraduate days, but just assumed that in our Critical Theory heavy environment that Matthiessen’s work would be passe.  What I took away from this talk was a greater appreciation for the New Critics and what they were trying to achieve.  In the contemporary narrative, Cleanth Brooks and his colleagues in the New Critical approach to teaching literature are often viewed as Ivy-league elitists when the reality is that Brooks taught at LSU Baton Rouge, hardly a bastion of elitism, and was trying to democratize the reading of fiction, making it easier for non-specialist readers to encounter.  Whether they achieved their intent or not and if they had the best approach to that goal are both open to dispute.  But democratizing literature still seems a worthy goal.  I also found myself wondering as I left that session when did we as literary scholars come to hate or distrust the thing we teach?  And if we don’t love the literature we teach, why should our students?

The capstone of my day on Saturday was the Area Special Event which my fellow Director Lisa Perdigao made possible.  Brian Norman came to speak to members of the American/Anglophone and Cultural Studies/Media Studies Areas on his new project examining “posthumous autobiographies.”  These are works that purport to narrate the authentic life of key figures in the Civil Rights Era that are written/edited by another author after their death.  Malcolm X’s autobiography was one of the key examples given.  There is some question over how much control Alex Haley had over the text and if he was simply an editor or perhaps an author of the text, subtly shaping the way we see Malcolm X and his legacy.  These questions are especially poignant as the Civil Rights movement gradually moves out of living memory with participants gradually passing away.  Soon all we will have to know these figures and their historical moment are the texts and monuments left behind.

Fittingly, my conference experience ended with a panel on African-American literary traditions in Baltimore, chaired by Lena Ampadu, a scholar whose essay on Paul Dunbar’s poetry was crucial in the fifth chapter of my book.  I was surprised to learn in this session as well as in the one on Saturday on Literary Maryland how crucial a role William Watkins played in the life of so many African-American authors and yet how little we know about him.  The world of African-American activist fiction was much more interconnected than I thought it was.  There is a clear intellectual history that develops from these personal connections that really needs a book to outline if.  If that book already exists, let me know.  It is an area that I only have limited knowledge in, mostly related to Frederick Douglass and Francis E.W. Harper.

After that session, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend from UIC grad school days and meeting her husband and son (NEMLA is a family friendly conference).  Then it was off to BWI and back to Chicago to prepare for next year’s conference in Pittsburg.

If you have a session that you would like to propose for NEMLA 2018, you can find a link to propose that session here:  Sessions should be on a topic that you feel might be of interest to a wide range of scholars. Try not to be too specific in your abstract or too broad.  A few topics that I would like to see represented in Pittsburg include:  Women at Work, Class Issues in US fiction, Representations of Disability, Immigrant Narratives in US fiction, Bilingual Authors and Texts in US literature, and Native American Fiction in the US.  Other topics, of course, are welcome.  If you’re not sure how or if your abstract will work, email me directly and we can discuss it.  The deadline for session proposals is APRIL 29.  Once the sessions have been vetted, a CFP will go out for papers and presentations.  Usually this happens in mid to late May.

Thank you to all who attended NEMLA.  Our members are what make this organization great.  Please join us Pittsburg.  Our new president Maria DiFrancesco has an amazing conference planned.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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