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Friday, September 19, 2014

A Report from the 2014 Dartmouth “Futures of American Studies Institute”

By Christy Pottroff

The 2014 Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College was an intense, exhausting, and transformative week-long experience featuring twenty-seven plenaries by distinguished American Studies scholars. While the Institute benefited my scholarship, my academic networks, and my morale, in this post I want to focus on how one of the plenary lectures – CUNY Graduate Center Professor Duncan Faherty’s “’Revolution, molasses, spirits, and sugar’: Isaac Mitchell, Narrative Temporality and the Haitian Revolution,” transformed the way I understand my own work.

Professor Faherty, author of Remodeling the Nation: the Architecture of American Identity, 1776-1858, began his plenary remarks by calling to mind Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” that was then on display in Brooklyn.

"A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" by Kara Walker
Walker’s exhibition, Faherty noted, allows us to view simultaneous temporalities in the same space. If you’ve made the trip to Williamsburg to see the monumental sculptures, you can attest to this: the sugar figures recall the history of slave labor in the Caribbean and the soon-to-be-demolished factory stands as the once leading sugar refinery in the United States. While viewers take pictures with their phones the sugar babies’ bodies sweat molasses and break under their own weight. All at once the immense temporary exhibition speaks to race, slavery, womanhood, sexuality, commodity, consumption, labor, and economics from the late 18th century to the present moment.  Faherty observed how the exhibition forces viewers to confront the historical roots and routes of global economic production. The exhibition’s global economic subject matter and textured temporalities, he asserted, have an unexpected resonance with the early American novel.

Faherty’s lecture focused on these unexpected resonances by looking at the aesthetic practices of a neglected swatch of novels written in the United States between 1800-1820, among them Isaac Mitchell’s The Asylum (1811). Like Kara Walker’s installation, these early 19th-century novels address slavery, revolution, and the global market with temporal moves that collapse, skip, and echo traditional narrative structure.  Faherty demonstrated how these temporal shifts are related to a contemporary preoccupation with revolution. References to the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and other insurrections fold into one another; in doing so, the novels suggest that these revolutions—what might seem like geographically and temporally disparate events—all arose from the same revolutionary energy. By bringing past histories of revolution together, these early novelists sought to arouse revolutionary action against present injustices. These early 19th-century novels are unfamiliar and, frankly, weird for twenty-first century readers—they are messy and disjointed, with unbelievable plots and geographically expansive settings. Duncan’s lecture suggested ways to “read” these novels and absolutely convinced me that the period deserves more consideration. It was an exciting talk, and it will shape my current research in two ways.

First, Duncan’s explanation of the novels’ aesthetic practices is directly relevant to texts that fall within the scope of my dissertation. As Duncan has shown, the recent attention to what Thomas Allen (2008) has called “America’s manifold temporal cultures” gives us the tools to read these texts. I won’t dismiss Anne Royall’s The Tennessean (1827) for its countless imprisonments, fast-forwards, flashbacks, mistaken identities, and unexpected reunions (one with a long-lost horse!). Instead, I will consider what these strange moments might say about an evolving and revolutionary national identity.

Perhaps even more energizing than Duncan’s model for reading was the scope of his lecture. By making a comparison between Kara Walker’s 2014 exhibition and novels from 1800-1820, he shows why the humanistic study of materials from the early nineteenth century matters. These peculiar novels were not merely distractions from reality in the early national period, and current scholarly engagement with them is not simply an act of isolated nostalgia. Instead, attentive and close reading of these texts—much like “reading” Kara Walker’s exhibition—can be central to understanding our reality. Early national novels speak to the complex history of race, revolution, and global exchange, factors that are relevant to contemporary national politics. Following Duncan Faherty’s example, I hope that my own work will succeed in drawing connections between historical texts and current events without sacrificing the complexities or specificities of either.

Editor’s Note: Christy Pottroff, a Fordham English Doctoral Candidate, attended the Summer 2014 Dartmouth Futures of American Studies Institute on a Fellowship awarded by the Fordham American Studies Program and GSAS. This is the second of two posts from Fordham participants in the Dartmouth Futures Institute and is part of our new online initiative to foster dialogues on and in American Studies.

1 comment:

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