Alfred Hornung, ed., American Lives (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), xvii + 563 pp.
Feb18

Alfred Hornung, ed., American Lives (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), xvii + 563 pp.

Alfred Hornung, ed., American Lives (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), xvii + 563 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   This volume edited by Alfred Hornung includes the five keynote lectures plus twenty-four workshop presentations from the 2012 DGfA annual conference on “American Lives” held at the University of Mainz. The collection delves into the myriad variations of American (auto-) biography with its complex, multi-layered modes of story-telling, its various forms and functions, its conceptual frames and narrative strategies to produce authenticity and credibility. And it does so with a vast historical reach, from indigenous and colonial texts to contemporary life writing across genres and media.  E-lives, blogs and other social media formats are considered as well as film, photography and graphic story-telling. The first part of the book presents the keynote lectures of the conference. Sidonie Smith offers a compelling account of how Hillary Clinton’s bestseller Living History (2003) shapes a convincing political persona of representative American-ness by drawing on variants of the Bildungsroman, the conventional First Lady Memoir, the buddy story, the celebrity confession and the war memoir. Thomas Bender examines recent biographies about public intellectuals Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch with a focus on intellectual creativity: the formations and transformations that ideas undergo before they appear in print. The contributions by Craig Howes and Birgit Däwes share an interest in Native American life writing. Howes explores nineteenth-century indigenous Hawaiian self-representations as responses to colonization and missionary endeavors while Däwes probes into the emancipatory potential of staged Native American biography. Finally, Siri Hustvedt ventures into the borderlands between life writing and life science where she discusses how the “hard” and “soft” truths of science and art are affected by the choice of first, second or third person narrative.   The following section has a focus on historical variants of (auto-) biographical writing. Patrick Erben traces how the anniversary poems of Francis Daniel Pastorius can be read as a form of immigrant autobiography which deliberately seeks to establish religious community and personal affiliation in a colonial setting. The uneasy relations between Christian ethics and slavery are discussed by Carsten Junker who reads Samuel West’s unpublished memoirs in dialog with letters from the author’s brother. Kirsten Twelbeck and Hannah Spahn both discuss how life writings help us understand race relations in the context of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The diary of Esther Hill Hawks, a white doctor, and the autobiography of Eliza Potter, an Afroamerican hairdresser, offer intriguing insights into the resonances of race and gender, the public and the private, as well as of national identity, social activism and the ambivalences of recognition. This section of...

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Alexandra Wagner, Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten (Trier: WVT, 2014), 232 pp.
Feb18

Alexandra Wagner, Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten (Trier: WVT, 2014), 232 pp.

Alexandra Wagner, Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten (Trier: WVT, 2014), 232 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The field of autobiography studies, as Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have proposed, has taken on “virtually intergalactic” proportions in the past few decades (ix), enlivened by the growing recognition of the interdependencies and fragmentations of writing subjects through fields such as postcolonial studies,[1] ecocriticism, and disability studies. Alexandra Wagner’s Wissen in der Autobiographie: Zur narrativen Konstruktion von Wissensordnungen in US-amerikanischen autobiographischen Texten adds to this ever expanding field by examining the interconnections between literature and knowledge through the genre of autobiography. In her elegant study, Wagner investigates the ways in which the genre shapes the production and representation of knowledge, considering autobiography as a specific knowledge system characterized by a poetics of knowledge (as developed by Jacques Rancière and Joseph Vogl) situated between fact and fiction (3). The book is organized into five main sections. Following an introduction and general overview of the role of narrative and knowledge in autobiography (section II), Wagner theorizes narrative points of view, motivations, the role of the addressee, and temporal and spatial dimensions of autobiographical writing (section III). In section IV, which takes up about half of the study, Wagner pursues close readings of (mostly) American autobiographical texts to exhibit the various orders of knowledge in the genre. She closes with an exemplary reading of Dave Eggers’s What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Deng. A Novel (2007)as a contemporary example of the fusion between fact and fiction in autobiographical writing that serves to recap some of her study’s major claims. Genre, according to Wagner, goes beyond mere classification of texts, providing frames and formulas for the organization and production of knowledge (22). An investigation of poetic knowledge construction in autobiography, as she asserts, not only offers insights into autobiographical narrative as a practice of self-assurance but may also shed light on the possibilities, limitations, and formations of knowledge systems in general (11). Wagner’s emphasis on the poetic dimensions of autobiography aims to serve as a corrective to the more common linkage of the genre in popular perception with facticity rather than fictional creation (23). This focus, as she seeks to demonstrate, opens up new avenues toward understanding autobiographical texts: setting aside dichotomies of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, she instead concentrates on genre specific modes of (re)presentations of autobiographical knowledge through an analysis of narrative structures (24). Narrative has a mediating function in the production, dissemination, and communication of meaning (20), and it is shaped by a tension between knowing and non-knowing and the...

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Mita Banerjee, Color Me White: Naturalism/Naturalization in American Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 484 pp.
Feb18

Mita Banerjee, Color Me White: Naturalism/Naturalization in American Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 484 pp.

Mita Banerjee, Color Me White: Naturalism/Naturalization in American Literature (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013), 484 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   A serious, comprehensive consideration of “race” in US American Naturalism is long overdue. Mita Banerjee’s study Color Me White addresses the issue squarely in a manner that is both original and insightful, contributing towards filling this lacuna in earlier research. Yet, the innovative character of her book is not limited to its subject matter; it resides at least as much in its fresh, transdisciplinary approach to the topic. Taking her cue from the court’s verdict in In re Ah Yup (1878) that resorted to “the literature of the country” for determining the meaning of the term “white person, ” Banerjee reads legal and literary discourses as mutually illuminating projects seeking to ascertain which racial and ethnic groups should be considered “white,” thus gaining the right to own property (including land) as well as the right to marry white persons. Around 1900, these considerations were triangulated by yet another discipline: medicine, in particular hygiene. Both legal and literary inquiries into matters of “race” thus inspect not only the petitioners’ hands and teeth, but also their food, their kitchens and living rooms, as well as their clothing. Curiously, from today’s perspective, the question of the claimants’ proficiency in English appeared much less important. But this is in fact one of the central points Color Me White makes: racialization is a historical, as well as a regional, specific practice. What might matter in one case—in addition to the instances already cited, “beauty” and religion, for example—might be dismissed in another. Neither is the “whiteness” or “non-whiteness” of specific ethnic or national groups a foregone conclusion.  Thus, Syrian, Indian, and Japanese individuals were granted whiteness at some times and in some places, but not in others. Such “de-racing” and “re-racing” processes are by no means historically unidirectional, as the re-racialization of Arab Americans after 9/11 attests. Color Me White discusses the canonical texts of literary Naturalism ranging from Stephen Crane’s Maggie to Frank Norris’s and Upton Sinclair’s works. In these novels, the whiteness of some ethnic communities, such as Lithuanian Americans in The Jungle, is established through their distinction from other, similarly situated social groups, here Irish Americans, who are portrayed as lacking in terms of hygiene as well as morality. Interestingly, the verdict of naturalist fiction does not always tally with that of contemporary courts. Where Irish Americans were well on their way to whiteness around 1900, partly as a result of their decision to distance themselves from African Americans, as Ignatiev and Jacobson among others have shown, they are re-raced in Sinclair’s...

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Ana Maria Manzanas and Jesús Benito, Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment (New York/London: Routledge, 2014), 170 pp.
Feb18

Ana Maria Manzanas and Jesús Benito, Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment (New York/London: Routledge, 2014), 170 pp.

Ana Maria Manzanas and Jesús Benito, Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment (New York/London: Routledge, 2014), 170 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   This intellectually ambitious and intelligently provocative study puts into analytical practice what its authors call a “spatial turn in literary theory.”  They situate their book at the “intersection of geography, literary criticism, and cultural criticism” (2-3), and, in doing so, display not only considerable expertise in a wide spectrum of contemporary theory (from Giorgio Agamben to Slavoj Zizek), but are also able to make literary texts speak theoretically and politically. In addition, they show the aesthetic implications of much contemporary political thought and the practice of recent political movements. Re-thinking “space” and its function thus provides the link between the widely different spheres of their inquiry, creating a field of discourse in which political theory, literary text(s) and the actual experience of the historical moment interrelate and interact. Who owns or occupies what space in times like ours, marked by the dynamics of migration and the space-dissolving and border-defying (but also border-reinstating) processes of globalization? To what extent can space not only be the locus of repressive order, but also of radical refusal, even an agency for creative change in political thought, in the practice of literature, and of political protest? Can there be imagined or practiced alternatives to the way “space” is conceived in the narratives of contemporary neoliberal politics? What is curious about this study, then, is the fact that although it claims much for literature and the imagination, its concerns are not primarily literary. Rather it is driven by a consciousness of political and social crisis in the face of non-functioning political systems, the social impact of an economic policy of financial austerity, or the influx of “alien” immigrants that nations in Europe and elsewhere are either unwilling or unable to accommodate. And yet the book appears to place trust in the power of the aesthetic: It is based on the assumption that objects of the imagination (literature, film, or art) may anticipate, even shape, reality since they are driven by a desire for change beyond the realm of the aesthetic (yet inclusive of it).  Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” frames Manzanas’ and Benito’s study—they discuss it in their opening and then again in a concluding chapter called “From Bartleby to Occupy Wall Street: The Politics of Empty Spaces.” Melville’s story thus establishes the book’s focus, allowing its authors to advance and exemplify concepts concerning the aesthetic as much as the political relevance of space. Here, as elsewhere, they acknowledge their indebtedness to Doreen Massey who,...

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Arno Heller, Wo sich Amerika erfand: Große Erinnerungsorte in Neuengland (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2015), 352 pp.
Feb18

Arno Heller, Wo sich Amerika erfand: Große Erinnerungsorte in Neuengland (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2015), 352 pp.

Arno Heller, Wo sich Amerika erfand: Große Erinnerungsorte in Neuengland (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2015), 352 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   Auf der Suche nach Gemeinsamkeiten jener vielfältigen Facetten, die nicht mehr kommentarlos unter dem allzu vereinheitlichenden Begriff einer US-amerikanischen Kultur zusammenzufassen sind, wird man neben anderen Aspekten unweigerlich auf eine gewisse Faszination, wenn nicht gar Obsession mit dem Konzept des Anfangs und des Anfangens stoßen, die den kulturellen Mainstream und sein Verständnis von Geschichte und Identität ebenso prägt wie subkulturelle und gegenkulturelle Positionen. Das Konzept des Gründungsortes spielt hierbei eine besondere Rolle, und Orte werden gerne zu Stätten gemacht, indem man sie mythisch überhöht, ganz gleich, ob es im Namen einer nationalen Identitätsbildung oder deren Gegenbewegung stattfindet, egal ob Plymouth Rock oder Woodstock. Die Konstruktion dieser Gründungsorte findet oftmals konkret über diskursive und materielle Praktiken statt, die Geschichtsschreibung mit musealer Aufarbeitung und Ausstellung verbinden und dabei immer eine gewisse Kontinuität zur Gegenwart und zu gegenwärtigen Identitäten herstellen (und sei es durch die Inszenierung eines Bruches mit der Vergangenheit). In seinem Buch Wo sich Amerika erfand spürt Arno Heller einigen dieser Erinnerungsorte dort nach, wo sie in den USA vermutlich in der größten Dichte zu finden sind, nämlich in Neuengland. Es ist ihm dabei elegant der keineswegs leichte Brückenschlag zwischen akademischer Kulturwissenschaft (mit literarischem Fokus) und landeskundlicher Aufarbeitung gelungen, die das Buch für mindestens zwei Zielgruppen gleichermaßen interessant macht, ohne diese gegeneinander auszuspielen. Wo sich Amerika erfand ist zunächst einmal ein Reiseführer im besten Wortsinn, der eine wertvolle erzählerische Ergänzung zu jenen immer bildlastigeren Büchern darstellt, die Touristen zwar Karten, Daten und eine Liste sehenswerter Orte bieten, zugleich aber kaum mehr als einen knappen Absatz Text pro Eintrag aufweisen und sich höchstens noch einige wenige einführende Seiten zur allgemeinen Geschichte leisten. Auch Hellers Buch enthält zahlreiche Farbbilder, teilweise vom Autor selbst fotografiert, die in sehr guter Qualität und an geeigneter Stelle sinnvoll den Text illustrieren, aber auch nicht mehr tun wollen als dies. Die konkreten Fragen, mit denen sich analoge und digitale Reiseführer gerne beschäftigen – das kommentierte Kartenmaterial, das Touristen zu Sehenswürdigkeiten, Hotels, Souvenirläden und gutem Kaffee bringt – überlässt ihnen Heller gerne; er kümmert sich stattdessen um die narrative kulturhistorische Aufarbeitung und Einbettung eines Ortes im größeren nationalen, nicht selten auch globalen Kontext, und somit um jene Geschichte und Geschichten, die ein Reiseziel vielleicht überhaupt erst wirklich als Ort erfahrbar machen. Hellers Buch ist jedoch nicht nur im Gepäck Neuenglandreisender gut aufgehoben, sondern erfüllt einen zweiten Zweck gleichermaßen überzeugend: Es bietet eine grundlegende Einführung in die Kulturgeschichte der USA, die Studierenden der Amerikanistik für einen ersten Überblick ebenso nützlich sein wird wie als Orientierungspunkt für...

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Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015), 272 pp.
Feb18

Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015), 272 pp.

Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015), 272 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   The turn to religion in literary studies over the past decade has yielded many fruitful insights, especially in scholarly understandings of sentimental culture.  When Ann Douglas turned serious attention to sentimentalism in The Feminization of American Culture (1977), she established a narrative in which a “masculine” and serious-minded Calvinism gave way to a “feminine” and soft-hearted sentimentalism.[1]  Jane Tompkins challenged Douglas, but left the basic paradigm—from Calvinism to sentimentalism—in place.[2]  Both books depicted a vague evangelical Protestantism behind sentimentalism.  The lack of distinction or theological depth in these accounts was recognized as a problem, but was seldom, if ever, addressed.[3]  Only now are scholars beginning to reveal the religious complexities and nuances of sentimental culture.  In The Altar at Home (2014), Claudia Stokes reveals the powerful effect of Methodism and the Second Great Awakening on sentimentalism.[4]  Kevin Pelletier’s new book, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism, likewise turns to “the fiery evangelical context in which American sentimentalism developed” (38).  Demonstrating against Douglas and others that “there is no clean break between hard-line Calvinist theology and the more moderate forms of belief that sought to replace it,” Pelletier sets a fear of God’s vengeance at the center of abolitionist sentimentalism (12). Pelletier’s idea that fear might be a forceful presence and an enduring feature of sentimentalism radically departs from usual understandings of this culture and its literature.  Scholars most often see an “autotelic” view of love and sympathy at work: that is, depictions of love produce love; representations of sympathy spread sympathy.  Some scholars call this approach modeling.  By modeling scenes of love and compassion, sentimental writers hope to reproduce that response in readers.  And indeed, sentimental novels often seem filled with contagious scenes of weeping, where right feeling is not just demonstrated, but replicated.  Yet as Pelletier points out, focusing on such scenes actually prohibits scholars from seeing the many times when such responses fail.  What happens when the heart hardens despite being surrounded by proper sentimental scenes?  Sentimental novels, Pelletier demonstrates, worried constantly about how to move the unmoved, and they turned to a fear of God as their answer.  The “apocalypse,” as Pelletier defines it, counted as any “suspended threat” of divine judgment and wrath: “Apocalypse is a warning that God would scourge reprobates for their sinful ways but never an actual depiction of this scourging” (12).  Where sympathy would not suffice, God’s threats could move readers from fear to love in the cause of abolition. In making this claim, Pelletier does important work distinguishing among multiple...

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Michael Millner, Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012), xxii+188 pp.
Feb18

Michael Millner, Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012), xxii+188 pp.

Michael Millner, Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere (Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012), xxii+188 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.3   It is perhaps not surprising that the last two decades have seen a renaissance of public sphere criticism.  After all, in these unstable times, the idea of a realm dedicated to disinterested conversation and rational deliberation holds a kind of redemptive promise.  Here individuals can occupy a space beholden to neither state nor private interests, in which participatory democracy plays out principally through what Nancy Fraser calls “the medium of talk.” Even as recent studies celebrate the public sphere, however, they have also been sharply critical of its limitations.  Despite its claims to universality, participation in the public sphere has historically rested with white propertied men.  And while “talk” has been its acclaimed component, public sphere engagement has been enacted principally through the disembodied medium of print.  In this way, it has systematically excluded those individuals who lacked both access to print culture and the means for claiming an abstract universality—that is women and people of color.  In more recent years, scholars have complicated these notions of an exclusive unified realm of white men by pointing to the presence of subaltern or counterpublics and by examining the ways that performance, affect, and voice have all contributed to the creation of the public sphere. Michael Millner’s Fever Reading is a recent and welcome addition to this latter scholarship.  Lucidly argued and elegantly written, Fever Reading makes a case for a public sphere of embodiment and emotion, what Millner occasionally calls “a public sensorium.”  But rather than seeing this as an alternative to the realm of discursive communication and rational judgment, Millner sees embodiment as enabling precisely the kinds of critical practices—reflection, evaluation, judgment—that public sphere proponents embrace. To make this argument, Millner focuses on the phenomenon of “bad reading”—reading that is fevered, addictive, distracted, overly absorbing, and so forth.  This is precisely the kind of reading that cultural custodians (both in the early American period and today) posit as detrimental because it “dissolve[s] critical distance and undercut[s] the possibility of reflection—elements thought essential to a proper public sphere and good citizenship.”  But Millner argues that the opposite is true—that bad reading practices are, in fact, “critical, reflective, and essential to modern democracy…” (xiii). Millner’s counter-intuitive claims rest on the idea that the emotions generated in bad reading are important diagnostic tools, ways of evaluating the surrounding environment.  Borrowing from research in the experimental sciences and particularly the work of William Reddy, Millner posits that emotional reactions allow readers to navigate complex...

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