U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal
Issue 8, Spring 2006
America Actually: An Introduction
Elizabeth Boyle and Anne-Marie Evans
© Elizabeth Boyle and Anne-Marie Evans. All Rights Reserved
The annual BAAS Postgraduate Conference has an important function in galvanising the next generation of American Studies scholars in the UK. This year’s one-day postgraduate conference on 19 November 2005 was enormously popular, attracting more than 70 delegates, over 60 of whom were postgraduate students. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of BAAS, ‘America Actually’ explored multiple readings of American literature, culture and history and, as always, aimed to provide a supportive and informal environment within which young academics can present their work. This special conference edition of U.S. Studies Online offers a small selection of some of the excellent papers that were heard during the day.
Richard Espley’s article, ‘‘Something so fundamentally right’: Djuna Barnes’s Uneasy Intersections with Margaret Sanger and the Rhetoric of Reform’, argues persuasively against traditional critiques of Barnes’s fiction. Interrogating concepts of social reform, the same ones which prompted Barnes’s attitude of ‘smiling despair’, Espley demonstrates how previous readings of Barnes’s famously censored first novel, Ryder, published in 1928, have subscribed to the view that Barnes essentially presents a vision of a world before the impact of birth control. Espley maintains that the novel exposes Barnes’s frustrations with the birth control movement, led by famous reformer Margaret Sanger whose refusal to countenance ideas of female sexual desire fundamentally eclipsed an integral component in female identity. Drawing on socio-historical sources and examining the cultural anxiety with which contraceptive reform was associated, Espley examines Barnes’s emphasis on female sexuality, and her claimed ‘textual relationship’ to Sanger.
Also keying into contemporary debates over society’s relationship to the individual, John McKiernan’s article, ‘Tyranny of the Majority and Judicial Power: Using Tocqueville to Evaluate the Activism of Justice William Brennan’, delivers an insightful reading of Justice William Brennan’s 1956-1990 Supreme Court career through the lens of Tocqueville’s judicial theory. Working from the observation that both men held similar views of the nature of tyranny, McKiernan considers why their views on judicial activism differed so greatly. Tocqueville stresses the central passivity of the judiciary, while Brennan’s emphasis on the ‘pro-active court’ raises questions of judges ‘making rather than following the law’. Interrogating ideas of power, judicial impartiality, and the rights of the individual in the legal system, McKiernan’s article thoughtfully engages with contemporary cultural and legal issues.
Yan Ying focuses on the functions of language in her article, ‘In the Ruins of the Tower of Babel: On the Use of Language in Chinese American Literature’. Examining a wide range of different ‘Englishes’ in her study of Gus Lee’s China Boy, including American English, Pidgin English, dialect Chinese and Pidgin Chinese, she focuses on their use in articulating identity and difference within a Chinese American cultural context, with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen’s God’s Wife, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior all supplying crucial points of reference in her argument. Adapting the language of psychoanalysis, Ying’s postcolonial reading of these second generation Chinese American texts confronts issues of identity, subjectivity and voice.
Simon Turner’s exploration of Vietnam war culture in his article ‘“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there”: Vietnam combat literature and the limits of authenticity’ ponders the ethics involved in writing military history. He uses Paul Fussell’s breakthrough critical study, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and notions of a hierarchy of authenticity as a touchstone for his investigation. Pitting more contemporary Vietnam combat literature, such as that written by Lewis Shiner and Robert Olen Butler, against well known texts by Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien, the article seeks to unpick the ‘secret history’ perpetuated by previous authors. Turner offers new readings which do not rely on restrictive binary discourse and estimations of heroism. Concentrating on the valorisation of the veteran’s account, Turner examines the ‘unknowableness’ of warfare and questions Fussell’s conclusions. Offering a postmodern critique on the war narrative, the article deconstructs notions of authenticity, representation and literary exclusions.
These four challenging and diverse papers, evolved from the proceedings of ‘America Actually 2005’, reveal the exciting research climate which currently characterizes the field of American Studies. We hope that the BAAS Postgraduate Conference continues to provide such a fertile proving ground for postgraduates seeking to develop their academic skills.
The fifth paper in this collection is the 2005 winner of the BAAS Ambassador’s Postgraduate Essay Prize, Camilla Cox’s ‘Unearthing Resistance: African American Cultural Artefacts in the Antebellum Period’. Noting that discussions of African American art have traditionally ignored the cultural production of slaves, Cox argues for a ‘critical revision of the tenacious belief that African and African-American slaves did not have, and could not create, a vigorous and expressive culture’. Using recent archaeological and documentary evidence, Cox seeks to redress the underestimation of a community of artisans whose very circumstances implied a lack ownership of their own production, cultural or otherwise.