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Report from Rebecca Harding, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Award in North American Studies recipient 2015


Report from Rebecca Harding, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Award in North American Studies recipient 2015

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During my time as an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow I was able to gain access to a large body of alternative readings of Don DeLillo’s fiction, writes Rebecca Harding. Accessing the British Library’s materials has suggested new ways of thinking about the body in DeLillo’s work.

[/dt_quote][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]I made two trips to the British Library in July and August 2016, thanks to the generous support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies. The purpose of these trips was to access a number of texts that I hoped would help me in my PhD project, which looks at the role of the body in the fiction of Don DeLillo. My central argument is that DeLillo’s prose locates specific anxieties of American culture at the site of the material body. I find that DeLillo’s writing reveals a peculiar interest in embodiment, and I am working to[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]understand the nature of the connection between grand social themes and individual embodied experience in his fiction. DeLillo’s interest in the body has become more explicit in his later works, particularly The Body Artist (2001) and Falling Man (2007), and from my research so far, it seems that the subject of the body only appears in criticism about his later works. However, my project hinges on the idea that the ‘bodily’ is — and always has been — central to DeLillo’s account of U.S. culture.

During my trips to the Eccles Centre I planned to look at a number of book chapters, articles, monographs, and PhD theses that I hoped would help me in better understanding the role of the body in DeLillo’s earlier fiction. In a journal article by Philip Nel from 2010 I found a useful perspective on the field of existing scholarship. Nel writes of the need to ‘deepen and expand the study of Don DeLillo’, asserting that critical focus has overwhelmingly favoured a number of recurring themes, and I am encouraged by this call for scholars to look beyond common critical frameworks. Nel goes on to examine gender roles in two of DeLillo’s novels, a subject in which the body plays an important part. Further reading revealed a similar interest in gender in several other of DeLillo’s works — I came across a book chapter by Ruth Helyer in which she looks at portrayals of the male body in DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, and an article by Anne Longmuir on genre and gender in two novels from the 1970s. I also found a short piece from 2007 by Randy Laist, which explores the link between masculinity and physical stature in Americana, DeLillo’s 1971 debut novel. I have not encountered such an approach to DeLillo’s fiction before and I had not considered looking at the body in his work with a specific attention to gender, but I found some really useful ideas in these works that have inspired me to develop my own approach. Significantly, these texts also reveal an interest in the gendered body in DeLillo’s fiction that looks all the way back to his debut novel.

I gained a particularly valuable insight into the kinds of questions I am thinking through in my research in a journal article by Katrina Harack, published in 2013. Harack outlines some really interesting ideas about what she terms an ‘ethics of embodiment’ in two of DeLillo’s novels, one from 1985, the other from 2007. For Harack, both novels demonstrate a central concern with the body and its vulnerability. Her argument that the two texts are connected by a common investment in the body is a significant finding – this the first piece of scholarship I have found that reads the body as a continuing concern throughout DeLillo’s work, rather than something that is evident only in the later texts. I was also able to access some other really interesting sources beyond the print journals, and found a few lesser known interviews with the author in literary magazines, as well as a fascinating sound recording from 1998 in which DeLillo speaks about his life and work for the Radio 4 program ‘Kaleidoscope’. Beyond these specific findings, It was helpful to look more broadly at the range scholarship on the author. There is a large amount of critical work written on DeLillo’s fiction, which is reflected in the number of works available in the Eccles Centre’s North American collections. An overview of the many titles available helped to confirm my sense that criticism tends to favour a few recurring subjects, and that discussion of the body in DeLillo’s earlier work is largely absent. It was really useful to see the texts that particularly interest me in context, and to see, for example, how unusual Katrina Harack’s approach is. Had I found a large number of scholars making similar claims I would have had to rethink my own approach, so it is reassuring to find that I am not repeating arguments that have already been made.

My main objective in looking at the Eccles Centre’s collections was to gain a fuller understanding of how DeLillo’s treatment of the body has been addressed in existing criticism, and I also hoped to improve my knowledge of the field of DeLillo criticism more broadly. In my archival research I found a few key texts that will no doubt play an important role as I develop my own arguments. The works of literary criticism that I read offered alternative readings of DeLillo’s fiction, and suggested ways of thinking about the body in his work that I have not yet considered. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to conduct my research in the beautiful surroundings of the British Library. I will need to carry out further archival research, and plan to visit the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas which houses the majority of DeLillo’s own notes, research materials, drafts, and correspondence. During my time at the British Library I gained experience in finding relevant sources from a large body of material and in planning and carrying out archival work, and this will be of great use to me in continuing my research in the future. I was also invited to share the findings of my research as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars series, which was a great opportunity to speak about my project to a mixed audience group. Presenting my work in this format really helped me to clarify and formulate my findings, and discussing my work with people from a range of academic backgrounds in the question and answer session was particularly productive, as it gave me ideas about how to develop my project from a diverse range of perspectives.

Rebecca Harding is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Sussex.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]