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The Year in Conferences
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“The Year in Conferences” is an annual group-authored report from the field that provides a snapshot of what’s going on among scholars of the American nineteenth century at the conference level. A stable link for each of the conference programs is provided. Contributed by clusters of graduate students who have collaboratively written thematic overviews of major professional meetings, “The Year in Conferences” is ESQ’s effort to keep information circulating and the work of practicing scholars vital.

American Literature Association Conference Reported by H. Marlowe Daly-Galeano, James Finley, Nels Olson, Luella Putnam D’amico, and Kelly Ross

The twenty-second Annual American Literature Association Conference took place in Boston in May 2011. ALA primarily comprised panels sponsored by author societies, many of them of particular interest to readers of ESQ. The conference also addressed such broader concerns as genre, pedagogy, digital humanities, and the state of literary criticism.

Politics of Affect

This year’s conference revealed a consistent interest in affect, both in the process of theorizing affect and in the process of recognizing affect in an age before it had been formally identified or theorized as such. Scholars throughout the conference grappled with questions that inform current understandings of affect, including consideration of the relationships between feeling, thinking, learning, and acting. “Sentimentalism, Still? Re-Examinations of Nineteenth-Century Sentimentalism” discussed authors who used sympathy to engage in social and political issues. Maglina Lubovich, for example, observed that sentimental writing was not reserved strictly for women. Donald [End Page 103] Grant Mitchell’s Reveries asks readers to sympathize with the plight of the bachelor, a solitary existence often disparaged in nineteenth-century culture. Allison Giffen compared Susan Warner’s Melbourne House to Martha Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore series, finding daughters who serve as redemptive symbols for fathers needing moral change in their lives. She argued that incest haunts these father/daughter relationships because the young “angels” tend to slip into erotic imagery when discussing their fathers.

The two panels sponsored by the Emerson Society focused on another dimension of affect by exploring the relationship between feeling and creating. The first panel, “Origins and Originality,” centered on Emerson’s beliefs about where and when creativity springs. Elizabeth Addison argued that Emerson treated silence in the manner of the Quakers: as a symbolic act and way of making meaning and fostering creative potential. David Greenham proposed that studying science gave Emerson a new path to creativity. Through examining nature, Emerson examined himself and generated the precepts of his writings and lectures. While Greenham contended that Emerson’s primary goal was to understand himself, Richard Hardack questioned the fundamental belief in Emerson scholarship that the individual is all. He argued that Emerson called for a disappearance of self, not a celebration of it. God, not humanity, is the path to transcendence. In the second Emerson panel, Jason Berger discussed the social structures foundational to Emerson’s beliefs about creativity. Berger dealt especially with Emerson’s 1832 break from the Second Church in Boston, examining how this renunciation critiqued institutional barriers to the lines of thinking necessary to creativity. The other two panelists were Jacob Risinger and Carolyn Elliott, winners of the Emerson Society’s 2011 Graduate Student Paper Awards. Risinger juxtaposed Emerson’s beliefs with those of German philosopher Friedrich Schelling and his notion of transcendental idealism. Both thinkers discover an ethical freedom that they term both “necessary” and “beautiful.” Carolyn Elliot described an innovative pedagogical approach: she asked students to participate in a “poetry exchange,” a process in which students exchange objects that symbolize poetry as Emerson described it in “The [End Page 104] Poet” and other writings.

“Outcasts, Criminals, and the Insane in Sedgwick’s Families” further developed the idea of emotion as action and found Sedgwick’s work to be a palimpsest for evolving social definitions. Patricia Kalayjian presented existing evidence about Sedgwick’s family history as proof that the author had a remarkably modern—and complex—understanding of mental illness. Sedgwick populated her fiction with characters suffering from disordered emotional states caused by...