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American Culture

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Creating American Civilization

A Genealogy of American Literature as an Academic Discipline

David Shumway

“Shumway has written a penetrating and provocative account of the making of American civilization as an academic field.” --Gerald Graff, University of Chicago

David R. Shumway contends that American literature is the product of study - the deliberate invention of a discipline seeking to define the character and legitimate the existence of a specifically American civilization.  He traces the various reconstitutions of American literature by examining the discipline’s practices and techniques, discourses and structures, paradigms and unstated assumptions.

This genealogy begins around 1890, when American literature as defined by institutions outside the academy, such as magazines and publishing houses, acquired much of the ideology it would display in later phases, including sexism, racism, and class bias.  Singular in its treatment of American literary study as a discipline rather than as criticism and in its insistence on the cultural and political work carried on by this discipline, Creating American Civilization will engage literary theorists and historians as well as individuals with an interest in American literature.

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Dark End Of The Street

Margins in American Vanguard Poetry

Maria Damon

Damon foregrounds a number of modern American poets work and lives in order to argue that the American avant-garde is located in the experimental literary works of social "outsiders." Discussed is the work of Black/Jewish surrealist street poet Bob Kaufman, Boston-Brahmin Robert Lowell and three teenaged women writing from a South Boston housing project, pre-Stonewall gay poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, and Jewish lesbian-in-exile Gertrude Stein. "An engaging and important book. Damon's sophisticated, theoretical approaches to American verse, coupled with her fresh, writerly style in The Dark End of The Street, put her on the forefront of American poetry's next generation of literary criticism." -American Literature "A work of art as well as a work of criticism. Addresses important questions about art and social life, about the margins and the center, and about oppression and suppression." -George Lipsitz

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Gender On Ice

American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions

Lisa Bloom

Bloom focuses on the conquest of the North Pole as she reveals how popular print and visual media defined and shaped American national ideologies from the early twentieth century to the present.

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House Of Cards

Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Culture

John Bloom

Baseball card collecting carries with it images of idealized boyhoods in the sprawling American suburbs of the postwar era. Yet in the past twenty years, it has grown from a pastime for children to a big-money pursuit taken seriously by adults. In A House of Cards, John Bloom uses interviews with collectors, dealers, and hobbyists as well as analysis of the baseball card industry and extensive firsthand observations to ask what this hobby tells us about nostalgia, work, play, masculinity, and race and gender relations among collectors. Beginning in the late 1970s and into the early 1990s, baseball card collecting grew into a business that embodied traditional masculine values such as competition, savvy, and industry. In A House of Cards, Bloom interviews collectors who reveal ambivalence about the hobby’s emphasis on these values, often focusing on its alienating, lonely, and unfulfilling aspects. They express nostalgia for the ideal childhood world many middle-class white males experienced in the postwar years, when they perceived baseball card collecting as a form of play, not a moneymaking enterprise. Bloom links this nostalgia to anxieties about deindustrialization and the rise of the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements. He examines the gendered nature of swap meets as well as the views of masculinity expressed by the collectors: Is the purpose of baseball card collecting to form a community of adults to reminisce or to inculcate young men with traditional masculine values? Is it to establish “connectedness” or to make money? Are collectors striving to reinforce the dominant culture or question it through their attempts to create their own meaning out of what are, in fact, mass-produced commercial artifacts? Bloom provides a fascinating exploration of male fan culture, ultimately providing insight into the ways white men of the baby boom view themselves, masculinity, and the culture at large. [Excerpt:] “Collectors often decried how money had ruined their hobby, making it hard for them to form meaningful friendships through their cards. Money, however, made the hobby not only profitable but also more serious, more instrumental, and therefore more manly. The same collectors who complained about greed often bragged in the same interview about the value of their cards. Yet money, in turn, made the hobby less akin to child’s play and more like work: lonely, competitive, unfulfilling, and alienating.”

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Movie Of The Week

Private Stories Public Events

Edlayne Rapping

Made-for-TV movies are unique in network television. Developed at a time when TV had ceased to be a novelty and the weekly schedule had become routine, these films became “must-see-special events,” something to be promoted as dramatically superior to series fare. More important, these movies were presented as socially charged documents, on the cutting edge of public debate, and, in fact, focal points for engaging the nation in issues in a much larger sphere--the real social world. The importance of made-for-TV movies to the networks increased as they continued to deal with socially vexed, controversial subjects. they became, says Rapping, cultural capital in the battle to have television taken seriously, often reflecting a somber, pseudocumentary tone and style (and refusing, with notable exceptions, to be ironic, cute, or intentionally silly). Subjects like slavery, domestic violence and incest, nuclear war, and corporate pollution, were first given dramatic representation in a TV movie. These productions crossed the line between fiction and fact, between drama and information, entering the realm of important social discourse not indirectly, through movie reviews, but quite directly through channels normally reserved for “real life” events. In The Movie of the Week, Elayne rapping places the TV movie in an historical and institutional framework first and then--in light of the political and cultural forces of production, and the contradictory nature of the media and hegemonic structure--analyzes the various, dominant types of TV movies in terms of narrative and textual strategies. In this first full-length study of its kind, The Movie of the Week analyzes a true “TV invention”--one that is not only fascinating but significant.

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Notes on Nowhere

Feminism, Utopian Logic, and Social Transformation

Jennifer Burwell

Notes on Nowhere was first published in 1997. Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editions.

The term utopia implies both "good place" and "nowhere." Since Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, debates about utopian models of society have sought to understand the implications of these somewhat contradictory definitions. In Notes on Nowhere, author Jennifer Burwell uses a cross section of contemporary feminist science fiction to examine the political and literary meaning of utopian writing and utopian thought.

Burwell provides close readings of the science fiction novels of five feminist writers-Marge Piercy, Sally Gearhart, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and Monique Wittig-and poses questions central to utopian writing: Do these texts promote a tradition in which narratives of the ideal society have been used to hide rather than reveal violence, oppression, and social divisions? Can a feminist critical utopia offer a departure from this tradition by using utopian narratives to expose contradiction and struggle as central aspects of the utopian impulse? What implications do these questions have for those who wish to retain the utopian impulse for emancipatory political uses?

As one way of answering these questions, Burwell compares two "figures" that inform utopian writing and social theory. The first is the traditional abstract "revolutionary" subject who contradicts existing conditions and who points us to the ideal body politic. The second, "resistant," subject is partial, concrete, and produced by conditions rather than operating outside of them. In analyzing contemporary changes in the subject's relationship to social space, Burwell draws from and revises "standpoint approaches" that tie visions of social transformation to a group's position within existing conditions.

By exploring the dilemmas, antagonisms, and resolutions within the critical literary feminist utopia, Burwell creates connections to a similar set of problems and resolutions characterizing "nonliterary" discourses of social transformation such as feminism, gay and lesbian studies, and Marxism. Notes on Nowhere makes an original, significant, and persuasive contribution to our understanding of the political and literary dimensions of the utopian impulse in literature and social theory.

Jennifer Burwell teaches in the Department of English at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

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Reflecting Black

African-American Cultural Criticism

Michael Eric Dyson

From rap music to preaching, from Toni Morrison to Leonard Jeffries, from Michael Jackson to Michael Jordan, Reflecting Black explores as never before the varied and complex dimensions of African-American culture through personal reflection, expository journalism, scholarly investigation and even homily. "A landmark text in Afro-American cultural criticism. There is simply nothing like it that exists. The level of theoretical sophistication and political engagement is rare-and badly needed." -Cornel West "As Reflecting Black so richly demonstrates, Michael Eric Dyson combines cutting-edge theoretical acuity with the passionate, engaged, and accessible stance of a public intellectual. His critical purview encompasses scholarly tomes and mass market periodicals, trends in theology and in hip-hop culture alike. This book is a splendid introduction to a singularly important voice." -Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Dyson is a young black cultural, political and religious critic whose new book directs its nastiest commentary at racism, sexism, capitalism and straight-up immorality. His is a fresh voice seemingly unfazed by Blackademe's battle royal. Dyson's project is very much in the tradition of recent work by a number of young African-American cultural critics like Tricia Rose, Hilton Als, bell hooks, Greg Tate, Wahneema Lubiano, Elizabeth Alexander and Herman Gray, to name but a few. Reflecting Black is much more than a cultural critique in the formal sense. It interrogates the political, social and moral crises confronting American society generally and African-American communities in particular. In the end, Dyson is not one of those cultural studies scholars concerned with debating the fine points of discourse theory. He is an 'oppositional' critic with a much higher purpose than developing analytical tools to make sense of African-American culture. The Reverend Dyson is not only operating within a rich Marxist tradition but within a very old and continuing African-American tradition. Black communities, through newspaper columns, church groups, street corner gatherings, beauty parlor and barber shop discussions, have always debated and taken responsibility for their culture(s). Dyson's constant lecturing, chiding and encouraging embodies what Antonio Gramsci and his own mama expected us to do all along: not just interpret culture but actively change it--through struggle." -The Nation "Where Michael Jackson meets spirituality, where Martin Luther King meets Malcolm X, where the consolidating 'narrative of racial unity' meets the 'perplexing and chaotic politics of racial identity': These are the border zones of Michael Eric Dyson's compassionate, postmodern, eclectic critical project. Reflecting Black is an invigorating reader for our perplexing and chaotic times." -Voice Literary Supplement "He shows an admirable breadth, ranging from issues such as racism and political correctness in the seminary to examinations of such icons of popular culture as filmaker Spike Lee, singer Michael Jackson and athlete Michael Jordan. One entire section of the book is devoted to black religion, and includes an examination of the lives and examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X." -Washington Post Book World "Yet, if Dyson stumbles in his discussions of black popular culture, he soars in his section titled 'Beyond the Mantra: Reflections on Race, Gender, and Class.' In 'Remembering Emmett Till,' Dyson writes not just with his mind, but with his heart." -Boston Globe "Yet his insights are just as often incisive and challenging, and they demand serious consideration. By insisting that we acknowledge the complexities of race in America and by refusing to accept easy answers, Reflecting Black forces us to think harder about how we can create alternatives." -Wilson Library Bulletin "These days it seems as if everybody has an opinion about Spike Lee, Michael Jackson, and Malcom X, but few critics of black popular culture also have the wherewithal to tackle the fine points of race, gender, and class theory in addition to the rich and complex legacy of black religion. Michael Eric Dyson, who won the 1992 National Magazine Award for Black Journalists and who is an assistant professor at Brown University, has something important to say about all of these topics in Reflecting Black, a collection of articles that have previously appeared in such publications as The Nation, The New York Times, and Tikkun. Like Cornel West, Dyson is a rare breed, the public intellectual, and his essays attempt what he calls 'an oppositional African-American cultural criticism,' one which 'promotes the preservation of black culture's best features, the amelioration of its weakest parts, and the eradication of its worst traits.' Whether writing on 'Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire' or 'Leonard Jeffries and the Struggle for the Black Mind,' Dyson is certain to become a forceful presence in African-American criticism, and Reflecting Black is an excellent introduction to his work." -Virginia Quarterly Review "Michael Dyson skillfully explores various quarters of contemporary culture, presenting a fascinating array of places, personalities and perspectives. Even the book's postmodernist format, with its mix of long and brief essays, reviews, interviews, editorials and reflections, is adventurous. Dyson clusters his musings into three categories: black popular culture; issues of race, gender and class; and black religion. He lifts up alternatives to the hopelessness which engulfs inner-city communities, and offers strategies of resistance and empowerment. This seminal text has much to add to the discussions in congregations, seminaries and the public square." -Christian Century "Dyson resists essentializing modes of expression, particularly the reduction of black culture to a response to oppression and racism, and offers substantive explorations of , for example, rap culture, black nationalism, affirmative action, and contemporary gospel music." -Common Knowledge "Dyson's is an ambitious project indeed, and one whose fulfillment would presumably have to command the attention and respect of the creators and consumers of the artistic creations and social practices he so skillfully dissects. . . . Preacher that he is, Dyson cannot resist the rhetorical virtuosity of his calling; and his essays are inventive, often freewheeling displays of scholarly erudition and passionate exegesis. Even when his oratorical skills test our faith as in his essay, 'Michael Jackson's Postmodern Spirituality,' his exuberance and sheer pleasure in the act of analysis itself sustains his momentum. Michael Dyson's 'oppositional African-American cultural criticism' carefully straddles both sides of the racial divide. He assumes a 'tough-love' posture toward his African-American readers at the same time that he directs the attention of his white readers to sources of value and insight in arenas of African-American life." -Tikkun

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A Very Serious Thing

Women’s Humor and American Culture

Nancy A. Walker

A Very Serious Thing was first published in 1988. Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editions.

"It is a very serious thing to be a funny woman." –Frances Miriam Berry Whitcher

A Very Serious Thing is the first book-length study of a part of American literature that has been consistently neglected by scholars and underrepresented in anthologies—American women's humorous writing. Nancy Walker proposes that the American humorous tradition to be redefined to include women's humor as well as men's, because, contrary to popular opinion, women do have a sense of humor.

Her book draws on history, sociology, anthropology, literature, and psychology to posit that the reasons for neglect of women's humorous expression are rooted in a male-dominated culture that has officially denied women the freedom and self-confidence essential to the humorist. Rather than a study of individual writers, the book is an exploration of relationships between cultural realities—including expectations of "true womanhood"—and women's humorous response to those realities.

Humorous expression, Walker maintains, is at odds with the culturally sanctioned ideal of the "lady," and much of women's humor seems to accept, while actually denying, this ideal. In fact, most of American women's humorous writing has been a feminist critique of American culture and its attitudes toward women, according to the author.

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