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Reviewed by:
  • The American Literature Association Conference
  • Steven W. Thomas (bio)
The American Literature Association Conference. Boston May 26-29, 2011.

When it was suggested that I write a review of early Americanist activity at this year's American Literature Association conference, my instinctual reaction was to go look for examples of such reviews in the earlier issues of EAL to see what this peculiar genre of writing tended to look like. More colloquially speaking, I figured I'd best go find myself a clue. Significantly, I discovered that the annual ALA conference has never been reviewed before in the pages of EAL, and even more significantly there was not a single conference review of any kind in any of the issues before 2003. But it is not surprising why this is the case. Several things happened in the past decade that suggest important changes in the field both to our superstructure and to our base: EAL's website was created in 2000 and its issues became available through Project Muse in 2002; EAL added the new position of review editor in 2001, a position that Sandra Gustafson (now editor-in-chief) took on with a "mandate to broaden and expand the journal's review offerings"; and lastly a flurry of discussion in the form of conferences, panels, and forums took place about the broadening and expansion of the field. For example, the very first conference to be reviewed in EAL was the Summit of Early Ibero-Anglo Americanists in 2002 that signaled a "hemispheric turn" in early American studies (and notably was discussed by several contributors in three separate issues). Likewise, the History of the Book conference at the American Antiquarian Society in 2006 led to multiple reviews and conversations in the pages of EAL about our expanding archive of print, manuscript, and performative culture. Reviews of other, similar conferences, such as the Summit on Early Native American Studies, followed these two, some of them interdisciplinary, and all of them asserting various "turns"—hemispheric, transnational, transatlantic, [End Page 243] Black Atlantic, print cultural, and so on. Alongside these paradigm-changing conferences, one finds a review of new resources for graduate students at a Society of Early Americanists conference and a review of the many new Internet resources available to scholars.

I summarize the past decade of reviews for two reasons. First, in contrast to the paradigm-changing agendas of the other conferences reviewed, the ALA conference might appear rather ordinary. After all, unlike those self-consciously special conferences, this one has happened every year since 1989, so what argument could I possibly make? My second reason suggests an answer to the first, for in many ways, the new work that we are seeing now is the fruit of the labors of the previous decade, including the creation of the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) and the subsequent EAL roundtables in 1994 and 1995 about "New Directions" and "Theories" in early American studies organized by Sharon M. Harris and Carla Mulford. Symptomatic of this legacy to our present is Leonard Tennenhouse's retrospective review in 2007 of William Spengemann's A New World of Words, Redefining Early American Literature, published way back in 1994. (Perhaps also symptomatic is that the indie rock of 2007 sounded just like the indie rock of 1994, and independent radio stations play the same music now that they played seventeen years ago, but I digress.) And so, in answer to my question why bother to write a review of the ALA conference, the answer is to assess the dynamic of tradition and innovation that is the hallmark of the SEA.

What is important to remember here is the very intimate relationship between the ALA and the SEA, since, as the story goes, no sooner did the ALA first convene in 1989 than some of its participants saw the need to secure some space for the "early" stuff. Consequently, due to the magisterial efforts of both Leo Lemay and Alfred Bendixen, the second ALA conference reserved space for early Americanists. The current tradition of four SEA-organized panels at every ALA, one devoted to teaching, is something we may take for granted now, but it emerged...