- The Year in Conferences—2014
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The Year in Conferences (YiC) is designed to speed up the circulation of ideas between and among scholars by covering the major conferences in the field. These “reports from the field” are written by graduate students from across the country in a collaborative group-authored article and published annually in the first issue of the journal. Now in its sixth year, this Year in Conferences includes MLA, C19, ALA, and ASA.
mla, january 9-12, 2014, chicago, illinois
The Modern Language Association’s annual conference was held in Chicago, Illinois, in January 2014. The conference’s Presidential theme “Vulnerable Times” asked attendees to reflect on the changing state of the field, and several panels on nineteenth-century topics considered this theme in relation to how nineteenth-century literary and intellectual legacies intersect with the contemporary moment. From exploring hemispheric and transatlantic networks, to notions of American exceptionalism and canon formation, these panels and roundtables offer a vibrant mix of conversations in the field. [End Page 115]
america’s global network: new approaches to the national and the transnational
In “Aesthetics and Politics,” presenters considered ways in which political texts challenge and eschew aesthetic categorization and the attribution of coherent identities. Russ Castronovo began with the public readings of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) at Occupy encampments at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. Castronovo warned against doing unto Occupy Wall Street what the lawyer does to Bartleby: transforming appeals to the common and commonality into “anemic meditations on humanity.” Dana Seitler argued for using aesthetics to answer political questions by examining how Rebecca Harding Davis, in “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861), chooses not to foreground the working class solace in art but rather to highlight the active pursuit of alternative aesthetic forms. Seitler points out that both the story and its central sculpture employ a sensibility that challenges conventional aesthetics. Shelley Streeby examined how both U.S. literary history and public repositories and collections have largely expunged the writings of transnational anarchists from the archive due to their radical politics or status as “minor forms.” Streeby posits that anarchist practices embodied by figures like Lucy Parsons and Ricardo Flores Magón might enable a different model of political queerness and called for hemispheric American studies to take up anarchism as a keyword.
Melissa Adams-Campbell, Abram Van Engen, Amanda Stuckey, and James Chandler pivoted from the hemispheric to the sentimental in the panel “Body Politics and American Feeling: New Directions in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Sentimental Fiction.” Adams-Campbell examined The Life and Adventures of Obadiah Benjamin Franklin Bloomfield (1818), arguing that Bloomfield’s digressive, meandering narrative technique adapts Laurence Sterne’s sentimental techniques to voice the [End Page 116] uncertainty of U.S. citizens about their place in the world and to espouse an “Atlantic cosmopolitanism.” Van Engen challenged the idea that sentimental fiction is a reaction against Puritanism, arguing that sentimental fiction, which cannot induce sympathy in those who lack it, bears more affinity to Calvinism than is sometimes acknowledged. Building on Shirley Samuels’ idea that individual bodies are connected to national bodies, Stuckey focused on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men (1871) to argue that “Alcott’s sentimental mechanisms reflect back on the audience . . . to construct an able-bodied reader [and] character,” positing that sentimental novels educate children and reinforce the normativity of middle-class white American culture. Chandler stressed that work on sentimental fiction must be “comparatist” in its methodology, seeking cross-pollinations across sentimental, melodramatic, and gothic modes. He urged scholars to attend to the ways sentimental fiction dialectically intersects with other genres and conventions.
The panel “Beyond Huck and Pudd’nhead: Mark Twain and...