- The Year in Conferences—2019
mla, 3–6 january 2019, chicago, il
The "Year in Conferences" (YiC) accelerates the circulation of ideas among scholars by covering the field's major conferences. Graduate students from across the country collaboratively author an article that appears annually in ESQ's first issue. Now in its eleventh year, this report includes MLA, ALA, and ASLE.
January in Chicago was beautiful and windless for the 2019 national convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The sun was out, and daytime temperatures reached the 40s. Just across the river, R. Kelly was holed up in Trump Chicago Hotel, hiding out from his Lifetime documentary. The federal government was shut down; it was unclear if the TSA would be on hand at O'Hare for Sunday's return flights. On the North end of the DuSable Bridge, a homeless teenager sobbed into his palms. He held up a handmade cardboard placard asking everyone for help. Signs of apocalypse were everywhere. The unseasonable weather made it possible to see Chicago clearly, and the act of seeing was exhausting.
Introducing the conference theme, "Textual Transactions," MLA President Anne Ruggles Gere encouraged conference participants to examine the [End Page 133] fundamental interplay between people, artifacts, and moments in time. Gere posited that these agentive elements, rather than being static or discrete, are "mutually constitutive" and influence and reshape each other via ongoing, codependent processes. Panels dedicated to nineteenth-century American literature and culture keenly explored such interrelationships. Presenters regularly asked how creators, cultural objects, and contexts coexisted dynamically. Reflecting the present climate of political, academic, and environmental crises, talks often revealed how bygone periods of overwhelming, inundating calamity were weathered and overcome by individuals and social groups: presenters contemplated how authors and texts addressed impending emergencies, making crisis more visible, more endurable, and potentially remediable. Scholars not only addressed the field's respective historical or literary moment; they spoke to the present as well.
Program Link: https://mla19.zerista.com/.
modernity, temporality, and disability
Numerous panels explored issues of modernity and temporality, examining how textual instances of neurodiversity might unsettle conventional understandings of nineteenth-century American literature and culture. In "The Neurodiverse Nineteenth Century," speakers argued that texts often present human cognition as a spectrum during this period. Exploring The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), coauthored by Nat Turner and his transcriber, Thomas Gray, Benjamin Reiss argued that cognition and intelligence—especially intelligence as circumscribed by race—were not popularly viewed in the nineteenth century as scientific or theoretical concepts but were instead defined through laypeople's daily interactions. Ittai Orr described [End Page 134] Henry David Thoreau's naturalist ethics as counterableist, contending that Thoreau redefines cognition outside the normative strictures of science and medicine. For Thoreau, Orr contended, cognition is simultaneously idiosyncratic and legitimate in all variations. Jamie Utphall investigated how Emily Dickinson's "'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch" (J414) pressures temporal linearity, which, in turn, upsets the historiography of normative cognition and neurodiversity. Jessica Horvath Williams examined Harriet Prescott Spofford's "Her Story" (1872), arguing that the narrative's representation of a "madwoman" held captive in an asylum challenges rationalist, patriarchal constructions of mental illness, sanity, and femininity.
"Temporalities of Disability" similarly examined how accounts of disability disturb both nineteenth-century and modern chronologies. Michael Snediker contended that Dickinson's poetry, including "I think To Live—may be a Bliss" (J646), charts a temporality of chronic pain. According to Snediker, Dickinson's typographical breaks and caesurae do not necessarily equal remission but instead signal an asynchronicity that strategically ruptures the poem's flow. Analyzing Albion W. Tourgée's Bricks without Straw (1880), Sarah E. Chinn claimed that the text's amputees embody the Reconstruction era's radical potential. Like a lost arm or leg, slavery's history and traumas were irredeemable; thus, Chinn posited, characters with amputated limbs...