Thursday, October 16, 2014
October 16, 2014: New NEASA Books: American Blood
[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the challenging book that illustrates how constructed and contested even the seemingly simplest American concepts are.
I’ve been eagerly following Holly Jackson’s evolving work on family, race, and blood in late 19th century American literature, culture, and society since 2005, when I heard her give a NEASA talk on her discoveries about the identity of novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins. That work has culminated (although I’m sure not concluded) in her book American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850-1900 (Oxford UP, 2013). American Blood is the densest and most theoretically driven of the works I’ve highlighted this week, making it more what I’d call academic than public scholarship (which isn’t in any way a critique, just a categorization). But it also offers an incredibly important public AmericanStudies lesson.
I’ve blogged many times before, such as in this 2012 election post, about the subtle but crucial importance of contesting our collective use and definition of “American.” So much of the time it seems as if we assume that the word has a stable or fixed meaning, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Recognizing and analyzing the constructed, contested nature of the term is thus an important project, and one that would of course affect all Americans. But even this AmericanStudier has to admit that there are other terms that are both even more fundamental and more generally treated as stable and simple than “American,” and toward the top of that list would have to be “family.” Yet as Jackson’s book convincingly demonstrates, family has been just as constructed and contested a concept in American culture and society as any.
It’s particularly significant that Jackson highlights and traces such constructions and contestations throughout the 19th century. It’d be hard for anyone to argue that family doesn’t have diverse meanings and narratives associated with it in our 21st century moment, or that they haven’t been developing throughout much of the last half-century. But indeed, many arguments about those contemporary meanings—perhaps even our dominant shared take on them—see them precisely as changes, shifts away from more stable or agreed-upon prior visions of family. So Jackson’s book might be more dense and theoretical than what I’d generally categorize as public scholarship, but I can’t imagine a more important public scholarly takeaway than what she has to contribute to our collective understanding of the foundational but far from simple concept of family.
Last NEASA book tomorrow,
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!