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Friday, April 17, 2015

April 17, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Cowardice: A Brief History

[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On a book that reminds us of the value of looking at things from the other side.
In John Guare’s complex and powerful play Six Degrees of SKeparation (1990), a great deal is made of a certain painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, which is, as the oft-quoted refrain puts it, “painted on both sides.” Ultimately this detail, highlighted by con artist Paul to his confident Ouisa Kittredge the last time they see each other, seems to function as a way to remind Ouisa that the life she’s currently leading is not her only option, that there are other possibilities and other choices that might lead to them (one of which she begins to take as the play concludes). But I would argue that there’s another and equally salient way to read this repeated line: to see it as a more specific reminder that many things have two sides, and that looking at any particular thing from the other, perhaps less frequently observed side (the reverse, that is) might yield a very different perspective than what we are used to seeing from the front.
Exemplifying that shift in perspective is the first book by my friend and former Boston University Writing Program colleague Chris Walsh, Cowardice: A Brief History (Princeton, 2014). When I worked with Walsh, he was (as I understood it, at least) working on a book about war, which is to be the sure the side of this particular duality at which we most often look. Not only because it is through wars that we tend for example to view and define our history (there’s a reason why two-part American literature and history surveys so frequently divide at 1865), although that certainly is a part of my point. But also and even more saliently because when we remember wars, when we think and write about them, when we tell stories of them, it is almost always through moments and histories from or directly related to the war itself—those who fight them, those affected by them, those on a homefront but connected to the war nonetheless, their causes, their legacies, and so on. Sometimes those war stories do feature individual characters who are afraid to fight—Jeremy Davies’ cowardly translator in Saving Private Ryan (1998), for example—but whole stories or narratives focused on such so-called cowards? Not so much.
I can’t say for sure if Walsh’s Cowardice is the first scholarly analysis dedicated entirely to the subject, but it’s the first I’ve seen, and an excellent illustration of the value of looking at a topic from the other side in any case. Partly that’s because of the new ideas about the familiar topic, war, produced by that shift in perspective: Walsh’s focus helps us think both about the often unspoken narratives that underpin war efforts and the corresponding fears against which those narratives are created. But this new perspective is even more striking precisely because it examines one of those alternative narratives, the concept of cowardice, and considers the social, historical, literary and cultural, and psychological causes and effects of this narrative on its own terms (rather than, like Davies’s character, as an afterthought in war narratives). Such an alternative focus might, for example, help us start to unpack one of the most unexpected moments in any American text, the concluding lines of Tim O’Brien’s short story “On the Rainy River” (from The Things They Carried), in which the narrator has traveled to the Canadian border to consider dodging the draft: “I was a coward. I went to the war.”
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: what AmericanStudies books would you recommend? 

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