Thursday, April 10, 2014
April 10, 2014: New AmericanStudies Books: Failure and the American Writer
[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So I thought I’d dedicate a series to highlighting a handful of the books I discovered there. Share your own new favorites (or classics!) for a bibliophiliac crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the next book in the evolving career of one of the most interesting AmericanStudiers.
I think all of us humans look to other people for models and inspiration, and I know that such examples are vital in a profession and career as complex and open-ended as academia. Many of the fellow scholars about whom I’ve written in Scholarly Review and Tribute posts fit that bill for me, have offered in their careers and work models for the path I hope to follow in my own. But few have seemed to offer quite as overt a blueprint for my own series of AmericanStudies books as Gavin Jones, who similarly began his career with a cultural and historical analysis of Gilded Age literature (Strange Talk, 1999), moved into a broader engagement with American literary and cultural history (American Hungers, 2007), and has found his way to an even more sweeping public scholarly topic in his most recent book: Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History (2014).
Jones’ first two books weren’t just models in terms of their respective focal points and motivating questions, however; they were also exemplary scholarly engagements with their topics. Strange Talk takes the often-controversial subject of dialect literature seriously without losing a sense of ethics, analyzing all the different permutations of the form in the late 19th century on their own terms yet maintaining a clear set of arguments about the more and less troubling and even oppressive versions of the trend. American Hungers traces more than a century of literary and cultural representations of poverty both broadly and specifically, making convincing connections across its works and periods while paying close, nuanced attention to particular examples and elements throughout. In their respective ways both books provided pitch-perfect illustrations of successful AmericanStudies scholarship, and I have no doubt that Failure will offer its own impressive models for my ongoing thinking and writing.
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it also seems likely to me that Failure will add another layer to my ongoing thoughts about the topic of my own next book: the idea, which I’m trying to capture in the phrase Hard-Won Hope, that it’s only through our engagements with our darkest realities and histories that we can find our way to a brighter future. In his focus on the topic of failure, as partly a contrast with but also and even more importantly a complement to our national emphasis on success, Jones has found a rich vein of such darker but still productive shared experiences and emotions. But at the same time, it looks as if Jones has continued to link such broad ideas to his readings of particular authors and works, and thus to model one more time how much our overarching narratives and arguments depend on close, sustained engagement with specific examples and analyses. I look forward to another round of inspiration for my own such work!
Last new book tomorrow,
PS. New (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!