Tuesday, April 14, 2015
April 14, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: States of Trial
[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 exemplifies two important scholarly trends.
Over the last few years, without any overt plan to do so, I’ve devoted a significant portion of my scholarly work to Philip Roth. That has included both part of an American Literary Realism article and (even more fully) an essay in an edited collection analyzing Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral (1997), and culminated in my work on the Oxford Bibliographies entry on Roth. I’ve greatly enjoyed the chance to research and write all those pieces, and hope that they have added a bit to our scholarly conversations about the ongoing career of this seminal American novelist; but perhaps the most significant effect of this focus on Roth has been how much it has exposed me to the international community of scholars working on him and his texts. I wrote in a long ago post about one such international Roth scholar, Velichka Ivanova; and through my connection to Ivanova, I was introduced to a book manuscript by another such scholar, Ann Basu.
Well, with a bit of feedback (and a back-cover blurb) from me and a few other scholars, and mostly a lot of great work from Basu herself, that manuscript became States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-War America (Bloomsbury, 2014). Like Ivanova’s edited collection Reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (2011), which includes that aforementioned essay of mine but also contributions from scholars from around the world, I believe that States of Trial exemplifies the benefits of an international American Studies community and approach. For one thing, there’s the way in which Basu includes and employs theoretical concepts without losing her clear focus on the texts and histories with which she’s concerned—at times, in American scholarship, theorizing can seem like a separate choice from close reading or historicizing, but Basu weds them all in a way that feels to my mind distinctly European. And for another, there’s the outsider-insider dynamic of her approach not only to Roth but to American culture and identity, one that allows her to perceive through a new lens the prominence of a theme like “trial” across the second half of the 20th century.
In the way she deploys that thematic thread, Basu’s book also exemplifies a truly, potently interdisciplinary approach to literary analysis. Through her close readings and historical and cultural contextualizations of five principal novels (Operation Shylock, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), as well as the few that both preceded and followed this period of Roth’s career, Basu brings that lens of “trial” to bear on a wide range of different subjects: masculinity and gender studies, the Cold War and law/justice, race and ethnicity, disease and studies of the body, the Constitution and theories of democracy and governance, and religion and morality, among others. Which is to say, Basu’s book is interdisciplinary not simply in the works on which she focuses or the historical and cultural connections through which she contextualizes them, but also and even more strikingly in the methodologies through which she analyzes them and the conversations into which those analyses enter. For that reason, as I put it in my back-cover blurb, even those American Studies with no specific interest in Roth will find a great deal to learn and take away from Basu’s impressive book.
Next new book tomorrow,
PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend?