[A couple weeks back, NeMLA held our 52nd annual—and first entirely virtual—convention. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of the convention’s stand-out remote events, leading up to some broader reflections on virtual conferences.]
On two ways of thinking about creative and cultural work, and what connects them.
At the heart of Professor Jed Esty’s excellent opening night address, “Victorian Hollywood: The Dreamworlds of Anglo-American Power” (drawn from his current book in progress, Cold War Victorians: How the British Imagination Shaped American Power), was a compelling focus on a particular film: John Ford’s 1937 epic Wee Willie Winkie. This adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 short story (with a change in gender for the titular child protagonist in the film, in order to star nine-year-old Shirley Temple in one of her most dramatic roles and the one she called her favorite in her career) reflects the dynamics between colonizing English and colonized and resisting Indians in 19th century India in multi-layered and fraught ways. Esty paid thoughtful attention to the nuances of the film, but still made the case, as his talk’s title suggests, for how such Hollywood blockbusters not only depict but also contribute to mythic visions of colonialism, imperialism, and Anglo-American power around the world. In this vision, cultural texts like films do significant, and all too often destructive, work in our collective narratives.
As has been the case for the last few years, the convention’s second night featured an interview with and reading from the author of our collective NeMLA Reads Together book: novelist Jennifer Egan, whose historical novel Manhattan Beach (2017) had been our NeMLA Reads Together book for this year’s convention. In the course of her wide-ranging and engaging remarks, featuring a page from her hand-written notebook among many other highlights, Egan thoughtfully and self-reflectively presented the professional, personal, psychological, and public goals of an individual author and artist, making the case for how and why she has been interested in the themes and time periods about which she’s written, how her characters and stories illustrate different sides of her own life and perspective, her hopes to return to the world of her Pulitzer-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) as it and its characters have continued to speak to her, and more. In this vision, cultural works represent powerfully personal visions and identities, and their goal is to connect with audiences in similarly and relatedly personal and meaningful ways.
Of course a film (and one adapted from a previous work like a short story at that) is different from a novel, not only in medium and genre but in the role of the individual artist in creating it. Yet these two talks nonetheless seemed to offer quite distinct visions of creative and cultural works, one far more communal and world-historical, the other much more personal and identity-focused. Both of those frames are important to keep in mind, and ideally both could be applied to individual texts in order to create a multi-layered analysis of a text’s creation and purposes (as well as its textual details of course). But I would also add that there is at least one key feature that these distinct frames share: an emphasis on the power of cultural works, of the vital work that they can do, from our most intimate individual psyches to our broader collective narratives. Sometimes that work is more productive, sometimes it’s more destructive, and often it is both—but in any case, both of these compelling texts and voices can help us make the case for why creative and cultural works need our attention and analysis, and thus why conversations and communities like NeMLA’s are so important.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. If you took part in NeMLA 2021, reflections you’d share?