The MLA's conference has been called a 'passion of solemnity', but with subjects ranging from Greek musicals to jailed writers, you are bound to find something to your taste, says Tim Cornwell
Nathaniel Hawthorne calls prisons "the black flower of civilised society". The founders of any new colony, he observes in The Scarlet Letter , will soon set aside land for a cemetery and for a prison. Some 150 years after Hawthorne wrote those words, the United States is a world leader in incarceration and execution, with 2 million people behind bars.
According to H. Bruce Franklin, professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University, about 4 million are denied the right to vote because of their felony convictions. This includes thousands of potential voters in Florida, the centre of the political storm over the presidential elections.
"One wouldn't think about teaching 19th-century American literature without teaching slavery as an important part of the context," Franklin says. "Prison has become such a central institution in contemporary American society that many of us have come to the conclusion it would be equally as bad a mistake to teach literature without prison as a major context."
So it is no surprise, Franklin says, that there are three sessions on prison literature at this year's Modern Language Association convention. Incarceration is a major focus for American studies and something similar may be emerging in literary studies, he says. Franklin sees the massive shift of funds from education to incarceration, with a prison built roughly every week since the mid-1970s, as "a strategy in the cultural wars", a manifestation of cultural imperialism.
The jailed writers under review by other panellists include C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian celebrated in Britain for his postwar work on revolutionary politics and cricket, but jailed on Ellis Island and deported from the US. Aldon Nielsen, of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, says: "He was a Marxist but an anti-communist, something Americans found hard to understand." James passed the time writing a book on Herman Melville, while his supporters argued that his expertise on Moby-Dick qualified him for the US, and mailed copies to every member of Congress.
Peter Anderson, of Boston University, looks at the work of Jeremy Cronin, a leading poet and South African Communist Party official. Anderson argues that Cronin's incarceration under apartheid created Cronin the poet - by "authorising" a white man to write. Cornell University's Barry Maxwell, meanwhile, looks at two jazz musicians whose heroin addictions led them to a Texas prison. Both published autobiographies.
There are more than 800 sessions, panels and meetings listed at this year's MLA convention, on December -30 in Washington DC. It is impossible to pin a generalisation on this cacophony of voices, but the 400-page programme conveys a sense that the arcane has beaten the controversial. Email and the worldwide web, like queer studies before them, have lost the shock of the new.
While the main business of some 8,000 scholars who converge on the US capital may be schmoozing and job-hunting, the subjects they ponder are rich in their diversity, a snapshot of foraging literati charging down every literary trail.
Greek filmed musicals, little-known Kafka films, Celtic perspectives and cyberliterature in Korea have all made the cut. Shakespeare and religion, Cervantes's women, Conrad's non-fiction and Hemingway's letters to name a few more. American Indian literatures, Italian-American women's writing, Francophone literature, Latin American theatre, Irish Gothic, the Holocaust in the national memory, King Kong as filmed ethnography, experimental obstetrics in the 19th century, and early modern blood - the list goes on.
Despite the range, there is some criticism. James Kincaid calls the annual convention "a passion of solemnity. You could go to 20 conventions and not get a laugh, not even a giggle." At the University of Southern California, Kincaid teaches Victorian literature along with the literary construction of outsiders and deviants, from Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter to the Oscar Wilde trials, a course his students have dubbed "Criminals, lunatics and perverts".
In one session, "Fear of comedy", Kincaid will deliver the paper "Why God hates comedy". "It is meant as a slap at the stupefying piety of our country," he says, "including teachers of English and foreign languages." It will focus on comedy's slipperiness, its refusal to accept standard notions or restrictions.
And Tell Gifford, of Truckee Meadows Community College, Nevada, has a message for "elitist" MLA scholars. He cites a flurry of research at two-year colleges such as his own, though they suffer the same stigma in the US as Britain's polytechnics did. "Respect us, base your judgement on the merit of our work, not the affiliation of the institution," he urges.
Gifford tells the story of sitting next to a professor at a prominent US university, talking Dickens as they left the MLA on an airport bus. "I told her I taught at a community college, and she changed seats," he says.
One of the themes that traditionally surfaces at the convention is ethnicity. An area being examined this year is autoethnography, which, according to Barbara Waxman, of the University of North Carolina, is "a major new form". It is a means of looking at autobiographies as a snapshot not just of the individual but of their relationship to a community and its culture, to food, language and family reactions, Waxman says. She will look at two autobiographies, one by the early Asian American woman writer Jade Wong Snow, and When I Was Puerto Rican by the popular writer Esmeralda Santiago.
By contrast to this focus on the immediate community, Bruce Robbins of Rutgers University in New Brunswick will examine "Globalisation and harriedness". He will talk about "globality as it is expressed in everyday dilemmas of work versus family", he says, and how "harriedness connects up with so-called 'compassion fatigue', the reluctance to hear about distant foreign disaster and suffering".
The convention covers a huge timespan, from the internet revolution to religious discrimination in medieval literature. Margaret Ferguson, of the University of California, is presiding over one session on how technology is affecting literature and language teaching. She says the aim is to look at how "our current era is ushering in a set of technological and cultural changes arguably no less significant than those associated with the transition of manuscript to print culture in the Renaissance era".
Meanwhile, in a session on "Medieval pedagogies", Edward Wheatley, of Hamilton College, will explore performances of "blind" Jews and blind Christians, and how these plays used marginalisation to reinforce prejudice. "I'm talking about the metaphor of blindness as it was applied to Jews throughout the early Christian era," he says. "Jews were regarded as 'blind' in not seeing Jesus."
Other historical themes include a panel on 18th-century travelling cultures, in which Mary McAllister of Mary Washington College will look at the connection between travel and venereal disease. Sex overseas was often an unspoken component in the Grand Tour, with "the worry in England that people were going abroad and coming back sexually diseased Catholics". At issue, however, is whether they caught VD on their travels or went in search of a cure - France, for example, had invented the external application of mercury for syphilis.
Another historical paper will be given by Mary Richards, of the University of Delaware, who will speak about editing a "lost" old English poem, "Seasons for Fasting". The original poem, along with other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, was destroyed in the infamous Cotton Library fire of 1731. Scholars rely on a 16th-century transcript made 200 years before by antiquarian Laurence Nowell. The poem itself is pedestrian; the issue for an editor is where Nowell's abbreviations and errors stray from the original. "What we are trying to do is characterise systematically the kind of mistakes that Nowell made so we can infer how the original text read," Richards says. "The big question is whether it was written in stanzas, as it was in Nowell's manuscript."
The convention will also have a strong canine flavour. Ian MacInnes, of the department of English at Albion College, Michigan, will give a paper titled "The men do sympathise with the mastiffs: English dogs and national identity". It forms part of a panel on environmental theory and early modern English literature. MacInnes observes that the British are widely supposed to have a peculiar relationship with their pets. Taking as his cue a line in Henry V , in which a French aristocrat compares the English to their mastiffs ("very valiant creatures"), he argues that the mastiff not only reflected England's emerging masculine national identity, but also early modern Englishmen's anxieties.
"In many works of the period, a northern climate is thought to produce brave but essentially stupid and undisciplined people," he says. "The mastiff was praised for its bravery, but sometimes criticised for its rashness and lack of discipline."
Continuing the dog theme, Scott Stoddart of Nova Southeastern University will talk about the politicisation of a major US figure, Snoopy, in a session on the 50th anniversary of Peanuts, explaining his theory that the pooch was used as a pro-war symbol in the 1960s.
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