Grand Obsessions

One of the highlights of the 2010 WLA conference thus far for me was the roundtable discussion:  Revisiting “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions”: 21st-Century Visions, Challenges, and Possibilities. The panel looked back at Annette Kolodny’s 1992 essay (published in American Literature) “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes for a New History of the American Frontier,” with several scholars (all former students of Kolodny) talking about how the essay (and Annette Kolodny herself) has influenced their current work. The panelists were also interested in discussing ways of expanding on Kolodny’s essay, looking at other contemporary grand obsessions that limit scholarship, and suggesting ways to let those grand obsessions go as well. Annette Kolodny also served as a respondent on the panel, offering her suggestions for where American studies might go next.

I’ll try to provide a brief overview of what the panelists discussed, from notes I took while attending the session—and apologies ahead of time for errors and omissions in my note taking, as I know I won’t be able to convey in full detail all the elements of each panelist’s comments.

Chad Allen started the discussion by providing an overview of the key ideas from “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions,” noting the essay “pushed against older traditions of the frontier coming out of Frederick Jackson Turner.”  Allen noted two important points about Kolodny’s revision of the frontier concept: that two things changed in the frontier encounter between two groups of people and as a result of that encounter: both groups of people encountering one another for the first time, but also the land the itself.

Amy Hamilton remembered that after she had presented her first WLA paper, in which she talked about the symbolism of bloodied feet in narratives of forced marches,  Kolodny, in the audience, had commented that “some pains are not metaphorical.” The  comment, Hamilton observed, led her to see the limitations of interpreting experience as only symbolic and to  be attentive to the real effects experiences have on places and bodies. The influence of Kolodny’s essay on her work, which focuses on the “trope of  walking” in American Literature, caused her  to look at  American literature from various perspectives, to be attentive to the  impact of region on depictions of walking, and to understand walking not only as a trope but also as a real activity with real effects on bodies and places.

All of the panelists suggested that the key influence of “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions” was its imperative that as scholars we continually rethink received literary and historical paradigms, whether that be the separation of experience and the textual representation of experience (the paradigm of focusing only on the text), or, as Tom Hillard suggested, the need to rethink geographically and chronologically what counts as western literature.

Hillard began with a discussion of his work on the lost colony at Roanoke, which is  “story of frontiers, contact zones, encounters between groups of people,” that, when we look beyond its eastern setting, is the “archetypal story at the center of western literature.” Hillard’s key question was: why does there seem to be so little critical interest in pre-nineteent- century literature in western studies? As part of a study, he looked back at every WLA conference program from 1970 onward, looking for what’s been studied as western or frontier literature. Texts from earlier centuries were mostly absent; there were fewer than 15 conference talks in the past 45 years focused on pre-19th century literature. He noted that there’s still much work to be done to let go our grand obsessions with received geographic and chronological ways of conceptualizing what counts as western or frontier literature.

Building on Hamilton’s comment on the necessity of seeing both the trope and the real experience, Tereza M. Szeghi talked about the frontier as borderlands, observing, following Kolodny, the importance that such studies need to be grounded in the physical space of the borderlands, in the concept of a materialized border rather than just a metaphorical contact zone.

Randi Tanglen built on Hillard’s critique of periodization to ask how we might rethink frontier texts and periodization in the 19th century, departing from the paradigm of using the Civil War, and its north/south division, as the central organizing principle for the century. She suggested that the US-Mexican War, which resulted in “accumulations of new peoples and lands, and which meant that Americans had to rethink what it means to be American,” was an equally important way of conceptualizing the mid-19th century.

Kolodny responded by sketching out some of the history of the publication “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions.” The essay appeared in the first issue of American Literature under the leadership of a new editor, one with a “new eagerness to shake the stuffing out of American Studies.” Indeed,  “the journal and the field would never be the same” after the publication of the issue.  She noted that most of the objections to the ideas in the essay centered around the call for Americanists to get out of the English department, and the call for studying literature in languages in other than English. In keeping with the forward-looking approach of the discussion, she noted that she has a new book coming out next year, In Search of First Contact, which asks two key questions: how does a settler nation justify its acts of genocide? and how do invaded indigenous peoples maintain an ongoing sense of identity in the face of that violence? Kolodny concluded with the comment that the book is “my latest effort to eschew disciplinary boundaries . . . and most of all to keep up with my own former students.”

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