Friday, 6 December 2013

New Masses Magazine: Modernist Communism?

Yesterday, 6th December 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Sue Currell (Reader in American Literature, University of Sussex; Chair of the British Association for American Studies) to the fifth seminar of the American Studies Seminar Series of 2013-2014. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of their 'English and American Literature Lecture Series,' Dr. Currell discussed ‘New Masses Magazine: Modernist Communism?’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

As Britain was battered by a winter storm with winds of over 100mph - in what was effectively described as ‘the largest north sea surge for over 60 years’ - Dr. Currell braved the length of the country to give an engaging and insightful lecture based on her current research – which examines the relationship of the arts with political discourse during interwar America, in particular as it relates to the journal New Masses. This formed the focus of her talk – in which she re-examined the political and aesthetic framework within which the Marxist arts and culture magazine New Masses has been understood and assessed by modernist literary studies.

New Masses magazine, published out of New York from 1926-1948, was an American Marxist magazine closely associated with, although not proven to be connected with, the Communist Party in the US. By publishing a large number of visual images along with muckraking political analysis, essays on historical and current events, contemporary fiction, and reviews of art exhibitions, theater, and films, this experimental journal proved to be unique among left and liberal magazines at the time. Originally founded as a monthly magazine of leftist writing and art in 1926, following the model of two earlier American socialist journals, The Masses and The Liberator, it began publishing as a weekly at the height of the Great Depression. It became highly influential in intellectual circles, even being called ‘the principal organ of the American cultural left’ from 1926 onwards, until its final issue appeared in 1948. According to Dr. Currell however, this resource has been left on the shelf of history, inevitably being glossed over when examining this important time period. Thus, Dr. Currell has set out to right this wrong.

According to Dr. Currell, in what little has been published, New Masses has been variously read and interpreted as ‘not-modernist’ and increasingly ‘not-or-anti-modernist’ in its latter period. However, throughout her talk, Dr. Currell challenged this ‘accepted’ paradigm that the magazine took a Stalinist-influenced aesthetic line from the mid-1930s. To do this, Dr. Currell examined the magazine's wider engagement with ideas for a communist modernism more broadly. Unlike contemporary liberal/left magazines such as the Nation, the New Yorker, or Vanity Fair, or radical newspapers such as Art Front and the Daily Worker, New Masses not only promoted explicitly leftist viewpoints but also, in looking beyond the public debates between the literary formalists and the ‘content boys’ that scholars have largely focused on, Dr. Currell was able to show how this incredibly experimental magazine was at the forefront of a nascent Marxism in the US. Accordingly, the early trajectory of New Masses' development was shaped by its founders' fascination with both literary and artistic modernism and Soviet Communist ideals; the tensions posed by these potentially divergent interests revealed themselves in editorial precepts that shifted from the late 1920s into the early and mid-1930s.

Publishing experimental and non-conformist writings of relatively unknown writers, New Masses had both the guise of a ‘little magazine’ and the content of a manifesto – combing them both lyrically to produce a ‘new’ type of magazine. Its editors saw their audience as extremely broad – demonstrated by the magazine’s engagement with both high art and popular culture. Moreover, according to Dr. Currell, the association with leftist political views was at first unofficial, but after Mike Gold took over as chief editor in 1928, a militant proletarianism took precedence over less explicitly anti-capitalist political positions. Gold was influential in making this style of fiction popular during the depression years of 1930s, and was an important presence on the American cultural scene for more than three decades.

With contributions from Ezra Pound, Arthur Miller, and many others, New Masses is an extremely important magazine that must be considered and assessed with a modernist hat on according to Dr. Currell. Moreover, Dr. Currell passed round copies of two New Masses magazines as she spoke – which both brought her talk to life and allowed the audience to identify the various modernist editorial motions and aesthetic qualities she was highlighting. In closing, Dr. Currell argued that as one of the foremost periodicals of a renaissance that transformed American modernism and mass culture, New Masses ultimately deserves a reassessment. And that is just what she has set out to do.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues in the New Year with Dr. Catriona Paul (Dundee University) ‘The rise of horse racing and the endorsement of slavery in Kentucky, 1780-1830.’ This will be held on Wednesday 15th January in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5.15pm. All very welcome!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

A Movement of Movements or a Conjuncture of Forces? Interpreting the 1960s, Half a Century On

Yesterday, 21st November 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Prof. Doug Rossinow (Professor at Metropolitan State University – who is currently a Fulbright scholar at the University of Oslo) to the forth of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was an engaging and highly informative talk, Prof. Rossinow discussed ‘A Movement of Movements or a Conjuncture of Forces? Interpreting the 1960s, Half a Century On.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

From civil rights to black power, and from student radicalism to the Vietnam War, the 1960s immediately connotes a period of protest and social transformation with a resonance issuing, at least in part, from the living memories of so many who experienced the decade and participated in its characterising events. The movement away from the perceived traditionalism of the 1950s enabled revolutionary ways of thinking and a real change in the cultural fabric of American life to take place. Gaining political traction in the 1960s, these movements fundamentally changed the nation’s trajectory, and as such have helped contribute to the mythical remembering of the decade. The decade has been a constant source of historical scrutiny, with many arguing that the 1960s has reverberations that can still be felt today. In terms of historiography, this period is awash with interpretations, and into this historiographical minefield stepped Prof. Rossinow yesterday. Through his talk, Prof. Rossinow was able to guide the audience through the complex terrain of 1960s history before describing his own suggestions of how best to understand the decade – one that he sees importantly as a conjuncture of forces.

In his presentation, Prof. Rossinow began by outlining the various ways scholars have interpreted the 1960s over time, describing the three main ideas as ‘The Long Sixties’, ‘The Global Sixties’, and ‘A Movement of Movements.’ With a brief summary of the first two interpretations, including an analysis of their respective interpretive problems, Prof. Rossinow moved on to an extended discussion of the ‘Movement of Movements’ idea. This idea is most often associated with Van Gosse, whose work ‘Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History’ stands testament to this.

Here Van Gosse argues that from the 1950s to the 1970s, a host of movements struggled to make democracy and equality realities in America. With the 1960s as his clear focus, Van Gosse unites the movements for civil rights and black power, for peace and solidarity with the Third World, and for gender and sexual equality together in his conception of the New Left. In its summary, Van Goose argues that: ‘From Vietnam to the war at home against African and Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans, from Women's to Gay Liberation, the New Left was the broadest-based movement for fundamental change in American history.’ As Prof. Rossinow highlighted, Van Gosse synthesizes and chronicles the protests, confrontations, victories, and defeats of the 1960s into one umbrella story. However, according to Prof. Rossinow, the complex nature of these movements leaves this interpretation wanting.

Therefore, as Prof. Rossinow suggested, instead of using the ‘New Left’ as a master category, bringing together an array of movements, it is important to think of these movements as distinctive, and as each with their own origins and causes. First there are the movements of the excluded people, who through demanding rights and recognition are quite different from the revolts of the white middle-class youth, who were rebelling against their political and social surroundings within the dominant culture. Thus, with the counterculture as a symbol of the youth’s rebellion against traditional values, to lump them together with movements fighting oppression, persecution, or prejudice is to distort their unique importance within the 1960s.

Instead, Prof. Rossinow encouraged us to think of these movements as a conjuncture of forces. Essentially, these movements had a lot of sympathy for one another, but that does not equate to an automatic alliance/relationship, and scholars should be wary of projecting one identity onto a range of unique movements. By thinking of the 1960s as a conjuncture of forces too, it enables us to identify when the decade ended – which as Prof. Rossinow highlighted, elicits a lot of controversy from those in the field who argue that the 1960s battles are still on-going. For example, if we think of movements of oppression, one could argue that we are still fighting the battle for rights and recognition of many today.  But if we think of the movements of rebellion as a particularly white-middle class revolt, one is able to argue that these movements were unique to their contemporary environment.

In what was an insightful and well-attended lecture, Prof. Rossinow unravelled the various historiographical interpretations of an important era, and offered some of his own conclusions regarding how we should peer through the historical lens to analyse what was a significant decade of transformation. It is true that the 1960s remains the most consequential and controversial decade of the twentieth century. In what dawned as a decade bright with hope and idealism, with many believing that the American state would attain its mightiest reforms and reach, ended in discord and disillusionment. Perhaps no period in American history has been filled with such an expansive and ambitious sense of possibilities—such a grand, inspiring sense of what Americans could achieve. But with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (which happened 50 years ago tomorrow), Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, the crushing of the Great Society’s massive social reform plans by the ravages of Vietnam, and the intense backlash to many of the movements discussed above, this hope was shattered. Prof. Rossinow’s talk was deeply informative, and allowed us all to contextualise this crucial decade in American history. From the counterculture to the rise of conservatism, and from the peaceful marches of those oppressed in society to the violent rioting of those demoralised, the upheavals of the 1960s opened fissures within American society that have continued to affect the nation’s politics and to intensify its so-called culture wars. As Prof. Rossinow superbly highlighted, 50 years on, the 1960s is still very much with us.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Sue Currell (Sussex University) ‘New Masses Magazine: Modernist Communism?’ This is part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, and will be held on Thursday 5th December in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Friday, 8 November 2013

More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Yesterday, 7th November 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Prof. Ivy Schweitzer (Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College) to the third of the American Studies Seminar Series of 2013-2014. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of their 'English and American Literature Lecture Series,' Prof. Schweitzer discussed ‘More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, first published in 1868, has gone on to become one of America's classic works of fiction. The novel brings vividly to life New England during the nineteenth century, which as Prof. Schweitzer demonstrated, Alcott was able to draw on from her own family experiences. Indeed, as a child, Alcott struggled with the ladylike behaviour that was expected of girls in the nineteenth century. Drawing on allusions to the character of Jo March in Little Women, Prof. Schweitzer revealed that Alcott too was a tomboy whose favourite childhood activity was running through the fields of Concord, where she would literally lift up her dress and run for miles. Like Jo, Alcott had an unladylike temper that she struggled to control and could not get over her disappointment in not being a boy, since opportunities for women were limited at the time.

In beautifully telling the story of how both she and her daughter came to read Little Women recently, Prof. Schweitzer discussed the various surprises she stumbled across as she digested it. For instance, in the character of Marmee March (the mother), we can find an incandescent rage that ripples through the pages, with Prof. Schweitzer highlighting a key except in which Marmee states:

I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.

Marmee makes this statement when she tells Jo that she too struggles with a bad temper. Throughout the novel, however, Marmee seems serene and composed, which suggests that the appearance of a docile woman may hide turmoil underneath. Confiding in impetuous Jo about her own flares of temper that she had learned to control through discipline, help from her husband, and prayer makes Jo feel better, as she realises that she is not the only one with a temper. At the same time though, Marmee’s words suggest that there is no hope for Jo—Marmee is still angry after forty years, and perhaps Jo will be too. As Prof. Schweitzer highlighted, this is likely an expression of anger by Alcott about nineteenth-century society’s demand that women be domestic, and is a compellingly honest narrative in comparison to Victorian literature of the time. As she read Little Women then, this form of anger helped Prof. Schweitzer transform the novel into a feminine quest story, with Jo as its central protagonist. For Prof. Schweitzer, her own pleasure in reading Little Women came through a rejection of the marriage plots and romance entanglements, and instead by basking in the story of Jo – or as she termed it, ‘…an interpretive rebellion of the novel.’

As Prof. Schweitzer highlighted then, Little Women was a fiction novel written for girls that veered from the normal writings for children, especially girls, at the time. And since, it has been championed by feminists for more than a century because an untamed Jo is so compellingly portrayed throughout most of the novel. Also, in the novel’s characterisation of the March sisters, rebellion is often valued over conformity. Likewise, whilst most of the novel confirms Victorian womanhood stereotypes, it also gives voice to transgender identity, amongst a host of other things. So while Little Women can be called a didactic novel, the question of what it teaches remains open.

Prof. Schweitzer then linked this to a discussion of contemporary heroines in relation to Jo. Whilst Bella is somewhat presented as an independent woman in the Twilight novels, Prof. Schweitzer found more in common between Jo and Katniss from the Hunger Games trilogy (A somewhat interesting Washington Post article on Katniss and her relation to heroines can be found here -

In closing, Prof. Schweitzer highlighted how her talk was part of a wider project for J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, titled ‘Jo––She’s the Man! Recovering Little Women.’ In her lecture, Prof. Schweitzer mixed history, biography, literary criticism and a personal narrative to provide a detailed picture of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, and the various ways we can interpret her famous work of art. In what was an informative and highly popular lecture (the seminar room was filled to the rafters), Prof. Schweitzer captured the importance of reinterpreting classic novels, often considered ‘children’s novels’, to reveal some of their subtle but significant themes. I am sure I was not the only one in the audience who, on returning home, felt a necessity to re-read Alcott’s novel with this talk in mind.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Doug Rossinow (Metropolitan State University) ‘A Movement of Movements or a Conjuncture of Forces? Interpreting the 1960s, Half a Century On.’ This will be held on Wednesday 20th November in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South

Yesterday, 23rd October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Randall Stephens (Reader in History at the University of Northumbria) to the second of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was an engaging and highly insightful talk, Dr. Stephens discussed ‘The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Monday, October 28th, 1957, and Elvis Presley is about to perform to a packed crowd at the Pan-American Auditorium in Los Angeles. Before going on stage, a member of DIG magazine, marketed as ‘For Teens Only,’ was eager to gain a rise out of Presley during an interview backstage with the question: ‘As the reputed King of Rock 'n Roll, how do you feel about the comments Frank Sinatra made railing Rock 'n Roll enthusiasts as being nothing but a bunch of 'cretinous goons' and the music itself as 'the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.' Although Presley responded calmly, as Dr. Stephens highlighted, this type of question itself illustrated the perception held by many that rock music was abhorrent. Yet of more interest to Dr. Stephens was Presley’s answer to a follow-up question about why he gyrated on stage as he sang – Presley said, ‘I just sing like they do back home. When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.’ Here was Presley articulating what Dr. Stephens had set out to discover – namely, to understand the important connections between religion and the evolution of rock music in America.

To do so, Dr. Stephens discussed the rise of Pentecostalism in the American South, where believers spoke in unknown tongues, worshipped in free-form churches, and broke down social barriers that had divided traditional Protestants by gathering white and black converts long before desegregation. Gender equality was also a mark of the Pentecostal movement, which according to Dr. Stephens went the way of the ‘horse and cart’ by the 1930s. Nevertheless, the rise of Pentecostalism, with its unique blend of highly energetic and emotive services to spread the word of God – gospel was often combined with various musical instruments during services – had an indelible impact on the character of the South and the childhood of many future rock and roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Stephens revisited Presley here, describing how in interview after interview he always mentioned to reporters that he and his family belonged to Memphis’s First Assembly of God church. For example, when speaking to an Associated Press reporter about Pentecostalism, Presley said:

We used to go to these religious singins all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to ‘em. Then there were these other singers – the leader wuz a preacher – and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ every which way. The audience liked ‘em. I guess I learned from them singers.

According to Dr. Stephens, uninhibited Pentecostalism gave Presley ideas about music and performance. Indeed, he was often called the ‘evangelist’ by his inner circle of friends. Nevertheless, many in the American South did not appreciate his borrowing of sacred music for secular ends.

As Dr. Stephens highlighted, many of Presley's records were condemned as wicked by Pentecostal preachers, warning congregations to keep ‘heathen’ rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children's ears. Likewise, White Supremacist groups, such as the White Citizen’s Council called rock and roll ‘jungle music’, ‘Congo rhythms’, and ‘animalistic.’ Thus, with these perceptions fuelling the rock and roll backlash, programmers announced they would not play Presley's music on their radio stations due to religious convictions that his music was ‘devil music’ and to racist beliefs that it was ‘negro music.’

Dr. Stephens then discussed the Pentecostal roots of various other singers at the time – James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash to name a few – to further reinforce his argument that religion had a massive influence on the rise of rock and roll in the South. Indeed, in the career of many of these stars, a duality between religion and the sins associated with rock and roll plagued them. Dr. Stephens played an excerpt of an intriguing conversation between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips at Sun Records to illustrate this. This is attached here.

In closing, Dr. Stephens highlighted how his talk was part of a wider project in which he examines the relationship of rock music to American Christianity, beginning with Pentecostals who took to the new genre — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and others — and ending with the advent of Christian rock in the 1970s. In his lecture, he mixed history, politics, religion, and music to provide a detailed picture of the South in the 1950s. Moreover, by highlighting the role of religion in rock and roll, Dr. Stephen helps us to understand the dynamic ways in which religion influenced the South in a number of ways outside of the church walls. In what was an informative and well attended lecture, Dr. Stephens unravelled the interesting roots of religion in the lives of many famous rock and roll stars – many of whom are more often associated with debauchery.
By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Ivy Schweitzer (Dartmouth College) ‘More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.’ This is part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, and will be held on Thursday 7th November in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Careless People: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Inventing The Great Gatsby

Welcome to the blog for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Yesterday, 17th October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Sarah Churchwell (Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia) to the first of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, Churchwell discussed ‘Careless People: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Inventing The Great Gatsby.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, is a timeless American classic. Since its release in 1925, it has captivated generations, becoming one of the most widely read books in the world. In what proved to be a highly popular event – the lecture theatre was literally bursting at the seams – Prof. Churchwell described her attempts to piece together the chaotic and inchoate world behind Gatsby in her new book, ‘Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.’ Using diary extracts, newspaper cuttings, and letters, Prof. Churchwell sought to examine the real-life events of 1922, including a gruesome double murder, to show their influences on the famous novel.

According to Prof. Churchwell, 1922 was a remarkable year, which began with the publication of ‘Ulysses’ and ended with ‘The Waste Land.’ In seeking the origins of Gatsby, Prof. Churchwell shows how Fitzgerald reflected the stories around him. The major news story at that time was that of the murder of Eleanor Mills, a married woman, and her lover Edward Hall; who were shot through the head near an abandoned farmhouse, their love letters scattered around the corpses. The murder of the adulterous couple held America spellbound and largely dominated the headlines whilst Fitzgerald was in New York. Prof. Churchwell points out a number of echoes with this and the story of Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby.

In recreating the world of New York before the Great Depression, Prof. Churchwell also set out to debunk myths of the time perpetuated since in Hollywood films and lazy scholarly works. One such myth was that of fashion, or more specifically, the length of a lady’s dress. Through her research of newspapers in 1922, Prof. Churchwell demonstrated that the dresses often depicted in adaptions (films or theatre) of Gatsby since are in fact those of the late 1920s, and not 1922. On her PowerPoint, Prof. Churchwell showed the audience pictures of dresses in 1922 – which were a lot longer than assumed. This might seem trivial, but as Prof. Churchwell argued, in discovering the context of Gatsby, it is imperative to recreate the world exactly as it was. For example, with wit and insight Prof. Churchill further described the great lengths she went to in crafting her book (she spent four years trying to pinpoint the date that Fitzgerald returned to New York from the Midwest to begin working on Gatsby). Like finding a needle in a haystack, Prof. Churchwell described her elation at discovering the date - September 20th, 1922 – through a lost telegram.

Moreover, one man who has been overlooked proved pivotal to Prof. Churchwell’s analysis of the time. Burton Rascoe was the literary editor for the New York Tribune in 1922 and according to Prof. Churchwell his writing offered important glimpses into the time. His ‘A Bookman’s Daybook’ column was littered with information related to various parties he and Fitzgerald attended, which Prof. Churchwell argued provided the motif for the Gatsby parties. Through researching this man, Prof. Churchwell uncovered a diamond in the rough – a letter from Fitzgerald to Rascoe in which he explains his motivations behind Gatsby.

Prof. Churchwell then described another example of how Fitzgerald’s fictional landscape was based on reality. In his own drive to Manhattan from Great Neck (which is called West Egg in Gatsby), Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, would have driven west along Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue to the Queensboro Bridge, crossing the Flushing River about midway. There in the 1920s the road passed through a former swamp, which had gradually filled with household garbage and coal ashes. On city maps the area was labelled the Corona Dumps; Fitzgerald called it the valley of ashes.

Prof. Churchwell concluded by showing that when Fitzgerald died in 1940, he largely considered himself a failure – Gatsby had sold only seven copies in the last year of his life, and his complete works had earned him a grand total of $13.13 in royalties. But following World War II, with new attention the meaning of Gatsby began to emerge and the book began to sell, and it now occupies a central place in the American canon.

In her lecture, Prof. Churchwell mixed biography, history, literary criticism and the compelling story of a true crime murder mystery to create a brilliantly detailed picture of the story behind a classic. With its release still due in the US (coming early 2014), this very carefully researched and well-crafted piece of literature by Prof. Churchwell provides an important contribution to the scholarly discussions on Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, and America in the roaring 20s, discovering where the fiction comes from and how Fitzgerald poetically presented modern America through his tale. Prof. Churchwell’s lecture was informative, and as suggested by its attendance, was highly popular.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Randall Stephens (University of Northumbria) ‘The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South.’ This will be held on Wednesday 23rd October in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!