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Buschendorf, Christa and Astrid Franke, eds. Transatlantic Negotiations

Buschendorf, Christa and Astrid Franke, eds. Transatlantic Negotiations. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2007.

Transatlantic Negotiations features fourteen essays drawn from the annual convention of the German Association of American Studies held in Frankfurt am Main in 2005. The essays are arranged chronologically to chart a variegated history of interactions and exchanges between the United States, Europe and Africa, and, as the brief preface makes clear, each essay “illuminates explicitly or implicitly the intricacies of negotiations embedded in different relationships of power as they reverberate through history” (xiii).

The opening essay, by Nicole Waller, is entitled “Sea Change: Captain John Smith’s True Travels between Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds.” The author focuses on discerning the impact of “the shift from Mediterranean to Atlantic circuits and imaginaries” (9) on Captain Smith’s early seventeenth-century autobiographical chronicle of his experiences as traveller, soldier and captive in the Mediterranean. Smith is seen to privilege the accounts of seafarers like himself, who “are at once statically Christian and adventurously mobile” (11). Smith’s narrative thus registers the contemporary challenge of crossing geographical borders, while maintaining one’s identity amid a shifting global economy.

In “The Angel and the Animalculae: Cotton Mather and Inoculation,” Bernd Herzogenrath offers an alternative view of Mather through a focus on his role as scientist. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Mather implemented the folk wisdom of one of his African slaves, to help counter the effects of Small Pox through inoculation. His writings on this topic shows him to have been active in trying to bridge the gap between a theological worldview and scientific knowledge, through his willingness to adopt an American middle way that resulted in Mather “mapping out a germ theory – in his own term: animalcular theory – of infectious disease” (16). Mather’s scientific theories combined “mechanism and vitalism,” and anticipated a post-Enlightenment view “that saw an active force at work within matter, body and society” (24).

Katharina Erhard’s essay, “Republican Orientalism as a Prelude to Manifest Destiny,” looks at representations of the Orient in two successful late eighteenth-century American plays, namely Mercy Otis Warren’s The Sack of Rome, and Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers, or, A Struggle for Freedom. These barbary captivity narratives employ typological frameworks, “in which the oriental other is associated with evil to construe America as a redeemer nation” (37). The drama of both plays hinges upon the threat of rape against “virtuous republican women,” and the author makes the point that while Rowson and Warren’s plays look to “counteract gendered ideologies of nationalism and to inscribe women’s equality into the American nation,” they do so on the basis of “racialized ideologies of nationalism” (36).

In “‘Towards a More Fortunate Land’: Christoph Daniel Ebeling and the American Republic,” Mischa Honeck gives a fascinating account of Ebeling’s thought, given his contemporary fame as “Germany’s chief academic authority on the young United States” (41). For Ebeling conditions in America suited the successful establishment of an “intellectual republicanism” that could never take root in a Europe riven by hereditary rule and privilege. This was deemed particularly true of his own country, but it was also for this reason that Ebeling believed that “any type of national unity, which he regarded as expedient to the overall rise of republicanism in his country, might be achieved with, but certainly not without, Germany’s nobility” (57).

James T. Kloppenberg’s essay, “Tocqueville at 200: Reconsidering Democracy in America,” gives an important account of a paradox at the heart of Tocqueville’s reputation. On the one hand he is afforded a central role by contemporary commentators and politicians from both sides of the political divide. Yet Kloppenberg outlines the demise of his place within American historical scholarship, and cites as a cause the increasing professionalism of academia and a resultant “cult of the new” (84). The author seeks to redress the balance by highlighting long overlooked continuities between notions of democracy, reciprocity and religious faith that run through the two volumes published in 1835 and 1845, and he concludes by underlining the value of a neglected argument, that Tocqueville derived these ideas from the model of the New England town.

In “Proper Ways of Thinking Modernism: The Amiable Disagreements of William James and Henri Bergson,” Herwig Friedl provides an illuminating account of the shared heritage of anti-conceptualist thought that unites these key figures, while making reference to each philosopher’s implicit, indirect and ever-admiring articulation of vital differences that fundamentally separated their work. As post-metaphysical thinkers, James and Bergson were engaged in thinking the modern without recourse to fixing or “ascertaining what Being is” (92), and they articulated their respective ontologies through tropes and metaphors. Friedl states that “[i]t is one of the hallmarks of James’s metaphors […] that they are never allowed to coagulate, ossify, and thus to assume the character of essentializing signifiers” (95). However, contemporary admirers such as Gilles Deleuze acknowledge that Bergson’s thought, “somewhat like his metaphorical rocket of productive energy, relentlessly opens a future whose products fall back on established modes of thinking” (99).

Susan Winnett’s essay, “A Room for Giovanni in the house of Fiction: James’s and Baldwin’s Transatlantic Couples,” looks at the thematic and compositional uses made of the convention of the transatlantic couple by Henry James, and argues for Baldwin’s appropriation of this tradition for his depiction of gay literary couples in Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). Winnett’s fruitful readings of Baldwin’s novels in particular, shows how the later writer’s adoption “of the motif of the extraterritorial transatlantic couple enabled him to negotiate issues of race, sexuality, and power within and through the discourse of nationality developed by James” (106).

In “‘To Russia and Myself’: Claude Mckay, Langston Hughes and the Soviet Union,” Astrid Haas focuses on the perception of the USSR in the interwar years by African-American intellectuals. The country’s “official position on race, its advocacy of African-American self-determination, and the popularity black American writers and performing artists enjoyed in the country” (111), laid the foundation for visits by the poets Claude Mckay and Langston Hughes in 1922 and 1924 respectively. In their subsequent essays and autobiographical accounts of these visits, both poets utilised the African-American life-writing motif of the journey, turning their individual visits to Russia into representative efforts “[t]o find a home in a global black diasporic consciousness” (127).

Rebecca C. Potter’s essay, “The German We Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim’s Hollywood Villain and Legacy,” draws a parallel between his directorial successes in the 1920s as a pioneer of cinematic naturalism, and his creation, as an actor, of an easily imitated “archetypical villain,” that “had a tremendous impact on subsequent portrayals of the Nazi in American film and television” (134).

In “Gertrude Stein and the Forties: Politics and Poethics in Catastrophic Times,” Joan Retallack asks the question “[t]o what extent are poets politically and/or poethically accountable in catastrophic times” (151), and does so by examining the relationship between Gertrude Stein’s principles as a writer and poet, and the political and ethical questions raised by her continued residence in occupied France under the Vichy government until the end of the Second World War. Retallack concludes that Stein “was first and foremost a literary humanist who developed a fundamentally investigative poetics – a poetics that took her beyond the conservatism of her political opinions to celebrate the improbable delights of the quotidian” (167).

Werner Sollors’s essay “A Foreign Affair: Notes Toward a Cultural History of the American Occupation of Germany after World War II,” offers a series of fascinating snapshots of the decade after the end of the war, by focusing on the aims, ambitions and reactions to the American army’s residence in Germany in this period. The author uses contemporary sources, official documents and photographs, as well as readings of contemporary novels, to highlight such issues as the racism within the American army, and the shaping of occupational aims by psychological research into the causes of German “nazification.” Sollor’s eye-opening account of this period, concludes with reflections on the representation of “the cultural experience of occupation” (199) in Billy Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair.

In “Reading the Transitory Signs and Disappearing Traces: Rorty, Adorno, and the Idea of a Literary Culture,” Ulf Schulenberg makes a convincing case for examining Adorno’s materialist philosophy in relation to American pragmatism, by focusing on parallels between Richard Rorty’s “idea of a literary or poeticized culture” and Adorno’s “conception of the truth content of the work of art” (202). In doing so the author highlights his contention that the difference between these philosopher’s approaches nevertheless confirms a shared understanding of the changed nature of philosophical enquiry, whereby “the striving for truth, typical of a philosophical culture, has been replaced by the search for novelty and innovative descriptions” (223).

Kirsten Twelbeck’s essay, “A Passing Era: Memory, Nation, and the Jew in American and South African Literature,” looks at the different conclusions drawn by Philip Roth and Achmat Dangor through their use of the “passing trope” (229), in The Human Stain (2003) and Kafka’s Curse (1997) respectively. Of interest here are the differing perspectives brought to the fore through a shared engagement with the implications of characters’ acts of passing themselves off as white or Jewish rather than black. For Roth the “necessity of ‘passing’ does not vanish with the abolition of race as a legal category [….], because it is memory, not biology, which organises human thinking” (241). Dangor’s use of the same motif supports a “model for a post-apartheid world” that is radically anti-essentialist, but also reliant on “anti-Semitism, anti-culturalism, and racist notions of black Africans” (237).

The collection ends with Carl Pedersen’s illuminating reflections on contemporary geopolitical relations, in his essay “Beyond the Black Atlantic: Geopolitics and the African Diaspora.” Pedersen argues that the paradigm of the Black Atlantic, made famous by the writings of Paul Gilroy, must be broadened to take account of how “contemporary Anglo-American geopolitics affects developments within the African continent and migratory flows from Africa and the Caribbean to the Western hemisphere and to Europe” (244). He concludes ominously that the ongoing process of “Anglobalization” constitutes a “dangerous combination of imperial nostalgia and hegemonic force [that] is already having a profound impact on the African continent and the destiny of the African diaspora” (255).

Individually and as a whole these essays offer a range of fruitful insights drawn from a mode of historical and cultural enquiry that shows the benefits of contextualising ongoing processes of exchange.

Dr. Ian Copestake
President, William Carlos Williams Society

 

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