Book Reviews

Hölbling, Walter W., Klaus Rieser, and Hanna Wallinger, Eds. What is American? New Identities in U.S. Culture

Hölbling, Walter W., Klaus Rieser, and Hanna Wallinger, Eds. What is American? New Identities in U.S. Culture. American Studies in Austria. Volume 3. Wien: LIT VERLAG, 2004. ISBN: 3-8258-7734-5. 387 pp., includes bibliography.

What is American? New Identities in U.S. Culture is a critical anthology presenting a cross-section of current research on the topic of U.S. identities. Written by European as well as U.S. scholars, the articles in the volume critically respond to the work of Arno Heller whose research has frequently investigated the issues of what constitutes “Americanness” and what characterizes an “American identity”. Thus, the contributions in the volume—which is dedicated to Heller on the occasion of his 65th birthday—can be understood as a continuation of the critical dialogue on issues such as utopian/dystopian and regional identities, the (re) construction of identities in literature and film, and the dynamic process of regenerating and re-inventing new “American selves”.

Identity is one of the central cultural narratives of the U.S. on which both dominant and resistant discourses draw. The specific critical anthology explores the topic’s diversity, but also concentrates on an important aspect, that of “newness”. Construction/Deconstruction/Reconstruction, as well as Invention/Reinvention and Enactment of Identities are all discussed in the context of four thematic categories which make up the four sections of the volume: “New Concepts and Reconsiderations,” “Migration and Multiple Identities,” “Individuation and Privatized Identity Construction,” and “(Re-)Inventions and Virtual Identities”. The volume concludes with a selective bibliography of Arno Heller’s research.

The first section reframes the discussion of U.S. identities by juxtaposing different theoretical frameworks and interpretative paradigms and opening up new critical vistas. First, Gudrun Grabher’s essay interrelates music and the literary movement of Transcendentalism in an attempt to foreground the concept of “musical identity” which, as the author suggests, is often “hidden behind” the prevalence of texts and the visual realm. Louis Kern examines the radical writings of Paschal Beverly Randoplh—a Victorian African American whose voice was a unique alternative to the sexual discourse of the period—as “an introit to the discursive archaeology of the sexual attitudes and sexological constructs of our own time” (58). Paul Lauter interrogates his own process of identity formation by reconsidering his “fine Yale education” as an example of the influence that institutional culture exerts on the enactment of social/cultural/political/professional and other roles. One of the main axes around which Lauter’s essay is structured is his study of modernism while at Yale. Interestingly, the article that follows Lauter’s, written by Carl Malmgren, discusses one of the canonical modernist texts—The Great Gatsby—and explores the ambiguities inherent in identity construction through the figures of Gatsby, Nick and Fitzgerald himself. The theme of identity enactment through social processes and practices also becomes the focus of Theodore Schatzki who proposes that identity “both as a state of life and as social phenomena is rooted in practice” (120).

The articles in section two trace the issues of struggle and strife, but also of cooperation, solidarity and group cohesion, and develop a strong argument for the importance of social contacts and relations in the formation and formulation of identities. Sonja Bahn-Coblans considers European immigrants who became filmmakers in the U.S. and American directors who worked in Europe and reveals the role they played in promoting but also undermining mainstream concepts of American identity. Walter Hölbling and Justine Tally read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible in the context of Homi Bhabha’s notion of “hybridity” and, thus, bring forward postcolonial perspectives as potential paradigms for the reinterpretation of the old ethnic paradigm. The “intraethnic, interethnic new world of interlayered cultures” is also the focus of Brigitte Scheer-Schäzler who discusses Asian immigration and texts. Finally, Waldemar Zacharasiewicz analyzes the works of prominent Agrarians—such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—to exemplify the relevance of European societal models for the formation of a distinctive collective identity of the American South—one that aspired to counteract the homogenizing economic and political forces of mainstream America.

The title of section three is “Individuation and Privatized Identity Construction”. More specifically, the four essays in the section focus on the individual—marginalized or excluded—as set apart from groups and mass living. Hence, Robert Fischer considers the developments in the city of Houston, Texas, as a case study for the discussion of global processes of privatization, while Peter Freese proposes a fresh female perspective on the effects of the Vietnam War by following Sam Hughes’s individual quest in Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. Subsequently, James Thompson traces the construction of an “identity of loneliness” with reference to the Alaskan poet John Haines who makes a case for the self as an independent agent in a post-individualistic age. Last, Hanna Wallinger also addresses the issue of individuation as it surfaces in two novels set in Martha’s Vineyard—Four Girls at Cottage City (1895) and The Wedding (1995)—and concludes that the search for self and its relationship to social contexts and realities is closely linked with a strong sense of place.

The essays in the final section share the common theme of “transformative or inventive aspects of identity construction and maintenance” and work on the premise that human identity is flexible. The first paper in the section by Elisabeth Kraus examines the work of science fiction writers Alexander Jablokov, Greg Egan and Nancy Kress and analyzes virtual identities from the perspective of artificial human enhancement and construction. Kraus concludes that all technologies are political and, hence, externalizations of ourselves (316). Similarly to Kraus, Roberta Maierhofer is interested in identity politics, but moves in a different direction: that of the intersection of gender, age and identity. Specifically, Maierhofer proposes the “old woman” as the most appropriate “metaphor for American identity”. Next, Berndt Ostendorf voices his concerns at the end of the social democratic century—when the old division of Left and Right has become outdated—and employs the examples of Robert Warshow and Christopher Hitchens to make a case for the “left-to-conservative” conversions in the American public sphere. The concluding essay by Klaus and Susanne Rieser also addresses the theme of “conversion” but frames it within the field of film studies. Specifically, the two authors discuss Rush Hour (1998) and illustrate the transformation of Asian masculinity—from model minority to model masculinity—in the course of its export to Hollywood.

As the editors of the volume argue, the diversity of the collected articles “represents itself an (American) reality of the multiple status of identities, be it under the auspices of identity politics and multiculturalism, or under the proliferation of theories and theoretical paradigms” (11, 12). Indeed, although the volume lacks a comprehensive introduction that would delineate its theoretical and conceptual frame which obviously has its roots in the work of Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, one must note that the diverse—sometimes contradictory, other times complementary—perspectives from which the collected essays approach the question “What is American?” guarantee a holistic approach to the discussion of the dynamic processes that continue to shape, but also challenge, American identities

Eleftheria Arapoglou
Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece