Turns of Event: American Literary Studies in Motion

Turns of Event: American Literary Studies in Motion

Turns of Event: American Literary Studies in Motion

Turns of Event: American Literary Studies in Motion


American literary studies has undergone a series of field redefinitions over the past two decades that have been consistently described as "turns," whether transnational, hemispheric, postnational, spatial, temporal, postsecular, aesthetic, or affective. In Turns of Event, Hester Blum and a splendid roster of contributors explore the conditions that have produced such movements. Offering an overview of the state of the study of nineteenth-century American literature, Blum contends that the field's propensity to turn, to reinvent itself constantly without dissolution, is one of its greatest strengths.

The essays in the volume's first half, "Provocations," trace the theoretical and methodological development and institutional emergence of certain turns, as well as providing calls to arms. The geopolitically oriented turns toward the transnational, hemispheric, and oceanic (whether Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, or archipelagic in focus) have held a certain prevalence in American studies in recent years, and the second half of this volume presents a series of scholarly essays that exemplify these subfields.

Taken together, these essays survey the field of American literary studies as it moves beyond new historicism as its primary methodology and evolves in light of ideological, conceptual, and material considerations. There is much at stake in these movements: the consequences and opportunities range from citational and evidentiary practices to canon expansion, resource allocation, and institutional futurity.

Contributors: Monique Allewaert, Ralph Bauer, Hester Blum, Martin Brückner, Michelle Burnham, Christopher Castiglia, Sean X. Goudie, Meredith L. McGill, Geoffrey Sanborn.


Hester Blum

The history of the Americas in relation to the West begins with a turn: a wrong turn, as the story is commonly told. Christopher Columbus, the Genoan sailing in search of Cathay on behalf of Spain, encountered unexpected islands that he mistook for the Indies. This landfall came after he decided against returning to Europe when the voyage had proceeded farther than his frightened sailors had thought navigationally possible. in the parlance of quips about his “failure to ask for directions” (as Michelle Burnham glosses it in her contribution to this volume), Columbus took an errant turn, mistaking the Americas for Asia. This is a witticism that can serve as a distraction from the scale of his conceptual and ideological errors—the effects, that is, of half a millennium of the subsequent histories of settler colonialism, slavery, displacement, land seizure, and resource depletion attendant on Columbus’s (and Europe’s) turn to the Americas. the monumental consequences of the Columbian encounter and its aftermath have been extensively covered in Americanist scholarship; still, I invoke the navigator’s deviation briefly here, in launching this volume on the critical “turns” made in recent years in pre-1900 American literary studies, in order to underscore that turns in literary history have been at once ideological, conceptual, and material. Columbus’s “wrong” turn becomes shorthand, in this respect, for the far more consequential actions that were in turn inaugurated by the maneuver.

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