The historic “home” of American literature, thanks to the efforts of Fred Lewis Pattee of Pattee–Paterno library fame, Penn State has long claimed a fruitful engagement with the theory and practice of American literary studies. Thanks to the founding efforts of CALS faculty Hester Blum, Chris Castiglia, and Sean Goudie, it is also the birthplace of C19, the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. Almost six years ago, CALS hosted the society’s inaugural conference at the Nittany Lion Inn and in March of 2016, the center is pleased to host the return of the biennial conference to State College, marking the continuation of CALS and C19’s shared dedication to inquiry into the objects of American literary studies. The conference not only allows for the sharing of new and exciting critical conversations, but also furnishes often far-flung scholars with the opportunity to collaborate with each other.
The conference, set for March 17-20, follows the third conference held at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill in 2014 and the second conference hosted by University of California–Berkeley in 2012. Its return to Penn State prompts reflection on the society’s growth and development since its inception in 2010. “That first conference at Penn State had extraordinary intellectual rigor, excitement, and—to use a word Chris Castiglia has helped us to claim—pleasure,” Karen Sanchez-Eppler meditates, referring to Castiglia’s work on “pleasure reading” in J19, the academic journal associated with the society. A professor at Amherst College and current President of the society, she recalls C19’s beginnings, “There was a real sense that these were kinds of conversations many of us were eager to have: an approach to the literary as part of an interdisciplinary field, an approach to the American canon organized more by ideas, genres, or methods, than by authors.” Such a welcoming and multivariable approach has stood the society and journal in good stead; the success of C19 can be measured not merely by the quality of its critical scholarly work, but also by the increased number of panels and seminars necessitated by an outpouring of submissions. Since 2014’s event, the program committee has expanded the number of sessions from 75 to almost 90. Seminars, too, which feature sessions led by top scholars in the field for the benefit of graduate students and early career scholars, have seen an increase from Chapel Hill’s count of six to eight. All this is done, Sanchez-Eppler mentions, “without, we believe, any loss of intimacy or graciousness.”
In addition to the growth of traditional programming such as panels and seminars led by top scholars in the field, the generous support of diverse Penn State institutions has allowed for new and exciting conference events, like the staging of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon alongside Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s contemporary adaptation of the play entitled An Octoroon. The original, which explores the fraught racial taboos that governed many love affairs in the literary South, and its contemporary restaging only serve to highlight our own troubled times. Spearheading the programming at Penn State is Hester Blum, an associate professor of nineteenth-century American literature and a member of C19’s 2016 program committee alongside Sanchez-Eppler. Blum, who will serve as interim director of CALS during the spring semester, sees the performance, which contrasts scenes from the 1859 play with its 2014 revision, as an extraordinary collaborative opportunity. “What attracted me to the idea of theater was that theater was a genre that was both enormously popular in the nineteenth century and that is probably the least studied of the literary genres,” Blum says, “we’re going to pair them up to show nineteenth century racial melodrama as well as the revisionist twenty-first century version.” Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins himself will be on hand to watch the performance staged by the School of Theater, as well as to give a public lecture supported by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.
By juxtaposing nineteenth-century racial attitudes with those of the twenty-first century, the performance highlights the theme of the 2016 conference, that of “Unsettling.” The write-up for the call for papers asserts, “In contrast to the assumption of a shared practice or single canon, ‘unsettling’ recognizes the fragmented and contradictory condition of US and American literary studies.” To a certain extent, challenges to post-race complacency form the core of the conference’s call. Extensive media coverage in 2015 has both exposed and obfuscated cycles of racial unrest, environmental catastrophe, and games of geopolitical chicken. These issues in many ways prompt scholars to examine the continued effects and affects of unresolved nineteenth-century cultural conundrums. “The theme ‘Unsettling’ is a response to the events of the last year or so in the US – between Ferguson and ongoing institutional and state violence against African Americans, as well as so-called immigration debates – which we recognize have a history that extends to the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries and earlier, and that are very much part of the texts and works that we study,” Blum explains. “So in one part, the ‘Unsettling’ theme comes very directly from those moments in teaching about those events and the contexts of the nineteenth-century works, which seemed like a logical way to frame the conversation.”
It is a conversation that seems more urgent than ever, with student protests at universities across the country – at Missouri, at Yale, at Claremont McKenna, and elsewhere – revealing the nation’s troubled racial underbelly. The questions posed by “Unsettling” encourage scholars to revisit the sites and objects of “settlement,” national myths, literary canons and cultural practices in order to rethink and reevaluate our methodologies in the present day. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is just one such avenue of reexamination. “The academy is one of the only institutions extant where asking disturbing, unsettling questions is truly the core of our responsibilities,” Sanchez-Eppler concludes. “When we acknowledge that as a strength, all sorts of good things can happen.”