Christopher Coffman’s New Book Examines Postmodern Engagement with Prenational America
In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, the character Frank Traverse experiences a vision after stumbling onto the ruins of a pre-Columbian site in Mexico. He sees the ways white men and corporations have destroyed native peoples and sacred land. But he also sees a vision of pre-Columbian culture and possibilities for new physical, spiritual, social and aesthetic orders.
Pynchon “balances the pessimism of the darker part of Frank’s vision with a sense of possibility and hope,” says College of General Studies Senior Lecturer Christopher K. Coffman.
How do postmodern authors like Pynchon engage with the American past in literature? It’s a question that Coffman contends with in a new book of literary criticism, Rewriting Early America: The Prenational Past in Postmodern Literature (Lehigh University Press, 2018).
Looking at texts by seven postmodern writers, Coffman finds that many of these texts “undertake more constructive and hopeful projects with regard to the American past than critics usually recognize.” Coffman chose these writers—Pynchon, John Berryman, John Barth, Paul Muldoon, William Vollmann, Susan Howe, and Toni Morrison—because they engage with the past in a “playful” way.
By that, he means they recognize that literary rules should occasionally be broken and that breaking those rules can allow a new perspective to emerge. They also explore new modes of presenting truth, rather than simply sticking to the historical model. They recognize that literature can explore, Coffman says, “not only what has existed or does exist, but also what may have existed or may yet exist.” This approach shows an openness to the unexpected—a “playful engagement” that is especially well-suited, Coffman says, to an era characterized by “amorphous, fluctuant, and porous cultural and political boundaries.”
Coffman’s book differs from past literary criticism in that it focuses on “visions of American communities defined not by marginalization and oppression, but by responsive understanding and inclusion.” Coffman finds in later postmodernist work “more space for sincerity” than there was in earlier postmodernist literature—an interest in finding “American spaces and American moments when sociocultural values were not so corrupt or debased as they have tended (and continue) to be.”
That contrast—darkness with hope—is what makes the American past such rich literary material. The hope holds a deep appeal for anyone who’s suffered injustice, while the tension between optimism and horror is deep material for literary minds, Coffman says: “That tension makes possible endless stories about the contradictions of this place, and the difficulties and fascination of being an individual here.”
The prenational era was a time when Puritans were claiming the New World as a “city on a hill,” and the boundaries and meaning of America were still to be determined. Coffman sees some similarities between the colonial era and our own. Both eras have their own instabilities and unpredictable change, “self-contradictions and ambiguities.” This allows, Coffman says, for the salutary playfulness he sees in these postmodern writers—“a playfulness that is fundamental to literary aesthetics, and perhaps also, these writers’ works suggest, to healthy ethical and political systems.”
Françoise Palleau-Papin, professor of American literature at the University of Paris XIII, called Coffman’s book “brilliant” and said, “It is no small prowess to have written a page-turner of such intellectual scope.” Rewriting Early America: The Prenational Past in Postmodern Literature is available now.
—By Alisa Harris
The character of Sidney Fein came to Professor of Humanities Robert Wexelblatt after he read a book of French critical theory that left him with “an impression of parasitism and arrogance” on the part of the scholars. He processed his reaction to the book in the form of a satirical essay evaluating the career of a fictional thinker, writer, and teacher: Sidney Fein.
After first writing about Fein in 1993, Wexelblatt expected to leave the scholar behind. But he found himself writing more essays and then fiction and verse in the voice of Fein. It all culminated in The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein (Pelekinesis, 2018)—an 556-page collection of works by the imaginary scholar.
“At a time when I had reached an impasse in my own essay-writing, I discovered that I could write things as Fein that I couldn’t as myself,” said Wexelblatt. “I had from the first a clear sense of who Fein was, how he thought, and some of what he thought about. This was because he is enough like me to have my sympathy but different enough to surprise me.”
Wexelblatt said Fein has proved to have wide-ranging interests: “He would go from big philosophical topics like ontology to little pop-culture ones like sidekicks in the old Westerns.” Fein has written on Faulk, on idol worship, on Cinderella, on wonder, on heresy, on meaninglessness, on Kafka, on irreverence, and on mystery—to name just a few. The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein has thirty-five pieces, including a keynote address, short stories, poems, and essays.
Each of the posthumous papers is accompanied by notes in another voice—that of a fictional editor who interprets and even channels Fein. A third character—Fein’s daughter, Maya—emerges, too, as the prompt for some of Fein’s essays and a central character in the final piece.
Writing in the voice of Fein has been an exercise in creating a mind that is like his own, but not his own, says Wexelblatt: “Writing the Fein papers liberated me to see and say things I couldn’t as myself, and it’s also been a lot of fun. The fun is often frivolous but sometimes serious, too—once in a while, it’s both.”
The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein is neither the first nor the last of Wexelblatt’s experiments in literary form. Wexelblatt’s previous book, Petites Suites, emerged from a series of stories that experiment with musical and narrative form. His next book, Hsi-wei Tales, is written in the voice of a Chinese peasant boy who becomes a poet during the Sui Dynasty. It will be published in 2020.
Lynn O’Brien Hallstein has edited a new book, Mothering Rhetorics, recently published by Routledge. Hallstein is an associate professor of rhetoric at the College of General Studies, as well as a women’s studies professor looking at the cultural constructions of motherhood.
Originally published as a special issue of Women’s Studies in Communication, Mothering Rhetorics is a collection of essays that further examines the concept of motherhood through the rhetorics of reproduction, and reproducing rhetorics. Hallstein and other featured writers also cover a wide range of topics throughout, including the racialized rhetorical contexts of maternity; how fixing food is thought to fix families, while also regulating maternal activities and identity; and other subjects.
With motherhood and mothering becoming important intellectual topics across multiple disciplines, Hallstein wanted to create a book with an array of writers looking at motherhood from both the historical and contemporary sides– to bridge the gap for scholars and teachers as well. Along with her new edited book, Hallstein has written four other books including Bikini Ready Moms, as well as numerous chapters in other books and feminist and communication publications.
Kyle Wiggins’ new book, American Revenge Narratives: A Collection of Critical Essays (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018) is a compilation of essays examining post-war American revenge stories and “the nation’s love for vengeance.” The essays explore both film and novels—from Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws—as they contend with our country’s “seemingly inexhaustible production of vengeful tales.” Wiggins, a lecturer of rhetoric at Boston University College of General Studies, spoke with CGS about the book and the modern American revenge story.
BU College of General Studies: Your book description references American’s “vengeful storytelling tradition.” In some sense, the revenge story is universal and timeless—so what makes a revenge narrative uniquely “American”?
Kyle Wiggins: It’s true, revenge is one of the oldest narrative themes. However, American revenge narratives, especially those that emerge after World War II, often break the genre’s conventions in at least one of three ways:
- American avengers don’t always follow a “code” of proportionality. They shed blood indiscriminately and without limit on their vengeance.
- Vengeful characters exhibit an addiction to getting even. Their retributive behavior brings no relief or closure, so they keep retaliating out of compulsion. In many American novels or films, revenge functions like an inexhaustible desire. That is a significant tendency since it renders one of the revenge genre’s basic plot points – satisfaction – unreachable.
- American avengers often seek payment from systems (like capitalism or the drug trade) rather than human antagonists. These characters have grievance with massive, abstract enemies, and struggle to find ways to get even with them.
Though relatively young, compared to Attic tragedy or Elizabethan drama, the American revenge tradition has already started to birth archetypes. You might consider characters like Dexter, who can’t stop killing serial killers that evade the limited reach of law, or John Smith from Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer. John yearns to murder the one white man who is responsible for all that has gone wrong for Native Americans. Both characters are quintessential American avengers, and delusional about their violent quests, albeit for different reasons.
CGS: The essays in the book touch on cinema and literature, war, racism, misogyny—even animals as “agents of nature’s revenge.” How did you decide which themes were important to include in the book?
KW: Part of the revenge genre’s appeal is its versatility. It can dramatize small feuds between neighbors or large clashes between warring ideologies. But no matter its scale or context, revenge – as a plot – dangles the possibility of correction. Wrongs may get righted, balance may be restored. And because readers and viewers love seeing characters get what they deserve, revenge narratives have opportunities to issue powerful statements to a receptive audience about different types of world injustice. Including chapters that discussed the many targets of vengeful desire made sense.
More specifically, I wanted to show how popular and nuanced revenge has become in contemporary culture. To support the book’s claim that vengeance is one of the abiding post-war American themes and a major means of political critique, I needed chapters that show revenge put to diverse (and sometimes surprising) ends. So I sought out essays on ecological vengeance, indigenous or Native American retribution, feminist payback cinema, and the war on terror. The chapters that people submitted blew me away, and do a marvelous job demonstrating revenge’s deep infiltration into the American imaginary.
CGS: In your chapter, “The Modern American Revenge Narrative,” you look at a modern transformation of the revenge narrative—a character’s impulse to “shape vengeful desire into something useful.” Instead of taking on an entire, evil system, the character channels their rage toward a single person who represents that system. Why do you think the revenge narrative changed in this way?
KW: Revenge narratives modernized, in part, because of recognition that injustice is complex. The art form matured. Crime and inequality have diffused sources. Yet, it would be unwieldy in a novel, for instance, to depict an environmental crusader poisoning every shareholder, board member, employee, supplier, and bankrolled politician who made it possible for a chemical treatment facility to contaminate the water table. So, modern revenge characters select proxies, character stand-ins who represent the chemical treatment facility’s policies but aren’t singularly responsible. It’s a kind of convenient but necessary symbol-making that takes place within the plot itself.
Modern revenge stories walk a tightrope. They have to acknowledge the complexity of guilt in an interconnected world yet provide audiences the basic delight of bad people getting their just desserts. Because of that tension, revenge plots are especially thrilling right now. They imagine an improbable fairness in which the wicked are harshly punished and swift violence sorts out the world’s messy problems. If it’s a comforting fiction, it’s also a deeply unsettling one.
CGS: You include Quentin Tarantino in your analysis, and it’s easy to see how some of his recent movies, like Django Unchained for example, fit with the point you’re making.
KW: Tarantino is tricky to discuss because his recent movies (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and to a lesser extent Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2) involve a heavy dose of fantasy. Tarantino indulges a kind of wish-fulfillment – to see slave plantations detonate in fiery righteousness and Nazis immolated in a theater – that can only occur in the alternate space of fiction/film. His movies wear their irony proudly and invite the audience to enjoy the spectacular violence. There’s an inside joke register to them.
CGS: There was a lot of cultural debate about those themes when the movies came out. What do you think of the debate about these revenge stories?
KW: When Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds debuted there was a lot of controversy surrounding their levels of gore. People accused them of excess. Others worries about the films’ tone. Essentially critics asked: what does it mean for these movies to shed so much blood and make jokes about killing Nazis and plantation owners at the same time? Should audiences enjoy these on-screen massacres? Django and Inglorious Basterds were too graphic and transformed too much painful history into entertainment.
That particular debate, as far as it concerns Tarantino, isn’t very interesting to me. For starters, it misses the way Tarantino deconstructs the revenge genre. Despite their other issues, his films smartly mock how audiences crave punishment more than prevention, how vengeful satisfaction seems proportional to original suffering, and how aesthetic violence horrifies and delights simultaneously. But really, I view his films as thought exercises in how art is a method of dreaming up unlikely justice.
CGS: In your own chapter, you look at both novels—by Thomas Pynchon, E.L. Doctorow, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French—as well as films by Robert Siegel and Quentin Tarantino. Why did you think it was important to include both cinema and literature in your own analysis, and in the book as a whole?
KW: When we think about stories the nation tells about itself, and the centrality of vengeance to those stories, it’s reasonable to consider as many types of narrative as possible. Too often conversations about art happen in isolation. We only discuss the way poetry treats a given theme, or the way new media uses a particular motif. Scholars who contributed to this volume do a great job, collectively, charting shifts in American attitudes toward vengeance (and justice) that play out on the page and screen. That said, there is a lot more work to be done understanding the nation’s fascination with vengeance. I think of this book as a first reckoning.
Is the universe a “giant quantum computer” or a “cellular automaton”? Are we really living in a Matrix world—made up of tiny bits of information that the universe is continually processing on a grand scale? The conception of the universe as a digital computing entity —lately advocated by Seth Lloyd of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who calls the universe a “giant quantum computer”—has interested quantum physicists in recent decades.
In a chapter published in the book Quantum Foundations, Probability and Information (Springer, 2018), CGS Associate Professor of Natural Science and Mathematics Gregg Jaeger puts this conception of the universe to a critical analysis. The chapter, “Clockwork Rebooted: Is the Universe a Computer?” examines new quantum concepts and compares them to past ideas of the universe.
Jaeger notes, “The idea of grounding physics in principles of computation and an information ontology by considering the universe as fundamentally a digital computing entity has been of increasing interest over the past several decades. It has been claimed in some versions of this approach that this entity is a cellular automaton.” Lloyd’s conception is “the most literal version of the idea,” Jaeger says, and is advocated “on the grounds that it provides a novel explanation for the complexity currently seen in the universe.”
In Jaeger’s critical analysis, he compares this picture of the physical world with past ideas of the universe as “mechanical clockwork.” Although there is value in moving physics from past mathematical approaches to discrete descriptions of physical processes, Jaeger concludes, “The claim that the universe is an enormous computer, like the thesis that it is an enormous clockwork, is unwarranted.”
Edited by Andrei Khrennikov and Bourama Toni, Quantum Foundations, Probability and Information summarizes the latest research in quantum foundations and mathematical physics. It aims to promote interdisciplinary collaboration in the areas of quantum probability, information, communication and foundation, and mathematical physics. Jaeger is one of several “leading experts in quantum foundations” who contributed chapters to the volume.
The last book Jaeger co-authored, Quantum Metrology, Imaging, and Communication (Springer, 2017), carried on Jaeger’s interdisciplinary work in the field of quantum mechanics and quantum information. It responded to the field’s growing interest in quantum entanglement and quantum-few particle systems.
The CGS Art and Literary Magazine: The Chimaerid has published its 2018 edition with art, poetry, and prose by College of General Studies students.
The Chimaerid (K-EYE-MI-RID) showcases the many artistic talents of CGS students, including poetry, photography, artwork, and more. Published each spring, the magazine is titled after a group of fish known as the chimaeridae, which are named after a Greek mythological beast composed of parts from many animals. Given the variety of artistic talents of CGS students, the magazine emanates a similar essence.
The Chimaerid staff continued its annual tradition of awarding prizes for visual art and writing:
- Best Artwork – Nicholas Mohler for “Dinner Party”
- Best Photograph – Lauren Moghavem for “Her Sleepless Defense”
- Best Writing – Marie Klepacz for “A Blip is not an Explanation”
Printed copies of The Chimaerid were distributed in the spring semester and the edition is also available here: The Chimaerid. If you are interested in working on The Chimaerid, please contact faculty advisor Professor Regina Hansen (email@example.com).
Theodore Roosevelt was thrust into the presidency after a national tragedy—the assassination of President William McKinley—and he shaped the nation in ways that still matter today. Roosevelt instituted the national monuments system, pioneered the regulation of industry, and laid the foundation for decades of American foreign policy. Associate Professor of Social Sciences William Tilchin has compiled some of the best examples of Roosevelt scholarship into Spotlighting TR: Selections from the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, 2007-2014 (Theodore Roosevelt Association, 2017).
The 600-plus-page volume curates 38 articles published in the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal from 2007 to 2014, along with two articles from earlier editions. The breadth of the topics shows Roosevelt’s enduring influence in conservation, diplomacy, foreign policy, and historic events like the Spanish-American War and the building of the Panama Canal.
A periodical founded in 1975 and devoted exclusively to Theodore Roosevelt scholarship, “the TRA Journal over the years has provided many valuable additions to the published historical literature,” Tilchin writes in the introduction to the book. Tilchin has edited the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal since 2007, when it became a peer-reviewed periodical on his recommendation. As editor, he works closely with the contributors and the designer, commissions book reviews, edits manuscripts, chooses images, and works with expert external evaluators.
Tilchin also took on the task of editing Spotlighting TR, sorting through the 110 articles published over the eight-year period and deciding what to include. In choosing the articles to feature, he used four criteria: comparative quality, historical importance, scholarly nature, and readers’ interest.
Tilchin’s own expertise is on Roosevelt’s foreign policy, and the book includes several of his own essays on Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Tilchin argues that Roosevelt “was ahead of his time in the way he understood the role of the United States in the world, the importance of American engagement in international issues and the importance of American military power.”
Roosevelt’s robust foreign policy ideas fell away when he left the presidency, Tilchin says, but the disastrous consequences of isolation and appeasement prior to World War II brought his foreign policy approach to the forefront again. Although Roosevelt was unusual for his time, says Tilchin, most recent presidents have constructed their foreign policy with Roosevelt’s ideas in mind.
Spotlighting TR is available for order on the Theodore Roosevelt Association website.
Professor Sam Deese has published a book chapter in Posthumanism: The Future of Homo Sapiens (MacMillan Reference USA, 2018), and has had an article published in Aldous Huxley Annual.
The textbook Posthumanism: The Future of Homo Sapiens provides an introduction to a vast array of scholarly perspectives on emergent technologies and biotechnologies used to modify or augment the capabilities of human beings. In his book chapter, “Between Progress and Armageddon:The Stakes of Our Time,” Deese considers the gospel of human progress, the dystopian narratives that emerged in the twentieth century, and the twenty-first century impulse to imagine a “posthuman” world through transformations such as artificial intelligence or machine-brain interfaces.
He writes, “When the tragic view of history dominates our visions for the future of human societies, it is natural for human beings to seek some source of escape. In medieval times the soul’s ascent to paradise offered such a vision. In the twenty-first century, the transformation of one’s brain and body into a technological artifact offers a secular and ostensibly more plausible vision of escape from the sorrows and pitfalls of the human condition.”
In his article in Aldous Huxley Annual, “The Post-Huxleyan Feminism of Elizabeth Mann” Borgese, Deese looks at the feminist work of Borgese, a famed writer and founder of the International Oceans Institute, in her 1963 book Ascent of Woman, a largely-forgotten work that Deese calls a “mid-century jambalaya of cultural history, science journalism, and science fiction.” Deese looks at how Borgese engages with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, evolutionary biology, and biotechnology.
CGS Associate Professor of Rhetoric Aaron Worth has edited a new critical edition of horror classics by Arthur Machen: The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories (Oxford University Press, 2018). Machen, a nineteenth century horror writer, has influenced storytellers like H. P. Lovecraft and Oscar-nominated director Guillermo Del Toro. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and deemed it “a must-have collection of landmark tales of horror.” For more on Aaron Worth’s new book, listen to his interview with Phil Rickman on BBC Radio Wales and read a review in the Times Literary Supplement. TLS reviewer Roz Kaveney says, “One of the impressive things about Machen is that, in his best work, he subverted genre tropes that were only just being created.”
CGS: What was your first introduction to Arthur Machen and why did his writing interest you?
Aaron Worth: I probably first saw his name in H. P. Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (he was one of Lovecraft’s big influences). Certainly I remember reading Machen for the first time: I was in high school, and the Concord Free Public Library had a copy (since stolen, I believe) of Philip Van Doren Stern’s great, early collection of Machen, “Tales of Horror and the Supernatural.” Back then I was more interested in the more egregiously horrific stories, the more “Lovecrafty” ones—like “The Great God Pan” and “The Novel of the White Powder,” which both feature bodies dissolving into melty black goo. Actually, I still like those.
What sets Machen apart from other Victorian writers and/or other horror writers?
Machen’s relation to his late-Victorian contemporaries is interesting. He could be very imitative—mimicking Robert Louis Stevenson’s style, for instance, and borrowing liberally from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories—but the end product is something quite original, quite distinctive. One aspect of Machen’s writing that I always return to is its insistence on the undying importance of ritual, ceremony, and mystery to human beings, even in the modern age.
What is your favorite of Machen’s works?
I’m not sure about a favorite, but I’m very fond of the lesser-known prose poems he wrote in the 1890s, which were eventually published in book form as “Ornaments in Jade.” They are beautifully written, and hauntingly ambiguous.
What is new and different about this edition you’ve edited?
The big thing I wanted to do was to include the complete novel “The Three Impostors”—which has almost always had selected episodes cut out of it—along with the classic stories “The Great God Pan” and “The White People,” in a single critical edition. I was also able to include a number of the “Ornaments in Jade” mentioned above, which have not received their due in collections of Machen, along with some of his underrated stories from the 1930s. Machen’s writing career spanned over fifty years!
Probably—if nothing else, most of my stories seem to be set in the 1890s—but I haven’t really thought about it. I’m one of those folks with a superstitious aversion to thinking too much about the sources of his own inspiration!
The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories is part of the Oxford World Classics Hardback Collection. It will be available from Oxford University Press in March, 2018.
Justice League—the latest star-studded adaption of the DC superhero franchise—is closing out its time in the box office this December. Although the film underwhelmed both critics and audiences, one critic called it “a good balance of light and dark”—an assessment that fits with the spirit of the comic’s 1980s iteration.
This year, College of General Studies Senior Lecturer Charles Henebry published a chapter in The Ages of the Justice League: Essay’s on America’s Greatest Superheroes in Changing Times (McFarland, 2017). In the chapter “Gritty Levity: The Giffen/DeMatteis Era of the Justice League,” Henebry looks at the 1987 relaunch of Justice League and its place in a new “grim ’n’ gritty” trend of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Like these comics, the Justice League “crafted stories that questioned whether superpowers could solve the world’s profound sociopolitical problems,” Henebry says. The key difference, though, is that Justice League “did so to comic effect.”
The Justice League drops “of America” from its name and goes international in 1987, taking on terrorists and becoming “a genuinely international organization,” Henebry writes. A businessman named Maxwell Lord becomes a central, shadowy figure, tapping into what Henebry calls “a shared anxiety over the growing power of international corporate media to shape global events.” The heroes confront the physical limits of their powers, sometimes to comic effect, and the media’s power becomes a running theme. Looking at the context, Henebry concludes the series capitalized on a new market for “adult-themed comics” by “embracing the silliness of the superhero tradition while at the same time mocking and subverting it.”
Read more of Henebry’s essay—and other perspectives on the Justice League—in The Ages of the Justice League, praised as “an exceptional study that is highly informative, critically brilliant, and fun to read.”