Arthur Drooker, American Ruins (New York and London: Merrell, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1 8589 4406. £25. 144 pp.
Kit Fryatt (Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University)
In the last two months I’ve seen New York deserted and in ruins three times. It happens to London and Tokyo quite a lot too, and incidentally to Washington D.C. and other American conurbations. The cities of mainland Europe and of Asia (apart from the Japanese ones) seem less vulnerable, but since I see mainly English-language films, I can’t say for sure. I watch disaster movies because I like seeing things smashed up. I think I always have. One of my first memories is of pointing to a sea cave near the island of Rhodes and saying to my mother, “Godzilla lives there” – I was two years old. I was eight when I saw a video of Planet of the Apes, whose half-buried Statue of Liberty is described by Christopher Woodward in the essay which accompanies Arthur Drooker’s photographs of American ruins as “the most striking single image of ruin in recent decades.” At the time I lived in Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey, where weekend excursions and school trips were often visits to archaeological sites. I was enchanted by a modern icon in desolation. The resonance of the image for a Cold War audience eluded me then, but its perverse delightfulness has in any case survived the threat of nuclear war between superpowers. The poster for 2008’s surprise cinematic success, Cloverfield, which featured a headless Liberty, traded at least as much on the Planet of the Apes image as on its edgier and less famous inspiration, the publicity for the 1981 John Carpenter film Escape from New York.
Of course, we’ve been taking pleasure in ruins for a lot longer than film-makers have been creating mock-ups of cities to be ravaged by monsters and microbes. If the author of Lamentations, writing in the sixth century BC, did not know such pleasure, then the committee who two thousand years later translated his words as, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow!” almost certainly did. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, rumination over ruins became a mass pursuit, at least among those rich enough to afford a Grand Tour. Some Romantic writers exempted America from consideration by students of what Nicholas Biddle – an early American practitioner – called “the melancholy but pleasing philosophy of ruins”. Goethe addressed the continent conversationally, in a poem quoted here by Woodward, “America, you have it better / Than our old continent”. Americans were nonetheless fascinated by ruins. Thomas Cole’s series of five paintings, The Course of Empire (1836) charts the progress of a civilisation from wilderness at dawn to post-imperial decay at sunset. Cole saw his paintings as a moral warning to the sixty-year-old republic not to abandon the values of its founders, but their interest now is the curious inevitability with which each programmatic stage of development follows the last. “Destruction” and “Desolation” (the titles of the fourth and fifth paintings) are not to be averted, so we are given implicit permission to luxuriate in them. That remains the problem with the philosophy of ruins: not that it is melancholy, but its melancholy is pleasing. Woodward asks an oft-repeated question: “The buildings in this book are ruins because of fire and poverty, earthquakes and war. Why do we enjoy looking at them?” but, as in his book In Ruins (2002), his answers – where he offers them at all – are much too sanguine. He even indulges in that greatest of consolatory fallacies, that natural decay represents a “triumph” over the tyrannies that order monuments built and the violence that destroys them. Woodward’s question is easy to answer. We enjoy looking at ruins because we are protected from the circumstances which caused them and have a streak of infantile sadism which takes pleasure in destruction. The real question is, “how can we enjoy looking at them and still think ourselves virtuous?” By definition, the sublime happens not to the self but to the other: when it happens to us, we call it pain or danger. It is predicated on the safety of the observers and their non-intervention in others’ suffering. There is a low complacency in our taste for the sublime, a complacency as creeping and cowardly as sublime rhetoric is high and tempestuous. It would be glib to propose a correlation between Hollywood’s enthusiasm for disaster movies and the willingness of the American government to order the destruction of the cities of other sovereign nations, but there is something decadent in the ease with which we imagine New York desolated, and treat the spectacle as entertainment, knowing how unlikely it is to happen. There’s no thrill in imagining the abandoned ruins of Baghdad. Woodward’s essay is nonetheless informative, written in an elegantly anecdotal manner. I was interested to learn of the Virginian farmers who in the 1930s were forcibly relocated to make way for the Shenandoah National Park. Described by government planners almost as an uncontacted tribe, ignorant alike of religion and civic virtue, “cut off from the current of American life”, their supposed underdevelopment was used to justify their displacement. Excavation of their former homes has since turned up a Japanese tea set and a toy ray-gun, rebukes to both our dismissal of and desire for the primitive. Woodward doesn’t, however, address what’s most interesting and disquieting about our attraction to wreckage: the murderous, Godzilla-obsessed toddler who is part of every ruin-bibber. Arthur Drooker’s photographs are shot in an infrared digital format which creates images of uncanny clarity, drenched in dreamy light. We’re shown things that the naked human eye can’t see, and as an odd concomitant, Drooker has excluded the human figure from his compositions. His subjects range historically from cave-dwellings built by the inhabitants of Arizona in the fourth century AD to the ruins of Alcatraz, and are geographically spread from Roosevelt Island to Hawaii. Understandably, however, most of the ruins date from the nineteenth century and are to be found in the contested and haunted southern states. The accompanying commentary is mostly factual and objective, though occasionally euphemistic. We learn for example that the sturdy mining town of Rhyolite “had an extensive red light district that drew women from as far away as San Francisco,” or that in seventeenth-century New Mexico “the need for missions diminished on account of the effects of European diseases, assimilation, intermarriage, and environmental pressures.”
The bland prose intensifies the uncanny stillness and emptiness of Drooker’s images. Certain words, phrases and syntactical constructions recur – the reader notices how many edifices have been destroyed by “fires of mysterious origin,” that a number of sites are undergoing “redevelopment” into leisure facilities, and that ruins are often described as “stabilized.” The overall effect of American Ruins is one of stabilisation, rather than stability – looking at these photographs, the viewer feels how temporary and fragile is the stasis of ruins; how the dynamism of decay might reassert itself at any moment. Perhaps, standing among America’s debris, we are never wholly safe.
Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006)
ISBN 9780691114491. $35. 264 pp.
Justin Quinn (Charles University, Prague)
Payback time had to come sooner or later. In the mid-twentieth century, American scholars, among them F. O. Matthiesen, R.W.B. Lewis and Roy Harvey Pearce, began to construct the canon of American literature. This was contemporary with the establishment of the Salzburg Seminar and the Fulbright Program, which made professors of American literature cultural ambassadors. Most of these scholars were trained in the humanities and knowledge of the Classics would have been taken for granted. But the nationalistic turn instituted a different type of schooling for literary scholars, one that was focused on America as the fundamental framework for the understanding of literature. Since then, two generations have been educated under the rubric of American literature, and the thrill has been fading for at least the last fifteen years. The backlashes are well under way. Perhaps most importantly, there has been multiculturalism, which challenged the ethnic and racial criteria of Cold War American literature. Wai Chee Dimock’s ambitious book is another, different attempt to break the nation as a category for the understanding of literature.
Her work on nineteenth-century American literature was outstanding for its Marxist readings of classic texts, but the present book is disappointing as it merely offers a smorgasbord of provocations, none of which is thoroughly argued and researched. Indeed, if the argument and research were more thorough the book would be fifty times its length, as it covers the Asian and African antecedents and consequences of Thoreau, the Islamic contexts of Emerson, the Egyptian interests of Fuller, fractal geometry in Henry James, Ezra Pound and the Kantian idea of beauty, Robert Lowell’s translations from Latin, African dialects in American literature, and animals as fully ethical entities; and it does this in 243 pages. The only guiding principle for her argument is that American literature should not be defined by the borders of the American nation, but has been always open to diverse foreign interests. The point is both provocative and banal. It is the former because ways have to be found to avoid nationalist readings of literary texts; it is the latter because a nation as young as the United States can hardly have created its culture ex nihilo. Instead of research and detailed analysis, Dimock’s book provides an awful lot of figurative prose of the following type. In the passage below she wonders what would happen if we broadened our horizons to include longer chronologies in our consideration of the continent’s literary artifacts:
What would American literature look like then? Can we transpose some familiar figures onto this broadened and deepened landscape? I would like to test that possibility. Using Islam as one of the lifelines of the world, I trace a thread spun of its migration, dissemination and vernacularization. Running through the terrain usually called ‘American,’ this thread will knit together kinships no doubt surprising to many. These owe their legibility to the deep field of time: its scope, its tangled antecedents and its ability to record far-flung and mediated ties. Scale enlargement, I argue, enlarges our sense of complex kinship.
There is real excitement in this prose, and the possibilities that it offers are genuinely attractive; however, to carry out the agenda suggested here would take scholarship that Dimock simply does not possess. Instead, what she provides is merely more figurative language about fabrics to compensate for its absence.
Perhaps the signal failing of a book that claims to discuss literature from such a wide range of languages is the utter disregard of the issue of translation. Nationalistic, indeed imperialistic, arrogance is Dimock’s bête noire throughout the book; but arguably that arrogance emerges in her cavalier attitude to the issue of language. There seems to be a scholarly presumption here that literature from Sanskrit to German is unproblematically available for analysis when she deals with English texts. One needs a scholar to speak with authority on Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sanskrit texts in relation to the American Renaissance, and not merely with the knowledge gleaned from a few weeks in the stacks. This is a type of professional competence that is taken for granted in comparative literature. Indeed, non-anglophone scholars of American literature spend their lives mediating between at least two languages and cultures, and Dimock’s conclusions will sound very obvious to them. The book, ultimately, displays the provinciality of American literary studies within the U.S.
Samuel Fisher Dodson, Berryman’s Henry
(Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006)
ISBN 978-90-420-1689-7 / 90-420-1689-2. €40. 176 pp
Tom Rogers (Sheffield Hallam University)
John Berryman’s The Dream Songs has a well-deserved, but somewhat cultish, reputation as being a landmark in American poetry. Berryman has always had his small band of critical advocates, but he is yet to be one of the “usual suspects” on twentieth-century poetry courses at university. This is partly because, as Christopher Beach has observed, his “work is so idiosyncratic that it has not yet been fully understood by critics and readers”. Consequently, attention to the poet has been sketchy and sporadic, and his major work, The Dream Songs, still seems like vast uncharted territory. Samuel Fisher Dodson sums up the situation well in his introduction, by noting how “many of the critics who have written on Berryman’s opus have a few favourite Dream Songs they have examined with true illumination, but a view of the continuity of the poem as a whole is lacking”.
Exactly how much, and what sort of, continuity The Dream Songs possesses, however, is a matter of debate. Scholars have noted how the Songs, which the poet turned out with increasing rapidity, quickly outgrew whatever thematic schemas Berryman originally conceived for them, and the work’s complexity presents a challenge to any critic attempting to establish one. The open-ended narrative, such as it is, represents the evolving personality of its protagonist Henry as he makes his way in the world; and, in view of this, Dodson outlines the purpose of his book as providing “the beginning reader of The Dream Songs with a vehicle for approaching this large work and to find the unity through its elegiac structure”. He is right to point out that the “the elegiac chord is the loudest, most sustained note in the Songs”, and he compartmentalises, with readings of individual poems, the three different types of elegy that the Songs are concerned with: those addressed to the poet’s (or Henry’s) suicide father, those to his deceased literary heroes and friends, and those to himself, contemplating as he does his own projected death. The elegiac character of The Dream Songs arises out of what Dodson argues is its nature and status as a twentieth-century epic. The author portrays Henry as a new archetypal hero of this modern epic; and, in doing so, he outlines the history and features of the epic form from Homer through to Walt Whitman’s “celebration of self”. In comparing and contrasting Berryman’s long poem with this tradition he illustrates how the poet has both emulated and developed aspects of it. Above all, “the modern hero’s epic quest is to survive and find meaning, even thrive, in an empty, hostile world, a world of no absolutes, no heroes”. The general thesis is ably demonstrated, with these key components of the poem being established in their literary, historical, and biographical context; and his structured study does indeed offer “a way in” for any intimidated newcomer to the Songs. Those already well-versed in Berryman scholarship, however, may be disappointed by the amount of new research on offer here, though still persuaded by the author’s overall argument. Furthermore, they may be surprised by a number of apparent oversights which seem hard to account for, and can sometimes undermine his interpretations. The main problem is that the author does not appear to have consulted, or at least taken on board, certain key studies of the poet and his work which are already out there; as he seems, on occasions, unaware of facts and sources which are well-established. For instance, at one point he speculates that the poet may have derived the name “Mr Bones” – the term of address used by Henry’s negro-dialect interlocutor – from a scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is well-documented, however, that the whole minstrelsy trope of the Songs, which features Henry (“Mr Bones”) performing with his black-face interlocutor, was influenced above all by Berryman’s reading of Carl Wittke’s Tambo and Bones. Whereas Dodson’s might be considered a useful additional insight to include if he had acknowledged the primary source – especially since Berryman regarded himself as a friend of Ellison’s – in its absence it merely exposes a perplexing gap in the author’s research.
Other such examples could be cited; for instance, Dodson proposes that Dream Song 56, specifically Henry’s declaration that “Hell is empty”, expresses the idea that “existentialism and modernism killed both God and the devil”. It is an interesting reading, but left unsubstantiated, and furthermore it ignores, and possibly conflicts with, the second part of Henry’s declaration: “O that has come to pass / which the cut Alexandrian foresaw”. This relates to Berryman’s interest in Origen of Alexandria’s theory of apocatastasis – the notion that God is so merciful that everyone, even the Devil, will ultimately be redeemed. Strangely, the Wittke and Origen allusions are both explained in authoritative, and readily available, annotations by John Haffenden, which the author refers to (but, unfortunately, only twice) on other matters elsewhere in the book. Other original readings, interesting in themselves, need to be constructed on firmer foundations; for example, the proposition that consistent references to Henry’s “daughter” throughout The Dream Songs refer both to the poet’s literal daughter and to the poetic work itself. It’s a nice idea, but it is undermined by another misinformed conjecture: “He published his girl’s bottom in staid pages” (Song 122) hardly refers to his young daughter, as Dodson suggests, but, more appropriately, to the sexual image of his “lady” with “white rear bare in the air” mentioned in Song 93, which was previously published by the poet in The Nation. Again, in such cases greater consultation of previous Berryman scholarship would have provided for a more persuasive reading. In contrast, quotations from other critics can be used too readily at times, the author allowing others to make key points for him. Sometimes highly significant issues are introduced vaguely and left hanging; for instance, “the number seven emerged as an interesting challenge” represents the extent of his comment on the Dream Songs’ intriguing numerology. The odd such omission of detail can be considered a comparatively trivial matter, but in this case they accumulate to the extent that they can be seen to overshadow the many positive aspects of the work. It may, of course, be countered that one need not necessarily fall victim to the “intentional fallacy”, and be obliged to interpret the poems with reference to Berryman’s biography or source material. However, much of Dodson’s commentary is in fact informed by such biographical information; he provides long accounts of the poet’s upbringing, the suicide of his father, and his relationship with his mother, for example. Furthermore, this kind of source material is important to The Dream Songs because the poem, through the use of the persona Henry, is so ironically self-referential. As the poet stated, despite his initial protestations in the poem’s foreword, “Henry both is and is not me, obviously.” Berryman, in effect, makes his own life part of the text, littered as it is with explicit local detail, supplying numerous biographical traces for the critic to follow up. The most satisfying readings are surely those that fully take up the poet’s invitation – especially since many Songs seem incomprehensible without doing so. In relation to this, it is a shame that Dodson does not seem to have taken full advantage of the most valuable resource of all; that is, the wealth of archival material contained within the John Berryman Papers, at the University of Minnesota. He has clearly visited this archive, since facsimiles of draft and unpublished Dream Songs are liberally reproduced. These often take up whole pages, and unfortunately they completely disrupt the continuity and spacing of the text, leaving the book looking as if it has not been prepared with the appropriate software (though the author may not have been well-served by his publisher in this regard). In themselves, these generous reproductions serve very little purpose, beyond the mere curiosity of seeing the spidery scrawl of the poet’s own hand (one example of this, in fact, would have sufficed). The author tends to let the facsimiles speak for themselves, typically following them up with little more than a brief comment about a minor word change. In another example of the author’s superfluity he quotes two whole stanzas of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, merely because it apparently “makes a similar point” to an unpublished Dream Song he has also seen fit to reproduce in its entirety. There is no analysis to illustrate this, or establish why it has any greater connection to the Song than any other poem concerned with one’s “fear of death and desire to reason our final end”. Consequently, there is much room for improvement in the book’s presentation. As it stands, the book fulfils its stated purpose of mapping a useful overview of Berryman’s expansive poem, but it is in its attention to detail, and commentary on individual Songs, that the unsuspecting might find themselves led off course.
Stephen Mennell, The American Civilizing Process (Cambridge: Polity, 2007)
ISBN: 978-0-7456-3209-4. £19.99. 388 pp
David Ryan (University College Cork)
Immediately after 9/11, President George W. Bush framed the terrorist attacks within a discourse on civilization. His rhetoric betrayed an idea of America (really the USA) as static. He informed audiences in the National Cathedral and in the House of Congress that the United States had a “responsibility to history” which involved ridding the world of “evil”. He asserted that every generation had “produced enemies of human freedom” and that they attacked the United States because it was “freedom’s home and defender” and that “the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.” Days later, in the second major speech following the attacks, he invoked the appeal to dichotomies that have characterised various aspects of US domestic attitudes and foreign policies, through the injunction that all nations in every region had a choice to make, they were either “with us, or … with the terrorists.” He answered the question that he intimated Americans were asking – “why do they hate us?” – by signalling that what they hated was what they saw right there in the chamber: a democratically elected government, “our freedoms”. Stephen Mennell’s work takes this period as a departure for a grand study of US history, sociology and international relations. It is a broad and brave, yet incisive, exploration of the process of US evolution, effectively mingling, and moving between, sociological and cultural considerations with political and international trends.
Bush’s rhetoric displayed an idea of the United States as static, unchanging, constant and proud, almost in the vein of the “national symbolic” concept developed by Lauren Berlant, which produces “a fantasy of national integration.” Mennell cites the Irish historian Joe Lee, writing at the time of 9/11, who identified the rhetoric as “self-indulgent” and a “mirror image of the jihad thinking” of the fundamentalists. Of course Mennell accurately identified the return of a concern with the concept of civilization in contemporary discourse that was not only pervasive in official rhetoric but so too found its way into a range of responses echoing the point Lee makes, in books with titles such as Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms or Gilbert Achcar’s The Clash of Barbarisms, both of which echo Samuel Huntington’s 1993 Clash of Civilizations thesis. A controversy that Mennell invokes early in the work is the response of Susan Sontag, who argued at the time that the attacks were hardly “cowardly” or conducted against “civilization”, “liberty” or “humanity” but were attacks on “the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” When the historian of US foreign policy in the Middle East, Douglas Little, echoed the point in his book American Orientalism – that 9/11 was, in part, the product of decades of US policy in the region – further controversy ensued. This was largely the case because there was a certain and relatively static view of the United States. In that view, 9/11 constituted the beginning of a new narrative. Mennell’s The American Civilizing Process works through the framework and methodology of Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process. Despite the limitations of working through one methodology, albeit with derivatives, the great contribution is the emphasis on process within a broad temporal span. (Obviously that required some elision which is at times frustrating). Mennell regards the benign characterisations of the US within the long trajectory from the time of the “first settlers” to the present, with the Heraclitean conviction that “everything changes”. As he explains, Elias employed the methodology of concentrating on process rather than “the identification of structural constants supposedly underlying the surface flux of social life”, separating these methods and this study from the methods of Bourdieu – his notions of cultural capital – and from that of a number of historians from the Annales School as well as from much of the work by either revisionists or world system theorists on the United States. The resulting concentration on attitude, agency, contingency and unplanned expansion will not suit those who prefer the structural analysis and explanations of US history; and obviously there is scope for considerable disagreement on the extent to which structural analysis has contributed an understanding to certain aspects of US history. The importance of this work is the emphasis on the term civilizing which is not to be taken as a synonym for progress, as in Fukuyama’s end of History thesis. The process also certainly involves de-civilizing tendencies as well as processes of “functional de-democratization”. Ultimately for Elias and hence for Mennell, a transposition into this study is the notion that the “civilizing process is the increasing social constraint towards self-constraint.” Echoing characteristics of Isaiah Berlin’s essays on negative liberty, Mennell writes, “the long-term growth of complexity, and the spreading web of social interdependence, is associated with a tilting of the balance between external constraints […] and self-constraints, towards the latter’s greater weight in the steering of individual people’s conduct.” This balance is considered within the context of the US balance of power with other nations, the construction of the US “empire”, and the unilateralism that aspired to avoid constraints imposed either by the self or others. After 9/11, the historian Walter LaFeber identified the condition with his usual prescience: that the combination of the strong tradition of American exceptionalism, the “immensity” of its power, “hinted at the dangers of being a nation so strong that others could not check it, and so self-righteous that it could not check itself.” This thought-provoking work is structured along the same lines as Elias’s The Civilizing Process with its initial focus on the use and understanding of the concept of civilization. The book moves on to a consideration of US manners, competing US aristocracies, the market in US society and attitudes to violence and aggression. State formation provides the focus for the subsequent chapters with a concentration on territorial expansion, integration and the legitimate use of violence. These chapters are fascinating in the observations made on integration and urbanisation but also and more particularly on the breakdown during the Civil War and the enduring ambivalence of the armed forces and the attitudes towards “big government”. Subsequent chapters treat the issues of equality and inequality, religiosity and then America’s place in the world seen through the long-term historical processes. Balances and perception permeate the book. There is the early discussion of the tensions surrounding the purpose and extent of government; the Jeffersonian optimism on self-restraint with the implications that government, providing external constraint, should be kept to a minimum. Yet Jefferson’s faith in individuality within the community is effectively set against a discussion on The Federalist Papers, whose authors held a deep sense of scepticism about such self-imposed negative liberty and argued for systems of checks and balances that would ensure the survival of freedoms and “democracy”, an architecture that Jefferson regarded as unnecessary, in preference for a form of “gentle constraints”. That sentiment coupled with Elias’ argument that such external constraint was less necessary as both civilization and the recognition of mutual interdependence advanced could not be sustained in an expansionist America. Yet, given the continued presence of a variety of “other” peoples and powers on the north American continent, it is a short leap to the processes of elimination that Mennell so clearly dissects through the analysis of the American displacement of its rivals due to the local [North American] and increasingly European imbalances of power between the European rivals: the Dutch, French, Spanish, Swedish and British. European rivalries caused the elimination of some of these powers, and ultimately it was a struggle between the Americans and the British, French and Native Americans within the context of local and transatlantic imbalances that, through a drawn-out process, saw the Americans victorious. Identity, identity formation and evolution are important themes. The construction of the so-called “we-image” and “we-feelings” Mennell argues “always takes place in tandem with the construction of a ‘they-image’”, primarily and initially images of Native Americans, Blacks and “Europeans-in-Europe” as opposed to the “Europeans” in America, conceptually divorced from Europe through the various discourses on US exceptionalism. But again, process is all important, as Mennell argues, “motives and perceptions were at least as much the product as the cause of events”; each successive elimination or success reinforced certain and often mythical “we-images” and certainly, “we-feelings”. Much of what Mennell provides in a fascinating chapter on westward expansion is already well-known; it remains fascinating however, because it is analysed through this particular framework. The shibboleth of “manifest destiny” is subjected to a series of discussions centred on the imbalances of power that facilitated and provided the opportunity for Americans to move westward against the Native Americans and the Europeans and a discussion on the planned and opportunistic territorial expansion. The Louisiana Purchase, “Manifest Destiny” and the Frontier Thesis are all well known but here the interesting aspect is the discussion of sovereignty as a function of power ratios between the various parties of contention. With it goes the discourse on legitimacy and the legitimate use of force. Mennell perceptively argues that it is only after the US builds a navy of growing magnitude across the 1890s and when the British concede hegemony over the western hemisphere that President Theodore Roosevelt added his famous corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. That doctrine, if indeed Roosevelt’s corollary was a part of the doctrine, was transposed to provide the United States with the self-proclaimed legitimacy to police and intervene in the region to uphold what Roosevelt regarded as the civilizing process. Of course Roosevelt meant a form of US style progress with all the ethnocentric attributes (something quite different from the sense in which Mennell and Elias use the term). There are two fascinating connections here, one made by Mennell. The final section to the chapter is titled: “The Dubya Addendum”. After 9/11, and especially through the speech of 1 June 2002 at West Point, and then later through the National Security Strategy of September 2002, the "Dubya addendum" provided the US with the self-proclaimed right to intervene in other states, as Roosevelt had argued in 1904. Secondly, the ship that sailed to war in Afghanistan in late 2001, flew the very flag that produced that enduring post-9/11 icon of the NYFD fire-fighters hoisting the flag above the rubble in New York, at the bow of the USS Roosevelt. It might also have been fitting that Theodore Roosevelt was a strong advocate of what he called the “barbarian sentiment” necessary to keep US power in shape, especially at a time when a transition in hegemony was underway. The “Dubya addendum” was obviously situated within the context of contemporary disparities of power and the associated attitudes, something that the columnist William Pfaff identified in 1989 as producing “barbarian sentiments” in his discussion of how the American century ends. Mennell concludes that “the long-term experience that has left its mark on Americans’ habitus is of the steady tilting of balances of power in their favour […] and continuing up to its domination of many other countries of the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Mennell is dismissive of cold war revisionism without considering some of the central findings of key authors on the cold war, or even the more centrist findings by the likes of Melvyn Leffler in his recent Soul of Mankind or his earlier Preponderance of Power on the causes of the origins of the cold war; a more detailed consideration of these works might have produced a more nuanced treatment of the subject. However, in works that take such a grand sweep through history such disagreements are likely. What Mennell contributes is a sustained and integrated response to a deficit that was identified in the literature some years ago by Amy Kaplan who argued that the study of American imperialism was devoid of culture, and that various studies of US culture largely ignored US imperialism. Mennell provides a bold and sustained remedy to that deficiency in the literature.
Stephanie Rains, The Irish-American in Popular Culture, 1945-2000
(Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007)
ISBN 9780716528302. £50. 252 pp
Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh (Dundalk Institute of Technology)
The focus of this book is on the ways in which the Irish-American diaspora uses Ireland and Irish culture to help form its own cultural identity. It is a well-researched and lively engagement with a wide number of diasporic cultural texts and practices, ranging from film and television, to genealogy research, to cultural tourism and material culture, to political and charitable movements. The author suggests that although the most common approach is to see Irish-American identity as a function of a wider (“hyphenated”) American identity, there is much to be gained from an examination of the ways in which this identity is structured by ongoing Irish-American encounters with Ireland itself. These encounters most frequently lead to a tension about questions of the “ownership” of Irishness and the “authenticity” of one’s Irishness. The author argues that a full examination of Irish-American identity within the United States needs to take into account the ways in which it is structured by ongoing Irish-American encounters with Ireland itself.
The author notes that a new kind of Irish-American emerged in the aftermath of World War II. What makes this generation of Irish-Americans different from the earlier diaspora is that they were by and large born in the United States. Their relationship with the “homeland” is thus mediated through a variety of cultural texts and practices, demanding of the diaspora a willingness to “perform” their Irishness into being. The figure of the Irish-American returning to the ethnic homeland to embrace his roots, which is a common trope in post-World War II Irish-American cultural texts, thus relies on a range of cultural texts and practices to prepare him for and guide him through the encounter with Ireland. The author makes an interesting distinction between these texts that engage directly with Ireland and other Irish-American texts which have developed in the United States with no relation to Ireland (she differentiates, for example, between Irish-American pubs, owned and for the large part frequented by Irish-Americans but otherwise fundamentally American in their design and atmosphere, and Irish-themed pubs, which rely on a variety of material objects and artefacts to present a simulation of an Irish pub and allow their customers to imagine that they are indeed in Ireland). The first chapter examines the political economy of Irish America’s relationship to Ireland, focusing on the financial and political links between the two countries from the end of World War II, through the period of the Troubles, up to the Peace Process of the 1990s. The author notes that Irish-American support for the Irish nation became very complicated in the latter half of the twentieth-century due to the exceptionally complex nature of global politics during that period. In particular the close political relationship forged between the United States and Britain, and the sense that support for the Irish cause was often in contradiction to American foreign policy, meant that the Irish diaspora in the United States were often apathetic in their support for the Irish cause (this is in contrast to the vocal and highly influential Jewish diaspora). The second chapter examines the ways in which Irish-Americans set out to search for their Irish roots in order to construct their diasporic memory and identity. This interest in origins and ancestry is shaped by a number of contemporary changes in the concepts of history and memory, which can be attributed to the relative distance (both geographically and temporally) between the diaspora and the identity they are trying to construct. The lack of first-person contact with or memory of the homeland has led to the establishment of a “genealogy industry” designed to facilitate the (re)connection with the ethnic homeland through the circulation of a range of narrativized images of the homeland. The image of the Irish-American “returning” to Ireland is a recurring and central feature of both popular films and tourist texts of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these borrow heavily from Hollywood in their employment of clichéd settings, stereotypical characters, and their subsumation of an individual quest to discover one’s identity into a family-based narrative. Chapter three focuses on Irish-American cultural consumption, with an emphasis on material culture, and discusses the ways in which these cultural objects transmit and influence concepts of diasporic identity. The author notes that post-World War II movies increasingly function as a source of identification for new generations of Irish-Americans with the “home” they have never known but, crucially, are increasingly likely to visit as tourists. This is an interesting chapter in which the author notes Ireland’s complicity in the image of Irishness being offered to Irish-Americans through the images and representations of Ireland being packaged and offered to them in promotional tourist texts. This focus on fulfilling the expectations of the Irish-American tourist market has a number of interesting consequences for the packaging of the “Ireland experience”. Because the heritage of Ireland promoted in these tourist films is predominantly Gaelic and Catholic, the representation of Dublin and other legacies of colonialism are problematic and often omitted. As well as the experience of visiting the heritage sites, another crucial element in the tourist experience is the purchasing of souvenirs and other Irish goods. This has led to the increasing consumption and commodification of the Irish experience through a range of fetishized objects (such as Connemara marble crosses), but also through a range of iconic food and drink products (Irish smoked salmon, Guinness) and luxury, high status goods (Irish linen, Waterford crystal). The ownership and display of such objects enables the Irish-American to signify or “perform” their ethnic identity on their return to the United States. This branding and marketing of Irishness as performance reaches its apotheosis with the globalization of Irish culture through the media of spectaculars such as Riverdance and the spread of Irish-themed pubs. Chapter four examines the ways in which popular representations of the relationship between Irish-America and Ireland have often taken the form of gendered texts. The author examines the centrality of gendering to the construction of national and ethnic identity, and discusses a number of specific representations of gender circulated within diasporic popular cultural texts. A common theme in movies of the returning Irish-American involves him falling in love with and marrying an Irish girl he meets during his travels to the homeland, an act that facilitates his reclamation of his Irish roots and immersion into Irish culture. The author also interrogates the role played by the Rose of Tralee festival in both foregrounding an idealized version of Irish femininity and in validating the links between the daughters of the Irish diaspora and the values of the homeland. Interestingly, the author notes that Irish masculinity tends to be depicted in Irish-American popular texts in much less idealized terms than Irish femininity, often acting as a foil to Irish-American masculinity. A recurring theme in Troubles-era Irish-American films, for example, is that of the cosy, domestic world of the Irish-American family disrupted by the raw, violence of the Irish male. The author suggests that such texts illustrate the degree to which Irish-Americans have assimilated into American culture and are anxious to erase any links to the stereotype of the “fighting Irish” that may have lingered in American society. This is an interesting observation, although it serves perhaps to undermine slightly the author’s contention that Irish-American identity looks towards Ireland rather than towards America for its signifiers. Chapter five contextualizes the formation and experiences of the Irish diaspora in America within the framework of diaspora studies and concludes that there are significant advantages to examining Irish-America through the critical lens of diaspora theory. The author notes the increasing tendency among a number of Irish critics to employ a “postmodern turn” in Irish studies by situating Irish culture and history within a comparative framework offered by other ethnic and national groups who also experienced colonialism. This not only offers new insights into Irish culture and history, but also enables a new and valuable approach to Ireland’s experience of globalization. The author concludes with a brief reflection on Irish Studies at the start of the twenty-first century, suggesting that the structure and nature of the Irish studies academy are at least partly responsible for many of the tensions that continue to simmer between Irish and Irish-American cultural identities. She suggests that more attention should be paid to non-canonical representations of Irish-American culture in a bid to deconstruct this binary and allow more interdisciplinarity to permeate the field. Overall, this book is an interesting and well-researched engagement with Irish-American popular cultural texts and practices, and offers a comprehensive introduction to the main themes and anxieties embodied in such texts. The author argues successfully that the Irish-American community which emerges in the aftermath of World War II uses its encounters with Ireland, both as visitors and through the mediated encounters offered by cultural texts and practices, to structure its own identity. What is less convincing is the author’s contention that Irish identity and culture within Ireland “cannot be fully understood” without reference to Irish-American identity and culture.
Lee Marshall, Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007) ISBN 9780745636429. £14.99. 300 pp
Michael Hinds (Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University)
We have evolved to the point where we might talk about Dylan Studies as a distinct academic discipline; certainly enough has been published to justify such a claim. So academically at least, Dylan is describable legitimately as the dominant musical artist of the post-war twentieth century. Between his work, legend and life story, he has generated more writing (both in terms of critique and narrative) than Elvis, Miles Davis or Arvo Pärt. And no other lyricist of the twentieth century has prompted a critical response even remotely akin to Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin; indeed, out of all twentieth-century writers, only Beckett has got the kind of attention from Ricks that he gave to Dylan.
And yet that book is highly problematic, in that it cuts so directly and uncompromisingly through received notions of what it is to be a popular artist, which is how most readers of Dylan still seem to want to perceive him. Ricks offered very little of what a reader of rock criticism or rock history conventionally expects, and took certain aspects of Dylan-related knowledge for granted, particularly matters of the historical and cultural contexts for the production and reception of the music. Furthermore, Ricks did not bother with the canonical question of whether Dylan was as good as Keats, rather he gave him the same intensive reading that he gave Keats as if it was the obvious thing to do. But it was not that obvious to a lot of readers, who found the intensity (and the brilliance) of Ricks’s method to be simply alienating. This was too much Ricks’s Dylan, and not their own. Which brings us back to the fundamental problem with Dylan studies, and indeed, practically all studies of popular music. The notion of subjective ownership that prevails in the mind of the music fan is a hard idea to deconstruct, all the more so today when technologies license you, me or Irene next door to talk about “My music” more than ever before. Nearly anyone working or writing in Rock Studies is primarily a fan, which means that their messy subjectivity is in the way of any argument you might want to put by them, and more aggressively so than if you were indeed writing about Keats. Part of the sometimes muted and other times aggravated reception of Ricks’s book was surely that his Dylan was too powerful for anyone else’s comfort. (An important example of the resentment that I am talking about is in ’s review of Dylan’s Visions of Sin for The Observer, September 14, 2003.) Lee Marshall’s Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, part of Polity Press’s Celebrities series, shows an awareness of the dangers inherent in theorizing about your own fanhood. He writes in his acknowledgements firstly of his hard-earned membership of a fan community — “it is a remarkable feeling to arrive at a show alone in the safe knowledge that I’ll soon bump into someone I know,” but then says of his book that “[I]t was something I said I would never do”. That he then says he is glad he did needs to be recorded, but that prior confession of initial reluctance is telling, not least because the suggestion that his integrity as a fan may be damaged by the kind of analysis that such a book requires. How Marshall gets over this anxiety is by adopting a theoretical apparatus to deal with the Dylan phenomenon that will afford him a necessary dispassion. He opts to read Dylan as a star-text, in accordance with the recently evolved discourse of Star Theory (all thanks to Madonna and the Beckhams). This makes the sensible argument that stars are not self-sufficiently authoritative, and that they are most aptly discussed by attending to the variety of contexts within which their star-image is constructed. The self-reflexivity that has dominated a thousand years of western culture has therefore to be expanded to include the role of the audience and also for the social circumstances in which the stardom of Dylan is organized. Any mistake, any perceived horror or embarrassment, can still be read as a fascinating contribution to Dylan’s star-text. A problem with this is that in practice Marshall finds Dylan to be much more interesting when he is still in some kind of authorial control rather than when he is viewed as so much product, as when he talks about the deliberately ironizing tricksterism of Dylan’s recent output. Authority is precisely what Marshall sees as constitutive of Dylan’s greatness, although he is anxious to claim that this authority is different to the literary understanding that we attach to the term. But who did not accept this already? Furthermore, for all its theoretical resistance to those who read Dylan’s work as poetry, Marshall has the good taste to quote Ricks when he needs a telling reading of the lyrics (which we know he is disinclined to do himself). He also repeatedly situates Dylan’s work in literary contexts such as Romanticism in order to understand him. This is partly encouraged, of course, by Dylan’s own stated enthusiasm for Shelley, Rimbaud and Byron; but there is also a laboured exposition of Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and Wimsatt’s “intentional fallacy”, principally because Marshall cannot think of theoretical reference points for his analysis that are extra-literary. Arguably, this is good scholarship, but it is also very ponderous, even patronizing, as are the potted accounts of American History which emerge from time to time in the text (moments when Marshall should give that frail being “the general reader” a little credit for a little general knowledge). Marshall’s problem with the idea of Dylan the poet arises because he is working with a limitedly academic definition of what a poet and poetry is. In his assertion that performativity provides a language more apt for reading Dylan than something text and hide-bound, he forgets that performativity is a fundamental of both lyric and epic singing. Marshall persuasively argues that stardom is made flesh through the voice, and performativity means that words should be looked at in terms of their expression rather than context. So, Marshall insists upon performativity productively, but is nevertheless sometimes too hung up on explaining the disaster of contemplating Dylan in other ways to convince entirely with his performance analyses, and a more complicated sense of what a Dylan Performance might mean does not really emerge. Too often this book comes close to saying “but you have to be there really”; this may be true, and to an extent I agree, but it is a pretty impoverished ground for analysis and argument. Stardom is all very well, but it is just as necessary to write about the complexities of fandom, without which stardom flickers out very swiftly. And fandom is different to the notion of an audience, as fandom is not the collective experience that we might glibly assume it to be. Screaming out “Judas” in Manchester Free Trade Hall, or peeing yourself because you are screaming at The Beatles is a personal business, no matter how many other people are doing it simultaneously. The fan in Marshall does not quite get to come out in this book, as he is too overcoated with his responsibilities as a teacher and interpreter to enjoy himself. The Ricks text is such a wonder because of the ire it produced — the kind of ire you can prompt by plugging in an amp — but also because it is in fact an unapologetic and unworried fan-book, which is playing hard and fast with the riskiness of trampling on another fan’s readings. A curious effect of Marshall’s book is that you feel that his anxiety over ruining Dylan for himself (and others) never quite disappears. Marshall asserts that “rock” is the key term for interpreting Dylan, because Rock (as opposed to rock n’ roll) did not effectively exist until the Electrification at Newport. It is a convention of rock criticism that youth is a necessary index for rock music. Marshall’s book forces a realization that this might have been alright for the past, but now rock is effectively a mode of understanding lost youth, and is no longer as meaningful a category as it once was. Marshall claims he will focus on Dylan’s latest work, from The Never Ending Tour onwards, but more often than not ends up talking about the 1960s, perhaps proving that Star-Dylan cannot shake off the role he had in the 1960s, or rather that Dylanists cannot shake it off, no matter how many other roles he may attempt to conjure. But maybe that is only true for those who grew up with him. That Dylan stood for something (or a variety of things) is not open to doubt, but whether this is something that we needed to be reminded of is surely debatable; and if we are being frank, he also means nothing at all to some people, like our children. Or rather, he stands for the very kind of music that our children associate with being old. Marshall is unfortunate in one specific regard, as he did not have time to incorporate Todd Haynes’s star-crossed I’m Not There into his book, as the film would have provided a perfect match for his analytical framing, not least in the way one Hollywood star after another acts their pants off in the pursuit of “their” Bob Dylan, only to leave you more curious than ever about the real thing, Dylan himself. Ultimately, however, this book will not make you view Dylan any differently from how you viewed him already. Dylanists, as you were. He remains a problem, spilling out of whatever specificity that we may try to impose upon him. Gratifyingly, the man himself is still producing work that is more interesting than anything we might have to say about him.
Daniel Tobin (ed.), The Book of Irish American Poetry:
From the Eighteenth Century to The Present Day
(Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)
ISBN 10: 0-268-04230-6. $65. 926 pp
David Wheatley (University of Hull)
In his memoir The Strings Are False, Louis MacNeice describes a fellow boarder at Sherborne coming into his dormitory on the twelfth of July and asking, "What is all this they do in your country today? Isn’t it all mumbo-jumbo?" Yes it is, MacNeice tells him, basking in his moment of transgression until a teacher asks him to repeat what he said, at which point he realizes he was trying to impress the English boy and feels like a traitor. So much of what we think of as national identity is a trick of self-perception, or self-perception filtered through what we want others to think of us; and while Irish poetry has never needed a second invitation to hold forth on the god-given privilege of a harp-fringed passport, Irish America is something else again. I remember all too painfully being asked on local television in North Carolina one St Patrick’s Day what that festival means to me, to which the honest answer would have been "Absolutely nothing", an experience that brought home to me the effective autonomy of Irish America from Ireland, or the jaded, pre-distressed version of Ireland I carry around in my head at any rate. "A house can be haunted by those who were never there / If there is where they were missed", MacNeice also wrote, and who is to say whether I or the ramrod-backed Irish dancers of North Carolina come closer to inhabiting our Irishness with the requisite authenticity? Perhaps it is my Tiger-cub shoulder-shrug that marks me out as the cultural amnesiac and ingrate.
If Daniel Tobin does not favour us with his views on St Patrick’s Day, it can’t be for want of pondering the Irish-American condition. Short of coming with its own Boston Irish bar, it’s hard to see how this vast anthology could have crammed in any more than it does. Its myriad authors fall into many categories. For any anthologist the line between the marginalized and the merely marginal is a tricky one, and not a few of the poets here are names to conjure with only for a voodoo priest intent on raising the dead. There are colonial-era poets, or just about (Mathew Carey, author of "The Porqupiniad", James Orr), Irish emigrant poets unremembered in the native canon but who find their place here (Charles G. Halpine, Lola Ridge), canonical Americans with a sideline in Irishry (Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robinson Jeffers), more modern emigrants who play Irish-American hyphen ping-pong but stay shy of full naturalization (Eamon Grennan, Greg Delanty), a unique betwixt-and-between case such as John Montague, writers known to be Irish-American but whose more innovative or modernist style usually excludes them from gatherings of this kind (Brian Coffey, Susan and Fanny Howe), and then a younger generation in the process of redefining the terms of Irish-Americanness – or not, as the case may be, given that this book is almost a thousand pages long and stacks up its fair share of performative Oirishry along the way, ancient and modern. Selections are generous, sometimes excessively so (Thomas Kinsella’s The Good Fight, all twelve pages of it, strikes me as one of his less engrossing sequences). A younger poet like Aidan Rooney (b. 1965) writes about Ireland, or not, as the mood takes him, and very well too, in ways that command our assent to Tobin’s Irish-American rubric, when the writing is as good as this.
But a paradox lurks. Mention of The Good Fight, a meditation on John F. Kennedy, prompts a basic question on the nature of Irish-Americanness. Campaigns of recent years to wean Ulster Loyalists off their fondness for blood-curdling murals have focused attention on the Ulster-Scots contribution to American emigration, which includes numerous presidents, from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush. In popular imagination John F. Kennedy is seen as the first Irish-American president for the simple reason that Ulster-Scots immigrants thought of themselves as part of the dominant culture and consequently had no use for Irishness as a token of distinctiveness. Hence those canonical Americans already mentioned, who stumble on the buried memory of Irishness the way one might on a long-forgotten family photograph, and the editorial contortions involved in reeling in figures such as A.R. Ammons and Frank O’Hara, the latter’s surname notwithstanding. Even in the case of Marianne Moore’s great poem "Spenser’s Ireland" ("I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish"), there is an element of phantasmagoria, of ethnicity as theatre rather than the show of scars it becomes in Eavan Boland. The paradox of these inclusions is that, while it’s always nice to find a good poem somewhere unexpected, the minimally Irish-specific nature of the pleasure leaves us wondering why we don’t just go and read an Ammons or O’Hara Selected Poems instead or the nearest anthology of American verse, especially given how fine a job a poem such as Ammons’ "The Pieces of My Voice" does of uncoupling itself from origins of any kind: As I look across the fields the sun big in my eyes I see the hills the great black unwasting silence and know I must go out beyond the hills and seek for I am broken over the earth – so little remains for the silent offering of my death The revisionist comeback to that is that we are pushing back the boundaries of what it means to be Irish in American poetry, or that the Irishness is somewhere in Ammons’ scattering of brokenness. But the objection remains the same: taking all that as read, why expend so much effort on bedding down a few great poets in the soil of the minor, the ethnic, the worthy but dull? And speaking of major poets, it’s also worth pointing out that one of the most obvious or obvious-seeming names of all has evaded Tobin’s grasp altogether. His introduction dwells on Elizabeth Bishop’s refusal to allow her work to appear in women-only anthologies (can we imagine anthologies of American women’s poetry without her, he asks?), and yet Seamus Heaney is nowhere to be found here. It is a striking reminder of the imbalance between the American fascination with Seamus Heaney’s Ireland and Heaney’s cooler imaginative response to a country where, after all, he has spent so much of his professional life – though I don’t see what harm it would have done to include "Westering" at the very least. On a deeper level, Heaney’s absence is a reminder of what we might wish a book like this to deliver, and the misgivings we feel when it does not quite meet these expectations. The Book of Irish American Poetry is a stunning and encyclopaedic piece of scholarship and a less than entirely satisfying poetry anthology, two facts its readers will arrange in order of importance according to what they look for first in a book of this kind.