The Second Book Project (Spring 2020)

405 Illini Union

Friday, March 6, 2020, 9:45am-4:45pm

After transforming their dissertations into a first book, many professors turn to a second book project to extend their interest in their field of research and even to clarify their career aims. The Second Book Project is a symposium bringing together the ongoing research projects of several distinguished scholars of American literature.  Our participants will be discussing their books-in-progress, especially their premises and critical purposes.  Each of these scholars has written a very successful first book about American literary history, and each is engaged in a new rich, venturesome study. They will further describe the impact they hope for their books to make, the scholarly need or opportunity they see themselves addressing, and how they expect their books to contribute to the various ongoing debates of which they will be a part.  By circulating their ideas in this way, the symposiasts are also inviting further discussion of their projects and are especially interested in the audience’s engagement with their arguments.  Each speaker will talk for about thirty minutes, after which the other panelists and audience members will have a chance to exchange ideas and raise questions.



Gordon Hutner, at 9:45: Welcome


Lara Cohen (Swarthmore College), at 10:00: “Before Subculture: The Nineteenth-Century Invention of the Underground”

“Subculture” is a twentieth-century coinage, but the use of “underground” as a term for subversive activities dates to the 1840s when it was popularized by newspaper coverage of the Underground Railroad. These earlier visions of the underground prefigure what would crystalize into “subculture” but also exceed that formulation. Before Subculture excavates a vibrant world of nineteenth-century writing about the underground, including Black radical manifestos, anarchist periodicals, sensationalist exposés of the urban underworld, manuals for sex magic, and the initiation rites of secret societies. How did the underground take shape, and what resources might we yet find there for contemporary practices of cultural resistance? “Before Subculture” uncovers a familiar concept’s surprising origins, forgotten dimensions, and unrealized possibilities.


Matthew A. Taylor (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), at 11:00: “Reanimating Life: Hylozoism, Then and Now”

In the midst of the earth’s sixth mass extinction, there has been a marked turn to the redemptive power of “life itself” in various new materialisms, neo-animisms, neo-vitalisms, and affirmative forms of biopolitics. In this talk I outline a series of historical and conceptual cautions against staking our lives or others’ on such reconsiderations of “life.” Exploring the fascination with hylozoism (the theory that all matter is alive) in turn-of-the-twentieth-century biology, philosophy, and fiction, I will demonstrate a recurring link between universal life and eugenic racism that troubles any attempts to base political and ethical norms on supposedly biological ones. An examination of an alternative philosophy of life reveals that uncoupling hylozoism and imperialism can be achieved, but only at the cost of a deadening nihilism. Such examples suggest that we look elsewhere than life for our animating principles.


Lisi Schoenbach (University of Tennessee), at 1:30: “Institutionalism and the Fate of the Public University”

This book project examines the history of anti-institutionalism in the US from the post-Reconstruction moment to the present. It considers W. E. B. Du Bois as an exemplary figure in a counter-tradition that imagines the state and its institutions not as anathema to freedom but as instrumental to its development and also as central to that most radical of all human experiments, democracy. Du Bois’s “radical institutionalism” offers a pragmatic, constructive, and affirmative mode of building and rebuilding institutional forms that protect and preserve the values of free inquiry, open discussion, and democratic process. This model can provide context for current social battles over public education, and it can help us develop a new language in which to defend the public good.


Christine Holbo (Arizona State University), at 2:30: “Modernism’s Others: Privacy, the Novel, and Public Knowledge in the American Fin de Siècle”

My second book, Modernism’s Others, explores how the transformation in traditions of realist representation that occurred in the context of America’s failed Reconstruction laid the grounds for the emergence of the multicultural and avant-garde constructions of modern American literature. Where my first book, Legal Realisms, examined how nineteenth-century universalist notions of equality before the law became fraught in an era of incomplete emancipation, Modernism’s Others addresses how the “right to privacy” articulated at the end of the nineteenth century not only transformed visions of separate spheres, differential rights, and public duties, but also promoted two opposed justifications for the novel’s claims to produce empirically accurate, ethically engaged knowledge of the world. The new paradigm gave rise to novels about urban, cosmopolitan individuals occupying a layered, multicultural space with no center outside the self; it also sponsored a new category of minority literatures that explored the cultural and political possibilities of incommunicable difference.


Harilaos Stecopoulos (University of Iowa), at 3:30: “Telling America’s Story to the World: Postwar Literature and the Rise of Cultural Democracy”

From the hemispheric cultural diplomacy of the Good Neighbor era to the recent public relations campaign in the Middle East, the US government has often turned to American literature to shore up the nation’s international image and promote US policy abroad. “Telling America’s Story to the World” demonstrates that those US propaganda initiatives contributed to the “worlding” of American literature and affected domestic literary concerns in the process. By valuing particular literary modes (modernism, multiethnic writing, etc.) for their perceived global appeal, state propagandists generated a complex cultural apparatus that continues to shape our national literature to this day. Yet those officials also inadvertently prompted some literary ambassadors to trouble the Pax Americana by offering them opportunities to forge transnational bonds outside the purview of the state. This talk will consist of an overview of the project and include brief examinations of literary diplomats Ralph Ellison and Arthur Miller.


4:15: Discussion

Posted in Past Americanist Events, Past Trowbridge Events