Democracy and the American Novel: A Symposium

Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9, 2022, 9:15am-4:05pm (Friday) and 9:15am-12:05 (Saturday)

209 Illini Union

Zoom Registration:

Recent history has provoked new questions about democratic processes broadly and the function of the novel at the present time. Democracy and the American Novel is a symposium that brings together some of the most exciting contemporary research projects exploring these concerns. Our participants will be engaging in a rich comparative dialogue on the relationship between novels and politics in diverse contexts over the past 100 years. This lively discussion will encompass questions of race, borders, statehood, and more. Symposiasts will give short talks, after which the other panelists and audience members will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and raise questions.

Admission is free and open to the public.  Refreshments will be served.


Friday Schedule

Gordon Hutner, at 9:15: Welcome


Lisa Siraganian (Johns Hopkins University), Friday at 9:30: “Company-hood: Willa Cather and the Absence of States”

This paper explores American novelists’ focus on towns or counties (Sweet Water, Eatonville, Winesburg, Yoknapatawpha) whether real or imagined, rather than states, and what that might teach us about the novel’s understanding of political totality and democratic action. I focus on Willa Cather’s novel A Lost Lady (1923), which portrays a political jurisdiction’s complete subsumption by the railroad corporation. Expanding on the town’s fate, the novel portrays the danger of the corporate form—with its attendant incentives, values, and limitations—as it dominates other social, democratic, and political institutions, including municipal town life and, eventually, characters’ sense of self.


Paul J. Edwards (Southern Methodist University), at 10:10: “Helga Crane’s Enchanted Spectators: Quicksand’s Black Atlantic Performance”

This paper explores how Nella Larsen uses performance as a form of racial control over Helga Crane in Quicksand. Be it the Danish vaudeville stage, the Black church pulpit, or the college lecture hall, each location marks a specific racial performance that disturbs Helga’s sense of self. As I argue, such scenes reveal that the racialized subject is often undone or unmade by performative blackness. Helga is alienated from the subject on the stage who represents in Larsen’s novel, something more real and often more acceptable than the actual Black citizen. As I reveal, such considerations of identity, performance, and national belonging infuse Larsen’s work with a sense of the inescapable power of performance over the Black individual. To that end, my paper concludes with how such experiences of Helga Crane are representative of the failure of racial justice within the nation state.


Chiyuma Elliott (University of California, Berkeley), at 10:50: “Newspapers and Democracy in Claude McKay’s Posthumously Published Harlem Renaissance Novels”

In Claude McKay’s posthumously published Harlem Renaissance novels Amiable with Big Teeth (2017) and Romance in Marseille (2020), newspapers are democracy’s allies and its sworn enemies. Against the backdrop of the Back to Africa and New Negro movements, anti-fascist resistance in Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War, McKay’s characters rely on the gadfly attention of the omnipresent popular press as a key lever of democratic power for Black people of vastly different social classes and national origins. I argue that press encounters elucidate a range of beliefs and expectations about democracy, including the belief that the news is a mechanism of democracy, not its chronicler; that latter important role is reserved for novels themselves, which function as a second (less evanescent) news cycle about the quotidian realities of Black liberation struggles.


Habiba Ibrahim (University of Washington), at 11:30: “Pregnant with Possibility, Suspended Democracy: Black Reproduction and the 1970s Novel”

In two novels of the 1970s, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), the future arrival of the child is a plot point that draws us toward the child’s engendering and, specifically, toward the figure of Black motherhood. Both novels explore how during the civil rights and Black Power eras, Black motherhood had been discursively leveraged for contradictory ends. Contradictory nationalist impulses that coalesced at the site of Black motherhood either cast Black mothers beyond the pale of proper citizenship or relegated Black women to the margins of politics by placing them on pedestals. As a result of the Black mother’s fraught relation to nationalist ideologies, Black motherhood is taken as the occasion for grappling with the unrequited promise of democracy in the Black literary imagination of the 1970s.


Lunch break, at 12:15


Justin L. Mann (Northwestern University), at 2:00: “James Baldwin’s Carceral Nightmare”

Despite its recent rising popularity, James Baldwin’s 1973 novel If Beale Street Could Talk remains relatively underexamined in literary studies. This essay considers Baldwin’s critique of the emergent carceral forms as they relate to antiblack governmentality. Reading Beale Street as critical of increasing and shifting forms of carcerality—including policing and incarceration—I argue that Baldwin issues radical demands for a different world through dreams, narrative ideations that break the formal structure of the novel. Situated between a literary-historical modes of narrative, Baldwin weds Black modernist, Black Arts, and Black feminist traditions in Beale Street, characterizing a crucial, critical stance toward the Civil Rights denouement and the rise of mass incarceration.


Aida Levy-Hussen (University of Michigan), at 2:45: “Politics and the Passing Novel”

This paper takes Danielle Evans’s recent novella, The Office of Historical Corrections (2020), as an occasion for theorizing the contemporary relevance and critical affordances of the passing novel. I explore how certain well-worn tropes of passing—e.g., the costs of false living; the parvenu and the community left behind; racial epistemology in crisis; the “triangular theater of identity” involving a trickster, a dupe, and a knowing insider—are made to speak to unfolding debates about historical politics in Black literary studies and public culture. And I develop some working thoughts about the renewed purchase of these old formulations.


Mary Esteve (Concordia University), at 3:30: “The Status of the Novel on the Receding Horizon of Democracy”

Starting with a scene of democratic voting that appears late in Percival Everett’s novel Erasure (2001), this paper examines how Everett signals his engagement with the discourse of democracy while he also explores the status of the literary work of art at the turn of the twentieth century. The recent surge of critical interest in contemporary publishing has brought renewed attention to Everett’s acclaimed novel, parts of which satirize late twentieth-century media and publishing culture. Literary sociology, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s work, generally inflects its critical assessments with uncontroversial but limited conceptions of democracy—conceptions that rarely extend beyond modes of egalitarian pluralism. By contrast, I set Everett’s novel in dialogue with the historian James Kloppenberg’s recent monumental study, Toward Democracy (2016), which he proffers not merely as a history of centuries-long struggles to establish and think through the propositions of democracy but also as a kind of plea that we regard democracy as a conceptual horizon that includes value-laden principles and premises. “Democracy has been—and remains—an ethical ideal,” he insists, “rather than merely a set of institutions” (4). Its entailments go far beyond popular sovereignty and participatory action. They include principles of autonomy and equality as well as premises of deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity (5). In this paper, I flesh out a few of these conceptual conditions in conjunction with an analysis of Erasure’s correlative exploration of—and, in effect, plea for the continuation of—aesthetic conditions that give rise to the kind of autonomous and deliberative literary fiction that its protagonist and (implicitly) Everett ordinarily write.



Saturday Schedule

Gordon Hutner, at 9:15: Welcome


Sean McCann (Wesleyan University), at 9:30: “‘The Mound of His Back’: The Profession of Literature and the Fear of the Mob”

Recent literary fiction responds to democratic crisis by defending its professional legitimacy. Literary novelists are highly attuned to the rise of populist authoritarianism. But they understand this political context in light of developments in the cultural field (hypercommercialization and market segmentation) and in society more broadly (widening economic inequality) that raise challenges to the significance of literary art. Writers address this problem by reasserting core values of their profession, casting them as an antidote to popular intolerance and irrationality. In this way, literary fiction justifies the advantages of a professional class elite and highlights the limits of professional-class liberalism.


Melani McAlister (George Washington University), at 10:10: “Multiplying Borders in a Stateless World”

Malka Older’s Centenal Trilogy (Infomocracy, 2016; Null States, 2017; State Tectonics, 2018) engages questions about governance, democracy, and technology in a near future in which states have been all but abolished. “Micro-democracy,” however, is alive and well: people choose their ruling parties (or corporations) in groups of 100,000. The real ruling power in Older’s world is “Information,” a global behemoth that administers a ubiquitous internet-Google-spyware that is the power behind all thrones. Drawing on work by Elisabeth Anker, Adriana Cavarero, and Simone Brown, this essay examines two contemporary aporias that Older’s novels explore but cannot resolve. If nation-states are no longer tenable in a globalized world, what are pleasurable or meaningful possibilities for democratic forms of governance? And what is the line between democratic calls for truthful accounting and a massive bureaucracy of truth?


Caren Irr (Brandeis University), at 10:50: “The Multispecies We: Theses on Eco-Democracy and Point of View”

A stable democracy requires the assent of the minority; those who lose an election must recognize the legitimacy of the majority. This basic coherence of “we the people” overcomes the “us vs. them” logic of political division because a democratic minority trusts in the majority’s commitment to honoring minority rights. The grammar of an inclusive “we” overrides the exclusive use of the pronoun. This grammar of inclusivity goes unmarked in English, unlike many other languages, and in politically divisive situations, democratic constituencies can have difficulty navigating various senses of the we. Can fiction deepen our usage of the first-person plural? Certainly, a small body of contemporary we-narrations explore tensions surrounding the we pronoun; Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (2011) comes to mind, but the oligarchic tendencies of the novel (especially the realist logic of typicality and representativeness) tend to impede full probing of the grammar of democracy. This problem is accentuated if we turn to environmental writing. A multispecies we appears to be currently unthinkable in the novel. The best we can do is approximate various monstrous hybrids of the sort vividly portrayed in Matt Bell’s Appleseed (2021). Such accounts are linked thematically to criticism of democratic failure to take prompt and effective action on environmental matters. In Appleseed and related works, the novel becomes a form in which minority members of Earth’s minority species (homo sapiens) criticize the failure of the democratic system to represent the majority of lifeforms and act expeditiously. The novel, then, rejects democracy to the extent that it speaks for the multispecies we.


Sophia Azeb (University of Chicago), at 11:30: “‘Democratizing’ Blackness in Cold War Cairo”

This essay explores how David Graham Du Bois “democratizes” Blackness in his 1975 novel on Black USian expatriate life in Cairo, …And Bid Him Sing, in the interest of a particular (and parochial) endeavor: to mediate on the aspirational intersubjectivities and stubborn estrangements that color Black life in Egypt during the anticolonial era. Read through this lens, Du Bois’s novel provides insight into the looming threats that the limits of nationalist, internationalist, and intranationalist forms of relation across the diaspora pose for the potential of a truly transformative transnational Black being and politic.

Posted in Past Americanist Events, Past Trowbridge Events