Outstanding Academic Titles 2020: Examinations of US literature and authors

This week's sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: Books examining works of American Literature and authors.

This week’s sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books examining works of American literature and authors.

1. Who killed American poetry?: from national obsession to elite possession
Kilcup, Karen L. Michigan, 2019

Book Cover Who killed American Poetry

In this brashly titled book, Kilcup (Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro) rewrites US literary history. Kilcup focuses on “an influential group of nineteenth-century reviewers,” arguing that they “contributed markedly to the twentieth-century demise of emotional and accessible American poetry” (p. 1). Kilcup describes what she terms the murder of “affective, popular, and women-authored” works (p. 264), even though (and often because) such works were among the most widely read, regularly reprinted, and best-selling books of the 19th century. Rather than single out the reviewers of the 1890s as the culprits, as is conventional, the author—thanks to her innovative research methods—is able to chart reviewers as early as the 1820s who “disparaged emotive excess,” which they “habitually gendered as feminine” (p. 34). She further argues that by the 1840s a clear aesthetic standard existed that, though detrimental to popular poetry, did allow such poets as Lucy Larcom and Sarah Piatt to achieve best-selling status. In the 1870s, however, when they realized they could not prevent such success, “reviewers redoubled their efforts to maintain the hierarchical gender divide” (p. 235).
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2. Black and more than black: African American fiction in the post era
Leader-Picone, Cameron. University Press of Mississippi, 2019

A skillfully written exploration of the themes and aesthetics of African American fiction in what has become known as the “post era,” Leader-Picone’s book catalyzes past and present renderings of black literary expression. Focusing on novels by Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Paul Beatty, Kiese Laymon, et al., Leader-Picone (Kansas State Univ.) thoroughly investigates the question of what it means to be black in the US given racial progress since the close of the Civil Rights era. As the author points out, black literature of the post era defies the notion that blackness maps a narrow terrain, and he calls on black writers to broaden definitions of blackness and black art. Situating the Obama presidency as a touchstone for cultural and academic inquiries into black social, political, and intellectual discourse in the 21st century, Leader-Picone points to socioeconomic stratifications within the African American community and cultural myths regarding the end of racism as influences on the works that have defined African American literature of the last 15 years. View on Amazon

3. Prophets, publicists, and parasites: antebellum print culture and the rise of the critic
Gordon, Adam. Massachusetts, 2020

In England, literary criticism became a distinct activity (and critics recognizable people) in the late 17th and early 18th centuries; parallel developments occurred in the US only a hundred years later. With many glances back to English forebears, this erudite yet approachable book focuses especially on the 1830s and 1840s. Gordon (Whitman College) does not write a conventional narrative: his book is not a history of critical doctrine, but instead (as its subtitle suggests) approaches its subject from the perspective of book history. Gordon considers the venues in which antebellum criticism appeared, from books to the prestigious quarterlies, the less prestigious but more popular monthly magazines, and finally the newspaper. Each form had its own kind of authority and its detractors, and each, the author argues, tended to shape the arguments it advanced. There is a superb informative chapter on the development of anthologies of American literature, but the bulk of the book examines a series of important figures—Emerson, Poe, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass—showing that each’s famous and sometimes contradictory pronouncements were often responses to the mushrooming print culture of their time.
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4. Salvific manhood: James Baldwin’s novelization of male intimacy
Gibson, Ernest L., III. Nebraska, 2019

Over the past few years, the scholarly community has—rightly—demonstrated renewed interest in the life and works of James Baldwin (1924–87). Gibson (Auburn Univ.) enters the conversation with an engrossing work that focuses on masculinity in the African American community. What is so refreshing about this study is that Baldwin is important to Gibson personally, as he clearly articulates. That does not detract from the richness of the scholarship but rather adds something quite profound to it. Gibson’s central argument is too delicate and nuanced to explain in much detail, but, in brief, the author finds an edifying connection between the sanctuary the black church offered and the potential space of intimacy the body offered. Gibson engages in close readings of five seismic novels in the Baldwin canon, masterfully walking readers through the journey of John’s forgotten birthday in Go Tell It on the Mountain and the streets of David’s Paris in Giovanni’s Room.
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5The life of Mark Twain: the middle years, 1871–1891
Scharnhorst, Gary. Missouri, 2019

Scharnhorst (emer., Univ. of New Mexico) set a high bar in volume 1 of this three-volume set (CH, Aug’18, 55-4376), which covered Twain’s early years (1835–71). That continues in this second volume, in which Scharnhorst reveals the ongoing cultural ambivalence about Twain as genteel and progressive critics contended over Twain’s appropriateness, gentility, and humor while Twain moved to the center of post–Civil War US culture. Though challenged as vulgar, fresh, and irreverent, Twain became “the King of American humorists” (p. 318). Unhappily, the fortunes of the Clemens family reached a high point in the 1870s, and Twain’s “middle” trajectory is one of frustration, family stress, misguided financial investments, and struggling to maintain an extravagant lifestyle. Scharnhorst offers copious examples of Twain’s delightfully coarse words, including the description of baby Clara’s drunken, profane wet nurse as offering the baby a “milk cocktail equivalent to infant forty-rod” (p. 122). Scharnhorst throws light on Twain’s ambivalence about the Chinese, Wagnerian opera, his own business partners, and the (doubtful) evolution of human morality and free will.
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