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This past week, I attended the American Studies Association of Norway (ASANOR) conference on the past and future of cosmopolitanism in Kristiansand, Norway. While there, I learned a lot, as hopefully usual for conferences. Today, I want to take the time to briefly write about some of the things I thought about during the conference and some of the things that I learned along the way. This will not be a breakdown of all of the panels I attended and all of the keynotes. Rather, it will be a discussion of some of the topics that I want to explore further in my own research and teaching.
In the first panel of the conference, I heard Jena Hadegger-Conti speak about memorials and grave markers for Norwegian immigrants who left Norway for America and then fought for America during World War II. Specifically, she discussed America’s involvement in the liberation of Norway during the war and the ways that Norwegian immigrants who perished during the liberation are remembered today. She spoke of soldiers such as Trygve Berge who were top secret U.S. agents in Norway as part of the Viking Battalion, but since they left Norway, they were not considered part of the Norwegian resistance. What interests me most about this subject is the ways that we construct memory and national histories. This, of course, is something I am interested in for my own research, specifically focused on the American South. However, it is also something that has caught my attention while here in Norway, not just in regard to the history of WWII but also in regard to the history of colonization. (While in Kristiansand, I did find a memorial remembering Olav Bernt Balchen.)
After Habegger-Conti, Zbigniew Mazur presented on the ways that the American press presented Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish general, after the American Revolution and into the early 1800s. Before Mazur’s presentation, I had not heard about Kościuszko’s role during the American Revolution then his roles in Polish military engagements against Russia. As well, I did not know that in his will Kościuszko bequeathed over $20,000 to Thomas Jefferson for the emancipation and education of, as the American Watchman said, “young female slaves.” However, Virginia would not allow for the will to be enacted. What interests me about Kościuszko’s representation is the ways that he becomes, starting around 1797, one of “the Heroes of the Revolution” and as a man who fought for the spread of liberty around the world. This image only increases at the start of the 1800s. I am interested to see if Kościuszko served, in some way, as a precursor to the move, in American literature and thought, to King Philip during discussions of national identity and culture in the period. This, of course, is something for a larger project, but I think it is important to consider. In the painting below from the mid-19th century, we see General George Washington and officers Johann De Kalb, Baron von Steuben, Kazimierz Pulaski, Tadeusz Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette, and John Muhlenberg with troops of the Continental Army.
During another panel, Joelle Moen spoke about James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones and the different voices that Johnson deploys throughout the collection. While the discussion of the polyvocal nature of the collection is important, what caught my attention was how Branard Matthews, in an introduction to a later printing of the collection, talked about Johnson’s work as as a sociological text that showed the true Black experience in America. This framing recalls similar critics such as William Dean Howells who praised Paul Laurence Dunbar as representing Blacks in the South or even of illustrators such as E.W. Kemble who provided images for Dunbar’s work and most famously Mark Twain’s The Autobiography of Huckleberry Finn. With this, I am interested in how critics, especially white critics at the turn of the twentieth century, present Black authors and texts to the reading public. I wonder, and I just thought about this, how this ties into the rise of anthropology and the ideas of primitivism during the modernist movement.
Nahum Welang’s presentation looked at the ways that Claude McKay, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes worked with and within the Soviet Union and how they moved away from the Soviet Union. I had long known about the pull of the Soviet Union and socialism to Black artists, and I was intrigued by the discussion. For me, the most interesting aspect came from Welang’s assertion that the move from Leninism to Stalinism, at least for McKay, led to the artists’ disillusion with Soviet ideals. While Lenin promoted internationalism, Stalin’s regime turned more nationalistic and totalitarian. This, of course, is not a one-to-one reason for these artists’ moves since Wright comes later. However, it’s an interesting thing to consider. As one of the audience members noted, we also need to consider the ways that McKay, Hughes, and Wright, like the Soviets, used the other side for political and intellectual gains.
During Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwanko’s talk, she spoke about Louise Bennett and the idea of subjunctive travel, an idea that shows that even if the individual does not leave a certain region we can still consider that person to be a cosmopolitan. This occurs because the individual dreams, thinks, and is aware of other places. As well, it occurs when the individual goes to other places through others and has specific expectations about what that person has experienced or learned when he or she returns. To highlight this, Nwanko’s discussed the poetry of Louise Bennett. For me, this makes me think of characters such as Jane Pittman who knows what is occurring outside of her little postage of land but never ventures far from where she was born.
Finally, I want to conclude with some of the texts that I learned about that I want to go and read. The first is Hanna Pylvainen’s We Sinners, a novel about Laestadianism amongst the Sámi in Norway and their immigrants to America. Before Ellen Marie Jennsen’s paper, I did not know anything about Laestadianism, and I want to learn more. As well, I want to see how the novel explores the construction of history and construction of religious faith through immigration. Along with We Sinners, I want to read Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, a novel about four generations of Palestinians who initially left their homeland along with 700,000 other Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Helle Marie Anderson spoke about how the “novel challenges the notion of nostalgia for the homeland and a static Palestinian identity.” She also focused on the ending where Alzheimers serves as a metaphor and a possible warning about the obliteration of one’s culture.
I hope you enjoyed this brief discussion of some of the things I learned at ASANOR. What are your thoughts about any of the items above? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.