Toward a Global American Genealogy: Circumscribing Totality in a Globalized World

Hansen, Morten, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wicke, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Shukla, Sandhya, Department of English, University of Virginia

“Global American Genealogy: Circumscribing Totality in a Globalized World” contends that beginning with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and extending through to the twenty-first-century present, a tradition of American literary works has emerged that are global in scope. The project draws on disparate literary and cultural materials in an interdisciplinary framework that includes literature, visual arts, film and media, technology studies, philosophy, political theory, and critical geography.

My introduction looks more closely at some of the central concepts of this study before investigating Moby-Dick and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! as two early instances of the global American genealogy. While Moby-Dick is now canonized as the quintessential American novel, it is nevertheless “fixed in ocean reveries,” as Ishmael says of his fellow New Yorkers—and turned outward towards the globe that American trade, industry, and capital, seafaring or not, were busy conquering. Similarly, I argue that Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, despite its regionalist reputation, is fundamentally a novel about epic networks of people and ideas, and the utopian possibilities of cross-cultural global encounters.

The project turns in the first chapter to the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960’s. I argue that these films translate a foundational American genre into a new mode of global epic concerned with transnational encounters that arise from America’s presence abroad. Set in an empty desert landscape, the Spaghetti Westerns imagine their location as curiously placeless mythological landscapes, at once detailed and abstract, where violent encounters between characters (good, bad, and ugly) dramatize the complex and shifting relations between America and Europe and between the newly visible Global North and Global South.

My second chapter explores the texts and earthworks of the American artist Robert Smithson, whose turn away from the art galleries and museums of lower Manhattan and towards the postindustrial vistas of New Jersey and the deserts of the American West envisions the American landscape as a challenge to reductive national historiographies. Written in the vein of the transcendentalists, Smithson’s essays transpose Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and Thoreau’s notion of the environment onto a global firmament by examining the outsides to perception and the nation in an exploration of the mutually engendering relations between dominant centers and neglected peripheries.

Thomas Pynchon’s monumental novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) has rarely been viewed as a global text, despite its distinctly global setting, which spans postwar Europe, the United States, Southwest Africa, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, and many other locations. In my third chapter, I argue that Pynchon’s novel should be read as an investigation of the crux between the nation, the subject, and technologies that have become more urgent with the recent revelations about the National Security Agency.

The Caribbean-American writer Jamaica Kincaid specializes in small texts that might seem to be the antithesis of the epic. However, as I show in my fourth chapter, through her very compression, Kincaid forges a counter-epic of the Global South that needs to be addressed from within the framework of the global American genealogy. Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988) is an epic of irony and anger that addresses the complicity of American-influenced global institutions like the IMF with the national governments of the Global South in keeping the small places of the world small and disunited.

Finally, a coda looks briefly at the contemporary global American novel through discussions of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah as recent examples of novels that explore the interrelation between America and globalization.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Literature, Globalization, Spaghetti Western, Robert Smithson, Thomas Pynchon, Jamaica Kincaid, Epic
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