Singled Out for Loss: Narrating Lost American Origins, 1925-1991

Haury, Megan, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Rody, Caroline, Department of English, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, Department of English, University of Virginia

“‘Singled Out for Loss’: Narrating Lost American Origins, 1925-1991” argues that narratives of American national origin, far from being static, singular historical experiences, reflect a process of constant and continuing revision. Twentieth century authors map transnational foundations of America through the construction of narratives formally and thematically centered on loss. These narratives highlight the unstable nature of national origin itself, and offer a deep ambivalence about both national identity and loss itself. Even in the act of restoring forgotten histories of origin that tie America to elsewhere materially, narratively, and culturally, the texts maintain an aesthetic of loss in an attempt to resist reinscribing the power dynamics of linear history and American myth that they hope to destabilize. William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men (1980), Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925), and Agha Shahid Ali’s A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991) plot a diverse experience of American spaces, each text restoring violent and troubling histories to the origins of America. Whether in the novel, memoir, or through poetry, narrating lost histories undermines the stability of national identity by questioning the singularity of founding America and the authenticity of claims for ancestry.

The material world—space, landscape, artifact, architecture—serves a significant role in restoring lost histories in the texts, but the texts also demonstrate the ways in which the material world can be used either in service of undermining naturalized identity categories, or in fact, in solidifying those categories. Throughout the texts, America is “Singled Out for Loss,” a line from Ali’s poem “Beyond the Ash Rains”; the title suggests the ways that losses—cultural, material, imaginary, bodily—have been a necessary aspect of founding America, and are marked as such throughout the texts. However, the title also indicates the way that by restoring lost and troubling histories of origin, the idea of the American nation remains in many ways exceptional, “singled out” in part through these connected histories of loss at its foundation. I argue that despite suggesting alternative sites of American origin, ranging from ancient to recent experiences in Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas, the texts resist flattening multicultural inclusion of those new stories of origin in part by the focus on history as a narrative, performative process—an often ambivalent one that resists a singular experience. As the texts critique the narrative and material complexity of founding the nation, I contend that they offer a model of how to leave space for “lost” violent or troubled origins without reverting to simplified narratives of American exceptionalism, achieved in part through the focus on loss as a central feature of national origin.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American literature, national identity, material history, Transnational American Studies, narrative, loss, poetry, novel, narrative theory, national origin, ambivalence, William Faulkner, Maxine Hong Kingston, Willa Cather, Agha Shahid Ali, Absalom Absalom!, China Men, The Professor's House, A Nostalgist's Map of America, transcontinental railroad, Caribbean, Global South, American identity, American Southwest, Plantation South, Empire, juxtaposition, American Studies
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