Taking its inspiration from the Great Seal of the United States, the November 2015 Irish Association for American Studies Postgraduate Symposium considered the implications inherent in the motto “E Pluribus Unum”—Out of Many, One. Designed by a committee appointed by Congress on July 4, 1776—which included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams—it is suggestive of possibility and innovation when diverse people and perspectives band together to create something new.
The issue opens with Carmel Lambert’s exploration of the origins of the Liberian nation, in her essay “‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’: Writing American Identity in Liberia, 1830–1850.” Focussing primarily on the print culture preceding and arising from the colonization of Liberia in the 1820s—in particular the works of Hilary Teage and John Russwurm—the essay also provides an illuminating historical background to the colony’s foundation and its origins in the United States. Furthermore, Lambert deftly queries ideas of nationhood, of political and cultural identity, and the contradictions inherent in attempting to form a “United States of Africa.”
“Race and Protest in New Orleans: Streetcar Integration in the Nineteenth Century” further explores the possibility of a social unity based on race. Hilary McLaughlin-Stonham considers the streetcar protests in New Orleans between 1862 and 1867, and she focuses particularly on the intersections between class and race which the protests highlight. McLaughlin-Stonham examines the varying social and legal position of free people of colour, freedmen, and slaves, in relation to public transport in the city before the American Civil War, and the prevalent fears regarding a slave uprising which prompted the white city officials to exclude people of colour from the streetcars. By examining the differences between the social classes, the reader is encouraged to consider both the potentially unifying effects of injustice and the pervasive oppression inherent in a society based upon slavery.
James Hussey continues this thread of exploring the cultural, political, and economic makeup of nationhood with his essay, “Hawthorne’s ‘dangerous soul’ and Jacksonian individualism: Artistic isolation in Fanshawe and ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’.” Hussey places two of Hawthorne’s protagonists in the context of Jacksonian America and addresses the inherent contradiction in Hawthorne’s hero-worship of the 7th president and his identity as an artist. Hussey’s essay demonstrates a keen understanding of American social values in the early to mid-nineteenth century and seeks to reconcile both Owen Warland and the titular Fanshawe’s individualism within the Market Revolution.
Andrew Duncan’s “Ego Pluribus Unum: How One Man, Speaking For Many, Changed Hip-Hop” explores the socio-political climate which helped Kanye West create an image of himself as an everyman figure, as opposed to the mafioso/gangster personae which dominated hip-hop in the 1990s. Duncan analyses West’s critique of American capitalism through a close reading of early recordings, which explore themes of ethnicity, materialism, and racism, and crucially reminds the reader that members of modern American society are still compelled to examine its values and beliefs.
In “‘Before You Come Alive, Life Is Nothing; It’s Up to You to Give It a Meaning’: Making Meaning in James Sallis’ Death Will Have Your Eyes,” Kelsie Donnelly explores the nebulous nature of meaning in this rich espionage novel. Comparing a nation’s performance of meaning with the protagonist’s performance of self, Donnelly exposes the divide between absolute meaning and temporary ‘truths’. With a reading grounded in the novel itself and drawing on postmodernist theory and existentialism, Donnelly provides abundant food for thought, exposing the novel’s myriad dualities.
“The Viewer Society: ‘New Panopticism’, Surveillance, and The Body in Dave Eggers’ The Circle” by Jennifer Gouck also explores altered realities and a form of haunting, though in this text the issue at hand is surveillance. Gouck scrutinises a worrying conflation of human and machine through both a close reading of the text and by defining and neatly utilising the term “New Panopticisim.” By considering the infiltration of surveillance into the human body, the reader is prompted to explore the concept of surveillance through American literature, as well as its utility in maintaining discipline and control.
Finally, Sean Travers continues this exploration of truth(s) and reality in her essay “Empty Constructs: The Postmodern Haunted House in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves” as she examines the terrifying absences that lie at the heart of postmodern haunted houses. Through her study of gothic-postmodernism in Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Travers focuses on the destabilising effect which a haunted house has on the concepts of safety, reality, and selfhood, especially when the terror lies not in the appearance of ghosts but in the absence of explanations or reasons. This void suggests a troubled vision of American society, where terror and panic can simply appear and cannot be exorcised in any traditional or familiar manner.
In addition to these essays, there are three thoughtful reviews which continue many of the main themes which run throughout the rest of the edition: The Vonnegut Encyclopedia by Marc Leeds; America After Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment, edited by Catrin Gersdorf and Juliane Braun; and finally, Jon Teaford’s The Twentieth-Century American City. These reviews by Miranda Corcoran, Sarah Cullen, and Lucy Cheseldine respectively offer fresh insight into current scholarly discourses, which also underscores the strength of new scholarship within the IAAS.
The United States have gone through a radical change in governance in the time between this symposium and the publication of this Special Issue—changes which have forced Americans and American Studies scholars to be more introspective, to question earlier perceived truths, and to re-examine the Great Seal’s promise of unity in the face of new challenges. But are these new challenges really new? E Pluribus Unum considered issues of identity in an innovative way, and the essays presented here force us to re-examine the ideal vision of a united United States, the way our writers, musicians, and historical legacy manipulates this motto, and our own relationship to the ‘truth’, as it has for generations before.
Katie Ahern, Rosemary Gallagher, and Kate Smyth, IJAS Online Guest Editors