Friday, March 20, 2009

Good News: Travel!

Well, after all my fellowship applications, complaints, and woe is me rejections, I am the very happy recipient of an SBU award, which will enable me to engage in archival research this summer. I plan to go to the Smithsonian to view the lovely magazines I have been posting about and to London/The British Museum to view the Brit versions.

The brevity of this post can be understood as inversely related to the excitement I feel!

The Disappearing Female Artist

One thing I've noticed in my reading is that female artists tend to disappear. If they are lucky enough to be recognized during their lives, something happens; they fall out of favor, their books go out of print, they lose contact with the literary intelligentsia. For example, Jean Rhys was believed to be dead before somebody wanted to do a radio version of Voyage in the Dark and put an ad in the paper in order to search for her heirs. Nella Larsen also disappeared, she left Harlem and moved to the East Village, dramatically removing herself from her Harlem Renaissance friends and, and worked as a nurse in a hospital.

Because women writers like Rhys and Larsen keep disappearing, it becomes up to us, the scholar, to locate and give voice to them. This bothers me because, for one, it seems to disempower the woman writer. Larsen, after all, chose to disappear. Two, these writers never actually went anywhere, it was the readers who lost them even though they were easy to find (Larsen's books never went out of print for any extended period of time).

This idea of disappearance is one of the many ideas I am working through for my Larsen chapter. Initially, I was interested in the actual idea of ghosts, particular as this was an interest in early photography; people attempted to catch evidence of the spiritual world with the camera. I love this idea but I have put it aside for now.

Instead, I am looking at photographs printed in some of the major magazines of the Harlem Renaissance. These publications often featured photographs of the African American elite in society pages along with photographs of houses, cars and other material evidence of financial success. One of the major themes in Larsen's novels is material items and many of the characters are drawn to commodities, perhaps as a means to avoid commodification themselves. And going back to my earlier idea, commodities prevent these characters from the the threat of disappearance. One can't go anywhere if one has a house full of stuff to take care of.

I am also thinking of these commodities as displacing the woman writer as the subject, or object, of the photograph. Focusing on material items makes these items take on the object role in photographic reproduction.

Lastly, and thanks to a talk that Kristeva gave at Stony Brook earlier this week, I am considering the idea of renewal in my chapter. I really want to give Larsen and her characters a chance rather than focusing on the inevitable tragic ending of their lives. Larsen's character, Helga Crane, for example, runs away from various situations she finds distasteful. I plan to argue that rather than escaping, or disappearing, each new experience is part of a process of renewal, a means to find herself anew.

Well, this for me has been a very successful blog post. I think somehow I have managed to outline my chapter! Thanks, Mr. Blog!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Belated Post

Thank you to all of those who report that you've been reading!

So here is what is going on:

1. I received my first chapter back from my director and made most of the changes she requested. I also made changes suggested by a fellow dissertation writer with whom I exchanged work. I still need to add some quotes from writer/theorist Irigaray but first I have to figure out what she is saying, so this might take some time. I dropped off the revised chapter to my second and third readers.

2. I was not chosen for a number of the fellowships for which I applied. I am, obviously, extremely disappointed. This is a difficult situation. Intellectually, I know that these awards are highly competitive, especially right now, and that the reasons that I was not chosen might not have any thing to do with the quality of my project but often due to arbitrary personal interests of the selection committee. However, considering I am working alone these days with very little day-to-day feedback, it's hard not to get caught up in a crisis of confidence. It takes discipline to keep myself focused on my work sometimes when I don't feel supported by the outside world, no matter how arbitrary the outside world is.

3. However, I attended a conference and while there I was able to regain a lot of this confidence back. For one, this conference seemed less like work and more like fun. It was smaller and I was able to make some personal connections. Second, the papers were given by a mixture of grad students and PhDs and I felt like I got a good idea of how my own expertise fits in. Lastly, the panel I participated in was exciting and the people who I met wonderful. They also seemed extremely interested in the work I am doing.

After the panel, I resolved not to waste time feeling insecure about my work.It's a little challenging to put this resolution into action though I am working on it.

Stay tuned for my next post: Nella Larsen and Ghosts of the Harlem Renaissaince. I know, you are on the edge of your seet!

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Very Greatly Improved"

Well, the words from my dissertation director are....
"Very Greatly Improved"!!!!!*

This is excellent news, as my fear was that it would be more like, "What is this garbage?" or "How did you find a two-year-old to write this for you?"

Of course, "My God, your genius has brought me to tears" or simply "Best. Dissertation. Ever." would have been nice.

But her comments were sent only in a quick email to temper my anticipation. Of her changes, two are minor, and the third I knew I was a problem and needed some time to figure it out.

This is excellent news and for sure an inspiration to keep myself going!

Yippee! It's so great to learn that I don't suck!

*She was referring to the previous chapter draft she had seen.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Moving on

Nella Larsen in a photo
shot by Carl Van Vechton

My original intention upon finishing my last chapter was to immediately catch up on some background reading. That is, reading that is generally related to my subject - mass media, photography, etc - but not specifically related to the chapter - Nella Larsen.

Although this background reading is essential, after only one week of it, it makes me feel directionless and floundering. I need to balance this general work with specific research on my topic. I don't want to take as long with this chapter as I did with my last one. My goal is really to have it done by May or June, which is not too far away!!!!

Also, after getting some feedback from a friend on my first chapter, I feel that I want to make the link between photography and Larsen much more specific. In other words, I really want to demonstrate that Larsen was aware of the role photography played in her writing. There were a number of photographs taken of her by Carl Van Vechten, a publisher, and I need to look into the publication history of them. There is little mention of photography in either of the books I plan to write about, though there is a painted portrait that plays an important role in Quicksand.

I might need to start some of the archival work I want to do at the Smithsonian. In order to do this archival work, however, I need to understand the role the mass media magazines played in the lives of African Americans. I am just starting this process and there might be a whole new slew of magazines I need to research. Was there a Vogue equivalent for the African American female audience of the Harlem Renaissance? Certainly, it must have been commercially viable. And there is no doubt that these women are absent from the "mass" media publications of the time I have seen. Did this absence mean that Larsen avoided these publications or were they all the more compelling to her? Where were images of African American writers and artists published? I know they are out there!

Lots of questions. Stay tuned to what I hope will be the answers.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Marching Band

It's a troubling fact of academia that hard-sought successes are met with very little fanfare.

There are no medal ceremonies, no awards speeches, no product sponsorships. One must be responsible for patting oneself on one's back and, as you might imagine, it can be hard to reach.

I would like to thank my friend then for sending me this marching band as a form of congrats. Check out the twirler who almost goes the wrong way in the beginning. Adorable and a great metaphor for life's little tumbles.

I am not sure why all the twirlers are white girls and the drummer black boys, though. That's a little disturbing. Or why they look like they are in pain.

Oh now, look at me overanalyzing my marching band!

I hope you enjoy it.

Finit - For Now

In my enthusiasm for FINISHING MY FIRST CHAPTER!!!!! I forgot to post last week! How silly of me. Yes, chapter one is complete and handed off to my dissertation committee chair. I am a little anxious to hear what she has to say. What if she wants me to trash the whole thing and start all over? That's my worst fear. That is probably unlikely given that she has seen a previous draft, but still, I have become expert at creating major suckage dissertation-related scenarios. It takes discipline not to fall into that trap.

I was at first concerned that the push to finish chapter one would leave me too exhausted to pursue chapter two. This has not happened so far. I am excited to finally be able to start moving through a pile of books I have not been able to get to since my emphasis has been on writing these past few weeks.

My dissertation is also evolving in ways that I find exciting. I find that I am steering clear from some of my original ideas related to celebrity culture. One of the reasons for this is that recent research has demonstrated that there is a lot of work already being done in this area. Secondly, I am still primarily interested in how photographic form and structure overlaps with literary form and structure.

My next chapter is on Nella Larsen. One thing I have noticed so far is that there is actually very little work at all on photograph and African-American writers. I look forward to learning more.

For anyone who has not heard of Larsen, she is a Harlem Renaissance writer mostly known for two novels, Quicksand and Passing. Both are exceptional and worthwhile to read. There are a few good bios online if you google her. She, like Rhys, was rediscovered after years absent from the public eye. Larsen fell out of favor as a consequence of false accusations of plagiarism.

Larsen got published with the help of Carl Van Vechton, who was also and photographer and a close friend of Gertrude Stein's. It's six degrees of modernism.