Lecture Series

Hidden in Plain Sight: Representing the Plantation South in American Literature
John Matthews
October 2, 4:30 pm
Weinstein Hall, Brown-Alley Room

Over much of the course of our national history, the North’s reliance on the South’s plantation economy created a kind of disjunction or cognitive dissonance in imagining national identity. Since the slaveholding plantation South embodied social and economic practices that contradicted national ideals of individual rights and personal freedom, the region was often represented in particular ways that allowed the North both to acknowledge and disavow its problematic relationship to the plantation South. Some of our best-known national literary works contributed to this effect of hiding in plain sight unwanted knowledge about national complicity with colonial plantation foundations. We can trace the technique of open concealment in works by Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Cather, and others. Later modern writers, many of them from the South, such as Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Erskine Caldwell challenge this tradition of disavowal at a moment when the idea of the plantation is being renovated for new imperialist economic, social, and political purposes.

John T. Matthews is most recently the author of William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South and the editor of A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900-1950 (both Wiley Blackwell, 2009). He has also written The Play of Faulkner’s Language, ‘The Sound and the Fury’: Faulkner and the Lost Cause, and articles on Faulkner, Southern literature, and modern American fiction. His present projects are a book on the disavowal of the South in American literature, and two edited volumes forthcoming at Cambridge UP: William Faulkner in Context and The New Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner. He teaches in the Department of English at Boston University.

The Double Life of Paul De Man
Evelyn Barish
March 18, 4:30 pm
Weinstein Hall, Brown-Alley Room

Over thirty years after his death in 1983, Paul de Man, a hugely charismatic intellectual who created with deconstruction an ideology so pervasive that it threatened to topple the very foundations of literature, remains a haunting and still largely unexamined figure. Deeply influential, de Man and his theory-driven philosophy were so dominant that his passing received front-page coverage, suggesting that a cult hero, if not intellectual rock star, had met an untimely end.

Yet in 1988, de Man's reputation was ruined when it was discovered that he had written an anti-Semitic article and worked for a collaborating Belgium newspaper during World War II. Who was he, really, and who had he been? No one knew. Still in shock, few of his followers wanted to find out. Once an admirer, although never a theorist, the biographer Evelyn Barish began her own investigation. Relying on years of original archival work and interviews with over two hundred of de Man's circle of friends and family, most of them now dead, Barish vividly re-creates this collaborationist world of occupied Belgian and France.

“Evelyn Barish tells us exactly why Paul de Man, a pioneer of Theory, should have favoured notions about the impossibility of an objective narrative or a fixed personality. Viewed objectively, the narrative of his own life was the story of a cheat and a liar; and he made up his personality as he went along. Yet he fooled one high-level American college after another into treating him as a genius. This is one of the most daunting portraits of a literary charlatan since A.J.A. Symons wrote the life of Baron Corvo.” — Clive James, author of Cultural Amnesia

Evelyn Barish is a professor emeritus at City University of New York’s Graduate Center and its College of Staten Island, and the author of Emerson:The Roots of Prophecy, for which she won the Christian Gauss Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Center, the Radcliffe Institute, and the Fulbright Commission.