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American Romances Essays

American Romances is the winner of the Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction.

This collection of mordant, poignant, and playful essays shows Rebecca Brown at the height of her imaginative and intuitive powers. A wry and incisive social and literary critique is couched in a gonzo mix of pop culture, autobiography, fiction, literary history, misremembered movie plots, and fantasy that plays with the notion of what it is to be "American."

The impulse to tell our worst to a bunch of strangers in order to be accepted into the community has been fueling American self-hood for 300 years: There's a direct line from the Puritan confession narrative to all of our seamy, lurid cultural voyeurism. Whose stories are ours to tell and whose are not? Despite the collection's mostly playful and entertaining tone, what's being discussed quite seriously are the ways in which America has tried and failed to craft and tell its own story.

Fully embracing the theory of the literary Romance as a place where the probable opens up into the impossible, Brown lets her imagination run wild and envisions unlikely meetings and fantastical connections that span the course of America's cultural history: the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Nathaniel Hawthorne intersect as representatives of west coast hedonism and east coast Puritanism; Gertrude Stein presides over a same-sex religious movement; John Wayne and Shane stand in for the author's father who may or may not have been JFK's wing man during the Cuban Missile Crisis; a mad Finnish-American painter turns Seattle's Hooverville into heaven; H.G. Wells' Invisible Man reveals his/her secret sex life.

Praise for American Romances:

"Everything and nothing is sacred in Rebecca Brown's essays. Tongue, word, thought, and intellect all conspire in a free language love of living history, divination, sex, solitude and amusement. She is America's only real rock n' roll schoolteacher. Lessons layered with profundity and protracted parallels. Where old world religion, Gertrude Stein and Oreo cookies co-exist in an actual and mystic world of wonder." –Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

"If Rebecca Brown's talent for prose were any tighter, it would be a lyric – to a pop standard. An homage – a menage – to America, exposing what's laid bare in a comic tragic redux. I laughed till it hurt." –Van Dyke Parks, composer/arranger

"Anyone who can get from the Eucharist, to a Necco Wafer, to the goo between the wafers, to the Inquisition to the goo between the legs of excited young women is a distant sibling of mine. She can dash and she can drift and she is not much interested in the really bad parts that might qualify as confession. She likes the float of quotidian living and I like to read the words upon which she floats." –Dave Hickey, author of Air Guitar

Praise for Rebecca Brown:

"A strange and wonderful first-person voice emerges from the stories of Rebecca Brown." —The New York Times

"Throughout her writing career, Brown has exhibited a rare sensitivity in delving into difficult, uncomfortable material—death, disease, imperfect bodies and minds . . . there's also humor and sensuality so intense it's visionary . . ." —San Francisco Chronicle

"The straightforward prose style belies Brown's penchant for brilliant narrative, which at any moment can turn from the gentle and intimate to the violent and bizarre." —Utne Reader

Format Paperback

Nb of pages 256 p.

ISBN-100872864987

ISBN-13 9780872864986

Publication Date 01 June 2009

Main content page count 256

Weight 16 oz.

List Price $16.95

OnixVersion 2.1 , Version 3

 






1Having not read the work of Winfried Fluck before, I eagerly took on the tasks of reading and reviewing this edited volume of his work, titled Romance with America?As I worked my way through the first part of the book which deals with American Studies and Cultural Studies, and their relation to issues of aesthetics, I was struck by a couple of things.  First, I wondered why I had not read any of  his work over the years.  And then, that led me to a subsequent observation which was more like a question:  Had I encountered Fluck in some of my books relating to American Studies, and perhaps simply failed to remember?  Thumbing through the indexes of a few books, Locating American Studies:  The Evolution of a Discipline, edited by Lucy Maddox, John Carlos Rowe’s The New American Studies, and American Studies in a Moment of Danger, by George Lipsitz, I simultaneously felt relief and dejection that the name Fluck had not been present.  In the first case, I was utterly relieved that I had not been previously introduced to his writings through references made in the books just mentioned, and therefore, had not overlooked this author.  However, relief was replaced by a sense of bewilderment that the writings of Winfried Fluck were not present in a number of key works which deal with American Studies and topics related to American culture.  This revelation seemed to confirm something that I had felt plagued the discipline of American Studies for some time, its lack of a truly transnational character and engagement among the American academic community with non-U.S. scholars of American Studies.  While transnationality and other related discourses have been proclaimed within the discipline, its practical application remains at best, limited.

2Having made a somewhat short story long, I now turn to the author and the book in question.  Since the early 1970s Winfried Fluck has been making an invaluable contribution to the field of American Studies.  His probing analyses of aspects of American literary and cultural history coupled with his theoretical investigations reveal the impressive scholarly canvas Fluck has consistently been preoccupied with.  Part of the appeal of Romance with America is that it encapsulates Fluck’s vast and diverse intellectual interventions in a single volume.  The collection of articles is divided into four sections which range from aesthetics in American Studies and early American fiction to American popular culture and literary reception.  No review, I believe, can truly capture the disciplinary scope and intellectual boldness present in Romance with America.  With that in mind I will discuss a number of different points from several essays present in the volume that I, at a personal level, find particularly appealing.  

3The initial ‘hook’, and incidentally the first essay in the collection titled “Aesthetic Premises in American Studies,” which caught my attention was Fluck’s focused engagement with and criticism of some of the key figures associated with the origins of the discipline of American Studies.  In his sights are individuals such as F. O. Matthiessen, Henry Nash Smith, and Leo Marx.  Writing back in 1973, Fluck was essentially part of a vanguard of scholars challenging the associated discourses of American exceptionalism, which at that time had been a fixture of the field since its inception in the 1930s up through to the 1960s.  His criticism also centered on what he referred to as “the perpetuation of certain aesthetic premises” (16) interlocked with particular hermeneutical approaches embedded in the discipline; for example, there was an almost exclusive focus on a methodology of literary analysis during the early phases of scholarship in American Studies which failed to engage seriously with other domains like popular culture.  But even as disciplinary focus became more varied American exceptionalism continued to function as the pivot.  Fluck’s thinking on this is clear.  He argues that while America is not exceptional that does not preclude it from being unique.  In another article, “Theories of American Culture,” he points out that the development of  the United States moved in tandem with “historically unique constellations” (82) different from the experiences of other countries.  While some might see this as an easy way out of a very complex issue I believe that Fluck’s position is accurate.  At the same time, however, I do not think that ‘American exceptionalism’ can be delegitimized or assigned a nomenclature as merely a cultural-historical phenomenon.  Whether fantasy or an ideological construct, it remains very ‘real’ and relevant in the minds of Americans and U.S. political culture.  Along those lines, it still makes a lot of sense for the discipline to address and react to these multifarious discourses of American exceptionalism.

4The matter of exceptionalism is discussed further in another essay in the volume titled “American Studies and the Romance with America through its Ideals.”  Quite boldly, Fluck summarizes the discipline of American Studies in two sentences.  He states:  “The field was constituted by a romance with America, with the myths and symbols of American exceptionalism, which were then, in a second stage, submitted to ever more radical forms of disenchantment”(87). Whether through revisionism or deconstruction, scholars have sought to redefine the direction in which American Studies should be heading usually by critiquing the traditional schools of thought.  Transnationalism represents the most recent intervention in the field.  This transnational turn is not necessarily ‘new’ in that Fluck reminds us, in another essay, of Randolph Bourne’s study, “Transnational America,” which dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century.  With a degree of skepticism Fluck makes the following comment about the transnational agenda stating that while  it “is presently considered the cutting edge of the field, [it] is merely the latest installment in an attempt to escape from the field’s initial romance with America”  (87).  The theme of a ‘romance with America’ is intimately linked to the articulation of particular ideals which work towards reinforcing traditional American narratives or serve as fertile ground from which oppositional discourses may emerge.  What Fluck draws attention to quite cleverly is that despite the individual scholar’s intent in ‘redefining,’ he or she is in essence reviving the discourse of American exceptionalism.  This discursive persistence is apparent elsewhere as Fluck exhibits.  In one example he refers to an academic dean of a well-known institution who, in calling for a revival of and return to American ideals that have been hijacked by the neo-conservative agenda, falls victim to a form of idealization of the assumed ideals of America.  Again and in a highly perceptive fashion Fluck’s response is the following:  “Indeed, what if the American story is not one of ideals which were occasionally betrayed, but the story of an unmediated coexistence of utopian promise and profane reality in which American ideals were never what interpreters have made them out to be, namely constitutive of American society”  (101).

5Throughout this volume it is more than apparent that Fluck’s writings strive to understand the currents and intricacies of American society and popular culture.  Personally, I find his essay “The Americanization of Modern Culture:  A Cultural History of the Popular Media” to be the most fascinating in the collection.  Even though it dates back to 1998 it still possesses a strong contemporary ‘feel.’  He takes on the issue of the presumed “Americanization” of global culture and attempts to discern the mass-global appeal of American popular culture.  After examining the various discourses of the cultural imperialism paradigm, he then considers opposing theoretical arguments.  Two points in particular stand out most in this essay.  The first considers the appeal and successful diffusion of American popular culture.  In short Fluck suggests that American society had a built-in advantage over other countries in that America’s multi-ethnic profile and influences, as well as its multicultural composition, was essentially heterogeneous.  This ethnic diversity of the American audience “anticipated today’s global market in its diversity and multilinguistic nature”  (242).  His second point has to do with what he calls cultural dehierarchization.  This process is linked to larger social developments such as the arrival of modernity.  A key aspect of cultural dehierarchization concerns the issue of access −access to culture.  It would seem that this aspect along with others like individualization and “imaginary self-empowerment” can be realized most effectively in America.  American popular culture, Fluck points out, is an “unexpected manifestation and consequence of modernity”  (263).  Perhaps then it is the most complete consequence of modernity, thus explaining its global cultural appeal and attractiveness.

6Much more can be uttered about Romance with America, but it is better left to the reader to encounter first-hand.  I have not touched on many other points and discussions present in the volume such as his work on American painting and Edward Hopper or his work on visual culture and the photography of Edward S. Curtis.  My point is that no review can really ‘do justice’ to the body of scholarship represented in this collection of essays.  The richness, clarity, range, and intellectual breadth of Fluck’s oeuvre places him at the forefront of scholarship in American literary and cultural history.  His dynamic interventions in the field in American Studies are equally impressive and deserve recognition not only in Europe, but elsewhere, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic.  As Winfried Fluck notes himself regarding the future of American Studies, he states “perhaps European American Studies will be able to develop a project of which U.S. American Studies does not seem to be capable of at the present time, namely to make the search for a different emplotment of America the new adventure in our field”  (102).

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