Category Archives: English

The Godmother of Rock and Roll

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in New York’s Café Society in 1940. (Image by Charles Peterson; courtesy Don Peterson)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in New York’s Café Society in 1940.
(Image by Charles Peterson; courtesy Don Peterson via American Masters)

Before there was Bill Haley, rocking around the clock, before there was Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and tearing it up on the guitar, before there were the Beatles and their lyrics and their haircuts—before there was rock and roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

If that name isn’t familiar to you, you’re not alone, said GW Professor of English Gayle Wald, author of the 2007 book Shout, Sister, Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Ms. Tharpe, an African American gospel musician, became one of gospel music’s biggest stars and most celebrated guitarists, and inspired a diverse set of musicians who followed her. But because she enjoyed none of the privileges of white male musicians, she has remained relatively unknown to modern audiences despite the commercial success of her recordings. Now Ms. Tharpe, who died in 1973, is the subject of a documentary film based on Dr. Wald’s book that will air on PBS’s “American Masters” on Friday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.

“[Rosetta Tharpe] wasn’t quite marginalized, but she was kind of ironically shut out,” Dr. Wald explained. “Like a lot of early influences, she was there at the very moment rock and roll emerged.”

(Continue reading the story by Laura Donnelly-Smith at GW Today)

Into the Lives of Objects: New book explores the lure and actions of ‘things’

English professor Jeffrey Cohen sits behind the long-dead cephalopod that maintains an uncanny lure. “[T]here’s something about it that makes us want to hold it and touch it and think with it,” he said. (Photo by William Atkins)

Not far from the fake palm tree on Jeffrey Cohen’s desk sits a fist-sized fossil that visitors can’t seem to keep their hands off of.

The intricately coiled, shelled creature made the journey from flesh-and-blood to cold stone tens of millions of years ago, if not hundreds of millions. Life is long gone. And yet still the fossil calls out to people.

“This seems to be an irresistible thing on my desk,” said Dr. Cohen, an English professor, as he handled the ancient cephalopod.

“As dead as it is, as inert as it is—it’s just a piece of rock; it was once alive but now it’s just stone—there’s something about it that makes us want to hold it and touch it and think with it,” he said.

That curious lure of an object, and the roles objects play in our lives as foils or companions or containers of sentiment is the subject of a new collection of essays curated and edited by Dr. Cohen, called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects.

“Though their power sometimes becomes most evident just at the moment of a human touch, [objects] possess an uncanny agency all their own,” Dr. Cohen writes in the book’s introduction. Citing examples from a 14th century Icelandic saga, he writes: “Fire, ice, and water are actors in the text: they consume, convey, renew, destroy.”
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Fandom’s Biggest Fan: An insider’s perspective on fan culture

Kathy Larsen was camping out when her cover was blown. She was at a convention for fans of the TV series “Supernatural,” jockeying in line to secure a good table for a breakfast event the next day, when one of the show’s actors walked by.

“He saw us sitting there and he stopped,” she remembered, laughing. “He was like ‘What are you guys doing there?’ And we just sort of stammered and went ‘Uhh—well—we—.’ It was a mess.”

“We had interviewed him a bunch of times before and talked to him a lot. He knew me in a different context, as an academic,” she explained. “He didn’t know me as a fan.”

It was one of many moments where the lines between academia and fandom have blurred for Dr. Larsen, a teaching assistant professor in GW’s University Writing Program. After all, she isn’t just a die-hard “Supernatural” fan: she’s also a scholar of the show’s intense fan following.

In Kathy Larsen’s office even a David Duchovny action figure can’t escape the gaze of the action figure paparazzi. (Photo by William Atkins)

Dr. Larsen’s book, Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012)—co-written with friend, colleague and fellow fan Lynn Zubernis—is an exploration of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the emerging field of fan studies. Scholarship in fan studies explores the communities, now largely Internet-based, that can form around popular movies, TV shows and other public art. Using their chosen media as a springboard to create fiction, art, video and other transformative works, fans interact with and participate in the stories they love. In some cases, fans can even influence what happens in the story itself.
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Echoes of “SOUL!”: Gayle Wald digs into ’60s black culture TV show, nabs Guggenheim Fellowship

(Photo by Flickr user lisaclarke)

For a generation of blacks looking in from the tattered margins of American life, and for a TV network known for buttoned-up fare, the PBS show “SOUL!” shattered the mold and boogied on the broken pieces.

“People found it must-watch TV,” said Gayle Wald, chair of the English Department. The pioneering variety show, launched on New York City’s WNET in 1968 and then syndicated nationally, beamed into living rooms a potent dose of black music, dance, literature and sharp social and political discourse.

It was a chronicler of culture’s cutting-edge and an unabashed salve for turbulent times. “They watched to see what people were wearing, what people sounded like, what things they were saying,” said Dr. Wald. “They were learning about what the possibilities were for ‘being’ in the world.”

But in the passing decades, the show has largely slipped into the cracks between scholarship on more well-known, black-centered commercial TV shows, like “Sanford and Son” and “The Cosby Show.” “SOUL!,” which was produced with a mix of public and private funding, is “virtually not talked about,” said Dr. Wald.
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Shelf Life: The Cast Behind the Watergate Scandal

Tom Mallon's new book, Watergate, will be released February 21.
(Photo by Jessica McConnell Burt)

It isn’t often historical fiction writers meet their subjects.

But in 1968, on the Hempstead Turnpike in Long Island, a 16-year-old Thomas Mallon shook hands with then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, whose involvement in the nation’s most infamous political scandal is the subject of Dr. Mallon’s latest book.

Watergate, to be released next week by Pantheon, follows seven real figures during the Watergate era—including Fred LaRue, a Nixon presidential aide who was in charge of delivering payment to the burglars, and Alice Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and longtime friend of Nixon—providing their perspectives as the scandal unfolds.

This book was four years in the making for Dr. Mallon, whose Foggy Bottom residence looks right at the Watergate complex, where five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972.

“I think the subject, even 40 years later, still tantalizes and interests people,” said Dr. Mallon, a professor of English at GW. “Nixon has such a combination of the good and the bad, with both his accomplishments and his ‘dastardly deeds.’”

His eighth novel, Watergate has already received extensive recognition, including placement on Newsweek’s “12 for 2012” and O Magazine’s “17 Books to Watch for in February.”

“The Watergate, which Nixon claimed never to have been in, figured more in the story than I thought,” said Dr. Mallon. “The book goes in and out of the complex a lot … and I hadn’t imagined that at first. I just thought of it as a place where the burglaries took place.”

Dr. Mallon said he was drawn to Nixon in part because the infamous president was “such an enormous figure” in his own life. Dr. Mallon was an undergraduate at Brown University when Nixon was president, and his own father was a “passionate supporter” of the man.

“Nixon was certainly one of the people who shaped the world that we live in, and he was a brilliant man who was so tangled up in his personality that he couldn’t help himself,” said Dr. Mallon. “There were times when his rational capacities—which were considerable—and his analytical capacities—which were great—were overruled by these dark impulses he had.”

(Continue reading the story by GW Today’s Julia Parmley.)

Shelf Life: Anything You Can Do …

Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like a little friendly competition. But when a little friendly competition turns into a fierce rivalry, it can either lead to heightened performance or spiral into petty one-upmanship. And sometimes, as it did in the case of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, it can result in a little of both.

Dr. Fruscione's Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry, was published last month by Ohio State University Press.

In his first book, Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry (Ohio State University Press, 2012), GW alumnus and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Writing Joseph Fruscione, PhD ‘05, chronicles the rivalry between Faulkner and Hemingway, two of the great American authors of the 20th century. For decades, the two challenged and influenced each other through barbs and backhanded compliments—Hemingway, who was known for his machismo, once even (somewhat) jokingly challenged Faulkner to a duel.

Dr. Fruscione will be discussing the book next month at the Library of Congress (March 16, noon-1pm). In anticipation, we sat down with him to talk about the interplay between these famous modernists and the psychological factors at play in their contentious relationship.

Q: How did you become interested in these two writers?
I pretty much liked Faulkner from the beginning, when I read him as an undergraduate. The story The Old People—that was my first Faulkner. It sucked me in and I read a lot of his other work. Hemingway is a trickier one because I didn’t like his work in high school or as an undergraduate. It just felt too forced, too contrived.

But in graduate school here at GW, my first semester, I took a class about a few Midwestern modernist authors and I read Hemingway’s early book In Our Time. It was a confluence of the right text at the right time in my life. It resonated and pulled me in. And then I realized there’s a lot of depth in his writing, a lot of personality—flawed personality in many ways. He was a patently insecure writer. In a lot of his unpublished letters he’s very self-pitying. He talks about his writing struggles and that seems to fly in the face of the image of the tough, worldly, macho writer.
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Understanding Monsters: Fear, desire and culture

Um, yikes. (Photo by Flickr user puuikibeach)

He is almost embarrassed to say it, but Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has seen a ghost.

He doesn’t even believe in ghosts, he told an audience last week at a seminar on the meaning of monsters. But while asleep at a B&B he undoubtedly felt the presence of eyes upon him. He awoke to find her standing there—a female apparition, dressed in black and mad as hell.

The incident stuck with Dr. Cohen, an English professor and director of GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, who is otherwise well-acquainted with monsters. His work, including the seminal 1996 book Monster Theory, has been called “foundational” in the budding field.

It reminds him, he said, that ever-deeper analyses of monsters themselves may not be the best way to search for their meaning. There’s much to learn from examining “the inter-space that opens when we encounter that creature and we admit we actually don’t know what’s going on there, and that something happens in that really ambivalent and … emotional space that we can’t exactly put into words.”

And the idea of “monsters,” as the other speakers noted last week, goes beyond the classical set of werewolves, hell-bent blobs and sundry undead. A monster can be anything—a virus, a company—or anyone stamped as an outsider, an other. (Recent history alone is stained with many examples, from blacks to Jews to women to illegal immigrants.)

We sat down with Dr. Cohen to discuss Halloween, the meaning of monsters and the sudden allure of zombies.

Q: My guess would be that you either love or hate Halloween, since you spend so much time focusing on monsters and this is the one day when everyone owns monsters.
I really enjoy Halloween, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s not as if I dress up as a monster—actually I don’t, I almost never do. But there’s something about Halloween that’s just celebratory and fun.

The only thing that I’ll say has changed about Halloween for me, as I’ve gotten a little bit older, is it does strike me that—despite all of the fun that happens—Halloween is really also a brooding on our own mortality and that it’s got a deeply sad component to it.

Part of it is trying to overcome a fear of death by having celebration in the face of death. But it’s also an acknowledgement that death is a part of our lives and we don’t get this on any other day. Our contemporary lives are so lived in denial of our own mortality that it’s the one day that it’s actually out there.

Q: Let’s talk about monsters. What are monsters and where do they come from?
Monster theory tries to answer that question, the question of definition, and a monster is a very hard thing to define. But I often go back to its Latin root which means that it’s a warning, a kind of message, and monster theory tries to decipher what that message is about. 
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In Tribute to a Legend, a Memorial to Trauma

Legendary author Toni Morrison once lamented, in remarks published in World magazine, the absence of historical markers to remind the world of the African American story. “There is no place you or I can go,” she said, “to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves … There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road.”

Today the university welcomes Ms. Morrison to campus to help change that. This afternoon the Nobel laureate will offer remarks at Lisner Auditorium, where a bench will be dedicated in recognition of the 1947 desegregation of the auditorium. It will be the latest site—only the sixth worldwide—of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Project, which aims to reverse this historical absence by marking important locations in African American history.

In anticipation of Ms. Morrison’s visit—which also includes a speech and reading this evening (see details below)—we sat down with GW Associate Professor of English Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber, an author and the vice president of the Toni Morrison Society, to talk about her research on Ms. Morrison’s work.

Q: How did you become interested in Ms. Morrison’s work as a topic for your first book, Subversive Voices: Eroticizing the Other in Henry Faulkner and Toni Morrison?
A: When Morrison won the Nobel Prize [in 1993], I realized that I hadn’t read any of her works, so I decided that I would read Beloved, because that’s what everyone said was her masterpiece. I read it in about 24 hours because I literally couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t had that response to anything I’d read since William Faulkner, who I wrote my PhD dissertation on.

I read all of her novels to-date that summer and I found her writing style and treatment of different themes fascinating, and I thought she was really speaking to Faulkner. I was trying to figure out in what ways were they speaking to each other and in what ways were they different.

Faulkner and Morrison were both writing about race, class, and gender—Faulkner, at a time when nobody was discussing race at all. He was writing for a white audience in the South that had a certain mindset, so he presented black characters with a veil of nostalgia that protected white readers. “Eroticizing the other” is a psychological term that means usurping someone else’s subjectivity in the service of your own. Faulkner presents black characters in a very nostalgic way that represents white perception, not the feelings of the black characters.

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