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[UPDATE] Crowd Forms in American Literature [NeMLA Conference April 7-10, 2011 in New Brunswick, NJ]
full name / name of organization:
42nd Annual Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association [NeMLA]
This panel of the 2011 Northeast Modern Language Association conference seeks to redress traditional understandings of collectives in American literature. Speaking of literature in general, Larzer Ziff notes that the crowd is "at best…but a backdrop" against which the drama of the individual unfolds ("Whitman and the Crowd" 585). Henry James makes such a recognition a virtual dictum of realism, when, in the preface to The Princess Casamassima, he speaks of the necessity of the "finely aware" individual consciousness for registering the fleeting impressions of the crowded city streets (12). When the crowd does take center stage in the literary text, it is often, as Nicolaus Mills points out, represented as unruly, violent, and irrational (The Crowd in American Literature 4). This is true, in particular, of American literature, which is teeming with lynch mobs (Faulkner, Wright, and Ellison), angry strikers (Dreiser and London), and irrational publics (Hawthorne, Melville, and Toomer). American literary representations of the crowd would thus appear to anticipate and confirm the view of late 19th-century French sociologist, Gustave Le Bon, who saw the crowd as "always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual" (The Crowd 9). Recently, however, scholars in diverse fields have begun to reconsider this age-old disparaging view of collectives. Hardt and Negri view the "multitude" as the only hope for positive political change in an age of Empire, while, in an explicit rejection of Le Bon, popular writers, such as Surowiecki and Rheingold, have begun talking about "the wisdom of crowds" and "smart mobs." Unfortunately, aside from a few scattered essays and books, literary criticism has yet to acknowledge this tremendous revitalization of interest in collective subjectivities. Taking its cue from the major crowd psychologists of the turn-of-the-century, this panel employs "the crowd" as a metonymic figure for broader collectives, such as the public, the masses, the multitude, and the people, to offer a much-needed reconsideration of collective subjectivity in American literature. How do American writers represent the many? What kinds of metaphors do they employ to ground this nebulous figure? What, if any, political promise does the crowd possess for them?