Misbehaving in Public: Drunkenness and Other Scenes in 1930s US Literature - MSA14 (Las Vegas, NV, Oct 18 - 21, 2012)

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Megan Paslawski and Nathan Mickelson

This panel explores these and other scenes of public misbehavior in 1930s US literature with particular attention to disruptions grounded in economic depression.

For example, at the end of Richard Wright's Lawd Today!, the protagonist drunkenly stumbles home and brutally attacks his wife in revenge for a humiliation he suffers in a bar earlier that night. Trapped in a menial job and mistreated by white supervisors, Jake is miserable but unwilling to do anything about it because the post office pays him just enough to get drunk when he needs a release. He and his coworkers drink to escape; their public misbehavior escalates over the course of the novel, indexing their increasing insecurity and ultimately destroying their private lives and prospects. By contrast, in Clifford Odets' play Waiting for Lefty, a public display of private misbehavior proves politically catalytic. An unempowered union of taxicab drivers struggles to act until one of its members displays his marital dirty laundry. In the play's staging directions, Joe and Edna's potentially shameful fight flows seamlessly into a union meeting, disrupting a space where formal rules of order generally govern behavior. Inspired by the couple's revelation of the domestic violence and adultery bred by poverty and powerlessness, and inflamed by the death of the titular Lefty, the rank-and-file resolves to strike.

From the sudden outbursts of anger and madness that threaten to destroy the family in Josephine Johnson's Now in November to the relentless posturing of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, we seek to trace the effects of the breaching of public and private decorum on characters and readers alike. Why do some breakdowns of public order lead to political action while others lead to destitution? Do drunkenness and other scene-making work differently for characters of different races, genders, and economic/social classes? Do scenes of misbehavior fulfill specific functions for audiences of Depression-era literature? How do workers' strikes -- or do workers' strikes -- separate themselves from traditional understandings of what it means to misbehave in public?

We welcome paper proposals on these and other kinds of public misbehavior in US modernist literature. Please send a short biography and proposal of 250 words to Megan Paslawski and Nathan Mickelson (disruptive.modernism@gmail.com) by March 30.