NeMLA Roundtable: Genre of the Sketch in Long 19-century American Literature

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association
contact email: 

As one of the most versatile genres in long 19th Century American literature, the sketch appears in a variety of forms, including short stories, parts of longer novels, essays, biographies, brief plays, poetry, and more. What characteristics, if any, unite this breathtakingly diverse genre? Without a common theme or style, sketches change radically over time and between authors. Some sketch writers endeavor to render characters, scenes, or events from real life, like Louisa May Alcott when she recounts her experiences as a Civil War nurse in Hospital Sketches. Similarly, regionalist writers such as Francis Parkman, George Washington Cable, or Bret Harte present impressions of people and places. However, sketches also appear as works of fiction, such as in Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon or Constance Fenimore Woolson in Castle Nowhere. With so many various iterations, sketches convey so much more than a paradoxically fabricated spontaneity; they both build and reference an ever-changing tradition. What does W.E.B. Du Bois accomplish by subtitling The Souls of Black Folk with the phrase Essays and Sketches after a century of divergent sketch evolution, as opposed to writers in the early 1800s? What kind of statements do different authors make by describing their work as "sketches"?

In this roundtable, presenters are invited to sketch their favorite sketches, by considering both the thematic content and the significance of the genre. The purpose of this roundtable will not be to force the sketch to color within the lines. Instead, we will investigate various connotations which the sketch may have carried within and between certain texts or artistic media, and how style and content simultaneously uphold and (re)define genre.