"The New Historical Romances": Representing America in Historical Fiction of the 21st Century (12/12/14, 6/11-13/15)

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The North American Review Bicentennial Creative Writing and Literature Conference, University of Northern Iowa
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In its first year of publication, the North American Review decried the new nation's "literary delinquency" and called for the development of a distinctly American literature. In the early decades of the journal's existence, historical novels were a central form in which writers and critics looked for explicitly American subject matter and themes. As W.H. Gardiner wrote in an often-cited 1822 review of Cooper's The Spy, "We have long been of opinion that our native country opens to the adventurous novel-writer a wide, untrodden field, replete with new matter admirably adapted to the purposes of fiction"; extolling the diversity of American character types and compelling incidents, he contends that despite the absence of gothic trappings, "there never was a nation whose history . . . affords better or more abundant matter of romantic interest than ours." The genre, however, has not been without controversy in the pages of NAR. In 1900, William Dean Howells excoriated the failures of realism of "the new historical romances" of his time, which he felt relied on swashbuckling and "gross fable," flattering common readers with "false dreams of splendor in the past." The valid historical novelist, he contends, "represents humanity as we know it must have been, since it is humanity as we know it is," moving readers "by what [we] must feel to be the truth."

For this bicentennial roundtable I seek papers focusing on one or more works of American historical fiction written since 2000. Some possible orienting questions: Through what choices of setting, plot, theme, and craft do contemporary writers represent the American past? What visions and interrogations of America emerge through the best examples of this work? How is contemporary fiction revisionist as it represents the American past through the lenses of postcolonialism and globalization and new perspectives on gender, race, class, and the environment? In what ways might recent works ask to be read in dialogue with earlier, "classic" historical literature? Does Howells's emphasis on realism remain a valid criterion for excellence—or is the more imaginative category of "historical romance" in any way useful in the present? Most broadly, how do we theorize the strengths, limits, and unique characteristics of American historical fiction in the postmodern era?

In addition to studies of recent literary fiction, proposals focused on serious YA historical fiction are welcome, as are those examining nontraditional fictive forms (graphic novel, narrative poetry, etc.). Creative writers who have written historical fiction are welcome to talk about their own work, although I am looking for analytic discussion, not author readings. Works discussed may deal with any period of American history, but in honoring the origins of the North American Review I have a particular interest in fictional depictions of early America to around 1800. Papers that articulate an explicit connection to material in NAR or writers featured there are very welcome but not required.

The conference honors the bicentennial of the North American Review, the longest-lived literary magazine in the United States. It will be held on the attractive, well-equipped campus of the University of Northern Iowa in the town of Cedar Falls in northeast Iowa, home to a nationally recognized Great American Main Street arts and entertainment district, a state park, excellent walking/biking trails, and other attractions. Lodging will be available inexpensively on campus as well in reserved blocks at local hotels. Cedar Falls/Waterloo is approximately 210 miles from Minneapolis and 300 miles from Chicago, and is served by flights from Chicago to the Waterloo Regional Airport (ALO), as well as numerous flights to the Eastern Iowa Airport (CID) an hour away. For more information on the conference, see http://www.uni.edu/langlit/content/nar-bicentennial-conference.

Send proposals of approximately one page and CV to Anne G. Myles, Associate Professor of English, anne.myles@uni.edu, by December 12, 2014.