Lecture Review: “The study of American literature” by Dr Owen Robinson

University of Suffolk holds an annual series of free evening lectures. The first since I started at the university was on the topic of American Literature – not at all germane to my particular research, but potentially interesting nonetheless. Much more appropriate, however, for Kat, who is aiming to take Creative Writing (which includes, of course, the study of Literature) at University next year. So the two of us went along to see what it would be like.

There was an online booking procedure, but it turned out that this was mainly for gathering numbers and issuing temporary swipe cards; the chosen auditorium was considerably less than half full. Being a student, I already had a card which would grant me access, but the temporary one was potentially useful for Kat. On climbing the stairs to the second floor we were presented with a mezzanine foyer slowly filling with retired people. By the start of the presentation, I estimated that at least 95% of the audience were over 65; as far as I could tell, Kat was the second youngest in the room. Second only because someone had brought a babe in arms!

On entering the lecture hall we chose seats somewhere near the centre, and entered into discussion of the images the lecturer had placed on the screen. Two similar flagpoles, each with a star-spangled banner waving in the breeze – one clearly visible against a blue sky, the other almost indistinguishable behind a tangle of branches. These images were later referred to as indicating the way that, despite some claims, there is no single clear “American Literature” but instead a complex tangle of cultures all of which contribute some aspect of the American literary experience.

The lecturer Dr Owen Robinson entered the hall dressed in, if not a costume then certainly inspired by, 19th century attire. John Bull hat, frock coat and weskit, pocket watch and all. Despite this affectation he seemed a young man very grounded in modern political views as well as his subject of historical American writing. The talk began with a disclaimer that he would find himself unable to refrain from mentioning politics, in particular the recent election Donald Trump as president, and his actions since taking office. This was a theme which cropped up several times during the lecture, but usually in a way which reflected on the core material.

The lecture itself fell into two parts. The first part dealt with the author Frederick Douglass, and in particular his work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself. I have not studied much American history or literature, and so was not aware of this author, nor of the genre of Slave Narratives which it exemplifies. Dr Robinson took us on a tour of the significance of Douglass and his writing, and used it to highlight the lack of President Trump’s knowledge of his own country’s history. The second part ranged a little wider, illustrating cartographically the development of regions of the United States over time, culminating in a study of some writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman and their influence on American notions of culture and identity. As a final point, Dr Robinson showed a video clip of Jimi Hendrix playing his own guitar version of The Star Spangled Banner. Perhaps a self-indulgent ploy by a guitar-loving lecturer, however, he did make the point that even though the piece was an instrumental, the words and the usage of the National Anthem would have been known to virtually all of his audience. Like so much American media, this performance existed within a shared cultural consciousness, and its political and musical aspects could not be separated from the feeling of being American so strongly evoked by the song.

Overall the themes of the talk wove the notion of writing and speaking as an act of creation, not just of the words themselves, but of people and cultures. Douglass wrote himself into fame and authority, despite starting from the insignificance of a slave. Emerson and Whitman were instrumental in defining the written culture of post-colonial America and in particular its independent and re-inventive nature. Hendrix took an overwhelming love for country and used it to underscore political commentary.

Following the main lecture there was a brief question and comment session, in which I raised the point that, despite Dr Robinson’s disdain, there is a sense in which President Trump exemplifies the same American characteristics pointed out in the historic writings – he disregards tradition and history, and uses all his speaking and writing to create the reality he desires. Trump truly is the kind of leader which could only arise in America. When the questions and comments were over we all adjourned to the foyer for drinks and canapés before making our way home.