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Essay

New Directions for Thing Theory in Literary Studies: A Forum

by Sarah Wasserman, Patrick Moran

Fields move forward and stay vibrant through the work of the newest scholars; ideas stay alive as they take shape in the hands and words of critics who put familiar theories into conversation with new texts and questions. This forum on new directions for thing theory in literary studies showcases these scholars and their approaches, gathering short essays on a range of topics. 

When we circulated a call for papers in 2021, we asked for essays that would illuminate the current state of object-based study in literature: What literary works should we look to for new perspectives on materiality? Which methods hold promise today? What stories, in other words, does Thing Theory have left to tell? 

We are pleased to feature new work by five scholars, all currently PhD candidates in American Studies and English. Cutting across historical period, literary genre, topic, approach, and field, their essays suggest that centering things remains a generative enterprise—one that allows us to trace little known histories, but also to confront the matter missing from our archives and the feelings that move us when we read but can be hard to locate. Crucially, things also become ciphers for everyday crises, the small and steady unfolding of disaster that we experience more frequently and more painfully as climate change and a global pandemic rage on. 

The work featured here does not dispense with the foundations of thing theory or literary studies in the interest of being contemporary; rather, it pushes and stretches familiar methods in new directions. In particular, these essays explore the intersections of thing theory with critical race studies, the environmental humanities, and critical food studies. 

Claire Bunschoten (UNC Chapel Hill) discusses the resonant absence of vanilla in the short stories of the early nineteenth-century writer Eliza Leslie. Vanilla, in Bunschoten’s work, reveals itself as a thing, arrested in the transatlantic commercial flows and social life of early America. Aaron Burstein (University of Illinois) reads the class hierarchies in William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by attending to the novel’s treatment of collecting and curation. Michael Doss (University of Delaware) takes us into the 21st century in an exploration of the object world of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013). Kushner’s objects, Doss contends, necessitate an approach that brings thing theory together with affect studies—a way of reading the politically charged feeling that resides in literary objects. Molly MacVeagh (Cornell University) considers depictions of quotidian labor in two recent novels of climate apocalypse, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (2015) and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017). MacVeagh argues for the theoretical importance of “food work” as a concept that draws upon thing theory and ecocriticism. Grace Bernadette McGowan (Boston University) shows how objects in Toni Morrison’s fiction and Robin Coste Lewis’s poetry point toward a form of Black classicism. The texts’ classical references and allusions, McGowan reveals, reclaim and subvert the classical tradition by reveling in the relays between people and things. [1]


Notes

[1] The editors wish to thank Aaron Bisson for his help editing and formatting these essays, as well as Victoria Zurita and Max Fennell-Chametzky for their support with layout and publishing.

 

Sarah Wasserman's picture
Sarah Wasserman specializes in American literature from 1900 to today, with an emphasis on post-1945 and contemporary fiction. She is associate professor of English and associate director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (U Minnesota Press, 2020) and co-editor of Modelwork: The Material Culture of Making and Knowing (U Minnesota Press, 2021) and Cultures of Obsolescence (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015). Her essays appear in PMLA, Post45, ASAP, Contemporary Literature, Lit Compass, American Literary History, as well as Public Books and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Patrick Moran's picture
Patrick Moran is a lecturer in the writing program at Princeton University. His scholarship focuses on modernism, material culture, childhood studies, and the medical humanities. His work has appeared in James Joyce Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, Modernism/modernity, Éire-Ireland, and Literature and Medicine. He is also interested in creative writing and holds an MFA from Columbia University.

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