William A. Gleason holds a Ph.D. in English from UCLA and has spent the past year as Acting Director of the American Studies program at Princeton University. He has received numerous awards including a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and has published two books: The Leisure Ethic: Work and Play in American Literature, 1840-1940 (Stanford University Press, 1999) and Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature (New York University Press, 2011). We spoke to him about his interest in American Studies, his two books, the concept of space in his work, and his current interests.
What attracted you to late nineteenth-early twentieth century American Studies?
I’ve always been fascinated by this period - probably dating back to an American literature course I took in high school - but it was in graduate school at UCLA that my scholarly interest in the era really took shape. I think it’s the tumult. These are years of incredible social, economic, and political upheaval, from the Civil War and Reconstruction, through the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, into the Roaring Twenties and the Depression. And of course it’s an age of cultural upheaval, too, with an explosion of print culture, on the one hand, and the rise of new media like film and radio, on the other. As someone deeply interested in the ways that cultural forms emerge from and also help shape their historical moments, this has always struck me as an exceptionally rich period to do the kind of contextual and interdisciplinary work that I enjoy most. For helping nurture this interest, I would also have to thank the Americanist faculty who taught such wonderful courses in this period while I was at UCLA, including Martha Banta, Eric Sundquist, Valerie Smith, and Richard Yarborough, plus folks like Michael Colacurcio, Ken Lincoln, Barbara Packer, and Stephen Yenser, from whom I learned so much about making culture and history speak to each other.
You teach a graduate seminar called The Rise of the Popular. Can you tell us a little about the "thesis" of the course?
The course really has two implicit arguments. First, that popular writing in the U.S. comes of age between roughly 1790 and 1900, by which I mean that many of the most familiar popular American literary genres - sentiment, gothic, seduction, adventure, reform - emerge, develop, and in many cases consolidate during this period. (Paul Gutjahr’s Popular American Literature of the 19th Century anthology is perfect for this course, although because I now use more full-length texts than excerpts I’ve made it a reference work rather than the main volume.)
The second argument of the course is that this “rise” needs to be understood in relation to key shifts in the social, economic, and legal dimensions of reading and publishing as well as developments in popular culture more broadly. So we also study changes in U.S. publishing practices and the history of the book. As a result, the course has become more and more archival. When I taught the seminar most recently this past spring, I worked with our rare books librarian each week to develop a kind of hands-on “display case” of texts and objects that would supplement our primary readings. The librarian brought these materials into the seminar, usually just after the midpoint break, for the students to handle and discuss. These materials could range from other examples of the literary genre under review, to popular prints or lithographs, to other items like sheet music, handbills, or even toys.
I was pleased to see several students choose archival research projects for their end-of-semester work. That’s another goal of the course: not just to introduce students to archival research but also to get them interested in trying it themselves.
In The Leisure Ethic, you write about the concept of leisure and leisure space as a kind of new frontier. What were the central issues at stake in that debate?
The play theorists and recreation reformers I write about in The Leisure Ethic saw leisure very much as Frederick Jackson Turner saw the western frontier: as a potentially revitalizing space of freedom, self-invention, and democracy. They even used many of the same metaphors for the power of play that Turner used for the frontier. They felt that play, for example, provided a “safety valve” for the release of pent-up energies, which is exactly how Turner (rightly or wrongly) talked about the frontier’s role in defusing economic and social competition in a rapidly urbanizing nation.
What the play theorists wanted to do, in effect, was bring the energies of Turner’s frontier - supposedly “closed” as of 1893 - back into the city, by designing spaces (such as urban playgrounds) that would let children, and especially boys, experience the exuberant freedoms supposedly denied them by the demands of urban life. This kind of play, they argued, would provide the city child with precisely the kinds of skills (physical, intellectual, moral) that rural life, felt to be precipitously on the wane, formerly nurtured.
There were a number of issues at stake in this reformulation. For one, not everyone agreed that “city life” was as stultifying as the play theorists proposed. Critics of the reformers pointed to the exuberance of unsupervised street play, particularly in densely populated immigrant neighborhoods, as an example of urban recreation that already produced the kind of freedom and improvisation the theorists hoped to bring to life in city parks and playgrounds. This critique had a particular charge because the play theorists focused much of their own energies on immigrants - both children and adults - whom they felt could be properly Americanized through directed play, magically transformed from ethnic “outsiders” to assimilated “insiders” by means of quintessentially American team games like baseball.
This debate also pointed to one of the ironies of play theory. Though reformers championed the freedoms of modern play over the constraints of modern work, the playgrounds they imagined required careful supervision, guidance, and instruction. “Proper” play, for the reformers, was more important than simply free play.
This interest in proper play brought the reformers into another debate that erupted with special force with the emergence of modern forms of commercial leisure. In my book, I call this the “play debate” of the 1920s, and it pitted play theorists against commercial distributors of leisure, including motion picture studios, stage companies, and collegiate and professional sports. Play reformers decried such forms of popular leisure as passive rather than active and as focused on spectacle rather than participation. In this debate, many others, including religious leaders, criminologists, and psychologists, joined the reformers in cautioning against the misuse of leisure. In The Leisure Ethic, I show how American writers joined this debate as well, through stories that assailed not only passive spectatorship but also the play theorists’ reconception of play as a “new frontier” in the first place.
What does leisure space say about race, class, and gender issues?
As it turns out, quite a lot. The “leisure ethic” that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was buttressed by often unspoken assumptions not only about racial and ethnic difference, but also about gender norms, socio-economic status, and thus also (perhaps ultimately) citizenship. A largely white, male, middle-class movement, play reform sought to recreate an America in its own image, drawing on new psycho-sociological theories about child development that stressed, for example, a “normal” evolution from the “primitive” to the “civilized” and a “natural” division of gender roles.
But this is also where discussions of work and play during this period get so interesting. In terms of gender, for example, the “less work, more play” mantra of the play reformers conflicted with the desires of many middle-class American women who were fighting for more meaningful work, not more capacious leisure. It’s fascinating to see play theorists - and also corporate advertisers - try to redefine housework as a form of productive play. There’s a wonderful series of articles in the popular early twentieth-century periodical, the Outlook (the TIME magazine of its day), titled “How to Make Play Out of Work,” in which a home economist urges women to convert every day cleaning tasks into “glorious sport” that strengthens the body through gymnastic exercise and the spirit through competitive zeal. Who needs work outside the home when work inside the home can be so uplifting?
These prescriptions and redefinitions cut across lines of class and race as well. In An American Tragedy, for example, Theodore Dreiser explores in almost numbing detail the ways that access to recreational opportunities - and quite literally the spaces of leisure - can be tightly regulated by social caste even in an era of comparative plenty. For working-class men and women of color, these constraints often multiply and can vary widely by place and region.
Which is not to say that possibilities didn’t exist, even among such constraints, for the successful negotiation of satisfying work and play lives. One of the most intriguing things I discovered during my research was that Zora Neale Hurston once appeared in the recreation reform movement’s national magazine (aptly titled Recreation) for her work with folk dances, songs, and games in the mid-1930s. And of all the writers in my study, it’s Hurston who most clearly imagines a protagonist (Janie, in In Their Eyes Were Watching God) who achieves a measure of satisfying control over her labor and her leisure, even pointing - in ways the play reformers never quite conceived - to the potentially powerful efficacy of partnered work and partnered play.
In Sites Unseen, you assert that "it remains striking how persistently the imagery of 'Oriental' space in turn-of-the-century popular American literature rejects the very possibility that Americans might find themselves 'at home' either with, or within, Asian design." Tell us more about the "strategies of architectural racialization in popular American Orientalist narrative."
Popular American Orientalist narrative is obsessed with architectural and decorative otherness. Virtually every popular tale in the early twentieth century that depicts Asian characters, settings, or scenes, constructs racial difference in spatial terms. Think of the myriad representations of Chinatown in popular American fiction: narrow streets, looming balconies, and violent colors above ground; trapdoors, hidden tunnels, and subterranean vaults (or sometimes, torture chambers) below. No other American racial or ethnic group is represented in quite this consistent a fashion. Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels - with their dark cellars, luxurious carpets, and dragon tapestries - epitomize the genre. But even the less sensational stories of a writer like Frank Norris tend to embody the threat and allure of Asian-ness in vivid Chinatown streetscapes that simultaneously (and metonymically) entice and overpower.
What fascinated me in doing the research for this chapter in Sites Unseen was discovering how persistently these architectural and decorative tropes clung to popular narrative even as American architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, for example - openly embraced Asian design as part of a new American architectural aesthetic. Wright’s integration of the simple horizontal lines, open floor plans, and natural settings common to Japanese domestic architecture in his famous Prairie Houses - design elements he first encountered in the Japanese Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair - exists in jarring juxtaposition with stereotypical representations of “Oriental” buildings, objects, and décor in popular fiction.
Thus it was all the more surprising to me to find that Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan novels - long derided for their stereotypical representations of racial character - did not foreground the architectural and decorative otherness so common to other popular texts of the period. In fact, Biggers’s first novel, The House Without a Key, goes out of its way to interrogate the persistence of the Chinatown trope itself, displacing the tunnel and dungeon motifs of Rohmer with recurring images of outdoor gardens and spacious lanais - only to find the usual stereotypes thrusting back into view. I see Biggers using these sudden reappearances to ask why the tropes are so difficult to shake off in the first place, theorizing, we might say - rather than merely rejecting - the architectural racialization so common to popular narrative.
Both The Leisure Ethic and Sites Unseen focus on issues concerning "spaces." How do you see the concepts connecting in regards to space between these two books?
This is a great question. Some people have asked me why these two books focus on such different topics. But as your question implies, for me they share a complementary interest in space, place, and narrative. I see both books, in other words, as part of the “spatial turn” in literary studies. The Leisure Ethic, in many respects, is a book about urban planning. It investigates the ideology behind the decisions to put playgrounds and parks in American cities, and then looks closely at those spaces themselves, in both actual and fictional settings. Sites Unseen moves from urban planning to architecture - from the streets to the buildings - and asks, in effect, “how does the built environment shape our experience of race?” and “what effect does race have on the ways that the interior and exterior spaces in which we live, work, and play shape us and the stories we tell?”
Both books have also been deeply shaped by the teaching I have done at Princeton for the Program in American Studies on culture, space, and society - most particularly a course called “American Places,” which I’ve taught since the late 1990s, an interdisciplinary exploration of a broad range of spatial matters, including urban ecology, landscape and culture, race and the built environment, growth and sprawl, history and memory.
For you, space is invariably political.
Absolutely. One of the main arguments of Sites Unseen is that architectural design inevitably reflects and shapes deeply embedded ideas about access and power. Who belongs in which spaces, and at what times? What kinds of relationships do different architectural spaces make possible - or impossible? These are the kinds of questions with which Sites Unseen is centrally preoccupied. Indeed, all of the texts I study - from Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative and Charles Chesnutt’s conjure tales, to Richard Harding Davis’s Three Gringos in Venezuela and Central America and Olga Beatriz Torres’s Memorias de mi viaje (Recollections of My Trip), to Biggers’s Charlie Chan novels - are intensely concerned with the politics of space.
What are your thoughts on the subject of space and politics in the context of the 2012 election cycle and the current race for the presidency?
Early in his campaign, Mitt Romney announced that it was time for Obama to “get out of the way,” a spatial metaphor in which I can’t help hearing at least a partial reformulation of the frequently expressed desire in 2008 to keep Obama “out of the White House.” So in that respect at least, I don’t think very much has changed in the past four years. It is still possible to invoke, however subtly, the rhetoric of race and spatial belonging - who belongs where - as we move into the higher gears of the 2012 campaign.
I’d like to think that the presence of a black family in the White House during the past four years - as occupants, not servants - has nonetheless offered, for many, a new image of what that space itself might mean as an iconic American “home.” And yet it should also not surprise us to find that ideas of home remain deeply fraught in a nation where the housing/subprime lending crisis that helped precipitate our current economic collapse remains, by and large, unresolved, for many Americans of any color.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on several projects. One of my current interests is geocriticism and the environmental humanities. I am currently co-editing (with Joni Adamson and David Pellow) a Keywords volume for New York University Press called Keywords in the Study of Environment and Culture, which we hope will be ready by next year. Much like the recent NYU Press volumes Keywords in American Cultural Studies and Keywords in Children’s Literature, we’re pulling together some of the top thinkers in the field - in our case, humanists, social scientists, and scientists - to discuss the terms that are becoming central to this rapidly growing field.
I am also co-editing a new volume on popular American romance fiction, tentatively titled Romance Fiction and American Culture, with Eric M. Selinger. This book, a follow-up to the national conference on romance fiction that Eric and I co-organized at Princeton in 2009, will feature essays on race, religion, sexuality, genre, and popular romance publishing from all periods of American literary history. We’re particularly excited about the depth of the volume, which will be the first collection to focus exclusively on American popular romance. We’re just beginning to talk with presses about this collection.
At the same time, I continue to think about the direction my next monograph might take. One possibility is a project that thinks about the relationship between ecology and childhood in the nineteenth century. This would bring together my interests in space and environment with my interest in popular representation. (At Princeton, I also teach our course on children’s literature.) But I’m still in the brainstorming phase - all in all, an enjoyable place to be.
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