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Thousands explore Boston’s literary heritage, other topics at Modern Language Association convention

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  January 7, 2013 03:13 PM

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A center for the 19th-century Abolitionist movement. An inspiration for great poets. A supportive community for underground comics artists. A haven for criminals and tough-guy detectives.

Scholars explored many views of Boston, alongside a panoply of other topics, in the nearly 800 discussion sessions held during the Modern Language Association’s 128th annual convention at the Sheraton Boston hotel.

Returning to Boston for the first time in six decades, from Jan. 3 – 6 the MLA convention provided opportunities for professors and graduate students from around the country to ponder questions about Boston and New England in literature and history, alongside issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and social class.

“Boston is a wonderful location for the MLA Annual Convention,” MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal said in a statement released by the association. “This beautiful city is home to some of the world’s greatest colleges and universities, libraries, museums, and, of course, countless MLA members.”

In one session, scholars discussed the impact of the 1829 pamphlet “An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” written by the African-American Abolitionist David Walker and published in Boston, which had by the late 1820s developed a lively intellectual culture among free African Americans.

The pamphlet, which advocated that slaves rise up in violent resistance to their masters, was reviled across the slave-holding Southern states and helped Boston become known as a center for Abolitionism.

Marcy J. Dinius, an English professor at DePaul University, said Walker’s pamphlet may have helped persuade William Lloyd Garrison to base his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, in Boston two years later.

Another session looked at Boston’s role in the preservation and understanding of Native American cultures, focused in part on a now-defunct effort by the Boston Children’s Museum to preserve stories of contemporary native peoples and educate children about them.

The session also looked at William Apess, a Pequot activist and Methodist minister famous for his “Eulogy on King Philip” performed at Boston’s Odeon lecture hall in the 1830s. King Philip, also called Metacomet, was a 17th-century Wampanoag war chief who led the Native American uprising known as King Philip’s War.

Emily Donaldson Field, a PhD candidate at Boston University, said Apess embraced the rhetoric of the Abolitionist movement in describing the subjugation of native peoples by white colonists and sought to tell an alternative American history that presented King Philip as a heroic figure equivalent to presentations of the Founding Fathers in histories written by whites.

Derek S. McGrath, a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island, discussed George Copway, a controversial writer and defrocked minister from the Mississaugas Ojibwa tribe who wrote of a visit to Boston in the mid-19th century.

“Boston is much overrated; there are a few very few pretty spots; the rest is crooked and narrow. It is far behind New York, Philadelphia, and perhaps Baltimore and New Orleans,” Copway wrote.

Margaret Bruchac, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, cautioned that the failure to listen to the voices of native peoples is more destructive than many realize.

“Indifference is not a passive act,” Bruchac said. “Indifference is an aggressive form of erasure.”

An estimated 8,500 gathered at the Sheraton for the conference, crowding the hotel’s hallways as they eagerly chatted with colleagues and rushed to presentations, roundtable discussions, and an exhibition hall in Hynes Convention Center packed with about 100 publishers.

With dozens of different sessions taking place at any given time, the varied offerings presented opportunities to explore aspects of culture that ranged from the most elite and esoteric to the populist and accessible, sometimes finding connections between high art and popular culture that illuminated both.

During one session period, attendees had options that ranged from “The Persistence of Panpsychism in Philosophical and Literary Approaches to the Consciousness,” to “Lusophone Ecocriticism.”

Set aside the academic jargon, though, and forbidding references to thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, and much of the scholars’ discussions dealt with universal issues of how people understand the world around them, and whose stories will be remembered and whose forgotten.

Many speakers’ arguments included a call for more attention and mindfulness to the society and communities around us, both large and small, and a recognition that words carry weight that some fail to acknowledge.

In a well-attended discussion on contemporary attitudes toward race and sexual difference, Sharon Patricia Holland, an associate professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, recalled searching online for a simple recipe for a flourless chocolate cake.

Holland found a recipe that seemed just right, she said, until she saw that the cake it produced was nicknamed “the Black Beast.”

“Just when I was enjoying myself, I am confronted by the long arc of history,” Holland said.

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