Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What I Learned at the Constanta EAAS

In April my partner Susan and I attended the biennial meeting of EAAS, the European Association of American Studies. This academic consortium brought together several hundred scholars from four continents and half a dozen disciplines (English, history, cultural studies, etc.) for five days of presentations, coffee klatches, and intellectual exchange. Practical limitations prevented me from attending more than a handful of papers, nearly all of them in my specialty of early American history, but I thought a summary of these presentations would give a sense of the scholarship on display.

Przemyslaw Damski reminded us that the fin-de-(vingtieme)-siecle United States followed a strongly interventionist foreign policy: American officials attended the 1899 Hague conference, developed the Open Door policy, and concluded treaties with Britain, and Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Treaty of Portsmouth. (We might throw in the Spanish-American War, but point taken.)

Abigail Fagan studied the German temperance movement and its adherents' relationship with American reformers in the 1830s. Temperance in central Europe grew out of liberalism, from the belief that one couldn't have a free state with a drunken populace - and, as in the U.S., from elites' desire to police the lower classes, who preferentially drank hard liquor. (This surprised me; I assumed all Germans drank beer.)

Elise Kammerer discussed Anthony Benezet's school for free black children in colonial Philadelphia. She observed that the Quakers, pioneers of education for African-Americans, wanted black children trained in grammar and vocational skills, but not to the same level as their own children - and not in the same schools.

Hilary McLaughlin-Stoneham studied segregated transport in New Orleans and the lower Mississippi Valley, noting that racially segregated streetcars and steamboats dated to the Civil War rather than the 1890s. This shouldn't have surprised me, but it did; my knowledge of segregation in the late nineteenth-century South derives too much from my memory of STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW.

Damian Pargas, who is working on a study of fugitive slaves in the urban South, observed that runaways didn't always head for the North or Canada. Many went instead to Southern cities, where they believed it likelier they would find free kinfolk and employment.

Jean Pfaelzer gave a preview of her book CALIFORNIA BOUND. Despite calling itself a "free state," nineteenth-century California was anything but. Chinese companies employed captive women as sex workers, Anglo-Americans imported 2,000 African-American slaves as "indentured servants," and whites could essentially enslave Native Americans under state vagrancy laws.

Zsolt Palotas observed that one-sixth of the early American grain trade, and much of the nation's trade in provisions, was with the Mediterranean. This made relations with the Barbary states at least as important as those with Central Europe, and tribute payments to Algiers and Tripoli correspondingly significant.

Finally, a workshop on Digital Archiving reported that the University of Salzburg is working on a searchable database of early American drama, including tags for “gender relevance:” “male vanity, hypocrisy, cowardice, female boldness, women mocking men, [and] women...performatively reproducing certain kinds of masculinity."

Since you asked, Your Humble Narrator presented a short paper on the Chickasaw students who attended Plainfield Academy, Connecticut, in the late 1840s, and Mlle.* Livingston presented on the theme of disgust in children's toys.


The Association held its conference in Constanta, Romania, a city and a country I never thought I would have occasion to visit. Romania is poor as European countries go, and some of my sights and experiences reminded me of the other second-world country I have visited, Cuba: run-down and semi-abandoned buildings in the capital, stray dogs in the towns, piles of trash on railroad tracks and in vacant lots, mediocre food, dodgy-looking polyclinics, and old women rationing out toilet paper at the public lavatories. Yet despite its relative poverty the country had a lot of charm. The run-down buildings were often covered with ivy, the stray dogs were obviously well-fed and enjoying themselves, the train service was smooth and fast - and I've never before taken a train where book vendors came aboard shortly before departure -  and we did manage to find a couple of good restaurants (Thalia and Pata Negra) in Bucharest. I am glad that I didn't have occasion to visit one of the clinics or hospitals, however.**

The Romanians we met were friendly, thought it was funny when we tried our few words of Romanian, and wanted to know what was up with our electorate and Donald Trump. We said that confused us too. Romania recently held its own elections and decided to reinstate its former democratic socialist government, an example we Americans would do well to follow, if only we could.

(Above photos are of Ovidius University, Constanta, and a street scene on the Calea Grivitei, Bucharest. Both taken by the author.)

* Since May 15, Dr. Livingston. 
** We did patronize one of the pharmacies a couple of times, and I will say that whatever Romanians use in place of Imodium is very powerful.

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