National and Transnational Challenges to the American Imaginary

by Adina Ciugureanu (Volume editor) Eduard Vlad (Volume editor) Nicoleta Stanca (Volume editor)
©2018 Conference proceedings 342 Pages


The essays in this volume examine aspects of the ever-changing American imaginary over the last two centuries from the cultural perspectives of the present age, in which transnational approaches have vigorously challenged American exceptionalist narratives. It is a time in which uncertainties and reappraisals of group and national identity, both within the US and abroad, are part of the framework of a comprehensive field of research for scholars in American Studies, in the social sciences and the humanities alike. While situated in the current tumultuous century, the contributors of this volume focus on specific issues of the US defining and redefining itself from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword (Philip John Davies)
  • Preface and Introduction (Eduard Vlad / Adina Ciugureanu)
  • Part One: Transnational Glimpses
  • “For America’s bright Starry Banner”: Expressions of Irish American Affiliation, Identity and National Loyalty in Civil War Songs (Catherine Bateson)
  • Transatlantic Conceptions of Security: Stefan Zweig, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Paul V. McNutt, 1933–1945 (Dean J. Kotlowski)
  • “No Protection at Home,” “No Resting Place Abroad.” Vulnerable Subjects and (Trans)National Contexts in Frederick Douglass’s Life Writing (Roxana Oltean)
  • Between Politics and Poetics: Arthur Miller’s Transnational America on the Bulgarian Stage (1948–2011) (Kornelia Slavova)
  • Thomas Jefferson on Class and the European Perspective (Zoltán Vajda)
  • Guillermo Del Toro, Gothic Re-Animator (Florian Andrei Vlad)
  • Part Two: From America the Beautiful to the Transcultural
  • “The Picture out of Frame”: Reality and Impression(ism) in Henry James’s The Ambassadors and John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (Adina Ciugureanu)
  • Caridad Svich’s Raving Iphigenia as Mythical Celebrity and Female Pharmakos (Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou)
  • How We Lost America: Transcultural Visions of America in Bulgarian Films (Alexandra Glavanakova)
  • “Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in America.” Sites of Worlding in the Post-9/11 Novel (Rodica Mihăilă)
  • Irish-American Journeys in Colum McCann’s Transatlantic (Nicoleta Stanca)
  • Part Three: Trauma and Fantasy in American Fiction
  • Graphic Trauma in Alison Bechdel’s Memoirs (Loredana Bercuci)
  • Exploring the Shame-Guilt-Violence Nexus in E.L. Doctorow’s Early Fiction (María Ferrández San Miguel)
  • The Performativity of Violence in the Theatrical Adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) (Penny Koutsi)
  • The Power of Vulnerability, or the New American Autobiographical Writing: Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl (Marta Lysik)
  • Quo Vadis Homo Futuris? – Dan Simmons’ Trans/Post-Humanist Fiction on the Evolutionary Future of the Human Species (Mariusz Marszalski)
  • Jim Grimsley at the Crossroads of Southern Literature: From Literary Fiction through Fantasy to Science Fiction (Roman Trušník)
  • Part Four: Digesting the Popular and the Countercultural
  • Postfeminism and Chick Lit in The Devil Wears Prada (Alina Ilief-Martinescu)
  • “Our Chef is Delicious”: Contemporary American Persona Poetry (Monica Manolachi)
  • Identity, Intertextuality, Consumption and Reception in The Big Bang Theory (Lucia Opreanu)
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s Detective Fiction: A Case of American (Re)visions (Cristina Tania Peptan)
  • De/Mythologizing the Las Vegas Topos: Digesting the Burlesque Lotus (Mariza Tzouni)
  • Countercultural Coordinates of Discourse Change and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (Eduard Vlad)

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Philip John Davies


When the editors conceived this volume, in autumn 2016, they displayed a possibly serendipitous prescience that the American imagination, and the ways “American” sits in the imagination of transnational actors, was about to be challenged in unprecedented ways. Most of the essays contained in this volume draw on papers delivered at the conference hosted by Ovidius University, Constanta in April 2016 by the Romanian Association for American Studies on behalf of the European Association for American Studies. I had the good fortune, at that time, to be President of EAAS. As they prepared their drafts for presentation many authors who have contributed to this volume were working in the context of a presidential primary season that was progressing in a most unexpected way. The 2016 US presidential primary and general elections were expected to challenge the norms of American election history, but the challenge that was emerging, if not already wholly apparent in April 2016 when the conference was taking place, did not take the shape that had been expected by many.

The expected challenge to America’s political orthodoxy was that a woman would take the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties, and furthermore, that she would be the odds-on favourite to go on to victory in the general election. This would be a half-fulfilled challenge. In spite of Hilary Clinton’s first national success of winning major primaries in the presidential nomination process in 2008, it was Barack Obama who took the Democratic nomination and went on to break the monopoly hold on the White House by establishment white men.

There is a transnational element to the politics of America. This is true of any major nation on the globe, but the racial, ethnic and immigrant diversity of the United States makes sure that its actions – cultural, social, artistic or political – resonate with an unusual immediacy in many places. The limited demographic pool from which the US continued to choose its leadership has drawn increasing scrutiny, and not just at home. When Barack Obama was under pressure in the 2012 election, my own opinion was that it was critical that he win re-election, reasoning that if the first president to break the white, male mould failed the test of re-election, then US political parties would be slow to envisage any other candidates outside the white, male template. I attended the Obama 2012 inauguration, and was looking forward to attending the inauguration of the first woman president. ← 9 | 10 →

As things turned out the election of the first woman president was not the challenge that Americans brought to their polity. Hillary Clinton fought her way to the Democratic nomination through a long, gruelling and damaging primary campaign against the independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. In the Republican primary field, no consensus candidate emerged who could hold back the insurgency behind TV personality and businessman Donald Trump.

In an era when mistrust of government and of politicians has grown, candidates regularly stress their credentials as outsider challengers to the political system and political elite. The candidacy of Donald Trump builds on this, but takes it further. For example, Trump’s party allegiance includes a period as a registered Democrat, sandwiched by time registered as a Republican, and peppered by a brief flirtation with Ross Perot’s Reform Party. Trump came to the campaign then not as a political ingenue, not without experience in the politics of national elections, and with a claim to be the anti-establishment candidate to fit the time.

Possibly even to Donald Trump’s own surprise this appeal resulted in him becoming only the fifth president to reach the White House on the strength of an Electoral College majority not reflected in the popular vote, and the first president who has held no previous public or military office. After the results of the November 2016 election the question of the national response to women in US politics remained one of the challenges highlighted. To this was added the challenge of insurgent electoral politics, inexperience at the nation’s helm, and extravagantly novel developments in the political use of traditional and modern media interfaces.

With the contemporary American political scene producing an array of unforeseen challenges there has been provoked an unusually large range of transnational and national responses. The transnational cultural, social and political impact of America has been emphasised by the national, regional and global reactions stimulated by the changes in the USA. While there is no consensus as to whether the USA is likely to return quickly to a more predictable political path, or to generate further unimagined events, there can hardly be a better context in which to review National and Transnational Challenges to the American Imagination.

The twenty-three essays in the four sections of this collection address a range of evidence drawn from literature, fine arts, poetry, scholarly history, song, and other sources. In the finest American Studies tradition these authors are scholarly explorers. They bring together disciplines, genres, methodologies, examples and approaches that often lie parallel and untouching in much of traditional scholarship, and they create from the warp and weft of their work original designs and novel frameworks to help their readers discover America and American Studies in new and unexpected ways. ← 10 | 11 →

The collection explores in time and space. The locations of this American Studies can be on the US/Mexican border; in the hands of a trans-Atlantic triangle of men formed during the interval between the two World Wars of the twentieth century; with Irish recruits to the US Civil War singing in the field; in the interconnection between Henry James and John Singer Sargent, an author and an artist as comfortable in turn-of-the-century London as on the East coast of the USA; in the theatres and cinemas of Bulgaria where the interpretation of America and its performing arts provides lenses through which to see each country anew and in many other places where these authors shine their lights. These authors form a team of stimulating guides – my special gratitude is due to them, and to the editors, for gracing my brief term as President of the European Association for American Studies with the work that forms this collection.

Philip John Davies

Professor Emeritus of American Studies,

De Montfort University, Leicester


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Eduard Vlad / Adina Ciugureanu

Preface and Introduction

The current volume asserts its right to display a diversity of approaches, visions, and areas of investigation in the vast fields explored by the humanities and the social sciences. It has emerged at the confluence of two related projects. One had to do with what is particularly obvious today, in an age of vigorous cultural reassessments and confrontations. Could one still speak of a discernible, prevailing American Imaginary being challenged from various contemporary perspectives? The other project started from the transnational turn in American Studies and the ways in which a multiethnic, multicultural community defines itself in terms of its internal oppositions as well as in terms of its relation to the world outside. It soon became obvious that the two projects had a lot in common and the main thread linking them was the gradual transition from seeing the United States as essentially united to what is now generally accepted as the US as a bewildering expression of cultural diversity.

As mentioned, the first project was meant to explore contemporary challenges to the American cultural imaginary, and the discussions which ensued among the potential contributors raised a number of important questions, such as ‘where does the contemporary begin’? The answers are inevitably very subjective, having to do with what, from a recent past, has unquestionable present relevance. At one extreme, as far as written records go, one can arguably go back to John Winthrop’s refashioning of Jesus Christ’s metaphor of the City upon a Hill and follow its transformations up to more recent expressions of American Exceptionalism (such as John Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s proud assertions of a paragon for all to see, admire and follow). The debate about the range of the contemporary has gradually become less important in the potential contributors’ interaction (greatly facilitated by the Internet) than the insertion of petits recits in one grand narrative having to do with American identity, and to which some have referred through the phrase of the American imaginary. In what ways do these small stories contribute to the shaping of this otherwise protean and elusive grand narrative and, even more importantly, how do these smaller stories engage in a critical dialog with it?

The stories about America promoted by WASP elites, such as the Brahmin Bostoners, and by believers in such ideologies as Manifest Destiny in the 19th century and by theories of modernization showing the world the right way, the American way, during the early Cold War years, have added touches to one particular version ← 13 | 14 → of the American imaginary. If one such strand of stories is thought by many to have been useful during the historical stages of nation building both in the US and elsewhere, the American experience soon turned out to be … exceptional and very problematic in at least two very clear ways. One was linked to the descendants of the original white settlers being joined in increasing numbers by immigrants from various parts of the world, apparently willing to jump into the melting pot in an attempt to make the American Dream, an important ingredient of the American imaginary, come true.

If nativism was at the core of nation building in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the situation in the US was different. In the transatlantic Promised Land, the natives were the ones who were gradually pushed both westward and out, occasionally depicted as part of the savage alterity and wild nature against which the American frontier spirit was forged. And then, in addition to the Native Americans, there were also the African American slaves in the land of the free. The Native Americans, among others, became the necessary characters in the chapters about the Wild West of the American Imaginary, while the African Americans’ plight largely contributed to the inimical brothers’ murderous feud, the deadliest military confrontation the US ever experienced, and such romantic Hollywood films as … Gone with the Wind.

An initially largely monological construction of the mainstream American Imaginary, starting from the early Puritan representations, for a very long time until relatively recently (a few decades ago) tended to exclude what it conceived of as marginality or alterity (native Americans, African Americans, waves of non-WASP immigrants), defining itself in terms of its exceptionalism. Even when marginality or alterity was somehow represented, the representation itself, instead of including the ‘represented,’ tended to confirm center vs. periphery configurations, thus serving to reinforce power relations featuring the ‘essential we’ in relation to the alien ‘them.’

It is now clear for everybody that the tendency to conceive an imagined unitary American Imaginary as defining an imagined exceptional American identity has not been the only perspective adopted by a wealth of cultural representations. These representations have contributed to the dynamics of continuity and change, featuring both promotions and exclusions, inherent in the permanent shaping of any site of consensus, negotiation and struggle that one calls a national culture.

The emphasis on transnational cultural definitions, which gradually emerged in the first mentioned project, went on to join what the second project had taken as a point of departure. It replaced the contemporary with a broader time span extending back into a less immediate past that can be seen as relevant for current ← 14 | 15 → developments, while being aware of the transnational term that is influencing the social sciences and the humanities.

In the world of globalization in which power and identities are currently remapped and reconfigured, transnational approaches to cultures and their comprehensive networks do not only reveal new aspects of recent or older subjects, but also create flows of ideas, images and symbols that may become extensively productive in the cultures under clash. A particular reading of the concept of transnationalism is connected to the topic of borderlands and border culture which gives birth to transgressive identities and which had been largely analyzed by Edward Said and Gloria Anzaldua. Real borders as much supported by law, power, and regulations as they are, generated specific cultural constructions which used to make the people inhabiting the area be either torn between two national identities or live in a hybrid identity in which the two cultures juxtapose. Today we are increasingly speaking of “transnational communities,” in which migration plays an important part.

Four of the essays in the present volume deal with 19th century cultural representations, the rest dealing with aspects of the 20th and 21st centuries. In the process of online debate and conversation, a number of contributors made significant changes to fill slots in a larger design, while some, for various reasons, chose to redirect their work toward other projects, which largely explains why some important episodes in the American cultural developments spanning two centuries are no longer present here. Be that as it may, any collection of essays, however well planned and comprehensive, cannot encompass more than a fraction of the huge expanse that is American culture and its major representations. Most of the essays in this volume reconsider recent cultural aspects, while others are important from the new perspectives from which the past, apparently solidified into established pronouncements, is seen from national and transnational perspectives in a world increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

The articles in Part One of the present volume focus on a distinct aspect of the transnational cultures. With the exception of the last essay of this part, which discusses transnationalism as hybrid identity, the glimpses we offer in the other articles are not from neighboring borders, but from imaginary borderlines between the USA and Europe, in general, and European countries, in particular (e.g. Ireland, England, France, Austria, Bulgaria). In this respect, Catherine Bateson’s essay, “ ‘For America’s Bright Starry Banner’: Expressions of Irish American Affiliation, Identity and National Loyalty in Civil War Songs” explores the way in which the Irish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War appropriated the all famous and symbolic Star-Spangled Banner song and introduced Irish ← 15 | 16 → wartime balladry to communicate notions of democracy, freedom and liberty, which America represented at the time and in which the soldiers, belonging to the Irish diaspora, believed. In the essay, the author examines representations of two interrelated processes, one of Irish in-group solidarity within the framework of the US at the time of the Civil War, having to do with the way the Irish soldiers performed their military role in the Union Army, one of increasing transnational identity formation, affiliation and national loyalty to the American nation.

Moving from Irish-American popular culture to American politics during the Great Depression and World War II, Dean J. Kotlowski’s “Transatlantic Conceptions of Security: Stefan Zweig, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Paul V. McNutt, 1933–1945” brings together an Austrian novelist, a US President born in New York and a US politician from the American Midwest. The essay focuses on the age the US chooses to define itself, more than at any previous time, in transnational terms as the champion of world security before and during the most insecure years in world history. The vital need for security features prominently in the destinies of the three figures mentioned above, the Jewish writer Stefan Zveig, who assesses the rise of Nazism and of global insecurity in his memoir The World of Yesterday (1942), as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and US politician Paul McNutt. However distinct the three men seem to be from the cultural, social, ethnic, and political points of view, they share a clear vision of the dangers and risks that the pre-World War II age was already conveying on the two sides of the Atlantic. The two prominent American political figures are viewed as instrumental in the promotion of policies aimed at safeguarding national and transnational, global security in times of deep trouble for humankind, the US having to renounce what had been its 19th century isolationist stance in international relations.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (August)
transcultural dimensions counterculture fantasy identity worlding intertextuality
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 342 pp.

Biographical notes

Adina Ciugureanu (Volume editor) Eduard Vlad (Volume editor) Nicoleta Stanca (Volume editor)

Adina Ciugureanu is Professor of British and American Studies at Ovidius University Constanta, Romania. Her research and publications focus on aspects related to the nineteenth-century Victorianism, twentieth-century American and British Modernism, feminist studies and popular culture. Eduard Vlad is Professor of American Studies at Ovidius University, Constanta. His interests and publications range from literary and cultural studies to identity theory and globalization studies. Nicoleta Stanca is Associate Professor of Irish and American Studies at Ovidius University, Constanta. She has published books and articles on Irish-American identity and popular culture.


Title: National and Transnational Challenges to the American Imaginary
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344 pages