Earlier in the year, the IAAS awarded two bursaries to assist postgraduate students with attendance at the biennial EAAS conference in Romania. Eve Cobain, Trinity College Dublin, was one of the awardees.

I was the happy recipient of a bursary to attend the EAAS conference, held in the Romanian seaside town of Constanta back in April this year. The EAAS Biennial is a behemoth conference, with up to fourteen sessions running at one time. Over three days, I attended papers on subjects ranging from queer performance to abject toys, neoliberalism to contact improvisation. As a devout reader of poetry, particularly the middle-generation American poet John Berryman, much of this was unfamiliar territory, but the assortment of voices and activities brought me to a renewed enthusiasm for my work as part of the American Studies scene more broadly.

ConstantaA particular highlight was the evening extravaganza, “A journey through blues and swing to Armenian ethnic jazz,” led by Harry Tavitan, alongside daughter, Aida Tavitan. From the end of the ’70s, according to the conference brochure, Tavitan became the leader of the avant-garde movement in Romanian jazz. It was fascinating to see how blues and jazz, as musical forms born in the US, have melded with local Romanian and Armenian musical traditions – the result was arresting. An additional highlight was Tavitan’s reading of Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues,” which was conducted with the same feeling and intuition as observed in his musical practice.

My own panel took place on Sunday the 24th April between 11am and 1pm, giving lots of time for discussion between participants. First up, Ulrich Adelt, from the University of Wyoming, spoke about Blues, Race and the Civil Rights Movement. Having observed the title of this paper on the programme a few months previously, I had become a little anxious about my own subject: John Berryman’s treatment of the blues. Ulrich focused particularly on white performance and masculinity in the 1960s, explaining how women artists during this period were often overlooked or silenced. Indeed, it was during this period that John Berryman was working on his most blues-focused poems. The interaction between the two papers caused me to reevaluate Berryman’s blues poems, which celebrate the work of female artists, Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey. While Berryman’s tendency toward mimicry was still in question, then, I came away with an added perspective: that the poet’s decision to focus specifically on women artists during this period in which men held sway was at least partly a political one. Gavin Cologne-Brookes of Bath Spa University brought the panel to a close with a pragmatic and optimistic paper on Springsteen and the “Uses of Art”.

Another panel, chaired by two scholars from my alma mater, Queen’s University Belfast, also left an impression. On a panel entitled “Negotiating the Seen and Felt: Where American Art meets American Writing”, Catherine Gander and Sarah Garland explored ideas of text and embodiment, and the relationship between word and object. Catherine Gander’s paper in particular raised questions surrounding the radicalised body (through the work of Basquiat and Rankine, amongst others), as well as the politics of the textual image, while in Sarah Garland’s discussion of Aspen, the magazine in a box, the notion of “reading” was troubled yet further.

The conference was rounded off with the banquet to end all banquets – where our own Philip McGowan was announced EAAS president-elect – and an open bar that had us all upstanding.

Katie Ahern is a PhD candidate at the School of English in University College Cork. She was the recipient of one of our postgraduate travel awards this summer.

Wharton conf pic
Larz Anderson House Ballroom

With the aid of the Irish Association for American Studies travel bursary, I travelled to Washington DC to present at the Edith Wharton Society conference “Wharton in Washington”. It was the first conference run by the Edith Wharton Society in four years (the last was in Florence in 2012), and proved to be an invaluable opportunity for me to engage with the most recent Wharton scholarship, and indeed to meet many prominent scholars in the field. The conference ran from the 2nd of June through to the 4th and was located on Embassy Row in Washington, split between the Fairfax Hotel and the Larz Anderson House – the Gilded Age mansion truly helped create a wonderful atmosphere for the conference!

My PhD thesis, All Night Long I Walked the Streets, Drunk with my Dreams”: A Comparative Study of Urban Space in Twentieth-Century American Literature’ analyses American novels set in the urban environment to investigate marginalised identities and establish the ways in which neglected identities were conceived of by twentieth-century American writers.  My chosen authors rarely, if ever, have conferences centred on them, and so this conference provided a valuable insight into the work of other, more established scholars as well as facilitating a deeper critical understanding of Edith Wharton’s work.  The conference organisers, Drs Melanie Dawson and Jennifer Haytock, clearly went to great effort to put together thoughtful panels with papers which linked clearly together and created coherent lines of thought. I was excited to meet with scholars I had met previously, and also to hear the biggest names in Edith Wharton studies give their thoughts on the current areas of interest.

The first evening’s keynote speaker was Dr Laura Rattray, Reader in North American Literature at the University of Glasgow, whose publications include the edited collection of Edith Wharton’s unpublished writings, and who is currently one of the foremost Wharton scholars. Dr Rattray delivered a wonderful talk about the developments in Wharton studies in recent years, while also pointing out the absences of scholarship on some areas of Wharton’s writing – specifically a lack of interest in her as a poet and a playwright. The second keynote speaker was the screenwriter and director Christopher Hampton, who gave an interesting and entertaining account of the difficulties he has experienced in his attempts to bring Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country to screen.

Wharton conference pic
Wharton conference delegates

Conference presentations are always a valuable method to gain new understanding of one’s work and to be able to present my work on Wharton towards the end of my PhD gave me the opportunity to gauge the quality of my own work on one of the authors central to my studies for such a long time. It was fascinating to hear papers from authors whose work I’ve read for years, and to have the chance to discuss my paper and thoughts with them was wonderful. The more established delegates were very welcoming towards new scholars, and thoughtful with their feedback which made the trip both useful from a scholarly perspective and enjoyable.


Alison Garden is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin and was awarded a Postdoctoral and Early Career bursary by the IAAS earlier this year. You can follow her on Twitter at @notsecretGarden.


‘All literature begins with geography’,

Robert Frost


The ‘Digital Turn’ in humanities scholarship has led to the embrace of a number of new research tools, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I was absolutely delighted to receive the 2016 Irish Association of American Studies Postdoctoral Award, which I used to fund my attendance at the ‘Geographical Information Systems’ summer school at the University of Lancaster, part of the Lancaster Summer Schools programme in Corpus Linguistics and other Digital methods. GIS is an area within geography that enables the production of digital maps from data mined from various sources: but GIS systems are as much data-handling systems as mapping systems. Using GIS software, such as ArcGIS and Quantum GIS (Q-GIS), is becoming increasingly popular with humanities scholars (both within and outside the often nebulously-defined ‘Digital Humanities’) to create resources to grapple with data in novel ways and disseminate findings in engaging, accessible formats.

But how are these new tools useful for those of us working with qualitative data, such as textual and literary sources, rather than quantitative data? GIS can be used in various ways and excellent examples of public-facing projects include poetryatlas.com, an interactive global map tagging poems to place and litlong.org, created by a team based at the University of Edinburgh, led by Professor James Loxley, uses GIS (amongst other digital tools) to mine and map the literary archive of Edinburgh. As a scholar of the Atlantic world, my work traces, explicates and complicates the connections between Atlantic literatures, cultures and histories. Such connections are found in curious places, often transhistorical and nearly always transcultural. We often talk about ‘mapping’ the relationships between texts but I wanted to acquire the skills to make these mappings more tangible: what would a map of such connections actually look like?

Under the expert tuition of Professor Ian Gregory and James Perry, a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, a diverse group of PhD students and postdocs spent four very busy days getting to grips with the basics of several GIS programmes, including ArcGIS, Google Earth, Google Maps and a frustrating, failed attempt to get QGis to download onto my ancient Macbook. Through working with databases, both pre-existing and ones we created ourselves, we worked through how to construct our own maps, exploring how to manipulate and analyse spatial data. We learnt where to find examples of beautiful old maps (oldmaps.com and davidrumsey.com) and how to upload these old maps onto ArcGIS, using Google Earth to georeference these with accurate coordinates.

Most immediately, I plan to use these new skills to digitally map the travels and literary afterlives of Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist and human rights campaigner, whose career and politics took him to the Congo Free State, the Putumayo region of the Amazon, the United States and Germany, amongst other places. However, the impact that this course will have on my future research stretches far beyond this current project, enabling me to create visual and interactive resources for multiple audiences, including academics, students and the wider public. Literature from the United States and the Atlantic space is so driven by travel – of people, material cultures and ideas – that using GIS methods would be an enormously productive way of grappling with the vast internal geographies of these literatures.

However, resources created through GIS often generate more questions than answers; Ian Gregory reminded us at multiple points that scholars ought to think of these tools as a means of furthering our analysis and interpretation, not as end results in and of themselves. My time in Lancaster got me thinking not just about how to trace poetic or political influence as plotted spatial data, but also left me with methodological questions about what it means to ‘read’ texts, and how cartographic modes of academic enquiry open up literature in hugely creative and invigorating ways. The relationship between literature and place has always fascinated me, from Irish dinnseanchas, narratives of migration and the myth of the West in the popular culture of the United States, but this course challenged me to reflect further about how maps themselves influence our interpretations of texts, culture and society – and not always unproblematically, as postcolonial theorists have emphasised.[1] Exploring the opportunities afforded by GIS, this summer school encouraged me to think about new ways into texts, new ways of engaging with cultural echoes and new ways of tracing the complex, echoing histories of Atlantic interexchange.



[1] Graham Huggan contends that colonial map-making projects entail ‘the reinscription, enclosure and hierarchization of space, which provide[s] an analogue for the acquisition, management and reinforcement of colonial power’ (115). It is also worth remembering the cartographic violence done to North America by white European settlers, asserting that ‘seventeenth-century maps of North America reveal a progressive loss of [Native American] names, for which names of English origin are substituted’ (185). See Graham Huggan, ‘Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic Connection’, Ariel: a Review of International English Literature, 20: 4 (1989): 115-31; and Mary Hamer, ‘Putting Ireland on the Map.’ Textual Practice, 3: 2 (1989): 184-201.