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ISU professor Norman publishes key book on American protest literature

Posted October 1, 2007

“We can make America what America must become,” wrote the famous Civil Rights-era author James Baldwin in his 1962 essay “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundreth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

This idea of reshaping America so that it lives up to its loftiest ideals is certainly not new. In fact, that has been the topic of protest essays as early as the inception of this country and protest essayists play important roles in nearly all major American social movements. While these documents have long served political and historical purposes, one Idaho State University professor explores how these important documents address, rather than repress, social division in the United States.

Brian Norman, Ph.D., co-director of the ISU Women’s Studies Program and assistant professor of English, has written “The American Protest Essay and National Belonging: Addressing Division” to be released Oct. 11.

The book explores the role of the literary protest essay as a means of discussing inequalities and discord in America’s social strata. Norman explains that when celebrated novelists and poets want to cash in their literary celebrity for political advocacy, they have often turned to the protest essay tradition. In doing so, they enter an important literary tradition that draws on not only the personal essay genre, but also political oratory and pamphleteering. In addition to Baldwin’s essays, Norman’s book looks at essays by such essayists as Henry David Thoreau, June Jordan, and Adrienne Rich, as well as writing an oratory from political spokespersons, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Emma Goldman.

Norman is one of a handful of American protest literature scholars in the United States, and his book is the first of its kind treating protest essays in particular as a distinct literary form.

“Scholars and readers have long recognized the political importance of these essays, and I’m hoping this book will also show they belong in a distinct literary tradition,” Norman said. He feels these writings represent “key debates about American identity, national ideals of equality, and exclusion from those promises” and belong in their own genre.

His research was made possible by grants awarded to him by the ISU Humanities/Social Science Research Committee. The awards allowed him to visit two key archives: the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York PublicLibrary in Harlem, N.Y., and the Emma Goldman Papers Project at University of California, Berkley.

Norman began the project in 2002 and finished four years later, when the State University of New York (SUNY) Press selected the book for publication. While he has been published in a variety of scholarly journals, this is his first scholarly book. The paperback copy sells for $24.95 (ISBN 978-0-7914-7236-1).

Norman came to ISU in 2004 from Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he received his doctorate in American literature. His areas of specialty include African-American, ethnic American, twentieth-century, and feminist literatures.

Norman is already at work on his next project, a study of Jim Crow segregation in Post-Civil Rights American fiction. That project emerges from his stint as guest editor of a special issue of African American Review on Representing Segregation (due out spring 2008).  He will spend the coming spring semester as a visiting research fellow at the Center for Humanities at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. The center is the oldest in the United States and it is near archives that will prove important for his research on that book.