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About usHow to find usprof. dr. L.C. (Laura) Bieger

prof. dr. L.C. Bieger

Chair of American Studies

Native Son and the Public. Engaged Literature, Media Agency, and the Politics of Reading

  • Funded by the Humboldt Foundation (with a Feodor-Lynen-Fellowship for Advanced Rearchers)
  • Conducted in part at Harvard University (in cooperation with Werner Sollors and Glenda Carpio)

Studying the reading public is a pressing task at a time when printed matter ceases to be the unrivalled foundation of our reading culture while the public sphere is undergoing perhaps its gravest transformation since the invention of the printing press. Borrowing from Jürgen Habermas the notion of readership as a constituent of the public sphere, I assume that media, like readers, are shaping agents in this process in ways that merit renewed exploration. To determine the mediality of the public sphere, I engage literary studies, media studies, and sociological methods.

Few books have engaged a reading public on the scale of Native Son (1940), the first novel by African American author Richard Wright and epicenter of this project, which unites two longstanding interests of mine: the social function of the aesthetic and modern social life’s fundamental dependency on literature. This project explores—in the jolt created by a single novel in the readership of its time—the literary and media aspects involved in generating that institutional space of the public sphere on which democratic societies like the U.S. crucially depend.

Native Son is ideally suited to study the U.S. public sphere, which from its inception did not aspire to an ideal of consensus, but instead relied on the anticipation of dissent. The resulting pluralization of the public sphere was propelled by the fact that a large part of the population was enslaved. The reading public had long been exposed to this reality, not least through the many slave narratives brought into circulation by the abolitionist movement. But with the publication of Native Son at the end of the depression era, pressure on the predominantly white, bourgeois public sphere gained a new quality, which this project approaches as the product of an unusual degree of synchronization between the literary field and the public sphere.

Three factors were crucial in the making of this constellation: Wight’s rejection of the aesthetic categories of the Harlem Renaissance (widely accepted by the black reading public) to shock his white readers; his mutual endorsement of political activism (he was a card-carrying communist) and celebrity authorship (with large stakes of visual media); and the multi-media-network engaged in proliferating his reading public on a national and global scale. This public was pluralized (and in part segregated) along lines of race and class, but pluralization was not yet propelled by the identity-political engine of the post-Civil Rights era. 'Native Son and the Public' thus explores an exemplary moment of literary engagement when pluralization and politicization of the public worked hand in hand.

Last modified:04 May 2019 4.30 p.m.

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