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Workshop in the History of Material Texts

Sarah Wasserman (Delaware), "Pop-up Buildings and Postage Stamps: Ephemera and the American Novel"

Futurama exhibit at 1939 New York World's Fair
General Motors Futurama Exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. From the records of the Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

Monday, November 15, 2021, 5:15pm, in person and via Zoom*

*For Zoom information, please please contact Aylin Malcolm.

Our speaker writes:

If objects have lives of their own, what happens when they die? That question has fascinated writers like Don DeLillo, Ralph Ellison, Marilynne Robinson, and Philip Roth. Elegists of the waning promises of American modernity, these novelists have made their stories material, through dead and dying objects from the paper-mâché palaces of World’s Fairs to the abraded edges of postage stamps. In this talk, I’ll consider how post-45 U.S. fiction responds to the vanishing object-world in ways that are both melancholic and transformative. Drawing upon the research from my book, The Death of Things, I’ll explore why novelists depict ephemera in great detail—how such fictional portraits of real objects make visible the many ways in which the vanishing object is constitutive of, not incidental or external to, the enduring subject. Focusing in particular on the material culture of the New York 1939 World’s Fair, this talk examines the role that fictionalized ephemera play in debunking midcentury fantasies of the future. I also turn to recent attempts to digitize World’s Fair archives and argue that such attempts in fact reanimate the ephemeral logics of the Fair and its fictions.

About our speaker:

Sarah Wasserman is associate professor of English and associate director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and co-editor of Modelwork: The Material Culture of Making and Knowing (University of Minnesota Press, 2021) as well as Cultures of Obsolescence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Her essays appear in PMLAPost45, ASAP, Contemporary LiteratureAmerican Literary History, Lit Compass, the Journal of American Studies, and various edited volumes. Her public writing has been published in Public BooksLARB, and Flaunt Magazine. With Patrick Moran, she curates the Stanford Arcade online forum, “Thing Theory in Literary Studies.” She is currently at work on a book about digital intimacy in contemporary American fiction and a popular book about fantasies of computing from the 1980s. 

Talks will be held live, in person, in the Class of 78 Pavilion, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. They will also be available via Zoom (please contact us for details). All are welcome. If you would like to receive details on future talks, please sign up for our listserv using this link or visit the Workshop website.

The Workshop in the History of Material Texts is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences through the Department of English and hosted by the Penn Libraries. The co-directors of the seminar are Professor Zachary Lesser (English), Jerry Singerman (Penn Press, Emeritus), and John Pollack (Kislak Center, Penn Libraries).

Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.

For more information, please contact Aylin Malcolm.