Volume II, Number 2, Fall 2006

"Go Web!" by Zoltán Dragon

Zoltán Dragon is Assistant Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email: zoltandragon@gmail.com. Website: DragonWeb.hu

Netting AmericaÉva Federmayer, Irén Annus, Judith Sollosy:
Netting America: Introduction to the Culture and Literature of the United States
(HEFOP-3.3.1-P.-2004-09-0134/1.0 – Digital Project)
URL of the HEFOP project:

URL of Netting America: http://cwebng.bibl.u-szeged.hu/america

While in recent years it has become an everyday procedure for students and researchers to log on to the internet and conduct research on the “information superhighway,” and a growing number of academic texts refer to texts found “out there” instead of the good old books and academic journals, there has still been a stain of suspicion lingering with each and every internet entry in the bibliography of an academic work – should we treat the information on the net as trustworthy? With academic journals, even books, and class materials, readings and otherwise “medialized” information finding its way to the internet, however, the issue seems to evaporate: it is the researcher’s critical reading and data processing that can be considered as a safeguard, which also means that reading, the critical skill, has become even more important than probably ever before, contrary to the counter propaganda.

Netting America: Introduction to the Culture and Literature of the United States, as part of a new initiative to develop digital study tools and material to match the needs and structure of the new higher education system in Hungary, takes us further: it puts reliable knowledge base right out for the reader on the net – so it becomes a reference work not to be sidestepped in the world of new media, especially in Hungary, where – as the project’s Introduction also points out – we lack the range of books published on American Studies at large. This digital project attempts to compensate for this void to a certain extent — and does it with considerable success.

Thematically the project is split into two parts: literature and culture, as the title already suggests. While the authors encourage us to “browse” the material, I will keep the timeline here, and look at chapters one by one, which is also to argue a bit against the authorial intention, since I do not really see that the organization of chapters, subchapters and sub-subchapters would in fact work towards the “internet” meaning of the term, browse. The chapters in the culture section range from the pre-Columbian era up to the 2000s. The first two chapters (similarly to the literature part) were written by Irén Annus, and testify of a thorough research and skillful structuring of argumentation, which is backed up by a colorful range of imagery. Chapter 1 (A) (I wonder what “A” is supposed to mean apart from the scripture on old records signaling the first side to listen to – and also the more marketable one with hits, which leaves the “B” side ring with the bitter aftertaste of being somewhat secondary to say the least: something the authors surely did not want) presents cultural development from the pre-Columbian age to colonial America. The reader of this chapter travels through structured subcontents of native tribes and cultures, discoveries and explorations, politics during the colonial period, colonial economy and society, to arrive at the concluding part of colonial culture. The subcontents – just as in the chapters that follow – are short, written for the target audience (BA students) in mind, and luckily the design does not overwhelm the reader’s attention. Chapter 2 (A) takes the reader from “Independence” to the “Early Republic,” the summary page of which does what a good trailer for movies should always do: shock and surprise the viewer with an image that best describe the rest of the story – here we get the famous Franklin picture of the cut-up serpent and the words “Join, or Die.” Alas, the reader cannot but go on… without remorse, in fact, as “joining” the cultural flashback offered by Annus is a carefully planted rollercoaster traveling through time and space. The text here, just as before, helps the reader in many ways: important notions are bold faced, and we always get further web links to search details and relevant information.

Chapter 2A

The next two chapters were authored by Éva Federmayer – in parallel, again, with her two chapters in the literature section of the project. “Antebellum America” concerns the span between 1800 and 1860, from the issue of national identity, through topics like plantation and slavery to arrive at the tackling of the Civil War. The subcontent continues the style of the previous ones, so it keeps technical and academic terms to a reader friendly extent, making the text accessible for the targeted reading public, giving opportunity for them to surf on for information outside the project’s domain. “From the Civil War to World War I” takes us from the cultural changes in the south to the urbanization boom of the turn of the century using – among others – Allan Trachtenberg’s work as base reference and vantage point, discussing life style as well as issues of real estate – which make the scope not only wider but more interesting, too.

The last third of the culture segment of the project is written by Judith Sollosy: her first chapter discusses the years between the two world wars; the second chapter is devoted to the post-war America, i.e. roughly the past fifty years. It is with these chapters and topics (film and music especially) that the reader of Netting America starts to feel sorry that although s/he is surfing on new media, yet no media presentation occurs: while a web interface today easily incorporates movie clips and mp3, it is surprising that the compilation that embraces the potentials of the web, simply disregards this great opportunity to become intermedial – though authors provide outbound links here and there to multimedial pages. Copyright cannot be such an issue, regarding the publicly available sources for video and podcast clips. Either way, as the topic gets into the 20th century, we get more and more visual illustration – I can imagine it could cause a lot of headaches (and heartbreaks) to choose from the myriad of available images or even icons that best describe a given era. Judith Sollosy managed to keep a very good balance between text and image, with titles for subchapters serving as real teasers (such as “The 1920s: The Decade that Had it All from Anarchists to Mickey Mouse,” “The 1930s: When Depression was the Star”), providing an accessible and exciting, knowledgably veered time travel.

As it has already been mentioned, chapters in the literature section follow the pattern of the culture section: the title page in fact puts the two sections side by side as if to strengthen the sense of parallel thematic and timeline – we even have the authorial balance, too, since the first third was written again by Irén Annus, the next third by Éva Federmayer, and the third third is by Judith Sollosy. With the pre-Columbian period Irén Annus tackles Native American oral culture and the writings of European authors in terms of American literature, and her presentation of the era creates a very rich and vivid summary. With the next chapter in the line, “Independence and the Early Republic: Constructing American Identity,” we arrive at the point where “political and social-minded writings by authors such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur” started to appear and became dominant forms of literature beside an emphatic presence of poetry.

In the next chapter, “Antebellum America: Constructing a National Literature,” Éva Federmayer “surveys the formative literary movements, themes, and genres that defined the course of American literature up to the end of the Civil War.” She provides the reader with a thorough discussion of authors like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman – each of them given a subchapter in the course. Chapter 4 of the literature segment considers realism, naturalism and early modernism, offering discussion of authors and works ranging from Mark Twain to Emily Dickinson, paying particular attention to women’s literature and the black experience.

Judith Sollosy’s last chapters to the literature segment are probably the longest and most detailed ones: by clicking on the subcontent tab a list of such length drops down that it does not fit a monitor of 1024*768 screen resolution. “Chapter 6: Between the Wars: Modernism” takes the reader to the worlds of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Dos Passos and Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill among others. The topic of the final chapter is the literature of the postwar U.S. up to the contemporary scene, with its manifold faces and voices, meticulously traced and presented.

While two of the avowed aims of the entire project points at dynamic data sharing or networking (which should underscore the very title of the project) as opposed to the age old tradition of one-way information flow, the site of Netting America could not fully accommodate the features that would enhance users’ interaction in the learning process. While built on dynamic page structure, which would empower the site to handle complicated front-end participation and thus a web based dialogic interface, apart from the search function, nothing benefits from this dynamism. That is, while the Introduction proclaims that “the learning process is not a “closed academic exercise” in which students passively receive a body of knowledge as if they were so many empty containers waiting to be filled” – the project offers precisely this: the reader is expected to read texts (albeit with an impressive amount of images and outbound links) just as one would in the case of a book. Referring to the famous American Studies Crossroads Project, the authors of Netting America claim that “learning is a dialogic, increasingly expansive, inclusive, often contradictory, but always a socially responsible process,” while clearly disabling dialogism, especially the dialogic potentials of a web based pool of knowledge. What I mean is that all pages are static, no quiz or dynamic test material is provided to enhance the sense of interaction. Also, in line with state of the art technology, it would have been worth thinking about implementing a wiki section, for instance, making it interactive and absolutely future oriented – and at the same time uncompromisingly dynamic and dialogic interface (technically, culturally and academically speaking as well) that would seriously boost students’ and instructors’ research (readers will notice the hundreds of references to Wikipedia anyway, which may have served as a working example). Without these, the otherwise highly accessible and information rich texts remain what they are: excellent scholarship thrown into a world, into a net, where the framework has long undergone significant development. In this respect, technically speaking, this project is still in debt of “netting” America.

Despite its occasional technical mishaps, Netting America still can be considered one of the milestones in American Studies in Hungary – and not only in terms of the BA curricula at universities in the country; this e-text should also be regarded as a starting point for any kind of research in any way related to the culture and literature (or cultures and literatures) of the United States, for students, teachers, instructors and researchers alike. Apart from the somewhat limited web interface, the authors of the project offer a hypertextual universe that simply cannot go unnoticed. With the audience in mind right from the very first letter to the last, Irén Annus, Éva Federmayer and Judith Sollosy should also be merited with the skill of presenting this journey with uncountable junctures and intersections so reader friendly and yet observing the requirements of the finest academic works. No need to look further, no need to surf the net in the surge of mandatory essays or academic lectures – Netting America weaves you into the web of American Studies proper.