Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011

"Narrating Cultural Identity" – Introduction by Lenke Németh and Gabriella Varró

Lenke Németh, Assistant Professor at the North-American Department of University of Debrecen, Hungary, teaches courses in contemporary American drama, American culture and literature, Transnational studies, and the methodology of teaching American literature. Her research interests include postmodernism in contemporary American drama, cultural identity in post-multicultural drama, gender identity in female playwrights’ drama. She has published several articles on these topics as well as a book “All It Is, It’s a Carnival”: Reading David Mamet’s Female Characters with Bakhtin (2007). Email:

Dr. Gabriella Varró is currently assistant professor at the North-American Department of the University of Debrecen, Hungary. She teaches courses in American drama history, comparative drama studies, American popular culture, and American literary history. Her research pertains to contemporary American drama with a special emphasis on the relevance of Sam Shepard for American drama and theater history, and is currently working on a monograph related to the field. She has published widely on American blackface minstrelsy, and on modern American drama from a comparative perspective. She is author or co-author of two monographs: Signifying in Blackface: The Pursuit of the Minstrel Sign in American Literature (2008), and Jim Crow örökösei: Mítosz és sztereotípia az amerikai társadalmi tudatban és kultúrában [The Heirs of Jim Crow: Myth and Stereotype in American Social Consciousness and Culture] (2002). Email:

The essays in this issue of AMERICANA are selected from the Eighth Biennial Conference of the Hungarian Association for American Studies hosted by the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Debrecen in November 2010. This first volume (in the line of three subsequent volumes) dedicated to the proceedings gathers together articles, where the main focus is the presentation and narration of cultural identity as addressed in a great variety of textual and visual/movie productions as well as material traces of the past. The studies in the current issue seek to answer questions like: How are we to preserve cultural heritage? What are some of the threats to the definition and survival of cultural identity? Which factors determine who we are or how we define ourselves? These are only few of the issues treated and contemplated in the essays selected.

The first two papers re-visit crucial components of American cultural heritage―architectural and textual―in order to re-conceptualize Americanness and re-consider factors shaping the American character. In a richly detailed study,Spectral Vestiges: Constructing the Ruins of the World Trade Center” László Munteán argues that the ruins of the World Trade Center transform into an object of cultural heritage, which allows for studying the narative frames” made about them repeatedly by photographers, journalists, scholars, and artists. Applying the theory of ruin-aesthetics Munteán succeds in unmapping the construction of ideological constituents in the photographic, textual, and architectural representations of the ruins of WTC. András Tarnóc’s contribution Narratives of Confinement: Revisiting the Founding Myths of American Culture” addresses the highly contested concept of American cultural identity. In his insightful analysis of Indian captivity narratives, Tarnóc’s main interest lies in revealing their mythopoeic capability. Applying a carefully selected theoretical apparatus, Tarnóc demonstrates the archetypal, typological and general culture shaping features of the captivity narratives, which enables him to conclude that the captivity myths form an essential part of the ideation of the American cultural identity.”

The following three essays in the volume take literary texts―American female-authored, Native American, and Chinese-American fiction―as their points of departure to engage in the shifting definition of cultural identity.

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács’s ”The New American Woman: Edith Wharton’s accounts of French and American Women in her The Custom of the Country” approaches the definition of cultural identity and its fictionalization through the lens of a pre-eminent female author from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Edith Wharton. Kovács’s keen investigation centers on the female heroine of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913), and traces Undine Spragg’s process of adjustment to diverse cultural codes, roles and rules in four marriages. The paper problematizes this process of cultural assimilation defined within the context of significant social changes that transpired at the turn of the twentieth century: the rise of the New Woman, professionalization, and changing gender roles, relevant both in the French and in the American contexts.

Judit Szathmári’s “Indian? Fiction? Indian Fiction? Communicating Culture between Reservation and Non-Reservation Realities in Contemporary Indian Literature” highlights questions related to cultural identity by focusing on potential tensions and distinctions between Indian fiction and actual Indian culture used as its basis/model. The paper stresses the “cultural manual” function of Indian fiction, whereby contemporary (both native and non-native) readers might be informed and initiated into the cultural realities of Native Americans. The essay brings ample illustrations from the works of contemporary Native American fiction writer, Sherman Alexie for the fictionalization, narration, thus apparent modification of Indian culture. As Szathmári insightfully proves, despite these narrative strategies, contemporary Native fiction, nevertheless, still contributes greatly to the survival of what is perceived as "true" Native identity and culture.

Ildikó Limpár’s ”Re-Naturalizing the Tamed Garden: Nature’s Power in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club” problematizes the presentation of cultural identity from the viewpoint of the Chinese-American community figuring as central characters in Amy Tan’s 1994 novel. As Limpár persuasively argues, Tan subverts strategies of silencing and overpowering by the colonizers as the author points up the significance of Old World heritage and culture, sought, defined and crystallized in the text primarily through the mother figures. The essay furthermore selects various cultural signifiers for the redefinition and reassertion of the cultural roots: games, food, oral tradition, colonial myths and authorities, by means of which the characters of the tales seek their way back to the source of integrated selfhood.

The first of the next two studies is concerned with the conflictual process of African Americans’ self-definition in the multicultural era, while the second one deals with the Chicano community’s efforts of identity construction in the post-multicultural period. Drawing on diverse textual and visual renderings (sermons, fiction, and film) of this experience, both papers reinforce, however, these ethnic groups’ strivings for creating new kinds of intercultural understanding with the white dominated American society.

Péter Gaál-Szabó’s contributionRace, Space, and the Sacred: Cultural Identity in the Sermons of Rev. Vernon Johns” provides a thorough investigation of the sermons of Rev. Vernon Johns, an early figure of the Civil Rights Movement. The author convincingly argues that in his textual world Johns negotiates himself a dual position: as a black subject and as a mediating interface between the white and black communities. Creating thus a multilayered sacred space,” Gaál-Szabó suggests, Rev. Johns is able to communicate African American identity as well as maintain a mutually benefiting contact with the white community.”

In her extensive studyDreams Deferred: The Concept of US-Mexican Borderlands between the Global North and the South” Jelena Šesnić investigates the impact of the “immigration shock” on the “self-definition” of the US as treated in recent American fiction including T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1995), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic Orange (1997), and a trans-American film, Sleep Dealer (2008) directed by Alex Rivera. Through a carefully detailed analysis of the selected works, Šesnić suggests a paradigm shift taking place in terms of the US “national imagery,” earlier conceptions of the borderlands, and asserts that “a new model of interaction” is evolving between the North and the South in the globalized world.

Unlike the papers above, the final two essays in the current issue of AMERICANA do not originate from the Eighth HAAS conference, yet they have been included here on account of their thematic correspondance with the previous ones. James H. Harrell’s study on Glee, a highly popular musical comedy-drama series that has been aired on Fox network since 2009, discusses the extent to which the representation of homosexuality in this TV show departs from previous renderings of Otherness in similar contexts. In her lucidly argued and amply illustrated “Jeans and Identity for Sale: The Case of Brazil” Szilvia Simai adresses the post-colonial representation of “Brazilian-ness” and elaborates on the complex psycho-cultural process of reinventing the Brazilian identity as well as constructing new national imagery.

Finally, the guest editors of this issue would like to express their thanks to all the authors for their valuable contributions and also thank our colleagues at the University of Debrecen who have reviewed papers submitted for this edition. We are especially thankful to Réka M. Cristián and Zoltán Dragon, the editors-in-chief of AMERICANA at the University of Szeged, for welcoming the idea that the E-journal of American Studies in Hungary publish selected papers presented at the Eighth HAAS conference.