Joel Pfister, the Olin Professor of English and American Studies and chair of the American Studies Department, is the author of Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis published by Oxford University Press, 2016.
Within his book, Pfister argues “that writers from Benjamin Franklin to Louise Erdrich are critical ‘surveyors’ of customs, culture, hegemony, capitalism’s emotional logic, and more. Literary surveyors have helped make possible—and can advance—cultural analysis.” While noting that cultural theory and history have influenced interpretations of literature, he asserts that, in fact, “literature can return the favor.”
The book raises many historical, but timely questions. “When and why did capitalism need to invest in the secular ‘soul-making’ business and what roles did literature play? What does literature teach about its relationship to establishing a personnel culture that moved beyond self-help incentive making and intensified Americans’ preoccupations with personal life to turn them into personnel? How did literature contribute to the reproduction of ‘classless’ class relations and what does this say about dress-down politics and class formation in our Second Gilded Age?” These surveyors wrote novels, stories, plays, poetry, essays, autobiography, journals and cultural criticism.
(article co-authored by Andrew Logan)