David Brauner writes:
On Wednesday 8th January at 17.40 Central Time, I touched down at ‘O Hare International Airport in Chicago and breathed a huge sigh of relief. It had not been a straightforward journey: my flight had been delayed for three hours and for a week prior to flying I had been anxiously consulting the weather forecasts for Chicago. For most of this time, the Polar Vortex had brought extreme weather to large parts of the U.S. and Chicago was one of the worst-hit cities, with temperatures dipping below -40 and the Mayor advising everyone to stay indoors. Up to the day before I was due to travel, flights were still being cancelled. Fortunately, everything changed in the twenty-fours prior to my flight and by the time I finally arrived the temperature was a positively balmy -12!
The reason for my trip to Chicago was that it was hosting the largest annual literature conference in the world – the annual MLA convention – and I was due to give a paper as part of a special session on ‘Reconsidering Masculinity in Philip Roth’. The MLA is unlike any other conference: the sheer scale of the convention is bewildering, with over 7,500 delegates and 800 sessions. This has many advantages: there is always, at any given time, something relevant to one’s interests going on; the opportunities for networking are limitless; and the associated cultural events (guided tours of museums, film screenings, book readings etc.) ensure that this much more than an academic conference. The downside is that there is a somewhat frenetic atmosphere – exacerbated by the fact that many of the delegates have job interviews taking place during the convention – so that by the end of four intense days you are left feeling exhilarated but also exhausted.
The Philip Roth session had been given a slot at the very peak of attendance at the convention – mid-morning on the Saturday – which was gratifying in one sense but also rather daunting, in the sense that we were up against a number of very high-profile sessions. In the end, we had a modest but appreciative and well-informed audience and my paper, entitled ‘Queering Philip Roth: Homosocial Discourse in Letting Go’, was very well-received. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Chicago – notwithstanding the omnipresent signs on the sidewalk warning pedestrians about falling ice and the rain that froze on impact, turning those sidewalks at times into something resembling a skating rink – and I returned in the early hours of Monday morning drained but very grateful for the experience.