This weekend I found myself in surroundings that were both familiar and strange: familiar, because as an undergraduate at Pembroke College in the late 1980s I’d spent many hours on the Sidgwick site in Cambridge, attending lectures and seminars and working in the English Faculty Library; strange, because the Faculty is housed in a new building (one of several) that have given the place a very different feel. I was there to deliver a keynote address on Saul Bellow’s short fiction at the American Literature Symposium, an annual event that particularly showcases the work of postgraduates at Cambridge conducting research in American literature but that also features speakers from elsewhere.
The theme of this year’s symposium, ‘American Stuff’, elicited papers on subjects as various as the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, Walt Whitman, Charles Olson and James Merrill; the fiction of Henry James, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon and Jonathan Franzen; and the treatment of ‘hoarding’ in contemporary US fiction. I was a little concerned about how my own detailed reconsideration of some of Bellow’s short stories might fit in with the other papers – my argument was that Bellow is not much concerned with ‘stuff’ in the material sense, preferring to focus on tracing the minute fluctuations of consciousness – but as it turned out it spoke to many of the other presentations, a number of which were also concerned with what one speaker called ‘thinking about thinking’, and others of which were also about the short story form, as practised by Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis and George Saunders. It was a pleasure and privilege to exchange ideas and to get a sense of the exciting work being done by the current generation of postgraduate students at my alma mater.