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American Studies Faculty Member Is Named 2019-20 National Humanities Center Fellow

by Maggie Rotermund
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Emily Lutenski, Ph.D., an associate professor in American Studies, was named a National Humanities Center fellow for academic year 2019-20. 

She will be working on her book, “Modern Lovers: Margery Latimer, Jean Toomer, and Race in American Culture,” which is organized around the lives, literature, and relationships of two American writers active in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Emily Lutenski

Emily Lutenski, Ph.D., is an associate professor in American Studies. Photo by Ellen Hutti. 

“I am honored to have been invited to the NHC, and humbled to be in the presence of the other fellows,” Lutenski said. “One of the most valuable resources humanists require to do our best work is time and I am tremendously grateful that this year will give me that.” 

Lutenski, who has been at Saint Louis University since 2012, will be in residence at the National Humanities Center from September until May 2020. 

“It is, admittedly, difficult for me to step back from my work at SLU. I’m very committed to the community of colleagues and students who enrich my life in St. Louis, and I will miss them and the opportunities I have to give back to that community in my teaching and service,” she said. “But I know this is a chance to become part of a larger network who will also sharpen my thinking and further my knowledge.”

Lutenski's works
“Modern Lovers”

Margery Latimer, an experimental white woman writer, was known for her fiction exploring women’s intimate friendships, artistic and personal autonomy, and bodily integrity. Jean Toomer, an African-descended writer, is best known for his 1923 Cane, an avant-garde meditation on race in American culture. Cane is considered one of the first works of the Harlem Renaissance, a reputation secured during the 1960s, at the height of the Black Power movement.

“These depictions, however, are complicated,” Lutenski said. “And the complications are my way into the project.”

In 1931, Latimer and Toomer wed, ushering in a nationwide scandal over mixed-race marriage and—when Latimer became pregnant and later died in childbirth—interracial reproduction. At the height of the controversy, Toomer declared to the press that he was a member of a new, racially-hybrid, and distinctly American race.

“This statement, of course, requires scholars rethink how both writers have been positioned in American literary history: Toomer as a “New Negro,” and Latimer as a white feminist,” Lutenski explained. “These labels oversimplify their thinking about the nexus of race, gender, and nation and have frustrated critics. I want to get to the bottom of this. What did these writers and this marriage symbolize for American culture at the time? What did it this relationship mean to the parties themselves? How has the scandal around the marriage continued to inform the reception of both writers?”

“When I answer these questions, I look not only at the scandal itself, but also at both writers’ representations of, experiences with, and thinking about interracial intimacy throughout their lives — before they even knew one another, and often in dialogue with a diverse network of American intellectuals. I see the Latimer-Toomer union not as the beginning of what Toomer called the new American race, but instead as the climax of both writers’ longstanding efforts to challenge the politics of difference in Jim Crow America.”

“West of Harlem” 

Lutenski said this work is an evolution of her prior publications. Her first book, “West of Harlem: African American Writers and the Borderlands,” provides a literary history of the Harlem Renaissance as it engaged with the American West, particularly the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The book is interested in how African American writers’ thinking about what it meant to be “New Negroes” was generated or changed by their consideration of a place that most Americans at the time would have thought of as very diverse, but as Mexican, Anglo, and Native American—not African American. 

For “Modern Lovers,” Lutenski retained a commitment to looking at the construction of race in comparative contexts, and an interest in the first half of the twentieth century, when Jim Crow was at its height, as well as in figures during that period who challenged it in their art.

“West of Harlem” also has a chapter on Jean Toomer and race—which was what first led Lutenski to Toomer’s archive back when she was starting to write about him in 2004, and then subsequently to Latimer.

“I started cobbling together the research for “Modern Lovers” while I was still working on “West of Harlem” — I’ve been stockpiling the archival materials that provide the basis for its evidence for the past ten years, which means I started six years before West of Harlem was published in 2015.”

The Fellowship

National Humanities Center Fellows represent humanistic scholarship in African studies; American studies; Asian studies; classics; comparative literature; East Asian languages and literature; English language and literature; environmental humanities; ethnic studies; feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; film and media studies; history; history of art and architecture; Latin American studies; music history and musicology; philosophy; religion; and rhetoric.

Thirty-seven fellows were chosen from 647 applicants and they will come to the Center from universities and colleges in 14 states, as well as from Singapore, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe. Each Fellow will work on an individual project and will also have the opportunity to share ideas in seminars, lectures, and conferences at the Center.  

“Writing is often depicted as solitary work, but collaboration is crucial to the process. There’s a common area at the Center where fellows can have breakfasts and lunches together on the weekdays. We can form writing and workshop groups to support each other as we draft and revise,” Lutenski said. “The Center hosts scholarly talks and conferences and has an educational outreach program; I look forward to participating in the events it sponsors for both scholarly and public audiences.”

“I will also benefit from the broader intellectual life of region; the National Humanities Center is in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, an area situated between three major research universities: Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.”

The National Humanities Center awards a total of $1.4 million in fellowship grants to enable scholars to take leave from their normal academic duties and pursue research at the Center. This funding is provided from the Center's endowment; by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities; and by contributions from alumni and friends of the Center.

The National Humanities Center

The National Humanities Center is a privately incorporated institute for advanced study in the humanities. Since 1978 the Center has awarded fellowships to more than 1,400 scholars whose work has resulted in the publication of nearly 1,600 books in all fields of humanistic study. The Center also sponsors programs to strengthen the teaching of the humanities in secondary and higher education and to promote public understanding of, and advocacy for, the humanities.


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