American Hospitality: The Politics of Conditionality in Twentieth-Century U.S. Fiction

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American Hospitality rereads the canon of American literature by focusing attention on the centrality of hospitality to the twentieth-century American literary imagination. It argues that twentieth-century U.S. authors employ scenes of hospitality (scenes of welcoming and withholding, of invitation and rejection, of accommodation and imposition) and figures of hospitality (hosts and guests, strangers and trespassers, homes and thresholds, gifts and reciprocations) for three specific purposes: first, to reproduce dominant American discourses of hospitality; second, to critique these same discourses; and third, to model an alternative ethics of hospitality. Faced with the closing of the western frontier, rapid increases in immigration, the growing need to provide assistance to large segments of the population, an escalating call to secure and police the national borders, and the widespread demand to make public accommodations in all parts of the country more hospitable to racialized others, U.S. authors during the twentieth century utilized discourses of hospitality to reflect on the effects that sweeping historical changes were having on the nation’s ability to remain hospitable to peoples both inside and outside its borders. In examining discourses of hospitality in twentieth-century U.S. fiction, American Hospitality makes three principal contributions to scholarship. First, it opens the canon of American literature to reconstruction by tracing the central importance of scenes of hospitality across a wide range of twentieth-century American texts and genres, from highly canonical texts like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to less canonical texts like Zitkala-Ša’s Old Indian Legends and Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris’s The Crown of Columbus. Second, it expands on existing work on the subject of American exceptionalism by showing how American exceptionalist narratives rely heavily on scenes and figures of hospitality to justify and disavow acts of exclusion, dispossession, exploitation, and violence. Third, it lays the foundation for theorizing an alternative ethics of American hospitality. Modeled by the texts featured in American Hospitality, this alternative ethics, which I term affirmative hospitality, has four core principles: recognition of the conditional nature of all hospitality exchanges, affirmation of the singularity of the individual, accommodation, and deliberation.