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Panelists Discuss Protest Literature

While many Harvard students and professors were enjoying the academic atrophy of spring break, a group of speakers convened at the Cambridge Hyatt Regency hotel last Friday for a panel discussion about protest literature.

The panel’s lineup featured Professor of English and American Literature and Language John Stauffer, former lecturer on History and Literature Tim McCarthy ’93, President of the American Studies Association and professor at Trinity College in Connecticut Paul Lauter, and liberal historian and writer Howard Zinn.

Harvard graduate student and teaching fellow (TF) Zoe F. Trodd moderated the event.

Stauffer is the professor of Literature and Arts A-86: American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac, a course which he co-taught with McCarthy until McCarthy left Harvard for UNC Chapel Hill in 2003. Trodd, who used to be a TF for the course, estimated that about 20 to 25 undergraduates from the course attended the panel discussion.

In her introduction, Trodd announced that the panel would focus on “challenging and extending definitions of protest literature.”

Opening the discussion, Stauffer defined protest literature as “text that not only criticizes and protests society, but that suggests, either explicitly or implicitly, a solution to society’s ills.”

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But he also offered a broader definition of protest literature, one which encompasses media such as film and photography, as well as prose. His presentation included a slide show of photographs of abused prisoners of war from Vietnam, Iraq, and the Civil War, which he said represented one form of rebellious expression.

Following Stauffer, McCarthy characterized protest literature as “one of those things where you know it when you see it, but you can’t necessarily define it.”

Focusing on abolitionist literature, McCarthy said that protest literature is a “mode and style of social analysis,” which can change depending its time period and political climate. He added that it does not necessarily have to invoke or demand a change in intellectual currents, often merely articulating extant societal sentiments.

Lauter, like Stauffer, stressed in his remarks that protest literature is not limited to prose.

The timing of the film, photograph or book also played a key role in his definition.

“It engages social issues immediate to the moment,” he said, “in order to reshape the audience’s consciousness.”

Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, was the last and briefest of the speakers. Zinn continued to broaden the definition of protest literature, describing it as “any form of communication that has some effect on the consciousness of people reading or listening.”

And Zinn, unlike the other panelists, said that protest literature did not necessarily have to stipulate a solution to the problems it criticizes, or even inspire people to action.

He cited Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring as an example, saying that its main function was to inform people of a situation that they otherwise would have known nothing about, regardless of any controversy it created.

“I very much liked the fact that, between the four of us, there were three different working definitions of protest literature,” Stauffer said after the discussion. “The panel did a great job of grappling with the relationship between form and context.”

The panel closed with an extensive question-and-answer session.

Stauffer’s course is one of the most popular in the Literature and Arts Core Curriculum, boasting an enrollment of over 300 students, and he advertised the panel in his class.

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