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College of Arts & Sciences
Department of English Language and Literature


Faculty and Staff Directory

David Cowart

Louise Fry Scudder Professor
Department of English Language and Literature

Phone Number: (803) 777-2120
Email: cowartd@mailbox.sc.edu
Office: HUO 304
Curriculum vitae: Download PDF

Education 

PhD, Rutgers University
MA, Indiana University
BA, University of Alabama

Areas of Specialization 

   American Fiction After 1945 (special interest in Pynchon, DeLillo, Richard Powers, Gloria Naylor, Chang-rae Lee)
   Modern British and American Literature
   Contemporary Immigrant Literature in America

Recently Taught Courses 

ENGL 282    Fiction
ENGL 285    Themes in American Writing
ENGL 287    Introduction to American Literature
ENGL 288    Introduction to British Literature I
ENGL 289    Introduction to British Literature II
ENGL 385    Modernism
ENGL 386    Postmodernism
ENGL 413    Modern English Literature
ENGL 423    Modern American Literature
ENGL 425    Topics Courses on Modern American Novel, Encyclopedic Imagination
SCHC 450-60    Proseminars on Pynchon, Current Novels, Literary Symbiosis
ENGL 752    Modern American Fiction
ENGL 753    American Novel Since World War II
ENGL 840-850    Seminars in Literary Originality, Postmodernism, Immigrant Literature

Professional Accolades 

   Fulbright Specialist, 2013-2018, 2001-2006
   David Cowart Scholarship endowed by alumnus, 2006
   Board of Trustees Professor (University of South Carolina, 2006)
   Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer, Japan, 2005
   SAMLA Studies Book Award for Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language ($1000 prize for best scholarly book by a SAMLA member), 2003
   NEH Fellowship 2002-2003
   Louise Fry Scudder Professor, 1998
   Chair in American Studies (Fulbright Distinguished Appointment), University of Odense, Denmark, 1996-1997
   University of South Carolina Educational Foundation Award, 1995
   Michael J. Mungo Award for Undergraduate Teaching, 1995
   Bicentennial Chair in American Studies (Fulbright Distinguished Appointment), University of Helsinki, 1992-1993
   NEH Summer Stipend, 1990 (for work on Literary Symbiosis)
   Department of English Outstanding Teacher, 1990
   Amoco Outstanding Teaching Award, 1987 (now the Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year Award)
   Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion cited among the Outstanding Academic Books of 1980 by the editors of Choice

Current Research Projects 

I have long wanted, by adding a volume on Cormac McCarthy to my studies of Pynchon and DeLillo, to achieve in criticism a kind of postmodern trifecta.  All three of these writers apply themselves to historicized narrative; all three subvert traditional historiography; all three resist what DeLillo calls the “flat, thin, tight, and relentless designs” of official history, written in “a single uninflected voice, the monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line.”  But for really aggressive disruption of statist mythography, one turns to the novels of McCarthy.  In what spirit, I ask, might the contemporary writer of fiction legitimately scrutinize the past?  The most interesting–and postmodern–of contemporary historical novels are not so much about the past as about representations and conceptualizations of the past.  In the hands of postmodern novelists, historiography becomes its own subject. The reader of postmodern historical fiction discovers, among other things, that the routine iconoclasm of the modernists (their desire to “shock the middle class”) has become something more epistemologically radical.  McCarthy, like Pynchon and DeLillo, deconstructs the modernist predilection for mythopoesis and mythography and metanarrative.

Selected Publications 

BOOKS

   • Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period (An Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 258 pp.
This book concerns the idea of literary generations in the last half century, but the primary focus is on writers coming to prominence in recent decades.  Are they, I ask, embracing an established postmodern aesthetic or striking out into new literary territory?  In addition to a general introduction, I offer substantial readings of representative male, female, native American, and African American writers.  By comparing literary figures born in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and later with those born in the 1920s and 1930s, I seek to map the changing terrain of contemporary letters.  Hardly epigones, the younger writers add fresh inflections, I argue, to the grammar of literary postmodernism.  They seem not to labor under any disabling anxieties regarding originality as they carry forward the project begun by their immediate predecessors: defining a millennial America.  From the vantage of the twenty-first century's second decade, one can advance the argument that younger writers—notably Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, Gloria Naylor, Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, and Ann Patchett—can continue to “make it new” without needing to dismantle the aesthetic they have inherited from a parental generation. As they engage, resist, perpetuate, and redefine that aesthetic, however, these second- and third-generation postmodernists compose a rainbow spectrum of literary possibility—they promise to outpace the achievements of writers whose careers, however brilliant, are arriving at the terminus ad quem imposed by mortality.

Endorsements:

“Cowart has uncovered an entire underground system of roots for the whole garden, and we get to see where these roots run, how they intersect, which go deep into the past and which run just under the surface. One feels that a lifetime of research was necessary to produce a book like this, and one does not often see its like.”

Kathryn Hume, Pennsylvania State University

“Cowart's impressive and insightful knowledge of literary history shows again to reveal many hidden aspects of contemporary fiction. The Tribe of Pyn connects an outstanding volume of rhetorical devices, classic myths, and modern sources to help readers value in all its complexity the literary path taken by the younger generations of American postmodern fictionists.”

Francisco Collado‑Rodríguez, University of Zaragoza

“Cowart's powerful The Tribe of Pyn displays an admirably fine sense of literary style, inviting us to understand contemporary writers (from Rachel Ingalls to Jennifer Egan) as a literary generation that is heir to a specific postmodern legacy (Pynchon's, DeLillo's, McCarthy's) and has a future so bright you gotta wear shades.”

Philipp Schweighauser, University of Basel

“In The Tribe of Pyn, David Cowart brings his critical discrimination to bear on the question of the afterlives of Pynchon's and DeLillo's postmodernism. Reading select novels from Rachel Ingalls' Mrs. Caliban to Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cowart offers a compelling picture of the contemporary postmodern novel. Cowart's book is theoretically sophisticated and astute; but this is not primarily a theoretical argument. Rather, it proceeds, in Cowart's now well‑established fashion, by paying the closest attention to the ways in which novels think and to the way that fiction shapes and produces ideas rather than simply reflecting theoretical trends. The result is one of the wisest and most considered accounts of the contemporary novel that we have.”

Peter Boxall, University of Sussex

“In the maze of literary works of our time—in this 'city of words'—everybody needs a guide, an erudite intellectual who can throw light on the seemingly inscrutable and incomprehensible works; who can, with a few strokes of his pen, elucidate fuzzy ideas and make patterns emerge from chaos. David Cowart, in this collection of essays on recent American fiction, does all that in a lively, brilliant manner. In the ten engaging, informative, and inspiring chapters which make up this book, Cowart discusses the work of writers who belong to the second and third generation of postmodernists. At the same time, the author explores the more general issue of the relationship between one generation of writers and the next one. Over half a century after the great masters of postmodernism debuted, what is the current condition of this aesthetic? Cowart's analysis demonstrates how some writers do not merely continue the tradition but rather breathe new life into postmodernist writing, as they redefine and reinvent it without succumbing to the danger of postmodernism becoming ‘an aesthetic ripe for passage into mannerism.’”

Zygmunt Mazur, Jagiellonian University

   Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 250 pp.
Inspired in part by the fiftieth anniversary of V.'s publication, this effort concerns Pynchon's unorthodox engagements with Clio, a muse much confused, one imagines, by the convulsive history of the last century. As its title implies, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History follows the author of V. and Gravity's Rainbow down the "cunning passages" and "contrived corridors" in which, as Eliot (and later Foucault) understood, the past took its serpentine course beneath the grand—and false—chronicles of empire. Always already vermicular, official history proves an eggshell-thin tegument disguising the busy work of borers, parasites, and the occasional Lambton Worm of Goebbels-scaled mendacity.

From the jacket copy: "Cowart parses 'history as myth, as rhetorical construct, as false consciousness, as prologue, as mirror, as genealogical trove, as seedbed of national and, yes, literary identities.' Pynchon, he argues, has always understood 'the facticity of historical narrative and the historicity of storytelling'—not to mention 'the relations of both story and history to myth.'

"Cowart offers a brilliant, meta-historical reading of V., an exhaustive analysis of the way German culture figures in Pynchon's early work (with particular emphasis on Gravity's Rainbow), and critical spectroscopy of those dark stars, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. He defends the California fictions (The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Inherent Vice) as a roman fleuve chronicling the decade in which the American tapestry began to unravel. He ends with reflections on Pynchon's place in that other, less carnage-prone chronicle: literary history."

   Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006), 256 pp.
This study focuses on the contemporary immigrant imagination and its witness. The current generation of transplants emulate not only the first American writers (all born elsewhere) but also such later immigrant literati as Nabokov, Auden, Bellow, and Ayn Rand. We stand to learn much about the durability of or changes in the American way of life from writers such as Bharati Mukherjee (born in India), Walter Abish (born in Austria), Ursula Hegi (born in Germany), Ha Jin (born in China), Jerzy Kosinski (born in Poland), Jamaica Kincaid (born in Antigua), Cristina Garcia (born in Cuba), Edwidge Danticat (born in Haiti), Indira Ganesan (born in India), Lan Cao (born in Vietnam), and such Korean-born authors as Chang-rae Lee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Nora Okja Keller--writers who in recent years have come to this country and, in their work, contributed to its culture.

Of greatest interest are the fictions in which these writers represent not the land they left but the one to which they have come. Theories of ethnicity and national identity tend toward the postcolonial model of past injustice and political aspiration. Considerable academic research has gone into the attempt to articulate the qualities of being an American of African, Asian, Hispanic, or other ethnicity. But these theories require expanding to accommodate the perennial renewal of the melting pot (or salad bowl or mosaic) paradigm among those currently encountering the American myth of promise.

   Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 257 pp. SAMLA Studies Book Award (2003). Expanded paperback edition (274 pp.), 2003.
Analysis of Don DeLillo's work leads to fresh perspectives on contemporary literature as the critic engages with some of the basic aesthetic principles of the agthe foreshortened view of history, the unmooring of subjectivity, radical discontinuity, replication and parody, awareness of the constructedness of all knowledge and all myths, resistance to closure, indifference to what Lyotard calls "the solace of good forms," and attenuation of depth models - including the linguistic, the psychoanalytic, and the historical. DeLillo may well displace Pynchon as the postmodern Henry Adams. Born exactly one hundred years after Adams, DeLillo is committed, like him, to gauging "the track of the energy" that makes or transforms a civilization. He seems ready to follow that energy into language itself, and he has demonstrated, as Adams did, a willingness to pursue meaning out of one century and into another.

Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 232 pp. Expanded, revised paperback edition (254 pp.), 2012.
A study of intertextuality at its most explicias when John Gardner recasts Beowulf as Grendel or when Tom Stoppard transforms Hamlet into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. These and other "symbiotic" texts (by such writers as Nabokov, David Henry Hwang, Jean Rhys, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Howard Moss, J. M. Coetzee, Michel Tournier, James Gould Cozzens, Stevie Smith, and Valerie Martin) are explored for what they reveal about tradition and the individual talent, the anxiety of influence, textual filiation, and literary resistance to closure.

   History and the Contemporary Novel (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 245 pp.
A study of major historical fiction since World War II, with reflections on the affinities between historical and fictional narrative, analysis of the basic modes of historical fiction, and readings of a number of historical novels, including John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Eco's The Name of the Rose, Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, and D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel.

   Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 227 pp. The first single-authored book on Gardner, this covers all but the posthumous fiction.

   Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 154 pp. Second printing, 1982. Among the earliest of the thirty-odd books on Pynchon. Still frequently cited, it covers Pynchon's work through Gravity's Rainbow.

RECENT ARTICLES, NOTES, REVIEWS

   • “Thirteen Ways of Looking: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad,” Critique 56.3 (2015): 241-54. Link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00111619.2014.905448
   • “‘Down on the Barroom Floor of History’: Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge,” Postmodern Culture 24, no. 1 (September 2013). Link: https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v024/24.1.cowart.html
   "Anger, Anguish, and Art: Palahniuk's Choke," Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, and Choke, ed. Francisco Collado-Rodri­guez (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 157-174.
   "The Lady Vanishes: DeLillo's Point Omega," Contemporary Literature 53, no. 1 (2012): 31-50.
   "Pynchon, Genealogy, History: Against the Day," Modern Philology 109, no. 3 (February 2012), 385-407.
   "Pynchon in Literary History," The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, ed. Brian McHale, Inger Dalsgaard, and Luc Herman (New York: Cambridge, 2011), pp. 83-96.
   "Delphic DeLillo: Mao II and Millennial Dread," Don DeLillo: Mao II, Underworld and Falling Man, ed. Stacey Olster (London: Continuum, 2011), pp. 19-33.
   "The DeLillo Era: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period," in Terrorism, Media, and The Ethics of Fiction: Transatlantic Perspectives on Don DeLillo, ed. Peter Schneck and Philipp Schweighauser (New York: Continuum, 2010), pp. 223-242.
   "Norman Mailer: Like a Wrecking Ball from Outer Space," Critique 51, no. 2 (Winter 2010), 159-167.
   "The Power of Language: The Names and The Body Artist," The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo, ed. John N. Duvall (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 151-165.
   "Teaching Pynchon's V.,"Approaches to Teaching Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Other Works, ed. Thomas Schaub (New York: MLA Publications, 2008), pp. 88-98.
   "Passionate Pathography: Narrative as Pharmakon in Operation Wandering Soul," Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers, ed. Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), pp. 117-133.
   "Heteroclite Historiography: Representations of the Past in Contemporary American Fiction," Proceedings of the Kyoto American Studies Seminar, August 1-August 3, 2005, ed. Hiroshi Yoneyama (Kyoto: Center for American Studies, Ritsumeikan University, 2006), pp. 179-199.
   "DeLillo's Intertexts: Some Observations on Love-Lies-Bleeding," ANQ 22, no. 1 (Winter 2009), 48-50. Previously published as "DeLillos intertekster: Noen betraktninger om Love-Lies-Bleeding," translated into Norwegian by Frode Helmich Pedersen), Vagant, No. 3 (2006), pp. 119-120.

For additional publications, see full vita [PDF].

FORTHCOMING
   • “Prolonged Periodization: Postmodern American Fiction after 1960,” 27 pp. in ms., forthcoming 2016 in Cambridge Companion to Postmodern American Fiction, ed. Paula Geyh.

Recent Presentations 

Papers presented at forty-odd regional, national, and international conferences including Southeastern Medieval Association (Morgantown, West Virginia, 1981), Contemporary Literature of the Americas Conference (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1982), MLA (New York, 1983; San Francisco, 1991, 1998; Chicago, 2014; Austin 2016), Conference on Christianity and Literature (New Orleans, 1984), Western Conference on British Studies (Las Cruces, New Mexico, 1984; San Antonio, 1985; New Orleans, 1988; Austin, 1989), Conference on Narrative Literature and Poetics (Madison, Wisconsin, 1989), Conference on Germany and German Thought in Contemporary American Literature and Cultural Criticism (Paderborn, Germany, 1990), Eagle and Maple Leaf Conference (Helsinki, 1992 and 2000), Nordic Fulbright Seminar (Gothenburg, Sweden, 1996), Politics and Poetics of Multiculturalism Conference (Aarhus, Denmark, 1997), Mapping the Common Ground: America in 2000 Conference (Tartu, Estonia, 1997), American Visions (Mersin, Turkey, 1998), Constructions of Memory in Contemporary American Literature (Nîmes, France, 2000), MESEA (Padua 2002), Science, Technology, and the Humanities in Recent American Fiction Conference (Paderborn, Germany, 2003), Transit of Venus: Fifth International Pynchon Conference (Malta, 2004), American Literature Association (San Francisco, 2010), Nordic Association for American Studies (Karlstad, Sweden, 2013), American Studies Days (Syddansk Universitet, 2015), and various meetings of SAMLA, Philological Association of the Carolinas, and Carolinas Symposium on British Studies.

Other Information 

Referee for: Twentieth Century Literature (7), Contemporary Literature (10), Rocky Mountain Review  (2), South Atlantic Review (3), Southern Humanities Review (2), Orbis Litterarum (2), Pynchon Notes (1), PMLA (12), Journal of the History of Ideas (1), TSLL (1), Papers on Language and Literature (1), Studies in American Indian Literatures (2), Modern Fiction Studies (2), Review of Politics (1), Journal of Ecocriticism (1), Textual Practice (3), Studies in the Novel (2), Modern Philology (1), Comparative Literature Studies (1), Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature (1), Genre (1), Canadian Review of American Studies (1), MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (1), E-rea revue électronique (1), Literature and Theology (1), Orbit (1), St. Martin's Press (1), University of Illinois Press (3), University Press of Florida (1), University of Georgia Press (6), Southern Illinois University Press (4), University of South Carolina Press (1), LSU Press (1), University of Alabama Press (2), UMI Research Press (1), University Press of Virginia (4) University of Pennsylvania Press (1), University of Missouri Press (1), Harvard University Press (1), Palgrave (3), University of Iowa Press (2), Ohio State University Press (1), University of Michigan Press (1), Cornell University Press (1), Routledge (2), Continuum (1), Rutgers University Press (1), University of Texas Press (1), Northwestern University Press (1)

-- Last updated:  February 2016