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Political Disappointment

A Cultural History from Reconstruction to the AIDS Crisis

Sara Marcus

ISBN 9780674248656

Publication date: 05/30/2023

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“Marcus shows the ways in which Black activists and writers, in particular, have continued to express their political desires. In doing so, she draws our attention to the centrality of disappointment in American political life.”
—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, New Yorker

Political Disappointment is an abundant text, overflowing with Sara Marcus’s considerable gifts. She is adept at presenting history and narrative with equal clarity; her writing is urgent but also optimistic. This is a book that is sometimes painful but never sacrifices hope or beauty.”
—Hanif Abdurraqib

Moving from the aftermath of Reconstruction through the AIDS crisis, a new cultural history of the United States shows how artists, intellectuals, and activists turned political disappointment—the unfulfilled desire for change—into a basis for solidarity.

Sara Marcus argues that the defining texts in twentieth-century American cultural history are records of political disappointment. Through insightful and often surprising readings of literature and sound, Marcus offers a new cultural history of the last century, in which creative minds observed the passing of moments of possibility, took stock of the losses sustained, and fostered intellectual revolutions and unexpected solidarities.

Political Disappointment shows how, by confronting disappointment directly, writers and artists helped to produce new political meanings and possibilities. Marcus first analyzes works by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers that expressed the anguish of the early Jim Crow era, during which white supremacy thwarted the rebuilding of the country as a multiracial democracy. In the ensuing decades, the Popular Front work songs and stories of Lead Belly and Tillie Olsen, the soundscapes of the civil rights and Black Power movements, the feminist poetry of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, and the queer art of Marlon Riggs and David Wojnarowicz continued building the century-long archive of disappointment. Marcus shows how defeat time and again gave rise to novel modes of protest and new forms of collective practice, keeping alive the dream of a better world.

Disappointment has proved to be a durable, perhaps even inevitable, feature of the democratic project, yet so too has the resistance it precipitates. Marcus’s unique history of the twentieth century reclaims the unrealized desire for liberation as a productive force in American literature and life.

Praise

  • Marcus’s dazzling close readings go a long way toward supporting the idea that political disappointment quite literally ‘found form’ in art, literature, and music, meaning as a place for these sentiments to lodge themselves. Marcus goes beyond merely placing the works in their historical contexts; she harvests historical contexts from within the works themselves.

    —Lynne Feeley, The Nation

Author

  • Sara Marcus is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing.

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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