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English professor’s research published by Oxford University Press

Mackenzie Clark
Managing Editor

John Levi Barnard, assistant professor of English at The College of Wooster, recently had his book, “Empire of Ruin: Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture,” published by the Oxford University Press. Barnard’s research interests include American literature, African American literature and culture and environmental humanities. He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and his Ph.D. from Boston University.

The book explores classical traditions and monuments in relation to American national identity and the projection of American power. Particularly, Barnard looks to black classicism and its integral role in the critiques of American identity as an ideal Republic. According to the book’s synopsis on the Oxford University Press’ website, “If the dominant forms of American classicism and monumental culture have asserted the ascendancy of what Thomas Jefferson called an ‘empire for liberty,’ for African American writers and artists it has suggested that the nation is nothing exceptional, but rather another iteration of what the radical abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet identified as an ‘empire of slavery,’ inexorably devolving into an ‘empire of ruin.’”

Barnard’s research grew from an interest in ironic critiques of white American culture. “This is something that started when I was in graduate school,” said Barnard. “This was originally my dissertation. It comes out of, initially, an interest in the political radicalism of antebellum abolitionist writing and American literature of that period. I’ve always been particularly interested in a kind of ironic critique that is articulated in African American literature of that period with writers like David Walker, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but also throughout African American literary history both before and after the Civil War.”

On Thursday Nov. 2, Barnard presented a lecture in the Lean Lecture Room in Wishart Hall. The discussion focused on the role of monumental structures in American public memory, as well as a counter memorial tradition within African American cultural production that casts a critical eye on the history and legacies of slavery and empire in the United States.

Barnard addressed specific structures as examples of American imperial culture, including the U.S. Capitol as a monument from the antebellum period, as well as the Washington Square Arch and the Lincoln Memorial as examples of post-Civil War monuments. Barnard contrasts these imperial monuments with counter-monuments created by African American writers, artists and activists. In this discussion he focused on artist Kara Walker’s recent sculpture and the way that counter monument engages critically with existing monuments like the Lincoln Memorial.

Since concluding his work on this book, Barnard has shifted his current research to other interests, particularly environmental humanities and the interrelated phenomena of global industrial food systems and mass extinction. However, current discourse surrounding confederate monuments has inspired him to continue researching this aspect of American culture.

“I’ve actually conceived another project that I’m beginning to sketch out a little bit, which is actually a literary history of Thomas Jefferson as a kind of thread that runs through dominant American culture and also as a sight of a constant reiteration of the ironic criticism of American culture,” Barnard said.

Barnard’s book, “Empire of Ruin: Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture,” can be read on Oxford Scholarship Online through The College of Wooster’s library database.

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