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Professor combines fiction and politics at Flyleaf

UNC assistant professor Heidi Kim shares her research on literature during the Cold War at Flyleaf Books on Tuesday, June 7th.
UNC assistant professor Heidi Kim shares her research on literature during the Cold War at Flyleaf Books on Tuesday, June 7th.

On Tuesday night, Flyleaf Books hosted Dr. Heidi Kim — a UNC english associate professor — to hold Faulkner and Steinbeck, Aging Together: American Authors in the Cold War. At the talk — which was a part of UNC’s “Spotlight on Scholars” series — she took a deeper look at how American culture and politics were profoundly intertwined during the Cold War.

“The principle of morality becomes the cultural bedrock of American democracy during the Cold War era, and the terms moralist, universal and individualistic are used as code for democratic, and anti-Communist by the U.S. State Department,” Kim said.

Kim said while the earlier works of William Faulkner and John Steinbeck are now celebrated in schools and in society, they received little attention during the Cold War.

“Post-war era American literature is getting reformulated, and Faulkner is out of print in America at this time, which is shocking considering he is the second most written about author behind Shakespeare,” Kim said.

Kim said Faulkner and Steinbeck, who she called the “old guard” of American literature, struggled to conform to this new political and cultural environment present in America, especially since many critics viewed their early writings as obscene, disgusting and radical.

“How do we turn Steinbeck into a moralist? How do we turn Steinbeck into an individualist,” Kim said.

“Steinbeck brought man down to the level of an animal, he was a literary naturalist, and his anti-individualism was prevalent in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’s’ emphasis on groups.”

But Kim said she saw Faulkner and Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speeches as visible shifts in their personas — she said both highlighted individual morality and the individual triumph as cultural necessities.

“Faulkner refigures himself into a great moralist, and some critics jump on his past of being ‘obscene’ and ‘disgusting’ however where he once reveled in the darkness, he now works to expose it through his writing,” she said.

“Steinbeck, like Faulkner before him, uses his 1962 Nobel Prize speech to show that he now believes in the perfectibility of man, and works to expose the faults of man so he can triumph.”

Kim said she believed the two authors’ new roles as more morally and politically correct voices helped them become more relevant in popular culture.

“This reshaping of Faulkner and Steinbeck, and their abandonment of their younger, angrier, more radical personas brought about international acclaim, flowers being thrown at their feet everywhere they traveled, and an ear with the president of the United States,” she said

“This was a time where there was such strong ties between culture and government in America, and the State Department sought to spread the ideas of individualism and universal morality through the Cold War Consensus.”

Susan Landstrom, who helped put on the event and introduced Kim, said the professor gave a great, relevant talk to attendees.

“She hit all the right notes with her informal talk, and I was delighted with it,” Langtry said.

Maria Beal attended the talk, and said it was the best “Spotlight” event she had been to.

“Her talk got me to think, ‘I really enjoyed it,’” she said. “Me and my friend had been to a ‘Spotlight on Scholars’ event in the past, but we found it to be too long, so we found this one and both agreed on it, and I really enjoyed it.”

Cathy Abernathy, another attendee at the talk, said she appreciated the thoughtfulness Kim had in combining literature and politics.

“The level of depth that occurs when you compare two vastly different subjects is very enlightening, so that’s what I took away from the talk,” Abernathy said.

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