Those who attended the 'Across the Great Divide' conference in Edinburgh from 18th-21st July 2003 have attested to its overwhelming success. This joint event was the fourth annual conference of Symbiosis, the journal of Anglo-American literary relations, and the first conference of the Carnegie Trust-funded STAR (Scotland's Transatlantic Relations) Project. Appropriately, it brought together 87 delegates from both sides of the Atlantic and from Canada to Argentina for four days of stimulating dialogue on all aspects of literary, theoretical, and material transatlantic cultural exchange between the British Isles and the Americas. In addition to events held at the University of Edinburgh, the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) sponsored and hosted several conference sessions. 'Across the Great Divide' received important support from The University of Edinburgh's School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures and the University Development Trust; thanks are also due to Professor Vicki Bruce, Head of the College of Humanities and Social Science, for her support of the event.
The conference began on Friday evening with Professor Amy Kaplan's plenary lecture, 'Between Empires: Frances Calderón de la Barca's Life in Mexico (1843)', in the Boardroom of the NLS. Professor Kaplan's new work on this Scottish-born woman's experience as the wife of a Spanish diplomat in Mexico stimulated lively discussion and set the tone for the rest of the conference. Afterwards, delegates retired to Edinburgh University's magnificent Playfair Library for a reception marking the official launch of the STAR Project. During the course of the next three days, delegates would present 70 papers on panels that included Transatlantic Romanticism; British Cultures and the Black Atlantic; Constructing the Transatlantic Experience; (Re)creating National Identity; Emigration; Periodicals; Wharton and James; Arthur Conan Doyle and the United States; Britain and the Spanish Americas; Revolution, War, and Transatlantic Identity; Transplanted Religion; Translating Religious Experience; Transatlantic Connections in Music; and Gothic Literature.
Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the British Association for American Studies (BAAS), the Scottish Association for the Study of America (SASA), and the School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures, the conference organisers were able to provide financial support to postgraduates giving papers at the meeting. And at mid-day on Saturday, the STAR Postgraduate Luncheon served as a valuable opportunity for students to give feedback on the direction they would like to see STAR take. Discussion included the format of the STAR Postgraduate Seminar in American Studies, which will reconvene for its second year in Edinburgh in October 2003, and new web content and links that people would like added to the STAR site. A consensus emerging here and throughout the conference was that there is a great demand to expand the project's scope to include connections between Britain and the Spanish Americas; STAR will begin to facilitate these requests in the coming months.
The proceedings on Saturday afternoon were sponsored by the National Museums of Scotland; many thanks are due to Mr. George Dalgleish and Dr. David Forsyth for their organisation of these stimulating events, which were much enjoyed by delegates. To kick off the 'museum afternoon', Dr. Forsyth led a talk in the Royal Museum Lecture Theatre on the NMS's exciting new Trailblazers: Scots in Canada exhibition, which will run from 17th October 2003 until 4th January 2004. Jenni Calder then put a literary bent on the material culture theme in her plenary lecture, 'Changing Places: The Migrating Meanings of Objects', in which she discussed the role of objects in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners and Alistair MacLeod's collection of stories Island. Following a refreshment break in the Royal Museum's Bird Hall, George Dalgleish and David Forsyth each led a museum tour that sharpened appetites for future investigations of the collections. Delegates then reconvened in the Royal Museum Lecture Theatre for an absorbing panel entitled 'The Undelivered Letters: Bridging the Great Divide'. This session centred on the personal tales that have emerged from a series of recently discovered letters, many of which originated in Orkney, which were written to Hudson's Bay Company men in Canada between 1830 and 1857.
Sunday morning saw further noteworthy sessions and a lively luncheon during which a planned business meeting was postponed in favour of the more immediate pleasures of impromptu Italian entertainment. In the afternoon, Professor Ludmilla Jordanova delivered the third plenary lecture of the conference, on 'Artists, Portraits, Fiction'. Her memorable illustrated talk on the role of art in fiction explored interconnections in the lives and work of John Singer Sargent, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and nudged emerging themes of the conference into new avenues of interdisciplinary discussion. Later that evening, delegates gathered on the terrace of the Café Hub for a drinks reception, to enjoy good weather and scenic views of the Royal Mile before heading inside for a congenial meal, a musical performance by singer/storyteller Stuart McHardy, and further good talk.
A final day of panel sessions at Old College preceded the concluding event, Monday evening's 'Dead Poets / Live Poets' reading at the National Library of Scotland. Convened by Dr. Nick Selby (University of Glasgow) with the generous assistance of Dr. Kevin Halliwell (NLS), the event utilised the NLS's archive recordings from the Academy of American Poets to celebrate the rich relationship between American poetry and contemporary poetry written in Scotland. Live readings by Susan Castillo, Alan Riach, Gael Turnbull, and Geoff Ward were interspersed with recordings of the American poets whose work has most shaped their poetry. In the interval, delegates were able to take a saunter around the current NLS exhibition 'Wish you were here!: Travellers' Tales from Scotland 1540-1960'.
All in all, 'Across the Great Divide' served as a tremendous opportunity for scholarly exchange; much exciting new work emerged, and both the journal Symbiosis and the STAR Project will build on the momentum gained through publication of papers from the conference. Updates on this and other initiatives will be posted here on the STAR website. Thanks again to all who participated, and supported the event!