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Book Offers Historical View of
Self-Reinvention in U.S. Culture

Posted November 4, 2003

HOLLAND – In autobiographical accounts from an earlier era, Dr. William Pannapacker of the Hope College English faculty has found a link to the present: self-reinvention in U.S. culture is nothing new.

“Americans have a talent for re-inventing themselves,” Pannapacker said. “Our culture is defined by rapid mobility and opportunity. One can begin as an immigrant bodybuilder with a strange name and a thick accent, become a big movie star, marry into the Kennedy family, and become governor of California. Performers like Madonna change their image almost every year. Most of us are faced with changing careers and locations at least every decade or so. How do we deal with the need to perpetually reinvent ourselves?”

“This question has a history that goes back to the origins of America, which had to invent itself in 1776 after more than a century as a colony of the British Empire,” he said.

Pannapacker is author of the book “Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship,” which has been released by Routledge (New York and London) as part of its “Literary Theory and Cultural Criticism Series.” “Revised Lives” considers the practice of autobiography and the significance of the way that autobiographers prior to the 20th century modified their published accounts as their times and self-images changed. The book examines, for example, how Americans thought of themselves before and after the Civil War, and how enslaved African-Americans defined themselves as free people. Special emphasis is given to Walt Whitman, who gave extended treatment to the questions in his poetry, but other figures treated at length include P.T. Barnum, Edward Carpenter, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe.

Pannapacker is an assistant professor of English and Towsley Research Scholar at Hope, where he has been a member of the faculty since 2000. He frequently teaches Cultural Heritage II, First-Year Seminar called “Classic American Films,” and advanced English courses such as “Banned Books,” “American Autobiography,” “Environmental Literature” and “Walt Whitman’s America.”

He is the author of numerous articles on American literature and culture. He is also a regular columnist for the “Chronicle of Higher Education.” He is now at work on three books: an edited collection of the writings of P.T. Barnum, a monograph called “Walt Whitman’s Philadelphia,” and a book of photographs on the legacy of the rural cemetery movement in America.

Pannapacker holds a doctorate in the history of American civilization from Harvard University, and master’s degrees in English from both Harvard and the University of Miami. He completed his undergraduate degree in English at St. Joseph’s University.

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