Friday, April 13, 2007
The Novel of Purpose, By Way of Introduction
No one here needs me to tell them that disciplines are odd beasts, but I will anyway. Jobs are apportioned on the basis of small slices of time and big swaths of land. For example, I’m an Americanist. Practically speaking, this means I can only apply for Americanist jobs. I’m also a 19th century Americanist, further limiting my possibilities. These disciplinary demands shape my dissertation—whatever I write, I need to know it can be published in American Literature or American Literary History. (English Literary History claims to publish works on “major works in English and American literature,” but when I opened my latest copy, I was not shocked to find five essays on George O’Brien Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, and one on Nathaniel Hawthorne.) For a project like mine, such professional imperatives chafe like an angry sea. How do I write a proper Americanist dissertation about the reception of Anglo- and Continental evolutionary theory? Do I give the source material—Darwin, Lamarck, Spencer, &c.—short shrift, and focus instead on the aesthetic and moral theories American authors built on it? But what if those theories are themselves indebted to Anglo- and Continental thought? (As was the case with Silas Weir Mitchell, whose thought owes more to Keats and Ruskin than Emerson and Howells.)
To the lay reader, addressing Anglo-American literary and intellectual culture through a nationalist paradigm must seem the height of academic parochialism. On my side of the pond, the legacy of American exceptionalism and the culture of specialization disfigured national and literary history, slicing away until the face in the mirror resembled a disciplinary ideal more than the historical record. Over the past decade, the situation has improved. Most scholars date the change to the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), but I suspect the real impetus was a collective awakening, a recognition that the effort it took not to admit Dickens into a study of American literature was expenditure wasted. Whatever the cause, the last ten years has been a boom-time for studies of transnational literary cultures (broadly defined). Still, the title of Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner’s important anthology, The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800 (1996) points to one blind spot of post-national critical discourse: the 19th century. (It looms, but for reasons I will discuss during the event, rarely does it enter the frame.) So it goes without saying that Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose is a welcome addition to an already lively conversation.
Over the next few days, I’ll address Amanda’s argument in more detail. For now, I only wanted to explain why I think the book important enough to be subjected to an event. Wait, did I say “subjected to”? I meant “the subject of.” I can’t imagine anyone would find the experience unpleasant. (He says, crossing his fingers.)
Question: Did we start a book event on 1) Friday the 13<span style="font-size: 0.8em;"><sup>th</sup></span> and 2) two days before taxes are due?
Answer #1: Yes, we did.
Answer #2: (smacks forehead)
Um...it will be a great distraction from taxes?
Or...academics do all their taxes ahead of time?
Or...look, guest posters from the UK!
Besides, we’re not superstitious. Are we? *looks around anxiously for men in hockey masks*
No one here needs me to tell them that disciplines are odd beasts, but I will anyway.
“Odd” S/B “monstruous, senseless, and destructive”. Seriously. The Humanities should have three departments: Philosophy, History, and Literature. The other departments should be placed where appropriate. Most of the social science belong in history, for example, though their theoretical parts belong in philosophy. (Paul Veyne said something like that, and when has he ever been wrong?)
Over at my place, the Constructivist asks
aren’t you overstating the 19th C transnational lacuna just a tad? Or am I wrong that Looby’s Voicing America (1996), Schueller’s U.S. Orientalisms (1998), Jones’s Strange Talk, and Brickhouse’s Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (2004) aren’t doing what you’re praising? And our historian pals are all over the story.
Even granting this, I agree with your general point. I’m interested in why. I don’t think it’s just because the American Renaissance became the core of the American exceptionalist argument (even though it wasn’t in the original scholarship). It may just be because people have stopped reading Matthiessen’s American Renaissance and Colacurcio’s The Province of Piety (to pick two previous generations’ classics) and therefore don’t notice how big a role British lit plays in their arguments. But I wonder if there’s a more historical explanation--that between Colacurcio’s generation, which was a bit obsessed with establishing the disciplinary and literary authenticity of American Studies in general (from his accounts) and the feminists/multiculturalists who followed them (who took the authenticity for granted but wanted to turn the spotlight onto the previous generations’ blind spots), looking to a transatlantic Anglo culture for context began to seem passe.
But that’s probably wrong, too--I mean, there’s a million studies of the transatlantic abolitionist movement, and Black Studies (both before and since Gilroy) had its England-Africa-Caribbean-connectors.
The part in bold captures in a single sentence what I spent four hours yesterday trying to phrase without appearing to condemn recent scholarship on race and ethnicity. Nicely done.
To say nothing of the influence of Artemus Ward on Knut Hamsun, and through Hamsun, on James Joyce.
It’s not that “looking to a transatlantic Anglo culture for context began to seem passe.”
It’s that transAtlantic studies has to be *more* than simply a matter of cultural influence to make any sense. Studies like Fiedler’s *Love and Death in the American Novel* clearly relate American literature to non-American sources (for Fieldler, the seduction narrative of 18th century English fiction). And fairly exceptionalist works like Marx’s *The Machine in the Garden* tie U.S. lit to classical courses. Even a later work like Eric Cheyfitz’s *The Poetics of Imperialism*, which reads American imperial culture in light of *The Tempest*, must be included with works like Fiedler’s and Marx’s. These are not transatlantic studies, any more than talking about Poe’s influence on Baudelaire creates some Franco-American realm of study.
The power of Gilroy’s *The Black Atlantic* was in its promise—largely unfulfilled, but of utter importance—of a materialist framework for conceptualizing the economic and cultural “flows” tying Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and the UK together. While Gilroy’s readings of Delany and Douglass fail to achieve such a framework, his reading of Habermas, which forces us to reconsider slavery as the economic and cultural foundation of Euro-American modernity, is far more suggestive. It is this that Ian Baucom picks up on in his masterful (’tho at times craptastic) *Spectres of the Atlantic*.
That is to say, it is not transatlantic to study how black American vocal groups of the 50s and 60s influenced the creation of reggae vocal combos in Jamaica, which influenced punk in the UK and hip-hop (via dub) in the Bronx in the 70s. That is a mere source study, and its transatlantic geography isn’t necessarily a useful mapping. What about the influence of dub on German electronic music and krautrock? What about the influence of dub and German electronic music on Italian disco? On Japanese future-pop? Studies of influence have no geographical boundaries. A truly transatlantic study would need to find a more rigorous, cultural materialist framework to justify its transnational mapping.
Also, I don’t buy the blaming of ethnic studies for extending American exceptionalism. To get off the ground, the African-Americanist work of Baker and Gates needed to do a shitload of grunt work that necessitated, for both practical and ideological reasons, a restricted focus. And yet, before and after the Baker-Gates moment, there were Afro-centrists and Afro-diasporic thinkers (like Wilson Harris, Kamau Brathwaite, and others in the Caribbean) who moved in and out of national contexts.
And a lot of excellent work exists connecting black writers, for example, to writers of other national traditions: Hurston’s Moses to Freud’s Moses; black dialectic poetry to Scottish dialect poetry; Harlem Renaissance to Irish Renaissance; &c. But again, these are largely influence studies, not transnational studies.