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Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist Canon
By Donald E. Pease
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
New Americanists: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon
Donald E. Pease
The term "New Americanists" derives from the lengthy review article entitled "Whose American Renaissance?" Frederick Crews contributed to the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of the New York Review of Books (October 27, 1988). Crews uses the term in ways homologous with other neologisms—new historicism, neo-Marxism, poststructuralism—devised to mark shifts in the organizing principles and self-understanding of a field. Crews's "New Americanists" deploy these and other revisionist practices to intervene in the restructuring of American Studies. In keeping with this usage, Crews applies the term to the authors of close to thirty essays in two volumes of collected essays, as well as five recent books by single authors.
As the title of the essay indicates, he uses F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance as the established mastertext in American Studies against which to assess the New Americanists' work. Although he will complicate his reasons later in the article, Crews rationalizes his associating of these disparate critics within an inclusive designation in the following passage:
But to New Americanists (and to many others) this [attention to canonical mastertexts] is all sheer ideology, false consciousness that calls for the exposure of its historical determinants.... This questioning of absolutes is now being conducted in all branches of literary study; it reflects an irresistible trend in the academy toward the spurning of unified schemes and hierarchies of every kind. What gives the New Americanist critique a special emotional force, however, is its connection both to our historic national shames—slavery, "Indian removal," aggressive expansion, imperialism, and so forth—and to current struggles for equal social opportunity. When a New Americanist shows, for example, that a canonical work such as Huckleberry Finn indulges in the stereotypical "objectifying" of blacks, Native Americans, women or others, a double effect results. First, the canon begins to look less sacrosanct and is thus readied for expansion to include works by long-dead representatives of those same groups. Second, their contemporary descendants are offered a reason for entering into an academic dialogue that had previously slighted them. In short the New Americanist program aims at altering the literary departments' social makeup as well as their dominant style of criticism.
The animus informing this lengthy quotation can be reduced to a single complaint: the New Americanists have returned ideology to a field previously organized by an end to ideology consensus. But this reduction does not begin to do justice to the density of register and tone in the passage. Among the many remarkable features at work here and elsewhere in the article is the complex stance Crews adopts in relation to the New Americanists. He writes from the dual vantage point of a specialist in a field about to undergo a drastic change in its orientation, yet one whose previous experiences within the field enable him to recognize the shortcomings in the new orientation as more or less familiar mistakes. Throughout the review article, Crews negotiates this dual stance into a series of assertions which shift the balance of power on display back and forth between the good faith practices of the old Americanists and the power politics of the new. By way of such shifts in register, Crews can at once acknowledge the fact that a change is taking place in the field, but can also refuse, until the review's conclusion, to concede its value either for or within that field. In place of this concession, Crews re-situates the rise of the New Americanists within otherwise unrelated contexts. Following this displacement, the New Americanists' rise to power can be said to take place not within the field of American Studies, but within the more inclusive debate between traditionalists and relativists throughout the academy, an academy turned by the sixties activists into a place more hospitable to their politics. Having shifted the field for their emergence, Crews can designate the New Americanists' critique of the ideology at work in the formation and practice of American Studies as an expedient response to a change in the mood of academic politics. Following from this reductive characterization, the New Americanists' critique of "slavery, 'Indian removal,' aggressive expansion, imperialism, and so forth" reasonably seems to Crews indistinguishable from the demands of academic special interest groups.
Crews's remarks here are valuable for the urgent need he displays at once to displace and dismiss. In attending more fully to the threat he experiences in the New Americanists, we can discover what Crews believes to be at stake in this change within American Studies and can develop the terms of discovery necessary to introduce a volume of New Americanists. Crews, as the author of Sins of the Fathers, his benchmark study of Nathaniel Hawthorne (a canonical figure in the field of American Studies), had previously internalized the norms, working assumptions, and self-understanding of the field. While tacitly held, these assumptions work the way other self-evident principles do, that is, they remain exempt from critical scrutiny. As the unquestioned basis for practices within the field of American Studies, these assumptions constitute what might be called a disciplinary unconscious: an Americanist cannot at once act upon these assumptions and be conscious of them. Or rather, an Americanist cannot describe them as uncritically held assumptions without disaffiliating himself from the field of American Studies. And, the New Americanists, in consciously delineating the literary standards presupposed in Crews's book on Hawthorne as the results of an ideological state apparatus complicit with aggressive expansionism, patronage politics, and slavery, break faith with the constitutive principles of Crews's field. For by associating literary artifacts with the "historic national shames" of American politics, the New Americanists do not write from within the field but from a someplace else, a someplace Crews, depending on his argumentative mood, locates as the field of academic politics, the sixties' counterculture, or the affirmative action office. Yet, in Crews's difficulty in finding a specific place in the academy for the New Americanists, what matters is not so much the itinerary of their displacements but Crews's need to displace them. Certainly the movement from the overly generalized realm of a pervasive academic debate, through the realpolitik of sixties radicalism, and to the overly particularized space of the affirmative action office consistently associates Crews's inability to place the New Americanists within a specific academic field with the unavailability of legitimate academic places for them. Still, his need derives from the New Americanists' having questioned the most self-evident (hence least available to critical scrutiny) of beliefs Americanists hold—that American literary imagination transcends the realm of political ideology.
When offering a summary account of the New Americanists' critique, Crews carefully recounts their claim that an American literary imagination was in fact an ideological construct that developed out of the consensus politics of liberal anti-communism of the postwar era. Having accurately formulated their critique of the liberal consensus, however, Crews recovers his site within the liberal consensus by denying their account any effect on his practice. As if he had only mechanically repeated their words, rather than understood their meaning, Crews, throughout the remainder of the review, responds to the ideological critique of the New Americanists with remarks revealing the tacit assumptions of the liberal consensus. He recovers those assumptions in the following passage:
Perhaps the key shaper of "Americanness" criticism was the Lionel Trilling of The Liberal Imagination (1948) [sic] who helped to replace Vernon Parrington's sociological conception of American literature with an explicitly cultural one. For Parrington American history was a record of successive emancipations from aristocratic and sectarian European roots and American literature in all its variety reflected that record of linear democratic progress. It followed for Parrington, that we should cultivate all those elements of our heterogeneous literary tradition that manifest that record. But a culture, Trilling wrote in rebuke of Parrington, "is not a flow ...; the form of its existence is struggle ... it is nothing if not a dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions; they contain within themselves, it may be said, the very essence of the culture. The real America is to be sought in those relatively few books produced by "dialectically" capacious minds.
This lengthy quotation constitutes an eventful moment in Crews's argument. Crews turns to Trilling on Parrington after his paraphrase of the New Americanists' critique. In turning to Trilling, rather than to Matthiessen, as the key figure responsible for the shaping of "Americanness," Crews tacitly draws upon a distinction Trilling made in his 1946 review article— separating an ideological from a literary conception of American literature— to do more or less the same work. To do this work, Crews needs to recover from Trilling's essay a working assumption about the difference between American literature and ideology, an assumption that will enable him to find in the New Americanists' work ideological shortcomings more or less homologous to those Trilling found in Parrington's. More importantly for the distinction crucial to his argument, Crews must recover this difference as a tacit assumption, a principle self-evident enough to be above suspicion as ideology.
But whereas Crews needs to recover this assumption tacitly to establish a secure critical perspective on the academic politics of the New Americanists, Trilling, writing in the late 1940s, needed to discriminate between American literature and Stalinist ideology threatening to his idea of America. This shift becomes clearly discernible in the concluding clause from The Liberal Imagination, a clause Crews pointedly leaves out of his quotation. Trilling's entire concluding clause should read, "they [true American artists] contain within themselves, it may be said, the very essence of the culture and the sign of this is they do not submit to serve the ends of any one ideological group or tendency" (my emphasis). That Crews feels free to leave out of his paraphrase Trilling's qualifiers underscores the difference between a critic who accepts "the end of ideology" hypothesis as a self-evident principle and a critic who worked hard to end specific ideological encroachments on literature in his time. For at the time Trilling wrote The Liberal Imagination, many of his contemporary critics had recovered their prewar concerns with the relationship between politics and literature.
Pre-eminent among those who recovered after the war their engagement with political questions was F. O. Matthiessen. If we pressure the analogy Crews adduces between the New Americanist and the Parrington line, F. O. Matthiessen, the founder of American Studies, emerges as a 1948 New Americanist. And while Crews cites Trilling's condemnation of Parrington, he pointedly fails to mention Trilling's criticism of Matthiessen. But in 1946, Trilling found the author of American Renaissance a greater threat to his idea of American than Parrington, who published Main Currents in American Literature in 1927–30 and whose views, by 1946, were considered dated.
Trilling's essay, tendentiously entitled "Reality in America" and reprinted in The Liberal Imagination, itself originally appeared as two separate review articles. The Matthiessen critique appeared in the April 1946 issue of Nation. Trilling's review took the form of a response to Matthiessen's favorable review of Theodore Dreiser's work. Dreiser had decided to join the Communist Party in August 1945, and Trilling believed the indulgence with which Matthiessen and other progressive liberals addressed his work implicitly approved of Dreiser's doctrine. In turning to Matthiessen's review of Dreiser, by way of an analysis of Parrington's shortcomings, Trilling intended to identify Matthiessen's progressive liberalism with Parrington's antiquated vision of America. Parrington, in Trilling's usage of him, identified liberal progressivism with communism and the liberal imagination with liberal anticommunism. Since Matthiessen, in his preface to American Renaissance, had already definitively analyzed the shortcomings in Parrington's Main Currents in American Literature, Trilling's citation of Parrington was strategic. He intended to split off rhetorically the Liberal Progressive in Matthiessen by reminding Matthiessen of what he had had to say about the Progressives in 1941.
Like the Parrington of 1928, the Progressives, Trilling argues, elevated the work of crude social realists (like Theodore Dreiser) above that of refined artists (like Henry James) and valued proletarian concerns with social change over aesthetic preoccupation with form. After distinguishing Parrington's Progressivist reduction of artistic forms to the level of social forces, by extolling Henry James's capacious internalization of the entire social dialectic within his literary imagination, Trilling, in his review, identifies the ability to craft such a synthesis as the achievement of the liberal imagination. He then turns to the recent work of Matthiessen, whose magisterial study of American classics previously discriminated what partakes of the reality of America from what does not. "Nor can Mr. Matthiessen," Trilling writes in an effort to secure this discrimination within the work of the founder of American Studies, "be thought of as a follower of Parrington—indeed in the preface to American Renaissance he has framed one of the sharpest and most cogent criticisms of Parrington's method." And having conflated Dreiser and Parrington into versions of the same misrecognition of ideology as literature that Matthiessen had himself earlier underscored, Trilling criticizes Matthiessen for making the same mistake. "Yet Mr. Matthiessen, writing in the New York Times Book Review about Dreiser's posthumous novel The Bulwark, accepts the liberal cliche that opposes crude experience to mind and establishes Dreiser's value."
In his review, Trilling redirects the target of Matthiessen's earlier critique of ideology and finds the enemy within the consciousness of the author of American Renaissance. Having exiled what is un-American in the mind of the founder of American Studies into the ideological realm of a liberal cliche, Trilling turns The Liberal Imagination rather than American Renaissance into the field-defining work for American Studies. This redefinition of the basis of the field elevates the liberal imagination (and the liberal anticommunist consensus) into the field's equivalent of a reality principle. As Trilling demonstrates, when properly exercised the liberal imagination can enable every Americanist to do for himself what Trilling's essay does for Matthiessen, that is, produce an internal division that splits the capacious literary consciousness of dialectical processes off from any public world.
Excerpted from Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist Canon by Donald E. Pease. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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