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The Power of Historical Knowledge
Narrating the Past in Hawthorne, James, and Dreiser
By Susan L. Mizruchi
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Problem of History in American Literature
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The protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges's tale, "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," is possessed by the desire to rewrite Don Quixote. In pursuing this task, he comes to believe that the least interesting means of accomplishing his aim is to exchange his own identity for Cervantes's. "To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach the Quixote seemed less arduous to him ... than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard." Rejecting the possibility that "the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918" can be forgotten, Menard proposes to recover within himself the version of Don Quixote enabled by the modern world; in the process of recovery, he muses, "History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened."
Borges's insistence on the hermeneutic circle of historical understanding illuminates the portraits of characters and narrators revising the historical past in the American novels of my study. Like Borges, Hawthorne, James, and Dreiser are interested in the idea of historical consciousness as the path of becoming for the romantic ego. The hope that the self can be reconstituted, or the community unified or affirmed, through an encounter with its point of origin is invoked throughout my study. Yet the belief that some confrontation with the historical past can lead to self-realization or social integration is complicated by another "truth" about history registered by these "imaginative Americans" — that the act of historical interpretation is invariably the site of our most embattled psychological and political struggles.
In exploring the representation of historical narration in selected American novels, I am concerned with how such representations help us to conceptualize the problem of literature and ideology. This chapter explores the ideological issues raised by portraits of characters who narrate history in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American novels. I focus on four central questions. First, how does my subject fit into the continuing debate over American literature's resistance to history and politics? Second, how might the combined use of cultural-historical and narratological methods expand our conceptions of the historical and political engagement of American novels? Third, what effects do historical narratives have in these novelistic worlds? Does the activity of narrating history lead to awareness of the power and responsibility of human agents? Finally, how can the author's relationship to the politics of narration inscribed in his text be conceived?
Historical Resistance in American Novels: Fact or Fiction?
Like any body of writing, American literature comes to us as "the always-already-read." Our re-examination of American literature in history must therefore confront the series of authoritative readings that have guided our previous "responses" to the texts. Such a survey will also help us to understand the logic and persistence of interpretations that regard American novels as indifferent to matters of immediate historical and political interest. These sorts of arguments characteristically underestimate interplay between the social and aesthetic properties of texts. For example, Main Currents in American Thought (1927, 1930), Vernon Parrington's study of the American social novel, criticized Hawthorne and Henry James for their perceived failure to evoke social reality. Their excessive aestheticism, the argument ran, precluded their view of social concerns.
The New Critics of the 1950s took an opposite approach in elevating the fiction and criticism of their "aesthetic" mentor Henry James to a literary standard. Yet their isolation of literary texts from contexts ultimately affirmed Parrington's claims and helped to further the split between "social" and "aesthetic" writers. It was not simply that any one writer's work was confined to a single critical method. Rather, this binomial opposition between formalistic and social questions divided critical approaches themselves. Critics who focused on questions about social and historical context rarely concerned themselves with formalistic questions, and those who considered formalistics usually ignored historical and social issues.
The Anglo-American New Critics were contemporaries of another group of scholars, later known as the "myth critics," who concentrated specifically on American cultural studies. By locating the uniqueness of American cultural forms in their resistance to social problems and in their preference for symbolic transcendence over historical engagement, critics like R. W.B. Lewis (The American Adam, 1955) and Richard Chase (The American Novel and Its Tradition, 1957) affirmed the separation of aesthetic and cultural-historical questions. Their influential works inspired many studies in this vein, including works as different as Richard Poirier's A World Elsewhere (1966) and Quentin Anderson's The Imperial Self (1971). Such analyses emphasized strains in the American literary impulse that led out of history and into atcmporal realms of heroism, romance, style, and neuroses.
More recently, Sacvan Bercovitch has described a uniquely American messianic impulse, which he terms the "Myth of America." This collectively held cultural myth functions as a force for social integration in American society and can be found in writings from the time of the Puritan settlers to the present. Though Bercovitch points to the need for exploring "the changing relations between reality and myth in American culture," his study is more concerned with "an ideological consensus ... a series of rituals of socialization, and a comprehensive, officially endorsed cultural myth." What differentiates Bercovitch from the myth critics is his analysis of the political effects of these transcendent impulses. Implicitly rejecting Lawrentian claims for the eternal subversiveness of classic American writings, he offers a complex view of ideology's function. America's classic writers, he observes, were "radical in a representative way that reaffirmed the culture, rather than undermined it." For Bercovitch, the thwarted history of American radical sentiment reveals the incomparable cooptative power of American ideology. American ideology refutes and absorbs subversive cultural energies, "harness[ing] discontent to the social enterprise ... by drawing out protest, by actively encouraging the contrast between Utopia and the status quo." In America, then, the rhetoric of discontent is merely that, a rhetoric that conserves rather than challenges existing political arrangements. And classic American literature provides a central example of this rhetoric at work.
Bercovitch's interpretation is based on the assumption that American writers were incapable of a "historicist relativistic perspective." They could not envision their own society in relation to other possible forms of social organization. "What our major writers could not conceive," he writes, "was that the United States was neither Utopia at best nor dystopia at worst ... that in principle no less than in practice the American Way was neither providential nor natural but one of many possible forms of society." But it is precisely their vision of the boundaries of political perception in America that registers the radicalism of our classic writers. As I shall demonstrate using Hawthorne, James, and Dreiser, American writers launch their most penetrating social critiques through their depictions of what American ideology reveals and conceals.
Other critical studies appearing in the past decade have also taken significant steps toward reassessing the political dimensions of nineteenth-century American literature. Employing Georg Lukacs's theory of reification, Carolyn Porter (in Seeing and Being) reconstructs the implicit social commentary in writings by Emerson, Adams, James, and Faulkner. Her combined use of narratological and cultural-historical analysis leads to a more radical appraisal of the political tenor of American works. Rather than fleeing their contemporary worlds through their art, Porter argues, American writers were confronting the most profound social challenges of their times. Her broader methodology shows that American writers were far more engaged with society and politics than is usually recognized.
But the radical transcendent line of interpretation has also reemerged in deconstructionist readings such as John Carlos Rowe's Through the Custom House: Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Modern Theory, which aligns major nineteenth-century authors, including Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, James, and Twain, with like-minded theorists, such as Freud, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and Nietzsche." American works, Rowe asserts, subversively resist the limiting conventions of social discourse, as evidenced by their repeated invocations of the arbitrary signifier. By unraveling the "various repressions at work in different cultural codes," the arbitrary signifier violates efforts by political authorities to reduce meaning to any one system of thought. Though Rowe acknowledges the social and political play of literary signification, however, his readings are uniformly ahistorical. His claims for the eternal subversiveness of great literature lead him to overlook the particular historical concerns of his examples.
Rowe's argument for the radicalism of American literature is undermined by his universalist categories. What is convincing about Rowe's readings is their sensitivity to the workings of language. And the continuing power of deconstructive studies like his seems to lie in the failure of cultural-historical interpretations to provide a similarly sophisticated grasp of how literary narratives work. Too often content with merely placing texts within some readily detachable historical milieu, cultural-historical critics reduce texts to reflections of historical reality.
Our sense of the historical contexts from which literary works emerge needs refining. On the one hand, we must recognize that history itself is primarily accessible through other texts. This recognition complicates the critical process since the interpreter must not only judge the relation between the literary work and its historical milieu, but must also direct a critical eye toward the reconstructions of that milieu available in works by historians and social scientists. On the other hand, such skepticism toward historical information confers a greater authority upon the literary work. It frees us to listen to what literature itself has to tell us about the past, and about ways of recovering it. A greater skepticism toward history books may allow us to view literature as a more compelling representation of the past. This is especially true for novels, which, more self-consciously than any other literary form, are concerned with human experience in society over time.
Refining our conceptions of history's accessibility will enlarge our sense of the complex representations of history contained in American novels. History can be seen not as an external background to be reconstructed as some alienated source material, but as reproduced within the narrative aesthetic. History is an integral part of the narrative process, recomposed as the world of the novel. Far from being a monolithic body of knowledge to be applied to any set of works from a commonly defined "period," history is particular to the novelistic source that gives it life.
In addition to the insights to be found in contemporary historiography, there remains the task of bridging historical and political methods with those of narrative theory. The combined use of these methods should expose what I term the "political aesthetic" of American novels. Indeed, the nineteenth-century novel's well-known obsession with temporal limits might well be seen as the aesthetic reproduction of prevailing fears of an ungovernable historical reality. With specific reference to American novels, the tensions aroused by the novel's temporal progress offer dramatic registers of the fears of historical engagement shared by fictional personae and readers. At this point, the tentative answer to the question posed as the headnote to this section — are American novels resistant to the claims of some historical reality? — is that we need to expand our view of how literary texts both incorporate and represent history. Let me be clear here about my argument. I am suggesting that an important historical aspect of American novels is their meta-historical dimension. Demonstrations of how American novels belie or evade historical reality offer only half the picture. Nineteenth-century American novels are most fully recognized as participants in a cultural dialogue on how history should be viewed and written. As my survey of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century historiography in Chapter Two reveals, American novels are significantly illuminated by attention to contemporary historiographic debates. Products of a culture consumed with questions about reconstructing the past, American novels offer intricate portraits of the relationships of their characters and narrators to history.
It has often been observed that the social texture of classic American novels is fundamentally different from that of contemporaneous French or English novels. Yet the ritual gesture of apology for the "comparative meagreness" of American novels has obscured an important dynamic in their portrayals of "social reality." Far from ignoring history and society, American novelists dramatize their subjects' ambivalence toward social and historical contingency. And their works offer subtle and complex arguments for the inescapability of social and historical engagement. However often individuals, or whole communities, aspire to the repression of certain pressing historical details, time and again in American novels these facts reassert themselves. The locus for such historical dynamics is found in portrayals of individual and collective narrations of history. The novels by Hawthorne, James, and Dreiser that I examine depict both the pressures of social and political entanglements, and the impulses of characters and narrators to transcend those pressures by subsuming them in story. The repetitive, mythical histories woven in these novels serve as means of translating historical experiences into eternal terms. These novels expose a tension between an eternalized conception of time as essentially static and immune to human intervention, and a specific conception of history as a process of change effected by individual and collective agents.
The House of the Seven Gables, The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove, and An American Tragedy can be seen as meditations on the psychological, social, and political effects of viewing specific historical problems as questions on the philosophy of time. The characters and narrators of these works pay homage to time's unchallengeable powers. But their laments are always framed within the structures of specific historical worlds. Within each novel, various narrative strategies (repetitions of phrases or events, ominous doublings of characters or of entire narrative sequences) expose this discourse of temporality as a rhetoric that belies the characters' circumstances as well as their responsibility for action. In these works then, denials of the immediacy of time become evasions of social and political concerns. And history itself is the inert material, the pull of necessity, that resists the characters' coherent designs.
Excerpted from The Power of Historical Knowledge by Susan L. Mizruchi. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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