Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary

Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary

by Paul Giles

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Arguing that limited nationalist perspectives have circumscribed the critical scope of American Studies scholarship, Virtual Americas advocates a comparative criticism that illuminates the work of well-known literary figures by defamiliarizing it—placing it in unfamiliar contexts. Paul Giles looks at a number of canonical nineteenth- and twentieth-century


Arguing that limited nationalist perspectives have circumscribed the critical scope of American Studies scholarship, Virtual Americas advocates a comparative criticism that illuminates the work of well-known literary figures by defamiliarizing it—placing it in unfamiliar contexts. Paul Giles looks at a number of canonical nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writers by focusing on their interactions with British culture. He demonstrates how American authors from Herman Melville to Thomas Pynchon have been compulsively drawn to negotiate with British culture so that their nationalist agendas have emerged, paradoxically, through transatlantic dialogues. Virtual Americas ultimately suggests that conceptions of national identity in both the United States and Britain have emerged through engagement with—and, often, deliberate exclusion of—ideas and imagery emanating from across the Atlantic.

Throughout Virtual Americas Giles focuses on specific examples of transatlantic cultural interactions such as Frederick Douglass’s experiences and reputation in England; Herman Melville’s satirizing fictions of U.S. and British nationalism; and Vladimir Nabokov’s critique of European high culture and American popular culture in Lolita. He also reverses his perspective, looking at the representation of San Francisco in the work of British-born poet Thom Gunn and Sylvia Plath’s poetic responses to England. Giles develops his theory about the need to defamiliarize the study of American literature by considering the cultural legacy of Surrealism as an alternative genealogy for American Studies and by examining the transatlantic dimensions of writers such as Henry James and Robert Frost in the context of Surrealism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Virtual Americas is an ambitious, wide-ranging, well-written, and strikingly original text. There aren't many books about which one can say all those things—I think it will cause something of a stir.”—Lucy Maddox, Georgetown University

“Paul Giles's Virtual Americas is a major contribution to recent debates about transnationalism, U.S. and English cultural relations in the modern and postmodern eras, and the impact of these topics on the old and new American Studies. This is a first-rate book.”—John Carlos Rowe, University of California, Irvine

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Duke University Press
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New Americanists
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Virtual Americas

Transnational fictions and the transatlantic imaginary
By Paul Giles

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2967-0

Chapter One

Virtual Subjects: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary

The focus of this book is on ways in which representations of the United States have been deflected from mythic to what I call "virtual" phenomena in literary works of the modern era. In particular, I consider the implications of this process of displacement for the construction of fictional forms of nationalism. My main concern here is with points of intersection between the United States and Great Britain, looking at ways American writers from Herman Melville to Thomas Pynchon have compulsively appropriated and reinvented aspects of English culture to advance their own aesthetic designs. Conversely, I also examine projections of American culture in the writing of British subjects such as Thom Gunn, as well as pseudo-British characters like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, to elucidate ways mythic versions of American identity in the middle of the twentieth century arose partly through narratives of dislocation and alterity. One purpose is to shed light on established versions of British cultural nationalism at this time through a kind of reverse projection, as if a film were run backwards. Another is to suggest ways that conceptions of national identity on both sides of the Atlantic emerged through engagement with-and, often,deliberate exclusion of-a transatlantic imaginary, by which I mean the interiorization of a literal or metaphorical Atlantic world in all of its expansive dimensions.

I discuss in more detail later in this chapter what I mean by the critical process of virtualization; however, an initial definition might involve the way it works to hollow out cultural formations by looking at them from a comparative angle of vision. It is as if the observer were seeing native landscapes refracted or inverted in a foreign mirror. Webster's dictionary defies "virtual focus" as "a point from which divergent rays (as of light) seem to emanate but do not actually do so (as in the image of a point source seen in a plane mirror)"; a "virtual image," accordingly, is "an image (as seen in a plane mirror) formed of virtual foci." Such mirror images deprive the objects reflected of their traditional comforts of depth and perspective, illusions by which their claims on natural representation are traditionally sustained; instead, these objects are flattened out into replicas of themselves in a process of aestheticization that highlights the manifestly fictional dimensions of their construction. By examining the cultural narratives of the United States from this position of reflection and estrangement, a position through which American fictions are brought into juxtaposition with those of other countries, it becomes easier to appreciate the assumptions framing these narratives and the ways they are intertwined with the construction and reproduction of national mythologies. To virtualize America is not only to denaturalize it, but also to suggest how its own indigenous representations of the "natural" tend to revolve tautologously, reinforcing themselves without reference to anything outside their own charmed circle.

The interaction of American writers with Europe is an old and extensive topic, but my interests here are somewhat more limited and specific. I am concerned above all with how certain texts represented themselves (or were subsequently represented) as being symptomatic of a certain kind of national identity. It is the mapping of text onto a kind of national grid, along with the transnational interferences and reversals that emanate from such theoretical superimpositions, that is the focal point of this book. When Frederick Douglass asks "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" the significance of his oration derives, obviously enough, from its juxtaposition with an implied narrative of national independence and liberation. When Henry James inspects his old haunts in The American Scene (1907), he is deliberately playing off embedded memories of American institutions and landscapes against the oblique, indirect impressions of a "restless analyst" long since uprooted from his native territory. In both cases, these Americans are looking at their country from the outside: Douglass has been alienated by race, with his sense of displacement compounded by extensive involvements with British abolitionists, and James has marginalized himself through the experience of exile.

Such forms of alienation-structural alienation, as it were-work to undermine one commonly held belief about the relationship between literature and national identity: that theoretical inquiries into it are invariably circular, as the latter always manifests itself "naturally" in the former. To "demand" a national literature would be "absurd," declared the Ladies' Home Journal in 1854, because "whatever is naturally peculiar in our character, views, and modes of life, does and always will exhibit itself without any assistance from us." Ann Douglas, in the introduction to her account of Manhattan in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty (1995), similarly argues that America is "a special case," imbued with "a national psyche," and she claims that to "say otherwise is ... to ignore plain fact"; hence, the plain facts heaped up in her compendious study are supposed in themselves to testify to the "special" nature of the American experience. What is at issue, however, is not the idea of cultural difference itself, but the means and efficacy of identifying it and the purposes to which such identifications are put. My argument here is not that America is not, in certain ways, different; rather, it is that by reconsidering national formations from a position of estrangement, writers like Douglass and James situate themselves to illuminate the nation's unconscious assumptions, boundaries, and proscribed areas. These are the assumptions that tend to remain latent or unexamined in studies of a national culture that are generated wholly from the inside or that lack a comparative dimension. Authors such as Douglass and James, or Frost and Nabokov, denaturalize what is supposedly familiar and consequently reveal the strange and sometimes sinister components that go to make up formations of a "national psyche." The relationship between literature and national identity, in other words, is not symbiotic or natural, but, at its extreme circumference, highly paradoxical, involving the backward projection of epistemological limits from a vantage point beyond their boundaries.

From a practical point of view, there are various difficulties inherent in any attempt to describe American literature and culture from a comparative standpoint. One of the most obvious involves what we might term, to misquote Clifford Geertz, thin description. There are, of course, whole swathes of American experience that do not feature prominently in the more recognizable categories of national mythology and that consequently are underrepresented in academic approaches to the United States, especially as these are practiced abroad. Whereas "major" figures in "major" urban centers can be placed relatively easily, large areas of the social landscape are much less well-known, and this can lead to some odd disjunctions in comparative accounts of American culture between the etiolated realm of myth and local or experiential perspectives. Questions of class and other forms of internal hierarchy, in particular, can too easily be glossed over by an outsider's distantly synchronic gaze. Though it would perhaps be invidious to single out particular examples, Barbara Eckstein has suggested that the "mythic westering" theme, with its inherently decontextualized emphasis, seems to have enjoyed a longer intellectual life abroad than within the United States itself, where the idea has been subjected to all kinds of critical interrogation from scholars concerned with differential equations of race, gender, and power. Similarly, the tendency toward abstract uniformity and interchangeability in American suburbia-defended eloquently by Philip Fisher in a recent essay as a Cartesian form of "democratic social space"-remains aesthetically unfamiliar to the centralizing geography of many European analysts, too prone to ask traditional questions about which might be "the real Main Street."

Linked with this concern about material thinness is the second frequent complaint about comparative approaches: that they tend implicitly to reinforce existing identities by simply playing off national mythologies against each other. The most famous paradigm in Britain for this kind of organicist, idealized treatment of American culture is D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), which brazenly hails "the old American classics" as introducing "a new voice," "a new experience," capable of breaking through the tired conventions of European writing. Similar views of American literature as harboring an oppositional romanticism have continued to resonate through twentieth-century British criticism; for instance, Malcolm Bradbury's The Modern American Novel (1983), which takes its epigraph from Lawrence's Studies, sees New World culture as riven by a perpetual mood of apocalypse, a cataclysmic series of "threats to survival," which appear to render the more mundane nuances of historical change and development relatively inconsequential.? In the British context, this flattened version of "Americanness" promulgated by readers like Lawrence and Bradbury has characteristically operated through a stereotypical binary opposition, counterpointing the radical proclivities of American culture with what the authors took to be the more genteel liberal humanism of the English tradition. In a more recent reconsideration of this problem, however, David Damrosch has usefully theorized the method of comparative literature as "inherently elliptical in nature." For Damrosch, the crucial aspect of comparative literature is its capacity to modify our perception of each particular area under analysis. By reimagining London "within a Copernican universe of many centers of gravity," he observes, we come to see the capital of England as "one focus of an ellipse, or more precisely as one focus for many different, partially overlapping ellipses, each with a second focus elsewhere." In this way, he argues, the "comparatist's elliptical perspective ... can alter our picture of British literary geography": just as we read texts from Ireland or Australia differently by juxtaposing them with the forces of colonial empire, so we also come to see the canonical traditions of British literature in an unfamiliar light by relating them to these alternative geometries. Consequently, this critical endeavor to read British and American literatures in parallel overlaps with current theoretical efforts in English studies to redescribe "an island's literature," in Regenia Gagnier's phrase, as "a complex and interactive anglophone culture." To relate British culture to its American counterpart, then, is by definition to open up wider questions about the definition and status of literatures in English.

It is in this kind of ideology of exchange that estranged perspectives on particular cultures can appear at their most revealing. Rather than seeking simply to transcend national boundaries in the name of a universalist humanism or a benevolent multiculturalism, I am interested in what happens when different national formations collide or intersect with each other. In an essay on the "globalization" of literary studies, Paul Jay has suggested that we might "usefully complicate our nation-based approach to the study of English, not by dropping the nation-state paradigm but by foregrounding its history and its function for the nation-state," to examine ways literature has been instrumental in consolidating or interrogating forms of national identity. From this point of view, the various crossovers between British and American literature might engender double-edged discourses liable to destabilize traditional hierarchies and power relations, thereby illuminating the epistemological boundaries of both national cultures. America, that is to say, introduces an element of strangeness into British culture, just as British traditions, often in weirdly hollowed out or parodic forms, shadow the democratic designs of the American republic.

Strangeness, as Zygmunt Bauman has written, holds up a quizzical mirror to the philosophical limits of liberal pluralism by its intimation of that which cannot, ultimately, be transformed or reconciled. In Bauman's words, "It is not the failure to acquire native knowledge that constitutes the outsider as a stranger; it is the existential constitution of the stranger which makes the native knowledge unassimilable." From this angle, it might be possible to write another kind of history of American literature, one more concerned with a dialectic of familiarity and alterity, domesticity and estrangement. This would examine literature's relationship to the nation in quite different contexts, substituting the awkward, sometimes discontinuous processes of transition between global and local for that more settled sense of affiliation between writer and environment that has guided so many traditional accounts of America's (and Britain's) "homemade world." The point here is that national histories, of whatever kind, cannot be written simply from the inside. The scope and significance of their narrative involve not just the incorporation of multiple or discordant voices in a certain preestablished framework of unity, but also an acknowledgment of external points of reference that serve to relativize the whole conceptual field, pulling the circumference of national identity itself into strange, "elliptical" shapes.

Studies of national culture as an entity in itself have suffered from an increasingly uncertain theoretical base since the 1960s, as the intellectual fortunes of structuralism have declined along with the historical polarizations of the cold war. The anthropological effort to map out particular academic areas, to codify cultures through all-encompassing modes of binary opposition-New World versus Old World, center versus margin, and so on-gradually lost analytical credibility as more reflexive critiques of origin disenfranchised any such claims to universalism or "objective" methodology. As Guenter H. Lenz observed in 1991, writing under the sign of poststructuralism: "The recent critical reflections in anthropology as well as in literary and cultural criticism make any attempt to interpret a culture, particularly American culture, 'as a whole' a futile and politically very dubious undertaking, if by 'unity' and 'wholeness' we still have in mind something like a consistent structure or even a dialectical unity." Arjun Appadurai similarly has written about how the "area-studies tradition" in its classic forms depended on a certain "isomorphism" between geographical space and cultural specificity that has been impossible to sustain intellectually in "a world of disjunctive global flows." The area studies model endorsed most frequently by American studies has involved the attempt to encompass a particular bounded territory-characteristically, a nation, but also smaller variants of the nation space, such as a region or a city-and through this enabling circumscription to treat that space allegorically, as emblematic of a particular kind of identity.


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What People are saying about this

Lucy Maddox
Virtual Americas is an ambitious, wide-ranging, well-written, and strikingly original text. There aren't many books about which one can say all those things-I think it will cause something of a stir.
John Carlos Rowe
Paul Giles's Virtual Americas is a major contribution to recent debates about transnationalism, U.S. and English cultural relations in the modern and postmodern eras, and the impact of these topics on the old and new American studies. This is a first-rate book.

Meet the Author

Paul Giles is Reader in American Literature at the University of Oxford. Among his books are Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860; and American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics.

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